If you’re a fan of reel-to-reel tape recorders, you’re at the right place. Today we’ve put together a list of old vintage models and modern machines for you from brands like Studer, Ampex, TEAC, Metaxas & Sins, Sony, Analog Audio Design, Balfinger, Philips, Akai, and Pioneer.
Reel-to-reel tape machines set the standard for high-fidelity analog audio. While compact cassettes and CDs did take the focus away from reels from the affordability and convenience point of view to this day, few can hold a candle against the crispness, clarity, and analog brilliance of tape decks.
You’ll see many machines on the list with different capabilities, technical details, dimensions, and appearances. But let’s face it, having reel-to-reel equipment somewhere in your studio not only serves you well but becomes somewhat of a conversation piece for sure, looking at how rare these players have become.
Nevertheless, you’ll be able to find a few vintage devices online, and as you’ll notice when you read on, some companies are making modern recreations of these tape decks too, but be sure to set aside a small fortune as these players do not come cheap.
The 12 Best Reel-To-Reel Tape Recorders Of All Time
1. Studer A-800
One of the most renowned tape machines of its generation, the A800 was an integral part of most studios from the 80s.
The Uniquely designed A800 was one of its kind when it was released in 1978. This is because it was the first tape machine controlled by a microprocessor. It has a rich analog sound with a well-defined low-end and crisp sound delivery.
No wonder it was employed to produce truckloads of albums from infamous bands and artists like Metallica, Tom Petty, Jeff Buckley, and even Stevie Wonder, solidifying its high stature in the annals of music history.
- Tape Type
The tape machine has all the necessary controls to experiment with the highs and lows of the frequency spectrum. The tape type selector lets you choose between 250, 456, 900, and G9P settings. The types are arranged from the dirtiest to the cleanest setting in terms of saturation.
- IPS & Calibration
The IPS or inch-per-second knob switch can help toggle between 7.5-inch, 15-inch, or 30-inch depending on how slow or fast you want your reel to go. The faster the tape moves, the more trebly it sounds, while at slow speeds, the lower end fills in. The “CAL” or calibrate switch gives you control over how much saturation should be present depending on how hard the tape is being hit. Finally, the VU meter helps you in keeping track of your output level.
It’ll be challenging to get your hands on a tape machine like the A800 by Studer, but there’s no need to worry. The good people at Universal Audio have engineered a digital plugin that brings the feature of this classic reel-to-reel recorder to your fingertips. So, you’ll be able to load it up in your DAW and apply it to different tracks to get close to that authentic analog sound you’re after, thanks to the factory loaded presets and interface buttons that mimic the actual thing right to a T.
2. Ampex® ATR-102
Being the best-sounding tape machine for final mixdowns, the ATR-102 was a force to be reckoned with back in the day.
Not only was it known to provide several adjustable parameters, but its ability to at subtle color and saturation to tracks was second to none. Dominating studios worldwide for over 30 years, no wonder the ATR-102 has such an outstanding reputation.
Used by music producers and audio engineers, including Richard Dodd, Mike Poole, Chuck Ainlay, and Buddy Miller, the ATR-102 was often paired with another workhorse, the Studer 800. Both machines would polish musical tracks, giving them an analog glow that audiophiles worldwide would crave.
- Power and IPS Controls
First on the interface is the power switch with a nearby light that illuminates when the tape machine is being bypassed. Next to the switch is the IPS switch, with settings ranging from 3.75” to 30”. This is where you can set the speed of the tape. The recommended IPS setting for acoustic and rock music is 15”, while 30” is ideal for jazz and classical-related genres.
- Control Panel
The bottom right control panel is where all the magic happens. Apart from the standard set of buttons, including “Sync,” “Input,” “Repro,” and “Thru” buttons, three variables can be adjusted here. The “Tape” section has 250, 456, 900, and GP9 settings depending on how clean or saturated your sound needs to be. You can also set the calibration level by selecting values between +3 and +9. Finally, in the “Head” section, the user can choose the head width between 1/4”, 1/2”, and 1 inch.
Each channel of the Ampex ATR-102 has a separate VU meter. In both sections, you’ll see a switch that toggles the VU or Peak settings for the meter. In addition, both VU meters have a clip LED that lights up when the signal is in the clip zone. Also present in this section are the “Reproduce” and “Record” knobs. Both parameters can be set between 0 and -10dbs.
The Ampex ATR-102 was a legendary machine. Even today, if you’re lucky enough to come across the vintage tape machine, it would take nothing short of something like 20 grand for you to get your hands on it. However, if that is something you cannot dish out, Universal Audio has a digital plugin (much like the Studer unit discussed earlier) for the ATR-102 that’s easy on the pocket and gets you reasonably close to the tonal characteristics the tape machine is known to deliver.
3. TEAC A-3440
The A-3440 unit was immensely popular in the 70s when reggae was in full swing.
The tape machine took things to the next level and was the preferred choice for many audio engineers. It even edged out some Studer units from the era because of its affordability and versatility. Equipped with a wired remote control, the device was light years ahead of its time.
Additionally, the A-3440 offers 4 channels and 4 tracks, making it ideal for smaller studio setups. You can record four instruments simultaneously with ease. Another feature of the tape machine is the ability to record tracks, play them back and overdub them, much like typical looper pedals.
- VU Meters
The front interface shows 4 VU meters for the 4 channels. Below each meter are two knobs to control the input and output level of each channel and a switch to set the metering mode between “Mic Att,” “Mic,” and “Line” inputs. 4 individual mics can be plugged into the vertical column of quarter-inch jacks found on the left of the VU meters. A single headphone jack is placed on the right of the meters with 4 buttons to choose the channel you wish to monitor via headphones. Also in the section is a knob to adjust the monitoring level.
- One Touch Buttons
On the TEAC A-3440 are one-touch buttons that add to the ease of use. You can power the unit here and select the reel size through the relevant buttons. Speed adjustments can also be made with a dedicated one-touch button. You’ll further find buttons ranging from 1 to 4 to select the relevant track and also set the output to “Source,” Sync,” or “Play.” Finally, the interface has standard controls for play, stop rewind, forward and record.
Crafting a following of its own, the TEAC A-3440 was built like a tank and had multichannel/multitrack capabilities making it a formidable opponent of the highly expensive Studer and Ampex tape machines. Recording multiple instruments through pristine analog wizardry was never so easy, thanks to the cleverly engineered A-3440.
4. Metaxas & Sins Tourbillon T-RX
Taking a page out of the portable Stellavox SM8, the T-RX is an exceptional blend of classic essence and modern engineering.
As classic reel-to-reel tape recorders are becoming increasingly elusive, the good people at Metaxas & Sins combine their technical prowess to bring forth their interpretation of the tape machine. Built-in a gorgeous metallic silver and maroon casing, the Tourbillon T-RX is breathtakingly beautiful.
“Tourbillon” is the French word for “whirlwind” and is a name befitting for a product that will take you through a whirlwind of emotions thanks to its exceptional performance, precise controls, and of course, an appearance that will surely turn some heads.
- Speed Regulation
The machine combines a synchronizing ARM-Cortex controller with 2-reel motors, 2 capstan motors, and 2 linearActuonix motors to give the user absolute control over the speed regulation of the tape. This makes the T-RX the ideal device for recording and playing back magnetic tape reels.
- Borrowed Parts Merged with Modern Ingenuity
This particular tape recorder improves on the winning formula conjured by Swiss Stellavox recorders from more than three decades ago. Employing single-ended transistors with high precision, top of the line parts thrown in a flawless aluminum exterior, the T-RX truly shines in providing phenomenal analog characteristics that are enough to woo any audiophile of the modern era.
The Tourbillon is a work of art equipped with motorized heads, capstan bars, rollers, and electromagnetic transducers. The sound it produces will fool you into thinking you’re listening to the performers on stage at a live event. The hefty price tag certainly alludes to the fact that this high-quality flagship device is spellbinding in its sound delivery and gives you all the necessary controls to enjoy playback or record effortlessly onto your reels.
5. Sony TC 765
If it’s a Sony, chances are that it checks all the boxes that a high-end music device should.
Released in 1977, the Sony TC 765 came when compact cassette players were launched in the market. So, it was always a matter of preference, and a choice had to be made in terms of quality vs. convenience and affordability.
But the tape machine from Sony would go down fighting as it added features like playback and recording over 10-inch reels, which would give it a chance to tickle the fancy of professional sound engineers and studio recording professionals for years to come.
- Parts and Dimensions
This 4-track, 2-channel tape machine from Sony has familiar components like a head for playback, recording, and erasing, 2 reels, a capstan, and the ability to accommodate reel sizes up to 10.5 inches. Measuring 17.5” by 20” by 9.2”, the bulky TC 765 weighs 27kgs. In addition, the tape machine has accessories, including an R-11A reel, an RK-74H cord, and a RAD-11 reel adaptor and spacer.
The tape machine lets you choose between tape speeds of 3 ¾ and 7 1/2 inches per second. Having a frequency response of 30 Hz to 25 kHz, the device has a signal-to-noise ratio of 61dB and a total harmonic distortion of 0.7%. Under the hood are 89 diodes, 104 transistors, 3 FET, and 2 integrated circuits to deliver the analog goodness the Sony TC 765 is about.
The Sony TC 765 is a high-fidelity reel-to-reel tape recording machine that provides room for 10.5-inch reels with the help of NAB adapters. This would open doors for recording 96 minutes of sound without any breaks and up to three hours of recording at the tape machine’s slowest speed, which the newly introduced compact tape-recording machines simply couldn’t do.
6. Analog Audio Design TR-1000
If you love how tape machines sound and want a modern rendition of the device, the TR-1000 is undoubtedly worth checking out.
The TR-1000 captures the essence of classic reel-to-reel machines from decades ago and delivers it in a modern package that is aesthetically pleasing and gives the user detailed controls over all the adjustable variables.
The user interface is nicely designed with easy-to-follow controls, enough metering options for each channel, and a vivid touchscreen display that helps cycle through the features making parameter adjustments a cinch. The think tanks at Analog Audio have truly outdone themselves with the TR-1000 audio tape deck player.
The tape machine offers two tracks and two channels with a maximum reel size of 11.8 inches. Regarding the inches per second, you can alternate between tape speeds of 7.5 IPS and 15 IPS. The unit operates with a tape accuracy of +/-0.05%. There’s also an option to choose from three wind speeds, including 2m/s, 6m/s, and 10m/s. The TR-1000 weighs 28kg and measures 18.3” x 20” x 12”.
Both channels have dedicated VU meters and leveling knobs for each input and output. The speeds of the spool and capstan can be adjusted through the relevant knobs. In addition, the quarter-inch headphone jack gets a separate “Monitor” knob for setting the volume. A vivid touchscreen display immediately grabs your attention and allows you to control various aspects of the TR-1000. Lastly, the interface has the standard play, rewind, forward, record, and stop controls and a power button to turn the unit on.
It’s incredible how the functionality of a reel-to-reel machine can be enhanced with modern touchscreen controls. Being a fan of analog audio, the modern embellishments on this device will surely interest the audiophiles of today. 4 years of effort have gone into the manufacturing of the TR-1000, so you can be sure of the best possible features and amazingly good analog magic that justifies the high price of this tape machine from Analog Audio.
7. Balfinger M-063 H5
Balfinger is known for its technical muscle when it comes to reel-to-reel tape machines.
There are mainly three units that the company offers. First, the Open Reel Playback Tape Deck M 002 P is a highly sleek and compact machine that sits on top of two free-moving stands. Finally, the M 051 MR, scheduled to be released somewhere in 2023, is a much larger unit with a rolling cabinet made of aluminum on which it rests.
The M-063 H5 has a slightly bulkier presence with a vertical design and 4 integrated feet below it. In addition, it comes in 4 amazing finishes, including silver with wooden side panels, silver with black side panels, an all-black unit, and a black interface with wooden side panels giving tape reel enthusiasts a lot of options to choose from.
The analog tape recorder can manage a tape width of ½” or ¼.” The spooling speed is adjustable, and the capstan drive can also be adjusted between +10% and -10%. The M-063 can manage a reel sized up to 30cm. The variable IPS settings on the unit allow you to set the speed to 7.5 inches, 15 inches, or 30 inches, depending on the requirements.
Having so many color variations, the M-063 H5 can be the centerpiece of your studio. Apart from being visually aesthetic, the tape machine has adjustable inputs and outputs that can be calibrated through level control knobs. The inputs and outputs have both balance and unbalanced jacks. Furthermore, the M-063 also comes in a playback-only machine for those who want to save some money and do not intend to use the device for recording.
8. Philips N4414
The Netherlands-based company named Philips is known for its technical ingenuity.
There was a time in Philips’ history when the company ventured into the field of reel-to-reel tape recorders and playback devices between the 1950s and 1983. The machines were designed for different target audiences and attempted to cater to the needs of recording studios, professional sound engineers, and the like.
Philips had a big hand in shaping technological history and bringing innovative products to every household. For example, while the brand stopped making tape machines in 1983, this was also the year Philips became the first company to launch a video cassette recorder.
The device has 2 channels with 4 track capabilities. There’s a single head that records and plays back the tracks. A separate head handles the erasing responsibilities. There is one capstan and 2 reels on board. The tape machine can accommodate a reel size of up to 7 inches. There are three IPS-related settings, including 7 1/2”, 3 3/4”, and 1 7/8” inches. The frequency response of the machine ranges from 40Hz to 16kHz. Finally, as tape machines go, the N4414 is relatively light, weighing just 10kgs and measuring 20 inches by 15 inches by 8 inches.
The initial models were tube-style devices that later transitioned into the world of solid-state circuitry. Other variations included 4-track and 2-track machines, which were available in different voltage settings to allow usage anywhere in the world. The N4414 was a top-of-the-line, 4-track tape machine with all the bells and whistles, which made it a popular choice among studio setups from its era.
9. Akai GX-635D
Akai’s production of reel-to-reel tape recorders spanned between 1954 and 1985.
Generally, as is the trend with most manufacturers, Akai too started with tube technology and later moved to solid-state reel-to-reel tape machines around the 1960s. As a result, the company’s journey through the world of reel-to-reel devices saw several evolutionary changes.
The earlier “M” and “X” series had basic features and less reliability as far as the mechanic heads were concerned. In addition, Akai employed different materials in the construction of its heads. The initial models had softer heads, while the GX series used glass heads.
- Auto Reverse
A unique feature of the Akai GX-635D is its auto-reverse mode. With just a touch of the button, you can set the direction of the tape to hear the other track, which is quite convenient and takes a lot let work than taking both reels off and switching their places to achieve the same results.
Other components on the GX-635D are 2 erase heads, 2 GX playback heads, and a couple of GX record heads. The tape machine can handle reels up to 10.5 inches. The motorized components include a capstan and 2-reel drives. You can choose between tape speeds of 7 ½ and 3 ¾ inches per second. The frequency response of the GX-635D comes to 30Hz – 27kHz.
- I/O & Dimensions
On the back are a line, DIN, and mic inputs and a line and DIN output. The Akai unit is on the heavier side and weighs 21 kg. The dimensions come to 17 inches by 19 inches by 10 inches. In addition, the devices come with an empty reel, hub adapters, and cords for connectivity.
Akai GX-635’s auto-reverse feature was revolutionary, making track switching super easy. Also, with the use of glass heads, the company claimed that the GX series tape machines could run nonstop for 17 and a half years till they started showing signs of wear and tear, which tells you how confident the company was about its GX product line.
10. Pioneer RT 909
This particular reel-to-reel tape machine was released by Pioneer back in 1979.
Equipped with three motors and great features like auto reverse, the device was seen in many professional setups and home studios. The internal circuit board was engineered so that the unit had a frequency response of 20Hz to 28kHz, not to mention a 0.04% wow and flutter.
The interface also has quick one-touch buttons to help make sound comparisons between the original and tape reels. Furthermore, you get plenty of headroom and excellent overall performance, adjustable distortion, dynamic range, and low noise sound delivery.
- Heads, Motors, Reels
Reels of up to 10.5 inches in size can be played on the Pioneer RT 909, which features a single-erase head, a recording head, and a couple of playback heads. With two reels and one capstan, the tape machine offers speeds of 7 ½ and 2 ¾ inches per second.
- Dimensions, Semiconductors & I/O
Fitted with 126 diodes, 121 transistors, 4 FET, and 43 integrated circuits hidden under its large interior, the RT 909 from Pioneer is sized 19 inches by 13 inches by 12.5 inches and weighs 21kg. The unit also features 0.3mv mic and 50mv line inputs apart from a single 0.45v line output.
The RT 909 has a lot going for it. It allows the users to play tracks from multiple-sized reels, including the conventional 7-inch and the more professional studio-level 10.5 reels. The frequency response range is exceptionally vast, and you get impressive features like auto reverse, erase, and record, not to mention outstanding analog sound quality.
11. Studer-Revox G36
Any tape machine that bears the Studer name will surely arouse the curiosity of the masses.
Released in 1956, the Revox G36 was ahead of its time as it offered many enhanced specifications which were not seen in the preceding products from Studer. What set it apart was the presence of VU meters, switchable tape tension to make it suitable for varying sizes of reels, and the use of a Hysteresis Synchronous motor for the capstan.
What’s more, is that the machine came in two variants. A two-track version and a more advanced 4 track variant. Both were designed similarly and had the fuse holder, voltage adjuster, and inputs/outputs on the rear panel.
On the interface, the tape machine has single heads for each record, erase, and playback function. The capstan motor is a 6/12 pole hysteresis synchronous model, and the G36 can be used with reel sizes up to 10.5 inches. You’ll see two variable tape speeds, 7 ½ inches per second and 3 ¾ inches per second. The wow and flutter on 7 ½ IPS is just 0.1%.
- Appearance & Other Goodies
Weighing around 20kg, the Revox G36 has dimensions of 19” x 13” x 12”. You’ll also find an 8-inch speaker on the tape machine. On the input/output side, you’ll find a 0.7V line output and 50mV line, and 3mV mic inputs. Additional specifications include a frequency response of 40Hz to 18kHz, harmonic distortion of 3%, and 40dB of crosstalk.
If you’re one of the lucky few who own a Revox G36 in this day and age, you’ll need to take good care of it to enjoy its exceptional analog capabilities. Components like capacitors, suppression parts, and rollers may need repairs or replacements. Also, this Studer tape machine is notoriously difficult to service because of how the internal wiring is done. The ordeal will look like an uphill task as you may need to get around a mess of wires to get to where you need to be.
12. TEAC A-3300SX
The TEAC tape machines are a fine example of Japanese workmanship.
When the company first burst into the scene, it was all about the production of hard disks and tape heads. Launched in the 70s, each component was painstakingly assembled by hand with the help of magnifying glasses and tweezers.
Over the years, the company has enhanced its product portfolio and now manufactures a wide array of sound products, including turntables, hi-fi equipment, CD players, DACs, and high-quality amplification solutions for a worldwide audience.
TEAC offers two variations of the A-3300SX machine. The 3300SX model is a 2-channel 4-track machine with a playback head, a recording head, and an erase head. The motor configuration includes 1 capstan and 2 reels, and the machine can handle reel sizes up to 10.5 inches. In addition, you can choose between IPS settings of 7 ½ and 3 ¾. One thing to note here is that at the 7 ½ settings, the wow and flutter come to about 0.18%, and the frequency response is 30Hz to 28kHz. Finally, the signal-to-noise ratio of the 3300SX model is 58dB.
The second variant is, by and large, the same in many aspects except one key area. While the 3300SX has 4-track capabilities, the aptly named “2T” is a 2-track machine with dual channels. You’ll find the same three heads for erasing, recording, and playing back your sounds. The maximum reel size the model can handle is also the same. A few subtle differences include tape speeds of 7 ½ and 15 IPS, a slightly different frequency response of 25Hz to 28kHz, a wow and flutter percentage of 0.04% @ 15 IPS, and a signal-to-noise ratio of 60dB.
This machine will serve you for years as it is built like a tank, and attention to detail is impeccable. By and large, both models are similar, but there are a few changes that can be spotted with a trained eye. These handcrafted reel-to-reel tape machines are also relatively easy to upgrade because of the uncomplicated and well-organized circuit boards inside the rugged exterior.
Ampex has a rich heritage of delivering state-of-the-art reel-to-reel tape machines.
Much like the ATR-102 unit discussed earlier, the AX-50 was a popular choice for several studio setups during the early 70s. Made of a sturdy die-cast exterior with walnut sides and back, the tape machine covered all the basics well.
The easy-to-understand user interface has VU meters, volume faders for each channel, and basic rewind, forward, stop, play, and record controls. The back has a cluster of RCA inputs and outputs and a fan that dissipates the unit’s heat.
Offering mid to hi-fidelity, this solid-state reel-to-reel tape machine has a frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHz at 7 ½ IPS. Furthermore, there are 3 tape speed settings to choose from, including 1 7/8, 3 3/4, and 7 1/2 inches per second. Boasting 4-track capabilities, the machine has 2 channels with a signal-to-noise ratio of 55dB and total harmonic distortion of 2.5%. In addition, the unit measures 9” by 15” by 17” and weighs just 13kg which is relatively light considering how bulky some tape machines get.
The tape deck was priced at around $250 when it was first released and was marketed as a hi-fi instrument on a budget. The AS50 had 3 IPS settings, 3 heads, 2 capstan drives, filters, and transpose features. The user interface was nicely designed with forward-facing inputs on the front where you could connect two mics and a single pair of headphones directly.
As you’ve gone through the rundown of today’s products, you have a general idea about what each tape deck brings to the fore. Most of the machines on today’s list are 2-track, 2-channel machines. However, if you’re looking for something with 4-track capabilities, the Sony TC 765, Philips N4414, TEAC A-3300SX, and Ampex AX-50 will give you that option. The TEAC A-3440 is the most versatile of the tape machines, as it offers 4 channels for simultaneous recording and overdubbing. Lastly, if you cannot find the Ampex ATR-102 and Studer A-800 units for purchase, you can always go for the Universal Audio digital plugins modeled after them.
Sultan Zafar is a guitar player from Islamabad, Pakistan. He has been playing music with various mainstream musicians for over 20 years. He is a song writer and music producer. These days he spends his time exploring different music genres and collaborating with fellow musicians on various projects. Read more..