Thursday, July 25, 2019


Reel-to-Reel Recorders – Is there a Resurgence?

Mel Martin 
January 31, 

Everything Old is New Again

This is a bit of a personal story, but I think it reflects a wider trend among some audiophiles. It's a story of how I re-engaged with reel-to-reel tape, and why increasing numbers of other audiophiles are sniffing around the edges and increasingly, buying reel-to-reel tape decks.

Reel-to-reel was all but dead

By the early 1990s I pretty much assumed reel-to-reel recorders were consigned to the audiophile dust bin of history. All the major manufacturers had dropped by the early 90s, names like Teac, Sony, Revox, Akai and Panasonic were exploring other audio recording technologies like DAT (Digital Audio Tape), and consumers were enamored with CD's (introduced in 1982) and reel-to-reel machines, once the darling of audiophiles, were headed for closets or the thrift stores.

CDs were rapidly replacing LPs, the 8-track, (never much of a recording medium) died and was replaced by the Compact Cassette, which could record, but had far worse specs than high-quality reel-to-reel recorders.

The improbable return of vinyl

Of course in the world of audiophiles, what was old can become new. We're eagerly testing and reviewing turntables here at Secrets, and LP sales are on the upswing after having been declared dead as recently as ten years ago. Even Sony, purveyor of all things digital, started selling vinyl in 2009. In the most recent year I have data, 2016, about 13 million LPs were sold, (Albulm sales in the US) and it's trending upwards, while sales of CD's are plummeting, being edged out by online streaming services. Even the iTunes Store, debuted by Apple in 2003, is seeing sales decline in downloaded music.

Reel-to-reel quietly resurfaces

In the middle of this decade, some of the audiophile magazines started touting reel-to-reel as a quality audio contender. Some people wrote that analog reel-to-reel was the finest audio quality available today, even though we're surrounded by high-resolution formats like FLAC downloads and SACD discs. Audiophile magazines like the Absolute Sound's Jonathan Valin have sung the praises of reel to reel, and in a shootout with a $100,000 dollar turntable, the panel preferred the reel to reel sound of master tapes played at 15 IPS. Digital music, of course, has even more champions, but I was surprised how many respected reviewers thought the sound of high quality reel to reel tapes was a revelation.

I'd given up my old reel-to-reel decks a few years ago. I had a Revox A77, and a Pioneer RT-909. I did retain a lot of commercially recorded tapes I hated to part with, and I had some 10.5 inch reels of live music I'd recorded in the 70s and 80s for college musical groups.

As I saw those tapes in my closet, and having read about the slow but visible comeback of reel-to-reel, I started to get the bug again. I checked out Craigslist and eBay to see what kind of equipment was available, and I was rather taken aback by the amount of decks that were being offered. There were a lot for sale.

Used reel-to-reel decks are plentiful

My local Craigslist had about 30 reel-to-reel decks that could qualify as meeting my needs, and eBay had more than 2000.

On eBay I found a deck offered locally, a Teac a7300 for around $600. Teac's were always excellent decks, especially mechanically. I bought the Teac, and insisted on a 30 day warranty. I took the Teac into a local store that specialized in used audio gear, and the tech had experience repairing them.

He had it for a few days and reported in was in excellent shape, but needed a slight head alignment and bias adjustments. When I got it home I tried some test recordings, and at 7 1/2 IPS speed the source and tape playback sounded virtually identical.

A month or so later I found a Teac x-1000r which had similar specs but added auto-reverse, so it would play both sides of a tape without having to take the reels off to flip sides. It was offered with a 30 day warranty, and I grabbed that too. Some fans of reel-to-reel tape had told me you can't just buy one. I was proving the point.

Why 2 decks? The main reason was I had a bunch of old tapes I wanted to dub onto new tape; knowing that playing really old tapes was probably shedding their oxide coating wasn't going to be good for the long term health of these units.

I wanted to find out why people, other than me, were buying used reel-to-reel decks, a product that has been pretty much off the market for more than 20 years, and if they were making a comeback as vinyl has.

I started with Gary Word, a native of Houston who is one of the biggest sellers of used reel-to-reel decks on eBay. (He's 2037gary on eBay). Gary worked in consumer audio sales in the sixties, and after stints with oil companies and other businesses, he decided to embrace eBay sales of reel-to-reel decks.

Over the years Teac, the brand he specializes in, had sold about 70 different models. Many of them show up on the used market. Word says he's been selling used reel-to-reel machines for 11 years, and to date has sold more than 600 used Teac's. His tech, Tom Tran, had an active business repairing audio equipment, and is among the most knowledgeable engineers for all things audio. Together, Word and Tran bring the used decks back to factory specs, and offer a 30 day warranty.

Who wants reel-to-reel and why?

So who is buying these decks? Gary Word has a good idea based on hundreds of sales – buyers who had reel-to-reel equipment at their peak of popularity in the 60s, 70s and 80s. They have, in many cases, boxes of tapes stashed in closets or the basement. If they kept their reel-to-reel deck, it probably doesn't work, after years of disuse. Pinch rollers can rot, motors can lose their lubrication. A lot of today's buyers want the same deck they had, partly for nostalgia and partly because they already know how to work it.

Other buyers have a vinyl collection, either old LPs, or they have started collecting again since vinyl's resurgence. They want to copy those albums into high quality tape and play them without fear of adding clicks or pops.

Another group of buyers thinks reel-to-reel is sexy or cool, especially the 10.5" decks that take metal reels and they may feel that analog sounds better than anything digital.

Like other high-fidelity products, most of the reel-to-reel buyers Gary Word sees are men, but about 2 out of every one hundred purchasers are women.

Where do all the used decks come from? Estate sales and even people buying a newly refurbished deck are willing to part with their clunkers in online sales. Gary Word tells me that the supply of used decks ready to be brought back to spec are plentiful, and the number of buyers is slowly increasing.

Expensive reel-to-reel decks appear

For people wanting to embrace something that is 'almost new', a company called UHA almost completely rebuilds some revered Tascam decks, rewiring them, adding new modern electronics, and the result is a first class playback deck. Prices start at under $10,000 for a playback only deck.

I was interested in what the founder of UHA, Greg Beron, thought of this revival of interest in reel-to-reel, and he graciously agreed to spend an hour or so, on the phone with me.

UHA is at the opposite end of the eBay reel-to-reel craze. They are offering decks that perform way beyond the specifications of the reel-to-reel decks of our memories.

Beron started looking at reel-to-reel audio about 10 years ago. Originally, he wanted build a deck for himself. New hardware wasn't available, so after a good deal of research, Beron settled on Tascam reel-to-reel decks. Tascam was, and is, the professional leg of Teac. Tascam is heavily into professional audio, but stopped making reel-to-reel recorders in 2002. They are still in demand by recording studios who want to master music productions in analog.

Beron told me he sought out some vintage Tascam decks, studied the electronics with engineers to try and figure out how they could be improved with modern electronics. He wanted to keep AC noise out of the audio chain, and Tascam decks already used DC motors, not common in reel to reel decks. With the optional UHA outboard power supply the deck was completely converted to operate 100% on DC power offering the lowest noise floor possible.

He created custom tape heads, and produced a tape deck he could be proud of. Some people in the recording field lent him some master tapes, and he was hooked. He felt the sound was incredible, surpassing digital and vinyl.

He spent some years enduring laughter from friends and even at hi-fi shows where he demonstrated people would wander in to this demo room and wonder if he still had 8 track tapes. Still, Beron keeps winning 'best of show' and 'best sound' awards from critics, who listen to master tapes in analog and are really enthused about the fidelity. Many agree that these high quality tapes sound better than their digital equivalents.

Where do I get something too play?

What do people play on these decks? A few companies are stepping up with high speed one-to-one masters of mostly jazz and classical recordings that were originally recorded in analog. Tapes can run about $400 but considering the uniqueness, and the labor involved in making that tape, it's not a heist of your money. Those who have heard these tapes consider them a revelation, far surpassing the quality of digital media.

Companies selling these tapes include The Tape Project, Yarlung Records, and IOpen Reel Records.

You can find lots of old reel-to-reel tapes on places like eBay, but beware. These older tapes weren't built to last decades, and will often be shedding oxide all over the delicate heads of your restored reel-to-reel machine. I've taken my vintage prerecorded tapes and dubbed them onto new tape to preserve them. Besides eBay and ultra expensive new dubs from master tapes, there's a wonderful family business in Oregon, Irvington Music which has a large supply of vintage pre-recorded tapes, some as a low as a couple of dollars each.

Buyers for blank tape have some good choices. Companies like RMG and ATR are running factories that produce high quality tape in 7" and 10.5" reel sizes. This will be especially welcome news to people wanting to do live recording on their reel-to-reel decks, or copy their old tapes and discs over to a more stable medium.

Is reel-to-reel coming back?

Is reel-to-reel going to take over as the medium of choice for audiophiles? It's not likely, but there is a growing group of music lovers that believe analog reel-to-reel is capable of some of the best audio playback around.

I didn't think vinyl would ever take off again, but it did, and sales are increasing every year. Turntables are being produced in increasing numbers, and LPs are being pressed at a rather unbelievable rate.

If some hardware companies jump back again and produce new, reasonably priced decks, and if reel-to-reel tapes start appearing again, it's easy to believe the reel-to-reel niche will become larger and start to show up in sales markets. Clearly, eBay and other used outlets sales show there is an interest.

If you are thinking of buying used (and almost all the decks on offer are used), there are these caveats. Make sure what you buy has a guarantee, and it is shipped at original factory specifications. Parts are hard to get. For example, no one is making replacement tape heads these days. But many people do sell parts, there are some good repair people around to help protect your investment, and Teac, for example, maintains a parts and repair facility in California.

Also, understand reel to reel decks aren't maintenance free. Experts suggest, and I agree, that if you are playing used tapes, clean your machine after every play. Clean the heads, the capstans, and any parts that are in the tape path. New recording tape is nice and stable, but I still clean up after every 4-5 uses. Reel to reel tape playback is not a hands off experience. Expect to give your deck regular maintenance. It's not at all like playing a CD or listening to a download. You'll need to be involved.

My deck is a quarter track (it means you flip the tape over to play the other side), or many decks offered, including mine, feature auto reverse. It's a lot more convenient, but no worse than LP lovers who have to flip over a record every 20 minutes or so. For some, it's part of the charm. The newer decks being offered by UHA are half track decks that play at 15 inches per second. In general, the used decks you will find play at the more common 7 1/2 IPS or 3 3/4 IPS. These used decks, including mine, won't play these new ultra expensive master tapes.

No matter how you slice it, a reel-to-reel deck is not as easy to use or trouble free as a CD player or music server. But like the LP and turntable owners, reel to reel users say it worth the effort for the sound.

I'm enjoying listening to my refurbished Teac. It does sound lovely. I think it sounds every bit as good as my SACD collection and my downloaded Hi-Rez music. There is something very nice about analog playback, and I thoroughly enjoy listening to it. Of course an excellent digital recording is hard to beat, but some of the best pre-recorded tapes from the 70s sound really good. Smooth highs, especially strings and cymbals, and the bass is very deep. I have especially enjoyed a vintage RCA 7 1/2 IPS tape of Andre Previn performing Tchaikovsky's Symphony number 2, and The Weavers' Almanack on Vanguard.

Going back to reel-to-reel listening has been interesting and rewarding. At some point I think I'd be a candidate for a semi-reasonably priced new deck with modern electronics and reliable mechanics should manufacturers jump back in. The rumor mill has said that one or more of the big manufacturers are going to soon announce new decks, but rumors are rumors until they aren't, and the companies I called would not confirm or deny it.

Crazier things have happened in the world of audiophilia. I'm watching and waiting. If you feel then siren song of analog reel-to-reel, or you've already jumped in, feel free to share your experience in the comments section.

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