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.