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Box Sets - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

01-31-2019 | By Michael Corsentino | Issue 101

My relationship with box sets? Well, you might say its complicated. I recently reached the 100 mark with box sets in my collection, a bit of a milestone for me. This seemed like a great time to share some of my observations about collecting them, potential issues, the hurdles I've encountered and the solutions I've found. Despite my feeling that box sets come with certain challenges I have no intention whatsoever to stop collecting them. At their best, box sets can provide deep insight and context unavailable with individual titles. Collecting a large portion of a musician or band's work, or even a smaller amount of remastered and unreleased content, into one unified package provides listeners with an unparalleled overview of their development, the time period, and the way a particular album or genre evolved. So what have I learned about box sets? Read on!

Cost & Sources

Pricing and availability can vary widely with box sets, so be sure to do your research and compare prices. In many cases this simple step will end up saving you a bundle of cash! While Amazon typically beats or at least matches everyone's prices, reputable eBay or Discogs sellers are also a great resource for deeply discounted prices and finding sold out box sets. This was the case with my Queen & Sting Complete Studio Collection box sets, the first was sold out, and both were around a hundred dollars less expansive via eBay than Amazon or popular audiophile music sellers. Keep in mind box sets are often produced in limited runs which can sell out quickly, and have no guarantee of a repress. If there's a box set you've got your heart set on you may want to pull the trigger sooner than later. Case in point the Queen Complete Studio Collection box set mentioned above which was widely available and then gone, just like that! Or the Chris Cornell Super Deluxe Box Set I ordered and paid for via Live Nation back in December of 2018 right as it was selling out everywhere. Its now supposedly shipping at the end of February, I'm not holding my breath. This scarcity can also make replacing any potentially defective items in a box set complicated if not impossible, see below.

Defective LPs & Damaged Packaging

A box set with 15 albums is a wonderful and exciting thing to receive, but keep in mind it's also 15 opportunities for defective records (more in the case of double LPs), scratches, damaged jackets, or nasty dents on box that holds them. I've experienced all of these issues and more many times over with box sets, and its not fun. Think about it, if one record is damaged you either need to have that album replaced, a tall a order for many retailers/labels, or exchange the entire box set, a major pain in the ass. There's also no guarantee your replacement box set will a) be available, and b) won't have the same defect on the same LP, or another LP in the set. Sometimes an entire production run has quality control issues. Its a complete crap shoot whether your new box set will be trouble free or present the same issue, or a new set of problems to deal with. Again these are all situations I've experienced first hand. 

I do have to give credit to Music Direct's customer service department for arranging hassle free exchanges of individual LPs when issues with box sets have occurred. Amazon also has a very liberal exchange policy. The best practice is to always visually inspect every record in a box set as soon as it arrives. This way if there are any issues you can be proactive and make sure they're remedied within the time frame allowed for exchanges and returns. Also do your research prior to purchasing. If there are significant and consistent quality issues with a particular box set, it's likely they have been addressed in customer reviews.

Defects aren't confined solely to the physical realm, bad mastering can also be a nasty gotcha! Case in point, the cautionary tale of Warner Music's 2017 box set David Bowie's A New Career In A New Town 1977-1982, a collection I was initially very excited about until widespread reports of blatantly abysmal remastering surfaced, and I passed. Warner at first acknowledged the problem and offered corrected replacements of the offending LPs in the set, good deal. Well, that didn't last too long. While the uncorrected box set is still for sale, Warner Music has canceled their replacement program, and is instead advising customers to stream the corrected versions or purchase replacement  LPs individually outside of the box set as they weren't affected by lackluster mastering issues. Way to go Warner Music, excellent customer service—not! So, in addition to an immediate visual inspection for scratches and physical defects, the best bet is to also listen to your box sets as soon as you can. Just in case there are any sonic issues, bad mastering, noisy pressings, over tho top pops and clicks, etc. that need to be addressed.

Inners & Outers

If you're investing in box sets it's likely you're a serious collector rather than a casual buyer, and possibly even a completest. Most who fall into these categories, myself included, are junior archivists who go to great lengths, and protect our records to assure their longevity. We clean them, replace their inner sleeves with some manner of anti-static archival quality inner sleeves, and protect their jackets with plastic outer sleeves anywhere from 2-5mm. This becomes problematic with box sets as there is a lack of readily available outer sleeves/bags to help protect and keep them in pristine condition. This is due in large part to the variety of non-standardized sizes box sets come in. I've found an Ebay seller called, get ready… Sleevie Wonder, who sells box set bag variety packs with 10 sizes that accommodate any of the box sets I've come across. They're thin bags, repackaged from a company called Clear Bags who only sells single sizes in packs of 100, but at the moment they're all we've got. Until someone else steps up Sleevie's my guy. Sleevecityusa are you listening?

To further complicate and annoy those of us who care about such things, many box sets also come with unlined cardboard inner sleeves too tight to fit a new archival inner sleeve. In some cases, when the space inside a box set permits, you can use new inner sleeves and store records on top of their original inners, but this only works some of the time. My copy of Analog Production's Stevie Ray Vaughn box set Texas Hurricane was bursting at the seams when I tried this. Record labels should be aware of this need and either provide the space necessary to accommodate upgraded inner sleeves, or package their box sets with antistatic sleeves in the first place. Part of the premium you're paying for box sets is the packaging. The lack of high quality inners with many box sets is a real bean counting bummer. When there's no space for square anti static inner sleeves, then Diskeeper™ 1.5 Round Bottom LP Sleeves, or the like, are my go to solution (www.sleevecityusa.com). They're thin enough to fit the tightest inner sleeve, and do a great job protecting your precious vinyl!


Choosing a preferred storage method for box sets raises several questions. Should you store them with the rest of your LP collection, or separately in a dedicated box set section? People seem to be evenly divided between both camps, as each method has its pluses and minuses. Stored with the entirety of your collection everything is unified and easy to find, although space and access can be problematic. Many box sets such as Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers The Complete Studio Albums Volume 2 1994-2014 are too tall, and / or wide to fit in the Ikea Kallax shelving units many record collectors use to store their collections. Some fit and some don't, there goes your unified storage. Moreover even if they do fit, they can be difficult to access and potentially damaged during repeated removing and replacing from the shelving unit's tight cubes. Box sets stored separately present a great opportunity to show off your collectible eye candy! The downside is the absence of dust protection that shelves provide. Next you need to decide exactly what constitutes a box set in the first place. Which albums should be separated from the rest of your collection? Is it anything above 2 LPs, anything in cardboard packaging, anything in a box, or all of the above? Knowing where to draw the line can be confusing. For example Bruce Springsteen's Springsteen On Broadway, a recent acquisition, is a 4 LP set in soft plastic packaging. Its technically a box set with more than 2 LPs, but it doesn't come in a box and fits easily with the rest of my Springsteen albums. What to do? Is it all or nothing, only what doesn't fit on your selves, or something else entirely?


Getting inside box sets can also be a process. They're heavy, bulky, cumbersome, require considerable space to open, many come with slip cases around them that need to be removed before they can opened, some load from the top, some from the side, and others, like the Tom Petty Live Anthology, are bound like books. I still haven't figured out what you're supposed to do with slip cases. Are you supposed to keep them on, store them separately, or discard them? Clearly I keep mine in place. Each packaging style requires a different strategy to access the records they contain. If you're using bags to protect your box sets like I am, yet another layer of complexity and time is added into the mix. Compared to single LPs which you simply grab and play, box sets are considerably more involved.

The Commitment Factor

Whether it's their cost, the space they occupy, cleaning them, or the time it takes to listen to them, box sets are definitely a commitment. I've covered storage, cost, and availability so let's assume you have your new box set in hand. Now you'll need to clean each record using your preferred cleaning method. It doesn't matter whether its a Spin Clean, vacuum based record cleaning machine, or ultrasonic cleaner, there's no getting around the fact that cleaning a box set full of records takes a healthy chunk of time.

The next commitment is the time it takes to actually listen to your box sets, this is no small feat. With collections of individual studio albums packaged together it's easier to just pick out an album or two, if time is tight, without feeling like you're doing the collection an injustice. For me, the self-inflicted pressure to listen to an entire box set from start to finish, and the disappointment from failing to do so, occurs more with live recordings presented in a continuous linear fashion, such as Springsteen On Broadway, David Gilmour's Live At Pompeii, Ryan Adams' Live At Carnegie Hall, the Hamilton soundtrack, and countless others. In those instances I do feel compelled to try and listen to all the albums in one sitting. Breaking them up into different listening sessions feels disjointed and incomplete to me. I don't always get there but I try! Neurotic? Maybe. But hey I'm an audiophile, it comes with the territory. If I'm being completely honest, when time is tight I'll often skip right over my box sets and just pick out a single or double album and call it good.

That said, the last thing I want is for my box sets to go unused, endlessly languishing and feeling like lonely, unloved step children. When time permits, what I do is set is aside specific listening sessions dedicated solely to focusing on my box sets. Pick a genre, pick a box set, and dig in. That strategy has worked out well.

Premium Price, Premium Content

At their best box sets should be more than just a collection of albums already available individually in a pretty box. If you're paying a premium price, in my opinion, that should get you premium content and premium packaging, that's what you're paying for. For my money, the best box sets are those that come with something extra. That could be anything from limited editions, audiophile pressings, a bound book or booklet with rare pictures and or essays about the artists and music, unreleased tracks, alternative takes, rare b-sides, new mixes, an overall remix, Blu ray video content, CDs, or a combination of some or all of the above. Capitol's 2018 60th Anniversary Editions of the Beatles' White Album are prefect examples, among many, of box sets done right. I opted for the 4 LP set with Esher demos, killer!

There are a ton of amazing box sets out there, and more on the way everyday if you know what to look, and what to look out for. Share your thoughts about box sets with me in the comments section below, I'd love to hear what you think. Happy hunting and happy listening!