Like string theory, audiophile subculture is complex and defined by unresolved questions. Is an insanely expensive cable really better than an outrageously expensive cable? Do tube amps trump solid-state amps? Horn, electrostatic, or ribbon hybrid speakers? What about Kind of Blue — mono or stereo? Each position can be defended or attacked with various specs, waveform graphs, and double blind listening tests.
One question, however, has been resolved: tape or vinyl? Even the most dubious critics find no ambiguity here. The verdict: tape sounds better than vinyl. Period. Not the cassette tapes of Walkman era, of course. Not those 8-track bricks from the land of shag carpet supervans either. That crude tech is an insult to tape, the same way Velveeta is an insult to cheddar. The real vinyl killer turns out to be reel-to-reel tape. Played on unwieldy machines that conjure visions of ABSCAM sting operations and Boogie Nights bachelor pads, R2R tape is the latest retro-trend for hi-fi geeks and design fetishists who curate their living rooms like a MoMA exhibit.
The roots of this audio trend can be traced back to 2013, when a persnickety critic for The Absolute Sound shocked his readers by proclaiming that a new reel-to-reel deck designed by a team of fanatic engineers absolutely crushed the highest rated turntable rig ever reviewed by the magazine. A refresh of this same audiophile tape machine snagged one of The Absolute Sound’s coveted “Editors’ Choice” awards this year. That fancy R2R, which is handmade and can be customized like a Bentley, is one of the most popular demos on the audio show circuit.
The resale market is booming, too. There are currently 13,729 “Reel to Reel” eBay listings, and the online auction house has posted a guide for prospective buyers. The pop-culture pervasiveness that feeds every trend is also evident. In hit shows like Narcos and The Americans, and major studio movies like Black Mass, R2Rs have become production design shorthand for hardcore audiophilia.
“We sell our open reel decks as quickly as they come out of the repair shop,” says Jerry Gahagan, the owner of Oak Tree Enterprises, a website that specializes in vintage audio equipment. “This resurgence is about nostalgia and cool. It’s like buying an old Harley with a suicide shifter. These tape machines are chunky, solidly built, and sound great.” Set decorator Kate Foster, who will be using several classic Tandberg decks in the upcoming season of the F/X series The Americans, says a R2R is more than just an old tape player. It’s a symbol. “Big tape reels suggests an audio connoisseur with technical skills,” says Foster. “You don’t get the same vibe with a turntable. A R2R on the bookshelf means sophisticated and smart.”
What makes tape such a smart choice? For starters, it has greater dynamic range than vinyl, with extraordinary sound at the frequency extremes: the treble and bass. Next, consider the amount of signal processing that each medium requires. Vinyl: a lot. Tape: very little. Signal processing is the enemy of hi-fidelity. The less studio voodoo the master tape (MT) is subjected to, the better.
It helps to understand how vinyl and tape albums are manufactured. To make a record, the MT signal must be compressed to match the dynamic limits of vinyl. Some of the highs and lows are slashed in the bargain. All the other audio tricks needed to shoehorn a signal into those tiny grooves compromises the signal even more. Dubbing 1/4-inch tapes is a much simpler task. With no need to squeeze or tweak the original signal, it can be transferred from the MT relatively unscathed.
Then there’s the dicey issue of playback. With turntables, all sorts of mechanical foibles — rumble, skips, speed stability, inner groove distortion, et cetera — can further degrade the signal. In contrast, R2R is an exercise in simplicity. The only moving part at the point of signal retrieval is the tape, which travels in a straight line across a stationary playback head. Efficiency equals fidelity.
When digital audio rose to prominence in the late 1980s, tape decks fell out of favor with professionals and hobbyists alike. The expensive machines ended up in dumpsters and pawn shops, but never quite disappeared. Stubborn audiophiles, old school radio stations, and record producers like Steve Albini and Rick Rubin continue to champion their analog virtues in a digital world. The reason tape has survived isn’t just because the reels are groovy. The fact remains that magnetic tape is an incredibly dense archival medium. Earlier this year, IBM and Fujifilm announced the creation of a tape cartridge that can hold 220 terabytes of information.
While the sheer density of magnetic tape is certainly impressive, without new software, these massive boxes would be little more than flea market props. But renewed interest in the hardware has inspired some record companies to dig into their vaults to license evergreen titles on tape. There are also several indie labels recording new material for the R2R crowd. Yarlung Records, for instance, offers eight contemporary recordings by young artists, ranging from Swiss cellist Frédéric Rosselet to the Sophisticated Lady Jazz Quartet. Like Savile Row suits, each album is made-to-order and pricey ($200).
Opus 3 has also made a commitment to open reel tape. The Swedish audiophile label lists 50 classical, pop, and jazz titles on its website, each going for $450. Just as expensive is The Tape Project, which peddles legacy albums ranging from Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus to The London Philharmonic’s Arnold Overtures. The company catalog includes 27 other albums, with more on the way. Some audio critics claim this is the highest fidelity ever captured on 1/4-inch tape. That may be so, considering that each album is a first-generation copy dubbed in real time, at a leisurely 30 ips, directly from the original master tape. There is no mixing or remastering involved. In essence, this is the master tape. It doesn’t get any better than this. Better is live at Carnegie Hall.
Vinyl fans may scoff at The Tape Project’s steep prices, but when licensing fees, production time (3.5 hours per album), and materials ($150 just for the blank tape) are factored into the equation, $450 seems almost reasonable to hear Lee Morgan’s trumpet riffs on The Sidewinder just as recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder heard them over half a century ago in his New Jersey studio. Incidentally, a Lee Morgan trumpet riff on tape doesn’t just sound better than a Lee Morgan trumpet riff on vinyl. It sounds better than a Lee Morgan trumpet riff on any audio format: CD, SACD, Pure Audio Blu-Ray, even Neil Young’s crazy 24-bit/192 kHZ hi-res files that take forever to download.
There are also two companies that manufacture high-quality recording tape. The secret sauce from yesteryear’s Emtec / BASF blank tapes is now marketed under the RMGI brand. A four-pack of 10-inch reels is $179.95. Then there’s ATR. It’s a bump up in price, but many professionals swear by ATR’s proprietary tape formulations.
Most R2R consumer decks can’t even erase pro-grade tape, much less exploit its superior sound quality. So don’t slap an ATR reel on the Sears Silvertone R2R you picked up for 10 bucks at a garage sale. This tape is designed for high-speed (15 ips) machines, like the UHA Phase 12. At $24,000, this modded out Tascam BR-20 is a ridiculously over-engineered piece of gear. The platform is a Teac deck that gained a reputation in the ’90s as a studio workhorse. The UHA modifications, however, are so extensive, both cosmetically and mechanically, that the only thing the Phase 12 has in common with a stock BR-20 are its dimensions. From the “hyper pure” (99.99 percent) cast silver wiring, to the electromagnetic shielding made out of mu-metal (an exotic alloy used to make satellites), the attention to detail is nuts. Even the fuse is overkill squared. The Quantum Red is a ceramic fuse made with a rare alloy that’s been zapped with a Tesla coil running 2 million volts. UHA owner Greg Beron says it’s OCD engineering like this that make the Phase 12 superior to the world’s best turntables.
It was Beron’s earlier Phase 11 deck that audiophile bible The Absolute Sound pitted against one of the most highly regarded turntables, the Proscenium Black Diamond V. When the shootout was over, and all the sonic dust had settled, the six-figure turntable — a linear-tracking, air bearing (yes, like an electron microscope) precision instrument with more industry awards than the Honda Accord — had been vanquished. To say this caused a stir within the vinyl-centric hi-fi community is putting it mildly. If your prized possession — a $120,000 turntable rig that TAS recently praised as “the highest-fidelity phonograph on the market” — had just been kicked to the curb by a tape deck, sedatives and grief counseling would be in order.
“The Phase 12 reveals extremely minute details, the kind of things that only the recording engineers heard on the original master tape,” says Greg Beron. In some instances, there’s actually too much detail during playback: “When I was listening to Led Zeppelin III last night, I could hear the pedal squeak every time John Bonham hit the bass drum.”
For those whose household budgets preclude an “ultraphile” purchase like the UHA Phase 12, there are secondhand ’70s and ’80s decks on the market that can be had for two grand and under. A good place to start is Teac X-2000R. Here is the machine that Uma Thurman used in Pulp Fiction, the deck for anyone who’s ever fantasized about dancing to an alt rock remake of a Neil Diamond song while drifting into Schedule 1 oblivion. Tarantino’s prop master got it right. The X-2000R is not only Teac’s best model; it’s also arguably the best amateur R2R deck ever made.
Then there’s the Pioneer RT-909. If Jony Ive designed a reel-to-reel tape deck, it would probably look like the RT-909. Considering that this machine made its debut 35 years ago, that’s quite a tribute to Pioneer’s industrial design team. It’s no slouch in the performance department either.
““I could hear the pedal squeak every time John Bonham hit the bass drum.””
No R2R roundup would be complete without mentioning the GX-747 DBX, Akai’s flagship deck. This thing was crammed with so many features that it served as the ’80s benchmark for all amateur R2Rs. It wasn’t cheap when it was released in 1982: $1,300 (almost $3,200, when adjusted for inflation). And it still isn’t. The going rate on eBay for a nice refurb is $2K. Audiophiles rave about the glass heads and how durable they are. Then there’s the counter: it’s digital and programmable. In addition to checking time intervals, you can also program commands to impress your analog friends.
Lastly, consider the Studer A-820, the Godzilla of all R2Rs. This 200-pound beast also happens to be the grail of high fidelity. Why? Because it can handle long-playing, 14-inch reels, because it has a silky smooth tape transport, and because it’s rugged as well as precise. During the 1980s, this was the go-to tape deck for studio pros. Upgrade the outboard playback electronics, and you end up with the best-sounding tape deck ever assembled.
As with all vintage stereo gear, caveat emptor. Have a qualified technician inspect your dream machine, and get a repair estimate. Even if the R2R is “Mint” or “NIB” (new in box), there will be issues. Among other things, 40-year-old tape decks always require new rubber belts, cork brake pads, pinch rollers, and recalibration. Capacitors will also need to be replaced in order to bring the deck back to factory spec. And, if the previous owner was a roadie for The Grateful Dead, the heads should be sanded or replaced. Costs add up quickly. But then you can press Play, and bask in the flat frequency response.