Two that sound great and don't break the bank are Tandberg and Technics. There are others that have either great electronics OR great transport but usually not both.
The Tandberg and Technics both sound good, the Technics is one of the best for low flutter due to it's closed capstan system. The one I use is the 1520 which has IEC and NAB equalization, meaning it plays Ebay tape and the new releases from Tape Project with the flick of a switch. The 1520 is also balanced and the way I run mine, but I suspect it would be much better if I could afford to ship it off to Tim at EAR for his ultimate upgrade.
Then again, if I had $10K to spend I would just buy an Ampex ATR, but that would not fit (investment wise) with my less than 200-300 tape library titles.
Honestly, it's difficult to build a library of reel to reel, all the cool titles produced when reel to reel could be bought are still very limited compared to LP and CD. New releases are almost non existent.
Revox b77mkII or pr99MkII or MkIII will be your best option. Easily modified and Revox is still supporting all their Reel to reel decks with parts. These decks will give you the most performance without the mega cost.
Although reel to reel is an expensive media, tapes are up to 50.00 a reel for 96 minutes at 7 1/2 ips half track. Something to think about before jumping in.
All the available players (except the very last Otari models) are decades old and will likely need immediate service/adjustments to perform to spec. Replacement parts are hard to come by, especially for Akai, Tandberg, and the less popular brands. Regular service by a competent tape deck tech is a must. These are complex machines with many moving parts. Tape deck ownership is not for the weak of heart :-)
That said, I wouldn't be without my two machines --Otari MX5050 BII2 and Teac A2300SD (for Dolbyized tapes). Some prerecorded tapes (not all, by a long shot) are sonically superior to what you can get from LPS and CDs. The decks are fun to use and watch, when they're working correctly.
Like Dopogue says, most decks you find will need to be repaired, or at least some sort of maintanance done. I currently use three decks myself, a Technics RS1500, A Otari 5050IIB, and a Teac 3340S (for quad tapes.)
The Technics and Otari record in 2 track stereo, but can play 2 track and 4 track stereo. Otari decks also have IEC EQ circuits for the European standard recordings.
Another thing to look out for when buying used reel to reel tapes is "Sticky tape syndrome". Some older tape formulations turned to goo or would shed oxide when played if they were not baked in an oven at low heat first.
SOTA RTR's are for those that are willing spend money. I think it is worth it. It is not unlike pouring thousands into a SOTA turntable. I have at the moment 4 Crown RTR's,they are rare,not the best transport out there but the electronics can sound top notch. I also have a Ampex 440 machine and a Ampex 350 & 354 in the works. I plan to add a Studer 800 series soon.
My fetish for RTR's is fine as they are enjoyable,the sound and the "look" are impressive.
If starting out today I would probably start with a Otari 5050 MkIII or a running Technics. The revox machines are a good choice also.
The Pro machines like a Ampex and Studer are the best but require a good tech and a budget.
I am hoping that the live broadcasts on sattelite provide me for a new reason to use these decks. So far I am happy with my RTR hobby.
I have two-a Pioneer RT-707, and a Technics 1500, both of which I find great, but for different reasons.
The Pioneer is limited to 7" reels, but that coupled with it's auto-reverse makes it perfect for 'background' listening with pre-recorded commercial tapes. Plus, they're built like a brick shithouse, sound pretty darn good, and they're still reasonably priced-in my view one of the great deals in RTR.
The Technics handles 10 1/2" reels and records and plays 2 track-I generally record at 7 1/2 ips half track for a good compromise between fidelity and cost/convenience (it also will play back 4 track tapes). As A. Porter says above, their tape handling mechanism is superb, plus there is lots of info at Bottlehead for using one of their inexpensive Seduction tube phono stages as a playback amp, bipassing the internal SS amp.
Look into the Otari's, best bag for the buck plus they are still making and selling them. I have a Sony, Revox, and Otari deck at the current time. The Otari plays my Tape Project tapes, and the other two play my commercial tapes.
Don't fool around. SOTA equals Ampex ATR with multi head blocks and equalization boards. Of course you need an on staff tech to keep it running. You will want to attend a few classes that provide hands on instruction. Your budget for all this should be about $100,000.
No, I don't have an ATR, but I've had and owned almost all the other machines mentioned. Currently have six r2r machines, over 1000 commercial tapes, 300 broadcast 10.5 two track tapes.
If you have not started into this area, don't, so you can have a comfortable retirement.
There is an enormous difference between the way the pro decks are set up (especially for recording) and the prosumer decks.
I owned many TEAC, TASCAM and Otari decks for years. They were all pretty much bullet proof requiring routine cleaning and not much else. Clearly Otari decks are a cut above the TEAC and Technics product, though to my taste nothing is prettier then that big Technics.
The pro decks are generally set up as a self contained cart or table with the transport down for ease of use, and with the electonics above for ease of maintenance and visibility. Generally there was also a very chunky remote that lived on the console.
There is nothing petite or dainty about these units. The Ampexes and Studers were the standard and are pretty much bullet proof.
The big wear item on tape decks - which has not been mentioned here are the heads. Especially if you are looking at a machine that has seen regular studio use, that is the piece that needs inspecting. Heads can be rebuilt to a point (by a highly skilled tech) after which they have to be replaced. Guess what, they are not inexpensive...
Oh yeah - and you will need a splicing block, splicing tape, a razor blade and a grease pencil plus some leader...
One of the last remaining manufactured R2R was the Tascam BR-20. Built like a tank and plenty of parts are still available. They pop up on ebay quite frequently, worth looking out for. A pro deck, but unlike a lot of the otaris/studers etc out there it has unbalanced I/O (as well as balanced). I'm no R2R expert, but the way that deck handles tape with such grace is a joy to behold.
My other deck is a consumer deck (akai gx747 dbx) used to play the few commercial tapes I have.
If you are looking to record vinyl / radio etc the quality of the pro decks out there, along with their increased parts availability is IMHO definately the way to go. Even the best consumer decks lag quite a way behind in many areas, will be hard to find parts for BUT are useful to play commercial titles. thats why I own one of both
Thanks for the responses. I'm not sure if all the suggestions offered are considered sota in the audio reproduction area. My main reason for venturing into this area of the hobby is because I heard that reel to reel is better than the best turntables, is this true and which ones will be beat tt by big margins?
Hi Pedrillo, that's a loaded question- the answer is that a table is better if you have direct-to disc. Otherwise, tapes **stomp** on LPs.
IMO, the best tape machines will have an all-tube signal path. You can set up almost any transport to work with tubes, using the signal directly off of the tape heads, although finding the tube preamp is a bit of a trick. The Bottlehead forum is a good source, and we have set up some of our preamps with tape EQ also.
If you want the absolute best analog deck, for my money it's a Studer... if you can't play there, get a well loved Otari with an Atmasphere pre - it will rock
But it's all a question of what your source is
Tape is/was the mastering medium. Nothing like it if you are feeding it straight from the mixing board. Better yet if you are going direct to two track. But take it down a few generations and you slowly begin to build noise of various kinds
That's why if you really want SOTA, the answer the recording industry in many cases will be an entirely digital aignal path until perhaps the final 2 track mixdown. Or a multitraxk record master then all digital until the mixdown.
If you have source material this good, it's killer - A 2 track mix master is three, four maybe five generations up the food chain from a commercial LP.
One other thought - old tape is a much more problematic medium then old vinyl.
Read this thread to put your expectations in line with what you are likely to experience:
Old tape can be 'baked' at 150 degrees for about 30-40 minutes to get rid of the sticky/shedding issues. It can then be used for years before having to be 'baked' again. You can leave it on the reel as long as the reel is metal.
'Baking' the tape chases the moisture that it has collected over the years out of the tape. It takes a few years for the moisture to collect in the tape again.
You can prolong the storage of tape by keeping it in a sealed plastic bag, in a box away from direct sunlight and high humidity. A little packet of 'Silica Gel' to absorb moisture in the bag is a good idea.
Has anybody tried using a VHS-Hi-Fi VCR just for recording analog 2-track? It's analog, flat 20-20KHz response, s/n at 90-96dB, nearly unmeasurable wow and flutter, and the tape is still manufactured, available, and inexpensive. It's the machines that are disappearing! But you can still easily find VHS/DVD combo players.
The silica gel and plastic bag is an idea that most don't think about, Kudos! I'm going to use both.
Food for thought; I bought 80 reels of one pass Ampex 456 tape for $20 bucks a reel. The reel alone is worth about $14 bucks. I baked them in an Excalliber food dehydrator for 14 hours at 135 degrees F. They are as new, for how long I don't know. While you can Google "Tape baking," and get loads of information I came to my conclusion after reviewing what I read. With plastics, " Tape," time and temperature have an effect on the stability. Raise the temperature up FAST, hold it for a short time, then lower it will have an effect on the expansion / contraction stability of the tape. Raise the temp slowly to a lower temp, hold it for a longet time then ramp the temp down slowly. This will allow the plastic to acclimate to what's happening to it. After all it's about driving off the moisture. Take more time at a lower temperature, and it should EASE itself out of the thick plastic mass to a greater degree. Compare it to a few many short breaths rather than a fewer deeper breaths, it's only a thought.
I build polyester and epoxy molds that need to perform at temperatures approaching 200 degrees. I condition them at a temperature HIGHER than that they'll ever see. I ramp them up to 220 degrees over a 4 hour period, hold the top temperature until the oven shuts off. It's all about over kill.
Bake your tapes slowly, ramp them up and let them cool slowly. Time is cheap so don't try to do it fast, it's sort of like XXX. Slower is better.
You need to log on to WWW.sonicraft.com. Steve Puntolillo is not only at the forefront of audio archiving and the moderator of the Scully list, but has the most KICK ASS collection of analogue tape machines you'll ever see.
Don't miss viewing his web site, but be aware that tape is addictive. You may end up evicting your errant 25 year old son to make room for some RTR machines and a "Garfield the Cat" grin when you hear how good tape sounds.
Jj2468, if treated with care, old tapes can have excellent fidelity even if made in the 1950s.
Ken, I use a sort of commercial timer oven for making pizzas, which works extremely well since it takes a while to warm up. I've also used my oven at home, and just block the door slightly so it can't close completely- I've had good results with that too.
It seems like it might be a bother, but you only have to treat a tape this way maybe every 5-6 years or so. I'm glad I didn't throw out the old tapes for my Mellotron :)
Johnnyb53, years ago I studied digital music in the mid-80s. My 'prof' was a math professor in real-life, who had also been a jazz trumpeter and clarinetist who played with some of the greats in the 60s but real-life meant he was a college professor. He had a few years earlier decided to set up a digital music studio in one of the math classrooms, with a couple of DX-7s and some rack-mounted TXs, etc. He did a lot of composing in digital-land. The funny thing was that he recorded everything on either a really nice Studer studio reel-to-reel at 7.5ips or on Betamax - even though by that time it was long dead. The Betamax had excellent fidelity. I still have my compositions on Betamax - but no player...
Getting back to the original question; It always amazes me that most of us don't think twice about a cartridge or turntable costing in the thousands, but we are afraid to pay $2500 on a decent professional deck.