Starting a classical vinyl collection

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

I had a lot of fun working on a story, published Sunday, about the state of classical vinyl. I recently acquired a turntable and started a record collection myself, so interviewing audiophiles has (re-)whetted my appetite for collecting.

Used classical vinyl is often inexpensive, just a couple of dollars for a disc at Jerry's Records in Squirrel Hill. Sitting at home, drinking a glass of wine, and listening to good music – there are worse things you could do with your time, said George Vosburgh, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's principal trumpet. "It could be a great hobby for people," he said.

For those interested, here are tips I picked up along the way:

Where to go

Because so little new classical vinyl is being produced, you'll mostly have to go for the used stuff. This is a mixed blessing, I think; on the one hand, it means you can't get new stuff in the format, but it also means there can be a ton of readily available, out-of-print recordings and low turnover of those albums.

Jim Rodgers, the PSO's principal contrabassoon picks up records at Jerry's Records, Half Price Books and the Exchange (though for the latter two stores, he goes only to a couple of locations, so it would be wise to call ahead). He also buys online at eBay and Amazon.

Jerry's has the largest classical collection in the region. Keep your eyes peeled: during Record Store Day this year, Jerry's had a handful of classical boxes for grabs. It's a huge, amazing collection of mostly out-of-print records. Browsing through Jerry's can be an overwhelming experience, but it is certainly a worthwhile one. 

Another purveyor I met said she goes to estate sales to find good vinyl. If shellac's your game, Whistlin' Willie's has several thousand classical 78s.

What to buy

Audiophiles collect albums for diverse reasons. The evocative cover art, the performer, the rareness of a recording and, of course, the music are a few of many reasons to pick out one records over another, but enthusiasts are also especially attuned to labels.

For the true audiophile, Deutsche Grammophon has exceptionally high-quality records. (DG covers aren't great, however; as one customer at Jerry's put it, "their glue sucks.") Mr. Vosburgh, the PSO trumpeter, also liked Philips, which later bought and reissued Mercury Records. Other labels favored by Mr. Vosburgh and/or Mr. Rodgers include Mercury Living Presence (a Mercury series), pre-Sony CBS Records and old RCA Records (especially those with the so-called "shaded dogs" on them). Another critic I met at a conference said that the London bluebacks of Decca are great, too. More suggestions are available here: 

Mr. Rodgers said he looks for the "shimmer" on vinyl and makes sure it's not warped or scratched. With used records in tough shape, Mr. Vosburgh gets rid of the pops and scratches by dropping a mixture of distilled water and rubbing alcohol on the vinyl and playing them wet. Jerry Weber of Jerry's Records said used classical vinyl is usually in great condition.

What to listen to it on

Buying audio systems is certainly beyond the scope of this blog post, but as a reference point, it might help to know what others have. Mr. Rodgers, for one, has three record players – one that is eye candy, one for the true audiophillic experience and one that converts analog to mp3s. The latter allows him to adds effects, such as a 1950s radio crackle. Mr. Vosburgh uses the belt-drive Thorens turntable he got in college, amplified by two five-foot-high speakers.

A side note 

Given the difficulty of selling and recording classical music these days, I think it would be cool if classical music groups — say, the PSO — released an album on vinyl. Given the proliferation of recordings that feature music heard on many albums, it would be a neat way to distinguish a record. This is perhaps a little gimmicky, but it's a gimmick that would not compromise the art.


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