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Buying a used Reel to Reel deck (Updated 4/2/2010)

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A bit redundant, for all practical purposes all reel to reel decks to be had are used. If you want a "plug and play" deck there are things to look for and things to avoid. Even so, this is one of the chancier purchases on eBay even if you do everything right. This is especially worrisome in major metropolitan areas (especially NYC) where rent overhead has driven most of reasonable repair shops out of business. You are more likely to find a reasonably priced repair in South Bend, Indiana than in Manhattan. If you must repair, within driving distance is always best. As I say below, these decks hate being shipped. But the deck should go to a specialist who knows reel-to-reel extremely well.

To look for (in order of preference):

  1. A deck that has been fully restored/reconditioned by a reputable service. Even the legendary Ampex ATR series has a restorer of great repute. So does the scarce but revered Tandberg 10x series, and so do the more common Studer, Teac, Akai, Crown and Technics decks.
  2. A deck that has been recently serviced, alligned and lubricated.

Possible but chancier. Because of increasing failure rates I can no longer recommend these next two catagories. I advise on these matters and the last 2 decks I have acquired under the following guidlines have arrived able to get power but otherwise non-funtional in either play or record modes.

  1. A deck that comes from a reputable seller that is still in use and performing well.
  2. A deck that has been thoroughly checked out by a reputable seller.

Finally, to avoid:

  1. Decks that are old-stock/NIB. Tape decks do not react well to dead storage. Not at all. You may virtually count on some sort of failure in the first 100 hours of use even if things seem wonderful at first.
  2. Decks that were used then put away in a closet for 15 years. See #1.
  3. Decks from recording studios. Though there are exceptions, most of these were "rode hard and put away wet" and will require reconditioning.
  4. Decks that are "mint" but which haven't been checked out because the seller doesn't ". . . have a tape". Monty Python's advice is pertinant here; RUN AWAY!

The Ampex and Studer decks are essentially professional machines and the Otari is certainly almost professional. Any of those in recently restored/calibrated condition is quite an experience. And quite expensive. The high end Technics, Teacs, Akais, Crowns and Tandbergs are amongst the best consumer machines. Of these the Tandbergs are generally the lowest priced . . . and the most difficult to service.

It should also be noted that shipping such a delicate electro-mechanical device is an open invitation to problems. Check the seller's feedback to be sure careful packing is one of the strong points. Try to have the deck shipped by a service that has served you well on deliveries in the past.

As you can see, buying and receiving a good "plug and play" deck is a bit of a chancy proposition. If you seriously intend to use such a deck be sure you have access to a good and well thought of reconditioner/restorer. In most cases that will not mean your local dealer. If you have that access, then the wonderful world of tape analogue will be open to you.

The deck should normally have 3 3/4 and 7 1/2 speeds for most commercially available tapes. Contrary to what many think, most true studio masters were done on at least 1/2" tape at 30 IPS, not 15 IPS. There were some 15 IPS second generation "masters" made for audiophiles and occasionally some were made at the same time as the 30 IPS masters and were truly masters, but not often. True 15 IPS masters were made but mostly for field work (early Doc Watson Library of Congress recordings and the like) and it is likely you will never see one. Even so, having the 15 IPS speed is a good thing but only if you have 3 3/4 and 7 1/2 as well. There are only three consumer decks that appear on eBay with even slight regularity that have all three:

  • The Technics 1500 series and later
  • The Tandberg 10x series only (the later 20 series reverted to 2 speed).
  • The Otari 5050. There are only two speeds available from the front panel but another switch varies the deck from 3 3/4/ & 7 1/2 to 7 1/2 & 15.

Note. There are decks that go all the way to 30 ips like the Ampex ATR100, the Otari 90 series and Studers, Nagras and Denons. These are professional and very scarce if they are in good repair. They are quite large and heavy. Plus one in good shape requires the selling of your car to afford it. Additionally, there is no prerecorded market at the 30 IPS speed.

If the intention is to buy commercially precorded tapes a machine with Dolby is a good idea. Though there were a few DBX commercial issues they are scarce. DBX is better for one's own recording.

If the desire is to dub Broadcasts LPs and/or CDs  of long works (Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, etc) and be able to play the entire thing back without having to move from a comfortable chair, 10 inch reels are a requisite as is automatic reverse.

Though one may get very lucky, decks that meet all of these criteria are usually above $1,000.

Once in a great while one can get very lucky and find a deck that ". . . worked fine when my grandpappy put it out in the barn 15 years ago" that still functions well. About as often as one sees hens with teeth.

Any deck requires cleaning between every reel, frequent de-magnetizing, a splicing kit and the knowledge of how to use all of these properly.

 Reel to Reel tape has a wealth of available music and having a deck still makes some sense, particularly for those who do not like digital sound. But a great deal of care and knowledge is required to avoid buying a sub optimal device. Sometimes you can do everything right and the deck will still arrive partially or totally non-functional. These are older devices with brittle solder joints that fail for seemingly no reason, belts that break, etc.

Keep your eyes open and good luck.

 
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