What Reel to Reel Recorder to Choose

Jul 09 2016

Reel to Reel tape recorders are really a proof of men’s ingenuity. The technical and electronic thought behind them is outstanding. Their most attractive feature of a recorder is, of course, the looks and design. Also you get a true analogue sound (if you copy a vinyl)… And that “IT TURNS REELS” thing! The spinning of the reels is almost mesmerizing experience combined with the sense – that “music comes from those reels”. There are many quality tape recorders out there. So you have a vast choice of combinations of looks and technical qualities to choose from.

To make things easier and presuming you are not a R2R professional, I will not talk about the multi track Reel to Reel Recorders (more than 4 tracks). These – while can still be used for fun – are much less preferred by people who want a R2R machine as a hobby or interior design element. I will talk here about most popular tape recorders, which use the conventional 1/4 inch (6.3 mm) tape. There is also 1/2″ tape format of tape/machine, which is twice as wide as conventional 1/4″. Though not considered as a consumer format, to my taste it is undervalued format and very effective for non-professional hobby/enthusiast use. I will describe this a little bit later.

Reel to Reel Recorder Types

To start with, there are 3 different “categories” of reel to reel recorders:
(a) Consumer
(b) Professional
(c) “Prosumer”. These are the very best, top of the line consumer recorders or entry level Pro Machines.

The relevant questions to be asked are:

What is your budget?

Reel to reel recorder price range is starting from 100 USD and reaching even up to 20,000 USD. So, unfortunately, days when you could buy a “Porsche of the tape recorder” for the price of a bicycle are gone. Simple, but good consumer reel to reel machine you can buy for around 200-400 USD. For 1000 USD you can get a real Hi-Fi machine. And if you want a top of the line recorder in a good condition, the price reaches 2000-3000 USD. The best professional machines nowadays you can get for 2500-4000 USD/EUR labelled as a very good used specimen. These machines were priced ~25,000 USD back in 1983 (~65,000 USD in today’s money).

How much space are you willing to spare?

This is no MP3 player, which you can put in your pocket. But most likely you are quite aware of it and want it the other way round – for it to stand out in your apartment. Then again, this is relative and can be overdone. I have seen crazy people whose apartments have become “house of the recorders”. Also, if you are living with someone, the impact on space and design can raise the priority question – what has higher priority – your wife or your Reel to Reel machine…

Of course, if you surf the net, you might be lucky and get something very good for the fraction of a/m price. But it takes time, patience and also some knowledge of the subject. Also, when I mention this price range, I mean either little used or serviced machines, which you can “plug and play”. You will see cheaper prices of course, but in 90% the cases they will require some attention before use and also the optical condition will not be top-notch. In fact, these professional machines were industrial equipment – they were and still are used to make Master recordings (Post Production) for manufacturing of vinyl LPs and in early days of CDs.

How intensively are you going to use your machine?

The most important detail you should pay attention to is the condition of playback and recording heads. If you switch your recorder on just occasionally and heads are not worn already, their life will be enough for your life 🙂 However, if you use the recorder extensively, the tape heads wear off.

Continue reading:
Consumer Reel to Reel Recorders
Professional Reel to Reel Recorders