Whether you’re a newbie to the world of vinyl records, or you’re a life-long record collector, it doesn’t take many spins around the record store before you learn that vinyls are sorted into categories based on their condition or record grading.
The official term “record grading” refers to the process of checking individual records for damage that could tarnish the listening experience. Once the records have been sufficiently vetted, they’re given labels that tell buyers what end of the price range they’ll be on, and how silky smooth the playback will be.
The best way to grade records is under a bright light, where it’s easiest to spot any signs of wear, damage to the grooves, or discoloration on the sleeve. If you’re an individual selling a small handful of records, then playing the vinyl to check for crackle or and fuzz is ideal.
But for large-scale record stores or eBay sellers, the most common way to grade is by gently scanning copies for wear and tear under a bright light.
Of course, matters get a bit dicier when you need both buyers and sellers to agree on what a record should be rated, but in general, this is what you can expect from the grading system.
Mint records are incredibly rare, and oftentimes the most surefire way to know it’s Mint is if it’s still sealed. Even so, there are strange exceptions where a record gets compromised while sealed up.
In order for a record to receive a Mint rating, both the record and sleeve must be in absolutely perfect condition. It’s technically possible for a record that’s been played to be in Mint condition, but it would require the absolute best record player (with a fresh cartridge and needle), and for the seller to take pristine care of it.
It likely could not be played more than a few times. Even with the best equipment and treatment, most used records are not in Mint condition, which is why it’s so rare to see the rating (and also why they’re often priced astronomically high).
Near Mint (NM OR M-)
Since Mint records are few and far between, Near Mint or M- records are oftentimes the highest rating you’ll find inside a store. Many sellers don’t ever rate above Near Mint in order to play it safe.
NM records have no visible wear and tear, no writing, stickers, or other markers can appear on the labels of NM records. If a label is pressed off-center, a record is no longer NM, there can be absolutely no crease wear, surface noise, or ring wear.
So basically, Near Mint records are practically perfect, and at many stores, they’re the highest rating on the shelves. For that reason, they go for much higher prices even if the recording itself is more commonly found. Used records can be Near Mint, but they must be meticulously taken care of, and even the most caring collector is unable to keep most records Near Mint if you’re actively playing them.
Very Good Plus (VG+) or Excellent (E)
A Very Good Plus or Excellent record is a high-grade record with great playback, that may have minor signs of wear.
Oftentimes, the only thing separating a VG+ record from an NM rating are small signs of handling, perhaps light discoloration on the cover, gentle ring wear, or light scuffs.
The signs of wear on VG+ or E records generally don’t affect the sound quality itself, it’s largely cosmetic. So you may find a record with no noticeable groove wear that plays beautifully, but the VG+ cover has a cut-out marking thus taking it down a notch from NM or M.
Very Good (VG)
Very Good records tend to have more noticeable imperfections, and because of that oftentimes sell for no more than 25 percent of a VG record.
Given the bargain, VG records can be a great investment on a recording you haven’t found in better condition. VG records may have some light audible scratches during a song’s intro, or softer style musical styles, but the noise is typically not compromised enough to overpower your listening experience.
The labels of VG records can sometimes include minor writing, tape, or stickers, but if you’re stocking a jukebox or unconcerned about a pristine label, then that may not be a dealbreaker.
You may also find more noticeable seam splits, spindle marks, and scuffs on a VG record, but they are generally still a solid listening experience if you wanna pull out the lyric sheet and croon along.
Good (G), Good Plus (G+) or Very Good Minus (VG–)
Records that fall under the G, G+, or VG- umbrella often come pretty cheap, at roughly 10 to 15 percent of what their Near Mint counterparts cost. A G record often has significant surface noise, ring wear, groove wear, oftentimes a missing or marked-up inner sleeve.
There may be cut-out holes in the label, seam splits that are noticeable to the naked eye, and in some cases large writing – such as radio station letters (meant to prevent theft).
However, if you haven’t found a better copy, most G, G+, or VG- copies still can play through without skipping. So if it’s a rare record or something by a band you love, it’s likely worth the purchase, particularly given the low prices.
Poor (P), Fair (F) and Good Minus (G-)
Poor (P), Fair (F), and Good Minus records are typically what you find in the bargain bin. They often sell for pennies, ranging from 0 to 5 percent of the Near Mint price tag, and the sound quality is negligible at best.
These records tend to be cracked, visibly warped, major scuffs, and massive discoloration, scribbling, and damage done to the label.
They often skip or repeat when played, which makes the listening experience a slog. In most cases, even the rarest records barely sell if they fall in this category since in most cases they’re unlistenable.
Still, there are always exceptions, and people have many different reasons for collecting vinyl records.
Record Grading on Promotional Copies
Promo records include any copy of a record that wasn’t originally produced for sale to the public. is any copy of a record not meant for retail sale. They’re identified differently based on the company, most will have a white label that says: “Demonstration — Not for Sale, “Audition Record” or “For Radio-TV Use Only.”
In most cases, promo copies are sold and graded the same as any commercial copy of the same recording (aka, they don’t cost more or less – it’s all about the quality of the vinyl itself).
But there are rare exceptions, like when a promo recording is slightly different than the released versions. This might be because of changes in the cover, or edits/additions to the music between the promo LP and the regular-stock LP.
There are also some rare promos that were pressed on special high-quality vinyl, these were especially popular in the 1980s and can go for more money than stock copies with the same grading.
Record Grading on Rare Records
You may be wondering, does a rare record automatically get graded higher than a more common record of the same quality and wear?
The short answer is: no. In most cases, the grading system is not a sliding scale, and even super old records are given the same basic one-over when it comes to pricing. However, within their grade, rare records are more likely to sell for more money due to high demand.
Generally, a wildly rare record with super noticeable scratches will still not get an M or even NM but will sell for more than other modern records with a VG+ rating.
In recent years, it’s been estimated that only 2 to 4 percent of records from the 1950s and 1960s are truly Near Mint, so even finding a rare record that’s a solid VG+ is a great find (and can go for a pretty penny).
Is it possible to make my record go up a grade?
While it’s obvious that records can easily go down a grade with wear and tear, a steadfast audiophile might wonder if it’s possible to restore or gussy up an old record.
The answer to that is somewhat complex, if a record has genuine groove wear, slight warps, and the picture sleeve or cover is noticeably damaged, it’ll be hard to make it go up a grade.
But if it plays perfectly, or is unplayed, and is in need of a wash, or some purely cosmetic love, then it’s definitely possible to nurture it into better shape.
Get to know how vinyl works for more details on what it is that makes the vinyl condition so important for playback.
Care Improves Record Grading
If you just bought a record you want to give some love to, or you’ve been going through your collection with fresh eyes, one of the best ways to give a record a boost is by regularly cleaning it.
As with most things turntable-related, you don’t want to clean in a haphazard way (no rags or t-shirts, no matter how clean they seem). You’ll want to use a record cleaning brush, or a microfiber cloth when dry cleaning your record.
If you want to really keep your collection pristine, it’s worth investing in some record cleaning concentrate and a Pro-ject turntable record vacuum that will give your records a detailed clean and make them last at a higher quality for longer.
In general, the best way you can keep your records sounding gorgeous and sitting at a high rating is to prevent further damage, which is where record storage comes into play.
Store Records Carefully for a Strong Grade
For starters, you always want to keep your vinyl in the jacket when it’s not directly on the turntables. When you leave a record on a turntable or out in the open too long, it can easily accumulate dirt and dust which affects the quality.
Secondly, you want to keep your records stored upright and never stack them on top of each other (even while inside their jackets). The pressure that comes from stacking or slanting records can easily warp them and affect the sound quality. This is why crates are often an ideal storage method since they can sit up in dividers without getting damaged and lowering record grading.
Lastly, aside from cleaning and properly storing records, another way to avoid unnecessary damage is to avoid ever trying to “skip ahead” to a certain song. While handling your records, use your fingernails to pick them by the edges so you don’t smudge or touch any of the grooves.
When your turntable stylus hits a random part of the record (even if you swear you know the exact spot), it has a good chance of hitting a groove and causing long-term damage. Since restoring a record to its original glory is a hard, and often impossible venture, preventing a favorite from getting damaged is your best bet.