An audio transformation - R2R

I have always been an unabashed fan of analog music reproduction, and have been known to get a little irascible towards those who either find digital good enough or even preferable to analog. Even so, I will admit that digital reproduction in recent years has made great strides, and surely many examples exist that outshine their analog counterparts. Obviously not every vinyl LP is superior to digital versions of the same title. For me, though, there is a missing "organic" component to most digital music, and try as I might, the best digital reproduction examples I've heard suffers quite a bit when compared to the best analog music reproduction I've heard.

Like many here, I suspect, the "best" analog reproduction almost reflexively means vinyl phonographs. In my case, vinyl is played from a Micro Seiki RX-5000 turntable (coupled, of course, to other equipment I enjoy), and enters my listening space through a pair of personally-restored Apogee Acoustics Scintilla all-ribbon speakers. But something wildly wonderful happened to me recently, and I wanted to share my excitement about a discovery that has become nothing less than an audio transformation for me--and I cannot believe how profound it has been.

I can't remember when I first heard murmurs about a reel-to-reel resurgence in audio, and though I've shared my views about it occasionally on Internet audio forums, I didn't think I would really ever take the steps necessary to incorporate it into my own system. But the curiosity of tape playback somehow grew in me, and so in September 2009, I traveled to visit the home of one of the partners of The Tape Project in Washington state, Dan Schmalle. This enterprise (, as many are aware, is producing top-quality, 15 ips studio master tape dubs of a handful of very interesting titles (more on that later). Though they initially impressed me as far too expensive to purchase, first-hand listening quickly changed my opinion of their value. I was joined by, not surprisingly, an eclectic group of obsessive audio fans, and that day I was treated to some of the best, organic, "live" sounding music I have ever heard. I really paid attention that day, and asked all sorts of questions about the format, the technology, and what to look for in a good tape machine. When I left, I was certain I would become a subscriber to the Tape Project, and almost immediately I began my search for an appropriate tape machine.

For those who may be considering doing this too, be forewarned that there is an immense amount of choice and opinion on machines and playback electronics, but the journey will be worth it, in my opinion. After many weeks of detailed research, I finally chose a Studer A80 RC Mk II tape machine. It is famous in the recording studio world, especially for its gentle tape-handling capabilities. I've learned an amazing amount of familiar albums we all cherish were mastered on the A80 RC, so I feel quite happy to be able to own one.

The man I purchased it from had recently acquired an Ampex ATR-102 and decided to part with the Studer, but before shipping it to me, he brought it to John French of JRF Magnetics in New Jersey. John is very well known in the tape industry and he was a joy to work with to refurbish the machine. He performed a number of restorative procedures for it, including relapping the famous Studer butterfly heads, and replacing every capacitor in the audio chain, power supply and transport electronics with modern equivalents. Additionally, I had some esthetic items replaced with brand-new parts from Audiohouse in Switzerland who, fortunately, maintain a stock of most A80 RC parts. These included new transport control buttons and a cover for the LED tape counter. The results are a machine that looks quite new, as you'll see in my link below.

Though the restoration and anticipation of its arrival were fun, its playback performance is at the core of my excitement. My first Tape Project tape, "Brilliant Corners" by Thelonius Monk, arrived just two days before the machine did. After checking everything out, I set up the machine in my listening environment and threaded the album on. I also spontaneously invited a few friends over to share in this first listening experience with the A80.

O M G…

I believe there are few things in life that truly stagger one's perceptions, especially ones closely tied to preconceptions like reproduced music. The music that flowed into the room from this tape had a "liveness" to it that was unprecedented in my experience, or to any of my friends who had joined me. Never have I felt such a reaction to reproduced music--it was completely akin to a live concert, or sitting in a control room in a studio (which I have been able to do twice in my life). Rather than quickly exchanging adjectives about the sound with my friends, a pastime we're all familiar with, we all sat motionless and speechless. Finally, one of my friends extended his hand out to me to shake--implicitly signaling a hearty "congratulations" on what we were all hearing, without having to say a word. As the evening progressed, some attempts were made to describe this aural elation, including "amazing timbre," "transparency" and most frequently a reference to a "spatial AMBIENCE" that was many times greater than anything we'd ever heard before, but words still fall short. All I can say is if you are at all curious about what analog tape might bring to your system, you will not be disappointed.

This complete transformation in what can be expected from a sound reproduction system is almost overwhelming to me. I had no idea that changing only the SOURCE could make such a difference--an order of magnitude difference. No amplifier, no preamplifier, no cable, not even a speaker change has EVER hit me like this change. And contrary to another intuition (or edict, depending on who you are), that a simplified signal chain must be the path to the holy grail, tape machines are not very simple devices--and few are tube-based. So something else is clearly happening. When I play a tape on the A80, I am fully transported into the musical experience before me. It's almost a foreign feeling since it is happening in a living room, but it's not entirely foreign since many of us experientially know what live, unamplified music can sound like.

I'm really quite surprised that this discovery, shared by many others around the world, has not not been yelled about from the mountaintops. It's not just an incremental improvement in sound, it is a monumental, awe-inspiring improvement! Even a few of the eBay tapes I've purchased recently seem to smoke a lot of the vinyl I have. But oh, those Tape Project tapes are beyond sublime.

As I mentioned earlier, an issue that has been widely reported on about the Tape Project titles is that that they are both somewhat eclectic, and worse, very few in number. It is impossible to make a value judgement about them in the context of choice--digital and traditional LP analog choices make these tapes remarkably impractical. But does this diminish their value for pure sonic enjoyment? No. As a result, I believe they are fully worth their asking price.

Here is a link to a website that shows several pictures of the Studer A80 C Mk II machine I acquired.

During my research, I was frustrated with the lack of images that showed how the machine was laid out, or how the tape shield worked, or how tape was loaded into the path, so I made an effort to be as revealing as possible with these images. I hope you enjoy perusing them.

I'm a complete convert!

Happy New Year to all--

January 2009
In a word, awesome. How heavy is this Studer beast?
What tape speeds and sizes can it play. I am myself looking for one good R2R Tape Deck.
The Studer A80 RC weighs close to 200 lbs. on its cart, whose casters make moving it around remarkably easy. It can accommodate up to 12-inch reels, and because of its fabled transport, it gently handles even 5-inch reels. Every A80 can do two speeds, either 7 1/2 and 15 ips or 15 and 30 ips; mine does the former.

As I said, if you do add an R2R machine to your system, you will not be disappointed. :-)
Thanks for the information, Kipdent. On my next trip to Southern Cal, I would like to stop by and listent to your system. Thanks for the information. With a speaker as good as your Scintilla, i am sure you ar generating a terrific sound.

The only problem I see for tapes is the lack of sufficient music. also, the prices of tapes are on the higher side. Perhaps, tapes will flourish more widely in the future, with more music and more affordable prices. Seems like a new potential place to invest for high-end audio industry. I for one am looking for a Scully player.
Thank you for your prodding Kip. My humble Revox G36 on 1/4 tracks is amazing on factory prerecorded material. It has me completely changed my perspective of audio. Now starting think about getting a bit deeper into the R2R waters! Bob

It was great toshare in your excitement of listening to tape! I think every audiophile owes it to themselves to explore this wonderful format.
If you can listen to master tapes you are one step closer to the music.

I too have a lot of trouble with digital formats. It's not that there is anything wrong with digital, but we are saddled with 1980 computer technology for CD's, and instead of improving the sound they compressed it for convenience to create horrendous sound in MP3s. Even my wife can't stand to listen to her I-pod on the good stereo- she's spoiled now!

If we truly had a digital system that evolved like Computers have since the 1980's, you would get that 'aha moment' with a disc. Instead, we are locked into a compromise compressed into a catastrophe. The pro tape format you are listening to has a signal to noise ratio like a CD with the greater bandwidth of (unlimited) analog. There's no reason you couldn't do it with digital, but people want cheap and dirty. Unlimited digital files without compression would be too big for the 30 second download and - oh no!- we couldn't get 50000 songs on an I-pod!

Enjoy the real music!