How to Buy Reel to Reel Tape Decks on eBay

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How to Buy Reel to Reel Tape Decks on eBay

Audio tape is an analogue sound storage medium that has never gone away because, similarly to vinyl records, it often has a richer sound quality. Audio tape can be played with reel to reel tape decks. These devices consist of two cylinders that the reels of tape are placed on during the playback and record processes. Audio tape on reels are an earlier and larger version of the cassette tape. However, the tape is not enclosed in a box as it is for a cassette. Although audio tape is still being used, it may take some effort to find reel to reel tape decks as the analogue format has been superseded almost entirely by digital technology. When buying reel to reel tape decks, it is helpful to understand the different components of the decks, the recording formats, and how to maintain the decks to ensure that they remain in good working order. eBay offers a selection of reel to reel tape decks.

Components of Reel to Reel Tape Decks

Reel to reel tape decks on eBay all have some components in common. The tape's journey starts at the supply reel. Then, it passes two tension arms or tape guides and two or three heads. It continues between a capstan and a pinch roller, and past more tape guides. The tape finally reaches the take-up reel.

Tape Reels

The reel of a tape deck is also known as a spool. It is the component on which the tape is wound. Different amounts of recording tape can be used depending on the size of the reel: bigger reels can accommodate more tape. The reels are divided into supply and take-up reels. The supply reel has the tape on it initially and the take-up reel is the spool that receives the tape during the playback, recording, or erasing process. Most tape decks thread the tape from left to right.

Tape Deck Heads

Reel to reel tape decks have either two or three heads. The heads are divided into three types: playback, record, and erase. If the tape deck has three heads, then all of the functions are separate. A reel to reel tape deck with two heads combines playback and record in one head. The erase head can either cover all the tracks or only one track available on the tape. If it covers only one track of several possible tracks, then the whole tape is not erased and this helps to preserve some tracks separately.

Motors for Reel to Reel Tape Decks

Reel to reel tape decks have two motors: supply and take-up. These two motors spin the tape reels. The supply motor always runs backwards during playback and it is slower than the take-up motor, so that it can provide some tension to keep the tape tight when it touches the heads. When the tape is rewound, the motors swap roles. The supply motor then uses the full power that is needed to get the tape back to the supply reel, while the take-up motor uses less power to keep the tape tight.

Capstan and Pinch Roller for Reel to Reel Tape Decks

The capstan is a spindle on reel to reel tape decks that is driven by the motor. It is responsible for making the tape travel at a constant speed past the various heads: the capstan itself always turns at constant speed. The pinch roller is opposite the capstan and it presses against the tape in order to make it move. During the rewind process, the pinch roller is elevated away from the tape.

Tape Lifters for Reel to Reel Tape Decks

Tape lifters elevate the tape away from the heads when it is rewound or in fast forward mode. The rewinding process makes the tape spin quickly and if it is not pulled away, this can cause wear and tear of the tape.

Features of Reel to Reel Tape Decks

Reel to reel tape decks can be operated easily. All of the models listed on eBay, both old and new share some basic features.

Basic Control Buttons for Reel to Reel Tape Decks

Most reel to reel tape decks have buttons for playing, recording, and stopping the tape. Some also have rewind, fast forward, and pause buttons. A record safety button may feature in some designs to prevent accidentally recording and erasing previous audio.

Modes for Reel to Reel Tape Decks

The common modes for reel to reel tape decks are playback, record, and edit. The playback and record modes are activated with the touch of a button. The edit mode can have three main variations: cue, dump edit, and stop edit. The cue mode allows the listener to hear the tape while it is fast forwarded or rewound. In the dump edit mode, the take-up reel is stationary and the tape that runs between the reels can be cut from there easily for disposal. In the stop edit mode, the tape is played and edited while it is wound manually and this helps to locate specific sounds.

Additional Features of Reel to Reel Tape Decks

Some reel to reel tape decks may have additional features, including automatic rewind and a real time counter. The rewind allows the listener to go back and listen to certain parts of the tape again. The real time counter shows the time that remains for the playback of the tape.

Recording for Reel to Reel Tape Decks

Recording tape is classified according to its width and is divided into two or four track formats. So, recording tape is referred to as half or quarter track. Each track type is used with a specific recorder. The tracks can be recorded on a tape either in one or both directions. The track's width on the half track tape is greater, so the tape noise is reduced. More complex, multi-track tapes are also available, but they are for professional use. However, more tracks can often mean more tape noise.

Mono and Stereo Recordings for Reel to Reel Tape Decks

Whether the recording is mono or stereo plays a role when choosing the format of the recording tape. Mono sound is transmitted only from one channel or one direction, while stereo sound comes from two or more directions in order to create a surround sound feel. Mono requires only one track, while stereo uses two tracks simultaneously, one for the left and one for the right channel. Therefore, stereo sounds occupy more space. Half track tape, which only has two tracks, is fully recorded with stereo, while quarter track tape, which has four tracks, still has two empty tracks after the stereo recording.

Half Track vs. Quarter Track Tapes for Reel to Reel Tape Decks

When buying a reel to reel tape deck it helps to compare the most common tape formats: half and quarter track, in order to make an informed choice of which format to use. They differ from each other by their characteristics and usage. The following table summarises their main differences.

Type of Tape

Half track

Quarter track

Number of Tracks



Tape Noise




Fits only two tracks

Best for mono

Fits more tracks

Best for stereo

When purchasing tape to use with reel to reel tape decks, it is important for the buyer to consider how the tape will be used. For example, for stereo recording, half track tape leaves no space for additional tracks, whereas quarter track tape allows greater flexibility.

Maintaining Reel to Reel Tape Decks

Reel to reel tape decks bought on eBay are likely to be used, so they require maintenance to remain in good working order. As new tape decks are rarely produced, it may be difficult to acquire spare parts. Therefore, taking care of the tape deck is even more important. Routine maintenance involves cleaning the pinch roller, heads, and tape path of any oxide and dirt. Cotton buds and special cleaning liquid are sufficient for performing the cleaning task. Occasionally, the tape recorder may require demagnetising, which involves removing the magnetic properties from the device. This can be done with proper demagnetising tools.

Buying Reel to Reel Tape Decks on eBay

When you are ready to look for reel to reel tape decks on eBay, you should start the search by typing the key terms into the search box on the main page. You can start your search with the basic phrases "reel to reel tape deck" or "reel to reel tape recorders". You will be presented with a list of results that you can narrow down by sorting the listings by price. You can also get some new ideas by browsing through the results to see what is available. When you find a reel to reel tape deck that you are interested in, go further into the details by reading the item description. Sellers should provide essential information, such as a full description, any features, and missing or damaged parts. It may be a good idea to try to find a local seller who may allow a viewing of the reel to reel tape deck before the purchase is finalised. They may also allow a local collection, which is beneficial as the deck may be large and fragile.


Analogue storage mediums, such as audio tape, is valued for its rich sound quality. This older format, a predecessor of the cassette tape, requires a special playing device that is fully compatible with it. Reel to reel tape decks are used for recording and playing open reel tapes. A typical reel to reel tape deck consists of supply and take-up motors, and either two or three heads for playback, recording, and erasing. Reel to reel tape decks move the tape from one reel to another via a combination of capstan, pinch roller, and tape lifters. Additional functions of reel to reel tape decks include fast forward and rewinding. Edit modes and real time counters may feature on more advanced models. Reel to reel tape decks can play half or quarter track tape or professional multi-track tape. Reel to reel tape decks are available from sellers on eBay for those who want a retro sound and feel to their audio.

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