Less than top line reel-to-reel worth it?

My inner audio geek (expensive bastard, him) has been aroused by the recent resurgence of top of the line reel-to-reel deck re-fabrication units like United Home Audio's decks, and new (almost) master tapes becoming available from the likes of The Tape Project. Problem is I can not buy a $10k deck and $500 tapes, and simultaneously enjoy the benefits of matrimony. Consequently, I have been looking at much more affordable refabricated decks ($1000 - $2000 range) and used stereo 4-track 3 3/4 and 7 1/2 ips tapes.

I believe the expensive stuff can deliver with 2-tracks per 1/4 inch tape and 15 IPS, but should I expect 'better' sound than I can get from my Wadia CD Player, and J. A. Michelle turntable from the more affordable 4-track (two in each direction) slower speed stuff; or would this just be a trip down nostalgia lane?
Unless you run 15ips tapes, it's wont sound asbgood as vinyl. For recording your own, 7.5 isn't bad
Standard consumer grade reel to reel decks popular in the 1970's and 80's at 7.5ips with a good tape stock will make superb copies of any vinyl LP's you feed them and will give a very warm analogue flavour to cd's. These decks at 7.5ips all have high extension of frequency response into the mid to hi 20Khz range. So capturing the details of any source you feed them will be easy.

Now one thing that these decks will add is a layer of remaining tape hiss and on reel to reels the tape hiss is at a different quality or spectrum to a cassette deck without Dolby. These consumer reel to reel decks smooth remaining tape hiss that can mask a lot of grunge and groove noise especially on older used LP's. The tape hiss can make recording and playing back cd's much more enjoyable.

The inconsistency may come down to quality of tape stock you buy and use. Good reels even if they were properly stored used ones can be superb. But a lot of the old stock may be sub par. Tape stock for reel to reel is pricy as compared to blank tape stock for cassettes.

The major concern of reel to reel decks is condition of them as being sold. These are all vintage nowadays and you may get a superb deck or a machine that may be a door stop or need lots of servicing. But given they can be had from oh bottom $300 and up, if you are a reel to reel fan you can get a good deck that will make great tapes and play great music.

Even 3.75 ips on them is very nice for recording FM radio. And not bad for long playing background tape recordings.

Most of the Made in Japan reel to reel machines of the 70's and 80's will give a reel to reel fans great service as long as they operate properly.
Find a good rebuilt or refurbished Pioneer RT-909, good sound, easy to use and built like a tank.
Wise comments from those above. Could only add that R2R's are great fun and romance the music like nothing else. It's a hobby and should be enjoyable for the ears and heart.
You can find Teac X1000R and X2000R rebiult for reasonable prices (under $1,000.00) if you use the DBX noise reduction with a quality tape, you'll be surprised at how good the sound can be. Both have auto reverse. The X1000R has (softer) permaloy heads that can sound a little better than the X2000R that has cobalt (harder) heads that will last longer. The X2000R has hanging meters, and the X1000R has mounted meters. Both have a multitude of features, and can be linked together if you get a pair. It's a lot of work, but can also be lots of fun. Best of luck.
Also...for cheapskates...early 4 head hifi vcrs with output meters can provide great fidelity ...not as cool as reels...but hey...

I agree about HiFi vcr's. As long as they had user adjustable record levels they can make superlative recordings. They are not tape fussy either, all they care is that the tape is of sufficient quality to not have notable drop outs in oxide. Stick with name brand tapes and your laughing.

I bought a JVC HR-S5500U which is a late 80's S-VHS HiFi vcr and the recordings made are simply the finest tape copies of vinyl and cd's I have made. I have been able to amass dozens of NOS sealed VHS tapes at thrifts for mere few dollars. T-120 tapes give you 2 hours or 6 hours of superb recording. T-160 give you 2.5 or 8 hours.

Of course the vcr also has to be in proper condition and there is no guarantee that a vintage HiFi vcr will be but if it is they make outstanding record/playback tape machines.

Some people cry about the 60hz tape head switching noise. My JVC deck suffers no noticeable switching noise even at loud volumes. Any head switching noise that may be there is buried deep enough into the electronics noise floor let alone the groove noise of vinyl or even the typical dither of cd's.

No they may not look as sexy as a reel to reel but the HiFi vcrs that were the best were built impressively and with cool looks, cool displays and cool meters too for the most part.
Reel to reel is so cool for those of us who were around when it represented the best. Further, it conjures up notions of playing tapes in a studio situation, tapes of the quality that we never had access to. What could be more inspiring than huge reels running at high speed when we all know that was what the source always was when cutting records? If turntables are really cool then reel to reel is double so. Nostalgia, images of "pro-use-only" exclusivity, unobtanium all combine to an intoxicating blend for the audiophile.

Then reality hits: after hearing reel to reel at many shows and homes in the current "craze", I have serious doubts about the "right next to the master tape" claims of available tapes, or the duplication process, if they really are not to far removed from masters. I see a lot of nodding heads, but I don't hear the actual sound being even as good as a top notch turntable with great records.
J-corder has refurbished decks (Technics & Pioneer RT707) that are not as expensive as United Audio. Jeff does great work and is meticulous with the rebuilding of these decks.
Well said guys. As a long time R2R hobbyist, owning now over 10 decks and 3000 tapes, it is a lot of fun. Just diving into the whole recording process gives one a great in-depth understanding of all things audio. My recommended decks are the Technics 1500 series, Teac X1000r and last but not the least is the Akai gx-635d. Finding an experienced tech to do service is really a challenge, but well worth the effort. Here in New Jersey I've found the former manager of Teac's tape service facility. He does great work. My R2R interests lead me to the world of old broadcast tapes, especially the Drake and AFRTS stuff. The latter was produced by the government and they spent our taxpayer dollars well, high quality.

As you will find, YouTube is full of many R2R demo's, all of which make great 'eye candy'.
I'm sorta amazed at the renaissance of interest in open reel, having been a fan and active user of tape decks since the days of mono (early 50s). Some of my thoughts do run counter to those above, though. I bought a Teac X1000R brand new in 1984, had it serviced regularly, and was amazed at how a used (MUCH used) Otari MX5050 BII2 simply slaughtered it sonically and otherwise. 'Course I spent more money bringing it up to snuff than it cost originally . Which brings me to point #2.

You MUST have access to a tape tech who knows his way around these elderly electromechanical marvels. There is nothing more complex except maybe a Nakamichi Dragon cassette deck. Yes you can get lucky and find a tape deck that doesn't need immediate service, but most of them do. And they must be used regularly. Please trust me on this :-)

Speaking of luck, you CAN find tapes on Ebay that sound great. Even 4-track pop-jazz and classical. Percentage-wise, maybe 20-30% of what you buy. For instance, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue is almost worth the $hundreds in 4-track form (a 2-track Kind of Blue and a 2-track Dave Brubeck "Time Out" have gone for over $2K each and no, they're not worth that kind of money but it does speak to the sonic quality of these tapes).

I've always considered open reel tape the ultimate "hair shirt" medium. A recent buy of a great-looking Revox A77 Mk. IV Dolby deck simply confirmed it. First, some capacitors exploded (my tech refers to these as "firecracker caps"). Then it caught on fire. Then it developed other problems. But I haven't give up on it. Not entirely.

Everything fades in importance when you watch those reels revolve and hear the music they can bring to you.
Thanks for all the responses. I should mention I am not very interested in recording. So far, I've gathered that it takes at least 7 1/2 ips to be comparable to vinyl, and, of course, condition of the unit and tape is critical.
The Pioneer RT-909 is a very good, reasonably inexpensive deck. And they have those very cool blue meters.

The very best-sounding decks are the Tandberg TDA20-SEs with DynEQ. You can make *fabulous* tapes with these, virtually indistinguishable from the original source.

And, for me, feeding the tape thru the capstans and onto the takeup reel rivals the tactile ritual of the best turntables...

I've been into Ampex pro audio machines for about 40 years now. I think I have had the same electronics (351) for about 35 years. They have been rebuilt three times.

The old Ampex stuff is pretty bullet proof, not as nice looking or as easy to operate as the newer logic-controlled transports, but the sound is easily on par if not better. Tubes baby! You should not have to pay $10K for that stuff- even completely rebuilt, unless I am really out of touch with prices these days...
If you are only going for playback you will likely find the rather limited catalogue of commercial tapes recorded at 7.5ips or 3.75ips. Yes, Tape Project tapes are at 15ips but they are expensive.

3.75ips as said for recording is pretty good for the most part. Vinyl recorded at 3.75ips makes for long playback times and still quite high fidelity. IMO 3.75ips is best for FM radio recording.

7.5ips is true high end fidelity on a good reel to reel and will make great playback and esp great recordings of vinyl or cd.

If you are only planning to play back though you will find as I said a very limited library of tapes and a lot of used ones are in mediocre condition due to age, use and possible previous abuse.
i have several reel to reels myself and i love to listen to tapes and make new dubs from vinyl that i can borrow from friends. however, one issue that is unfortunately lacking in the development of consumer decks is that there never was a higher grade of electronics incorporated into these machines before they
fell out of production. unless you have lots of room for a studio-quality transport and custom recording preamps and playback amps, you're not going to realize the full potential of this wonderful format. United Audio's TASCAM BR-20 is something that should have been developed (in some form) years ago, but even if you supply your own machine ($500) and dispense with all of the cosmetic upgrades, it's still almost $20K. surely someone could come up with a more reasonably priced "compact" machine.
Years ago i was away at college and i walked into a little audio shop with a Revox A77 deck playing Dire Straits "Sultans of Swing" through a good pair of speakers. If only i could've laid my hands on $500! the sound just blew me away. you just never forget how good classic audio used to lift you up.
'tactile ritual' beats computer selection.
I had a lowly Dokorder reel-to-reel machine back in the mid-'70's and I thought it was the Holy Grail of audio...played through my Sansui 771 reciever. I've never heard a pre-recorded open reel tape. The only recordings I've ever heard on a reel-to-reel machine has been recordings made from LP's. And to me they sounded at least as good as the LP, if not better.
Just a word of caution - not sure what the shelf life of a reel of tape is; but older tapes will dry out over time and gum up the player's heads. A lot of used tapes (and even NOS) sold over the internet have seen better days!
Do they still make new blank 10 inch reel to reel tape?
Yes they do. I use RMGI SM 911 blank tape. Many other brands to choose from as well.
Back in the late 70's, I used TDK Audua and Maxell tape.

Has tape gotten any better since then? Since everything is all digital, I'm not sure it's worth the time for mfgs to improve on reel tape because the market is so small.
Rockboy, Tape shedding is a function of too much moisture that the tape has absorbed.

We recently did a reissue of an early 70s LP; the master tapes were stored in an attic and because it was dry and often hot, the tapes were in immaculate condition.

If a tape is shedding oxide on the heads, it can be baked in an oven at low temperature for about 45 minutes. This will chase the moisture out of the tape and if stored in a plastic bag with a packet of silica gel, will be good for a few years before it has to be baked again.

If the oxide is shedding so badly that the tape is stuck to itself, there may be nothing you can do.