The Reel Deal

How the Ultimate Analog Music Player Is Making a Comeback


May 7, 2019 Tech By Photo by Henry Phillips

All through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, magnetic tape formats like the 8-track and cassette were audiophiles’ technology of choice. They played high-resolution tracks, had an impressive dynamic range and dealt with relatively little signal processing.

The compact disc effectively killed these formats in the ’90s, with all major manufacturers — Teac, Akai, Sony, Revox and Panasonic — ending production of consumer tape machines not long after. But there are whispers of a revival, specifically for the large and beautiful open-reel machines that look like they came directly from the studio where Blood on the Tracks was recorded.

The renewed interest from purists has less to do with aesthetics than sound quality; there’s a reason reel-to-reel was the format of choice for professional music recording for decades, and it’s why some authenticity-minded modern artists like Jack White, Lady Gaga and The Black Keys still favor the technology. But if you’re on the hunt for a reel-to-reel player of your own, don’t make the mistake of buying something actually meant for the studio — those are designed primarily for recording, not filling your living room with deep cuts.

“A homeowner wants to play stereo tracks,” says Fernando Zorrilla, founder of SkyFi Audio, a New Jersey company that refurbishes old tape machines. “There are machines for playback of stereo that look identical to the ones made for studios — don’t buy yourself a studio machine, it won’t play right.”

Reel-to-reel tapes come in various widths. Recording studios use half-inch or 1-inch tape for production but musicians don’t release their work at that size. Hi-fi hobbyists should stick to quarter-inch tapes — and the machines that can play them. There are new examples on the market, specifically from German company Ballfinger, which sells four gorgeous handcrafted models direct from its Duesseldorf factory. The only issue: entry-level models start around $12,000 and climb, precipitously, from there.

Don’t make the mistake of buying something actually meant for the studio — those are designed primarily for recording, not filling your living room with deep cuts.

Third-party sellers like eBay, Reverb and Audiogon offer plenty of old models, but buyer beware: vintage audio products, even those from reputable brands like Teac, Akai, and Revox, require meticulous service to stay in good working order, so cheap finds that haven’t been properly maintained can cost you in the long run. A better bet is the blooming refurbishing scene, with companies like SkyFi restoring old equipment to like-new conditions.

As for the music itself, that’s a hunt all its own. “Pre-recorded reel-to-reel tapes are rare, but they exist,” Zorrilla says. Resale sites like eBay can turn up some gems — The Beatles, Zeppelin and Pink Floyd are all available — but expect to pay top dollar. “Those recordings can go for a hundred to six hundred dollars apiece,” says Zorrilla. (A decent chunk of coin to be sure, but if you balk at the idea of paying several hundred bucks for wonderfully rich music on a rare and authentic analog format, you might be in the wrong hobby.)

The real joy of reel-to-reel might be the genuinely weird finds specific to the format. Home recordings abound and can be uniquely fascinating — imagine the joy of finding some two-hour recording from a small-town radio station back in 1975 — and for Zorrilla, these tapes are the main draw. “There’s tons of home-recorded material out there,” he says, “and it’s fascinating.” (If you want to stick with the greats, check out The Tape Project, a California audio company that releases classic albums, duplicated from the master copy, on reel-to-reel tapes.)

That DIY spirit lives on in the home tape machine, according to Chris Mara of Mara Machines, a Nashville company that exclusively restores consoles from the defunct manufacturer MCI. “You can buy a blank tape, record your own stuff and reuse it — unlike a vinyl record,” Mara says. Also superior to pressed records: the connection to how music is made, not just enjoyed.

“Audiophiles want to be closer to the source,” Mara says. “That means closer to what the artist is doing in the studio. Tape machines are definitely that.”

The Best No-Hassle Vinyl Setups for Every Budget

Put on these records and they’ll sound are a million light years away from today’s sterile digital soundscapes. Consider a seat belt. Read the Story