Buying a Reel-to-Reel

So you’re going to buy that long coveted reel-to-reel, or maybe you want to upgrade your existing model with something higher grade.

For this article, we’ll assume you’re looking for a stereo consumer tape deck, although most of what is written here also applies to semi pro and pro machines.

Buying a reel-to-reel tape recorder can be a bit tricky, especially if you’re not technically inclined, or know exactly what you’re looking for. Most reel-to-reel recorders are at least 30 years old at this point, and all reel-to-reels can have electrical/electronic issues and/or mechanical tape transport problems. Figure that every used reel to reel will need 1-4 hours labor plus parts if it hasn’t recently been used or serviced. This includes a general cleaning, belt replacement, lubrication of the mechanism, and biasing to current tapes for the best frequency response. Labor times increase for multitrack semi-pro and pro decks. Many repair shops won’t touch reel-to-reel machines due to lack of knowledge to repair them, and due to the lack of availability of parts. While some belts and idler wheels have long been discontinued, some tape transports share common parts that can be switched between models, and usually substitutes can be found for obsolete electronic parts. In some cases however, parts are considered ‘unobtanium’, so in order to get that tape deck going, you’d have to find a donor parts chassis. If it’s a part that cannot be found, and is a common failure in a particular make and model, you might be on the hunt for months if not years for a replacement part. Welcome to the world of old electronics!

Having spent most of my life dealing with surplus electronics, I cannot count the number of times where I’ve been told by the seller “oh, it’s in perfect shape, it just needs…”. After I get the deck (the odd time where I actually purchased a machine from a seller like that), sure enough, it needs… about 4 hours worth of work. Now, most sellers of anything used, electronic or otherwise, aren’t fraudsters or con artists, they simply aren’t technicians, and usually only know how to operate a reel-to-reel, if they even go that far. Many sellers are selling off their parent’s estates, and they may never even have operated a reel-to-reel before. They’ve simply seen it run as a child, then the player was put into storage for 20+ years, but it worked the last time they used it. As a tech, I can tell you that anything electronic or mechanical that sits idle for 10+ years will develop issues, and with reel-to-reels having both electronic and mechanical parts, the problems can be doubled or tripled.. or worse.

Reel-to-reel sellers

Most reel-to-reel decks can be found on Craigslist, eBay, at vintage or thrift stores, or through word of mouth.

Rule #1 when buying a used reel-to-reel:

Unless you are buying a reel-to-reel from a qualified tech that has just serviced it, or you can see a bill of sale of a recent (within one month) repair, assume that the deck will need 1-4 hours worth of work to get it to good operating condition – and that’s not including parts.

If you can do basic maintenance, or go as far as changing a belt, then great, you can most likely find a good deal on ebay or Craigslist. If you want a 100% working deck, buy from a technician that has the knowledge and test equipment to properly repair a reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Buying a used reel-to-reel

  1. Seven inch or 10 inch?
    A 10-inch deck will usually sound the same in comparable consumer models, but is often twice the price of a comparable seven-inch deck. Higher-end 10½-inch reel-to-reel decks may have better sounding electronics than the seven-inch decks, although many seven-inch and 10-inch models within a specific brand have very little difference in the record and play circuits, it’s only the mechanism that changes.
  2. Auto reverse or not?
    Auto reverse can add $100 to $500 to a deck. There are also additional mechanical and electronic parts adding to the complexity of the machine. Decide whether you really need it or not.
  3. How are you planning to use it?
    Are you looking for a deck to copy old tapes to MP3 or CD, and do you not need the deck afterwards? If yes, a lower end deck is for you. You can even get away with one that has a faulty record mechanism. Or is this a long-term vintage audio investment? If long term, definitely get a higher end deck.

Rule # 2 when buying a used reel-to-reel:

A good working reel-to-reel that is post 1973 and in good working condition should sound very close on playback as to what the recorded source is.

This is a very easy 2 minute test that can be done with two simple things: A music source (CD player, MP3, smartphone, etc) with an appropriate patch cord to connect to the reel-to-reel, and a pair of good quality headphones to listen to the tape and source with.

Assuming you or the seller knows how to use the tape deck, record a minute or two of music, while listening to the source through the headphone jack. If it’s your music that you brought with you, you probably already know what that song should sound like. If the RTR is a 3 head unit, use the source/tape monitor switch to switch between the source and recorded tape playback (more on that later). If it’s a 2 head deck, concentrate on the source bass and treble sounds, stop the tape, rewind it, and play it back. Does the bass and treble sound the same? Are both channels equal in level? Does the tape play back louder or quieter than the source? Are the input line level controls noisy (do they crackle or cut out ) when you turn them?

If the tape sounds very close to the original, then chances are the machine is in good working shape. If the bass is a bit punchier, or the treble has a bit of a boost on the tape playback, the deck most likely isn’t quite set up for the brand or type of tape being used. This isn’t really a concern, a tech can usually adjust the internal bias and equalization of the deck to minimize that change. What you should be concerned with is if there is a significant lack of treble in the playback compared to the source. This can also mean that the tape deck isn’t set up for the tape, it can mean dirty heads, but worst case it is worn heads, which can be expensive to fix.

Now.. why did I say to get a ‘post 1973’ deck above? From the 100s of decks that I’ve serviced, I’ve found that many (but not all) pre 1973 decks need a lot of work. This is partially due to earlier designs, and many decks use one motor to drive the entire mechanism. Some motors are known to fail, and replacements are hard and expensive to get. Post 1973, and deck design improved, some machines were already using direct drive motors, and solenoid operation generally made decks more reliable, with simpler mechanisms compared to mechanical ones. Again, there are exceptions, but usually 8 out of 10 decks that I get in for service that are pre 1973 aren’t worth repairing. It’s just a rough guideline.

Reel-to-reel buying checklist

  • Check to see if the play and record buttons work
  • Check FF and REW, especially on the lower end decks with single motor mechanisms. Check rewind with an almost full reel of tape on the left spindle, check FF with the almost full reel on the right, as that puts the most stress on the tape transport
  • Go into stop mode from a full fast forward and rewind at several intervals. When going into stop, do the reels stop evenly, or does the tape spill out from one or both spools? If tape spillage occurs, at minimum the brakes of the tape recorder need adjusting, at worst you could have some circuitry issues
  • Check the pinch roller for stickiness, roundness and smoothness. It’s not a bad idea to get an original 40 year old pinch roller rebuilt regardless, check our references page for more details
  • Check visually for head wear
  • Check that the line and mic level input controls and the output control (if applicable) are smooth and noise free
  • Check all switches, especially the tape/source monitor switch for noise or intermittent connections
  • Check that the reel spindles are straight, and do not wobble
  • Check overall condition of the deck, are the wood side panels/case in presentable condition?

Elsewhere on this site are more details that are brand specific. Again, it’s impossible to determine exactly the condition of any deck out there for sale. Decks that have been exposed to high humidity for example, may have rubber deterioration as compared to a deck that has been stored in a dry environment. I’ve seen decks from Hawaii have massive internal corrosion, even though the outside of the deck look fine.

I also need to put a note in regarding ‘new old stock’ tape decks. From a physical condition point of view, a new old stock deck is desirable, as if it indeed is new in the box, it will be pristine. Sadly, the internals of the deck may or may not be in great condition, as moisture has no problem entering a tape deck over the years, even if sealed in a plastic bag. With the electronics and motors not being used over a 30-50 year old period, internal parts can deteriorate, fail and seize. Having said that, I was fortunate to find a new in the box top of the line Teac X2000R reel-to-reel recently (2015), which was from about 1985 or so. Before powering it up, I opened it to check the drive belt, found it to be in excellent condition, then I ran the deck for 2 hours with zero issues before I listed it on ebay. It needed nothing. Other decks may not fare as well.

There are many more areas on this website that go into more detail on certain topics above. Please feel free to email regarding suggestions of topics to cover. If you are a tech, or a reseller of reel-to-reels, or if you carry parts, please email us your contact information, and we can put you into our ‘referral’ section. Sadly, due to the amount of time needed to work on reel-to-reels, we cannot offer individual email response for us to assist in diagnosing or servicing your reel-to-reel tape deck. We are always open for you to drop your tape deck off for evaluation, service, or to buy for parts if it is not worth repairing.

Reel-To-Reel Tape Deck Pricing

Here are a few notes showing how we overhaul a typical reel-to-reel tape recorder, and how the pricing of a reel-to-reel deck can vary from under $100 to over $5000.

A typical reel-to-reel that hasn’t been service in 20+ years will develop numerous problems, even if stored in the original box and packing material and put into the back of a closet. We have found that a typical deck like this that hasn’t been turned on in a long time will require 2-4 hours of labor to bring the deck back to life, not including the cost of parts. We buy many decks through other stereo stores that take trade-ins, from collectors that buy estate pieces, and from people that contact us through our website here, via Craigslist, eBay or Facebook, etc. More often than not, the comment from the seller is “the deck is in mint condition”. All you need to do is look at the electronics section of Craigslist to read similar pitches time and time again, but when you ask when the last time the equipment was serviced, the seller either can’t tell you, or will respond “well, it worked fine when I stored it 15 years ago”.

What we do here to every deck that comes in for service or as a potential sales unit is:

  • Clean all switches and controls with DeOxIt cleaner.
  • Carefully check all belts, pulleys and the pinch rollers for hardening, stretching, gooiness and overall wear, and replace as required. Unless we know that the deck has recently been serviced, we usually replace the main capstan belt before even powering up the belt, as a gooey belt can instantly wrap itself around the capstan motor, and destroy the motor within seconds.
  • Check FF and REW for proper torque and speed, right to the end of the tape in both directions.
  • Check takeup and supply reel tensions, especially on decks that are known to drift.
  • Check for head wear even before taking frequency response measurements.
  • Check frequency response from the line input to the line outputs.
  • Check frequency response and levels from a calibration tape in play mode on all speeds.
  • Check frequency response and levels in record mode, and set bias, eq, and level trimpots.
  • Test run the deck for a minimum of 24 hours to ensure longevity of the deck. You’d be surprised how often a deck develops a secondary problem a few hours after it appears to be in good shape.

Yes, you can find decks for sale in any number of places, and many clients bring us decks that were supposed to be in mint shape, but had problems a few reels of tape into use. Some of these decks need minor repairs or adjustments as indicated above, but sadly, some decks are beyond economical repair once some basic tests are done.

Things that add to the price of a reel-to-reel

You will find reel-to-reel pricing all over the map, from giveaway prices, to ‘over-retail-I-think-I can-get-this-for-a-deck’ price. With us, the pricing is consistent based on cosmetics, head condition, features and overall performance. What will add to the base price of a tape deck is:

  • Original box.
  • Original manual.
  • Original takeup reel (can get up to $130 on ebay by itself!).
  • Original NAB (10”) hubs can add up to $200 to a deck.
  • Mint condition or new wood side panels on decks that come with them.
  • Dust cover (not many were sold, an uncracked original can sell for $250 on eBay)
  • Wired or wireless remote control (again, up to $250 on eBay).
  • Auto reverse feature- can add up to $500 depending on the make and model.
  • New old stock, meaning it’s a never used, 0 hour deck that has sat in the box for the last 30-40 years. These decks almost always need servicing, but the price goes up exponentially for a pristine unit.

Price Range of reel-to-reel decks

Much like a used car, a refurbished reel-to-reel tape deck will have a wide price range, starting at under $100, and going to $5000 and beyond. From a tech reseller like ourselves, you definitely get what you pay for. Ask yourself what you need the deck for. Is this a long term investment, as a showpiece item for a vintage stereo system, or do you simply need a deck to transfer a box of old reel-to-reel tapes to disc, in which case, you may not need a deck to last 10-15 years, and if the tapes were recorded on a mono tube machine, the best quality playback deck isn’t required to transfer these old tapes.

Rather than list every one of the 40-60 reel-to-reel decks that we typically have ready for sale, or are pending repairs or parts, we’ll list a few of the standard models that we get in on a regular basis, with a typical price that we’d sell the decks for. Pricing is in Canadian dollars, with a rough US dollar equivalent in brackets after the Canadian dollar amount (based on a USD to CDN exchange rate of 1.3, current for 2016-2017, the time of this writing).

Decks under $150 ($110USD)

A typical single motor Sony deck, circa 1968. Sony made dozens of similar mechanical transport decks

For people that simply want to transfer a few reel-to-reel tapes to disc, a reel-to-reel deck in this price range will generally fill the need. We’ve also had musicians that want to experiment with tape loops or tape speeds purchase these lower end decks, as they specifically don’t want the best quality recordings, they want sound effects!

A deck under $150 will generally be a recorder made prior to 1973, and could be as early as 1965 or so. The most prevalent brands here in North America were Sony and Roberts/Akai, and some older Teac units. A lot of European brands (Grundig, Telefunken and Philips to name three) were also popular, but due to the mechanisms, many of these decks are written off by us, so it’s rare that we’d sell a European model at this point.

The more popular Japanese brands like Sony used a single motor for the whole mechanism, and failure of the motor, specifically with the Sony decks is relatively common at this point, and replacements are very difficult to find. If we find the motor to be strong with good torque, then we’ll sell one of these decks.

Also, decks from us in the $150 range are completely mechanical mechanisms, with no solenoid or logic controls over the transport.

Other less popular inexpensive decks had speakers built either into the tape recorders themselves, or had speakers in the lid that covered the tape deck, and some lesser known brands (Realistic, Toshiba, and Sanyo) actually made reliable transports, while the overall fidelity wasn’t stellar. Again, these are entry level decks at this point, designed for you to transfer tapes with, you generally won’t get 10 years of regular use out of these decks.

Once in a while we will get a deck in that works flawlessly from a mechanical and electronic point of view, but may be missing some cosmetic pieces (the correct knobs, or a missing head cover), or may have a wood/pressboard case in iffy condition (scratches, water damage, etc.). If you can handle an ugly ducking, and are only concerned about sound quality and reliability, you can get into a better deck in this manner.

Some typical decks would be:

  • Entry level Akai models, such as the 4000 series
  • Good working Roberts decks from the pre-Akai days
  • Good working European decks such as Grundig, Telefunken, Philips, etc.
  • Older Teac models such as the A-4010, A-1200, A-1250, etc
  • Less popular RTR manufacturers, such as Sanyo, Toshiba, etc.
  • Older (pre-1977) Realistic models
  • All Sony single motor models, generally pre-1975

Decks from $150-300 ($110-225 USD)

In this price range, you’re getting into a more reliable and better sounding (better frequency response) deck, typically in the early to mid 1970s. Akai made the 4000 series, a typically bulletproof and good sounding deck, along with other Akai models in the mid 1970s. Sony had a few models that were more reliable three motor mechanisms (Sony TC-645, etc), and a bunch of Teac models that were all 3 motor units. Don’t forget that the Realistic TR-3000 was actually a Teac X3, with the same performance and quality, just a slightly different looking faceplate. The aforementioned decks are all 7” reel models. At the high end of this price range, you may also get into a 10” reel-to-reel, such as a Pioneer RT-1011 or similar, The Akai GX-600 or GX-630 are solid performers, as are some of the entry level 10” Teac models such as the A-3300 and similar.

Typical decks in this price range would include:

  • 3 motor Sony decks (TC-645, etc)
  • Many Akai 7” GX series decks from the mid-1970s
  • Most 7” Teac models
  • Entry level 10” machines, some scratch and dent models, such as Pioneer RT-1011
  • Older Teac 10” machines (A-6010, etc)

Decks from $300-600 ($225-450USD)

Teac A3300SX

In this price range, you’re getting into the top of the line 7” reel-to-reel machines, and either a really nice condition entry level 10” machine, or a higher end machine with a bit of head wear, or a deck with some cosmetic issues. 7” machines include:

  • Akai GX-77 – 6 head, auto reverse, EE tape capable
  • Akai GX-270- auto reverse
  • Akai GX-265 auto reverse
  • Akai GX-255 late model, auto reverse
  • Pioneer RT-701- rack mount
  • Pioneer RT-707- rack mount, auto reverse
  • Teac X-7R- late model, auto reverse
  • Teac X-700R- late model, auto reverse
  • Teac A-2340 4 channel unit
  • Tandberg 7” models- solenoid controlled

In the 10” reel types, you’d be looking at excellent condition entry level 10” models, such as:

  • Akai GX-600
  • Akai GX-630
  • Other Akai single direction 10” machines
  • Revox A77 series
  • Mid-level Teac decks such as A-6300, etc
  • Midrange 10” Sony decks, such as the TC-755, 756, 758, etc.
  • Some semi-pro decks, such as early Teac A-3340 4 channel models
  • Teac 32, 34, semi pro machines
  • Scratch and dent higher end 10” decks such as the 4 channel Akai GX-630DSS
  • Tandberg 10X

Decks from $600-1200 ($450-900USD)

The Revox A77

Now you’re playing with fire! If you’re budgeting this amount on a RTR deck, you’re opting for high end, long term performance on every level. Now you’re into really nice 10” decks, including several semi-pro units, auto reverse, rack mount, etc. In this price range, typical examples of decks would be:

  • Akai GX-635, GX-636
  • Pioneer RT-901, RT-909
  • Teac X-1000, X-2000
  • Teac A-7300
  • Revox B77, A700, PR-99, G36 tube deck
  • Sony TC-765
  • Tandberg 20
  • Higher end semi pro machines, some 4 channel, Teac A-3440 and 34, for example
  • 2 channel semi-pro machines, as the Otari MX-5050, Teac 32

Decks from $1200-2000 ($900-1400 USD)

Revox B77 with the fancy aluminum NAB hubs

Going higher in the food chain, now you’re into the top of the line consumer machines, and a whole bunch of semi pro and pro models. Decks in this price range from us will show minimal, if any head wear, the cosmetics will generally be excellent, and any decks listed here may have original boxes, owner’s manuals, remote controls , original NAB hubs, etc etc, which all add to the value of the selling price. Decks include:

  • Akai GX747, 635, 636
  • Revox B77, PR99, A700
  • Pioneer RT-909
  • Tandberg 20SE
  • Revox G36 tube deck in mint condition
  • Pro and semi pro decks, including ½” 8 track models such as the Teac 80-8, Model 38, Otari 5050, etc
  • High end 4 channel decks such as the Teac model 44, A-3440, Otari 5050 4 channel versions
  • Top of the line 2 channel pro decks such as the Tascam 42
  • Technics 1500 and 1700 series
  • Pro 2 channel decks like the MCI JH-110, Ampex 440, 350, etc
  • Play only versions of certain pro decks such as Studer A810, A807, etc.

Decks over $2000 ($1400 USD)

You have now entered the realm of studio decks and audiophile home decks, and there’s overlap here, as many high end audiophiles will use pro studio decks in their homes. Tape handling is generally better (lots of pro decks are used for archiving rare and old tapes that may break due to being brittle on lower end machines). Decks in this price range can go as high as $15K ($11K USD), depending on the machine, and the condition thereof. Some examples are:

  • Studer A807, A810, B67
  • High end 8 track ½” machines
  • Multitrack studio recorders, ranging from 8 to 24 tracks, and from ½” to 2” tape
  • High end Otari, Ampex, 3M and other units
  • Rare tube machines, generally the likes of Revox, Ampex and others.
A nice collection of Ampex 440 machines, from 2-16 track

Note that the above lists and examples are by no means complete, they are just some guidelines on how we price decks. An AS-IS, un-serviced machine should be priced significantly less than what we have priced out here. We welcome repairs of decks purchased elsewhere, we’ll bring them back to as-new condition!

We generally have anywhere between 40-60 decks in stock, with usually about 20 or so ready for sale, the rest being in the queue, waiting to be serviced. Some of those will be scrapped if they aren’t worth repair. If you’re looking for a specific deck, and have a price in mind, feel free to email us at curt@reeltoreeltech.com to discuss your specifics, and if we don’t have stock of what you’re looking for, we’ll hang onto your email, and will advise you when a deck comes in. Some of our offerings are always on eBay.

 

For more info on frequency response charts click HERE