Welcome to the Reel World

The analogue revival is no longer confined to vinyl LPs; welcome back, the reel-to-reel tape recorder.

It’s a surprising development given that pre-recorded open reel tapes were only ever a tiny part of the market even when at their most popular in the 1960s (pre-recorded tape had to wait until the advent of cassettes to make any significant impact domestically). Tapes are bulky and costly to manufacture and distribute, but if made with care, the audio results can be stunningly good and there is no denying that a good open reel machine is a seriously cool device (and much more visually interesting than a record-spinner, in the author’s opinion).

In response, open reel machines are being manufactured for the first time in decades. 

The most famous of the new entrants is from Ballfinger – not Daniel Craig’s latest adversary but a German industrial design group previously known for stylish watches and desk lamps. The design team at Ballfinger felt that the time was right to produce a new machine and was drawn to tape by its fundamental importance to analogue music. Ballfinger spent four years developing it and their 063 machine is available in four variations, two of which are replay only (the point of which is somewhat elusive as the prime advantage of tape is the ability to record stuff). There is no denying that the Ballfinger machines are big, bold, impressive, apparently useful as chairs and have generated plenty of press coverage – much of it outside the traditional audiophile suburbs. The prices of the Ballfinger machines range from €9,997 to €23,980.

Not content to leave it to their German neighbours, the Swiss are getting in on the act too. Sadly, their machine is not from venerable open-reel manufacturer Revox but venerable turntable manufacturer Thorens. The TM 1600 tape machine is styled to match their revived TD 160 turntable. It’s sleek, classy, playback only, €11,999 and based on the Ballfinger (but you can’t sit on it). Meanwhile, the real reel deal, Revox, announced in 2016 that they had a new open-reel machine in development, called Project R2R.

Initially intended to be a playback only machine (why?) with a record version available at a later date. Its appearance suggests that it’s based on a Studer professional machine, but we’ll have to wait to find out more; it was slated to appear in 2017 but no sign of it just yet.

If you want a real Swiss reel machine, look to Metaxas & Sins, whose T-RX portable recorder resembles a Stellavox by way of Alien. It won’t be cheap but it is in production.

Open reel is a small but increasingly active field. At present confined to the highest of high end, there is plenty of scope for the rest of us to dip a toe into the reel world via the second-hand market. This is something we’ll return to in another blog.