A Buying Guide for Reel to Reel Tape Recorders

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A Buying Guide for Reel to Reel Tape Recorders

Reel to reel tape recorders and players, have been around a relatively long time, with the earliest models emerging in the late 1800s. The devices became popular in the 1940s and 1950s, when the process of manufacturing magnetic tape was more or less perfected by the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, better known as 3M. From then up to today, reel to reel tape recorders have been a part of personal and professional sound reproduction.

Until fairly recently in the history of audio recording, and the rapid growth of digital recording, reel to reel tape recorders were the music industry standard for making master recordings. From the 1950s up through even the early 1980s, reel to reel tape recorders were a big part, if not the centrepiece, of most home entertainment setups. The 1980s saw a rapid advancement in portable tape recording and playing. Both 8 Track cartridge and the cassette tape can trace their technologies directly to the reel to reel tape recorder.

When it comes to purchasing a reel to reel tape recorder there are a few things to consider such as how a reel to reel tape recorder works, tape speed options as well as breaks helps shoppers determine what reel to reel tape recorder is best for them and how to find and buy one.

The Reel to Reel Tape Recorder

Reel to reel tape recorders, which can rightly be referred to as vintage audio equipment, were developed and used for multiple purposes, including radio and television broadcasting, music recording, language and speech training, medical and legal dictations, along with various other business applications. The devices were developed in various sizes and with various features and functions that suited a variety of recording needs.

How the Recorder Works

The technology is fairly simple and hasn’t really changed much over time, and applies to cassette and 8 Track recorder and players as well, with minor variations. The way the process works for reel to reel tape recorders is the leading end of the magnetic tape, which is spooled on a reel that has been locked onto one of the spindles, is threaded through the recording and playback apparatus (model dependent) much like loading a film camera. The tape is then attached to an open reel that has been locked onto the other spindle. It acts as the drive reel. As the tape is passed over the electromagnetic recording head of the device, electric impulses from microphones or instruments are transferred to the tape by way of fluctuations in the magnetic field properties of tape. Playback is simply the reading of those fluctuations by the electromagnetic playback head of the device and transferred to speakers or headphones.

Prices For Reel to Reel Tape Recorders

In the 1960s these devices were sold between 38.384 EUR. Today, prices are a bit lower than that for most of the existing models, because of limited practical use for those recording devices. While many a nostalgic music buff would use his/her reel to reel tape recorder, tape can be hard to find. In many cases reel to reel tape recorders are more decoration than entertainment device. Some audio purists and collectors, however, may pay high sums for rare and still functioning reel to reel tape recorders and serviceable tape, but even for these devices, it is a buyer’s market.

Reel to Reel Tape

Tape is by far the most important accessory of all, and the more time that passes the less readily available these tapes become. Depending on the age, type, and grade of the reel to reel tape recorder you are dealing with, the tape could be anywhere from 0.63 cm to 5.08 cm tape for single or multi track machines. When a buyer goes to buy tape, they shouldn't be too picky. The supplies of tape are limited, and while tapes for reel to reel recorders are still being produced, they can be expensive.

Tape Speeds

Tape speed is something else that should be understood when working with reel to reel tape recorders. For most commercial quarter track recorders, the average tape speed ranges from 19.05 38.1 cm per second. Domestic reel to reel tape recorders came with speed setting s ranging from 4.76 per second to 19.05 cm per second. The table below lists tape by tape speed as well as what recording purposes the different tape speeds are used for.

Tape Speed

Principal Uses

4.5 cm/per second

Long duration recording, like the recording of speeches and public addresses

9.52 cm/per second

Common domestic speed used for dictation and general recording

19.05 cm/per second

Highest domestic speed, or the slowest professional speed, used for commercial spots on radio

38.1 cm/per second

Professional studio music recording, broadcast radio programing

76.2 cm/per second

Low noise and best treble recording

The buyer should carefully consider the nature of the recording the tape is used for, so as to select tape of the correct tape speed.

Shopping for Reel to Reel Tape Recorders

When deciding to enter the world of reel to reel tape machines, the buyer should aware that there could be some issues to both obtaining and maintain a working machine, along with having to locate blank and serviceable tape. For the most part, buyers are not be able to find any reel to reel tape recorders at their local retail shopping outlet or big box electronics store. Unless they have the luck of having a vintage electronics store in proximity to their home, they’ll be going online to look for reel to reel tape recorders.

Before shopping it’s a good idea to do some additional homework on reel to reel tape recorders. Compare brands and prices from multiple sources. Also check the availability of tape and what sizes are most plentiful, and other accessories such as dubbing or patch cables, speakers, microphones, and headphones.

Direct Drive Motor, Capstan Motor, or Belt Driven Motor?

The buyer should want to know if the reel to reel tape recorder has a direct drive motor, a capstan motor or a belt driven motor. Of the three, direct drive motors are the most plentiful and the most durable of the three. Old capstan motors, which pull tape across the recording mechanism, can be hard to keep adjusted and older tape could be damaged by the friction involved. As far as belt driven motors, if a buyer can find a supply of replacement belts, they are very good machines. But useable belts are hard to find for most makes and models and many that are around, are old and can be brittle. This gives them a very short life expectancy.

Recorder Components to Consider

The buyer is going to want to know what condition the recording and playback electromagnetic heads are in. It goes without saying that when it comes to the newer model reel to reel tape recorder, there is a better chance that the heads are in good shape.

If the buyer is serious about making a reel to reel recorder part of their existing entertainment system or recording setup, they need to know if the machine has the proper connection points. For most machines there are the familiar RCA connections. As best as possible, the buyer must ensure that these are present and serviceable, otherwise they’ll be jacking out of the headphone port.

Premier Brands of Reel to Reel Tape Recorders

While there are several brands of reel to reel tape recorders that have been manufactured over the years, there are some premier brands that have proven to stand up to time. When shopping, the buyer should look for these brands. It improves the chances of getting a good machine as opposed to an inferior recording device. AKAI, TEAK, Technics by Panasonic, and Sony are some of the best names to look for. It might also be a good idea for the buyer to see if there are any recorders being sold for parts. Even if from different sellers, having a ready supply of spare parts can come in handy one day.

The Owner’s Manual

An extremely important thing to look for before making a purchase is often one of the most difficult to satisfy. Check with the seller to find out if they have an owner’s manual (original or reproduction) if not, the buyer should hold off buying the machine until they see if there is one available online for download. Unless the buyer is well versed in working on vintage electronics, the manual is a must.

Finding Reel to Reel Tape Recorders on eBay

To find reel to reel tape recorders, and their accessories, on eBay is a very simple process. Simply open up the eBay home page and enter “Reel to Reel Tape Recorder” into the search bar. Other searches can be done for accessories and parts. Don’t worry about being a pain to the seller. They won’t mind answering all of your questions. Just keep in mind, the more questions you ask and the more information you have, the better chance you have of finding a great reel to reel tape recorder for a good price. To contact the seller on eBay, simply go into their profile and click on the contact link.

When buying a used recorder, there is always some risk involved. The three major problems found with used recorders are worn out belts, worn out capstan rollers, and worn out heads. All three of these components are replaceable. It is best if you can receive some sort of guarantee from the seller that the unit is fully functional upon arrival.


At one time reel to reel tape recorders were the height of audio recording technology, but as with other early technology they have been replaced. Some music enthusiasts, musicians, and recording engineers still love the warm sound that tape offered back in the day, and so the market for the iconic machines is still alive and well. It is important to remember that much older technology needs to be maintained. Keep in mind that finding tape is one of your major issues, along with drive belts if the motor calls for them. Still if you can find the right reel to reel tape recorder and the right blank tape, you are on the path to recreating some of the best sounds audio technology has ever produced. You can find a large selection of reel to reel recorders, tape, parts, and accessories on eBay.

Before selecting a reel to reel recorder, it is important to consider how it is used. For creating audio masters, the highest quality unit obviously be wanted. However, if it is only going to be used as a means of recording data or providing background music, the criteria are not as high.

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