In Defense of the Humble Record Changer

A couple of weeks ago, I repaired the record changer function on my Garrard A70 and shared a video of the record changing mechanism in action with a vintage HiFi Facebook group I belong to, and was amused by a few scattered comments like ‘If you are too lazy to change the record yourself, you should sell the record player and never touch another vinyl album EVER again’, ‘you’re scratching the vinyl’, ‘album suicide’ etc. So let’s look into the validity of those claims and explore the subject of record wear and changers. Is it safe or crazy to stack records?

First let’s define a record changer, which have been out production almost long enough to forget they ever existed. A record changer is a turntable that allows you to stack a number of records together on a special stacking spindle that then drops one at a time automatically. For example, this Garrard A70 allows you to stack up to six records together, so it will play the first side of each album automatically in sequence, allowing you to only flip the stack once rather than have to flip and remove each record. Now let’s look at the general argument against changers, which is essentially that it can’t be good for one record to be touching and spinning on top of the other, and that the ‘slam’ of the record drop could also cause damage.

Now maybe you’ve experienced this scary, heart-pounding incident: you’ve dropped the needle at the start of an album and the stylus slides right off the LP towards the platter. You try again and find that if you drop the stylus a tiny bit further inside, it drops into the groove just fine. That’s because records are manufactured with a raised outer lip that protect the buried music grooves. When stacking records, the raised outer lip shares the same depth as the paper center label, so that those two raised surfaces touch, keeping the grooves carefully safely separated. And while some record changers do slam the next record down on top of the one that just finished, Garrard’s sloping record drop with pusher mechanism is significantly more friendly and safe, safe enough even to stack those fragile shellac 78s that shatter into pieces if you dare to look at them wrong. Between the gentle dropping mechanism, a tonearm that tracks perfectly down to two grams, and classic looks, this Garrard is probably my favorite of all the record changers and completely safe for your records.

Don’t mistake this as me claiming that all record changers are safe for your records. Those early 1950’s record changers from the earliest days of home audio would require massive tracking forces, sometimes as high as 10 grams (1-3 grams is typical today), and sure, that would lead to some extra wear, especially if playing later vinyl that was not manufactured to withstand those heavy forces. The RCA portable 45 players that were all over the fifties are perfectly fine, unless you try to play a stereo disc, which the mono stylus will carve right up (you can, and I would recommend, update those 45 players with a stereo cartridge). And by the mid-seventies, record changers had started to decline in popularity and become associated with lesser brands and turntables intended for kids etc. But that’s kind of the point – a bad turntable is a bad turntable regardless of whether it changes records or not; it’s the substandard tracking arm and heavy tracking force that cause damage, not the fact that it happens to be a changer.

From say 1955-1975, the record changer enjoyed a golden age. Don’t tell the haters, but many of the era’s most-prized vintage turntables from companies like Dual, Elac and Garrard, were actually changers, all of which are excellent and can be enjoyed worry-free. Just the center stacking spindle required to enable the changer function on these sometimes go for over a hundred dollars on their own, so clearly I’m not alone in believing they don’t damage records. I’ll admit that I won’t put any of my most prized records on a record changer, but I am a neurotic overabundance of caution in everything that I do. I have used the changer function with Near Mint albums with absolutely zero signs of visual or audible damage at all, but typically, I’ll use it with those slightly beat up VG dollar bin finds, multiple LP compilations, 78s and especially 45s.

In today’s world, the record changer is essentially 100% dead. No one produces a new one, and the old ones are at least fifty years old while being considered among the more difficult turntables to restore. It’s a shame, not only because of their potential quality, but also because of the overlooked but crucial accessibility they offer. Personally, I suffer from an extreme case of eczema, a skin disease that causes inflammation and endless scratching. During my outbreaks, my hands are torn apart by dozens of excruciatingly painful bloody cuts, and I will need to keep my hands lathered in a paralyzing cocktail of creams for hours, unable to touch a thing. Once that process starts, I certainly can’t touch records and drop a tonearm, but I can drop a stack of six records on the spindle, press play, then start my medication process, and those two torturous hours have suddenly become a lot more interesting than longingly looking out the window. For those days, a record changer changes my life.

And while it may be true that a young generation has fueled a reinterest in vinyl records, baby boomers and retirees with savings to blow and dreams of youthful nostalgia to chase are right behind them. As that generation ages, they may battle Parkinson’s disease or be restricted to a wheelchair with mobility issues, but still have a desire to enjoy this hobby without battling physical obstacles. Automatic turntables or a cueing lever are great, but still require fairly nimble activity every twenty minutes. A really good record changer makes everything a whole lot easier, and I argue still can serve an important function in making the vinyl hobby more accessible and appealing for a lot of people. And it’s just a whole lot of fun.

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