First rule: keep your expectations realistic. Some prices are possible but not always probable; it depends on who is bidding and how bad they want it. Just because a particular recorder with an actual value of $200.00 sold for $1,000.00 on one posting, doesn't mean you'll get that much for the same item. I've seen absolute junk go for high dollars on rare occasions, because someone wanted it just that bad, and money was no object.
It's best to browse as many closed auctions as possible on the make and model of the item you are selling (or auctions with a similar recorder if you can't find an identical unit listed) to establish an expectation average.
Rarity does not always add value. Just because it's scarce, or that you haven't seen one before, does not mean it's necessarily desirable. Desirability is key.
There are high-end models by Akai, TEAC, Ampex, Revox, Studer, Tandberg, Crown, and other makers that can fetch $500.00 to $5,000.00, on some models. Keep in mind too, that most of the machines that fetch these prices are usually professionally serviced and maintained, and, that buyers in the market for high end gear are generally very knowledgeable and will not pay top dollar for a machine that has not been serviced by a pro. But, you can still turn a nice profit on an 'As-Is As-Found' piece, provided your expectations are reasonable, and that you can verify the machine works to some degree.
Who Buys Old Recorders?
Old tube type units are mostly bought by hobbyists and collectors, while high-end decks are of interest to audiophiles. There are a few of us who are nostalgic for old recorders we grew up with. In my case it was an old Sentinel Model 10 (1954) that was the first recorder I had experienced at age 5, was given at age 10, and had worn out by age 12. I've since found and restored one just for fun use, (To see it go to YouTube and punch in Sentinel model 10 in their search engine). It is by no means a high-end machine, and is used only occasionally, while my high-end stereo decks are reserved for more serious pursuits, (mainly for archiving my tapes to digital).
I've owned old Pentrons, Webcors, Voice of Musics, an Eicor, Recordios, and others over the years, as fun pieces; I like to bring them out during Bar-B-Que's and other gatherings as an alternative to iTunes playing in the background. There are many of these old tube type recorders out there, and for that reason, they are not particularly valuable in all cases. I've also owned many Akai, TEAC and Pioneer decks for serious recording and archiving.
There are different factors that make a recorder valuable. For example, if you found something like a mint condition Wilcox-Gay Recordio Zephyr, it might go for more than most because of it's 50's aesthetic ; lot's of colored tolex or vinyl, with piping and back-painted control panels make it very attractive, and while it is a decent recorder from the period, it is not high-end by any means. On the other hand something like an old Magnacord that isn't particularly attractive from a decorator's point of view, (and may even look cheap to the uninitiated), is valued for it's performance and quality.
Recorder and Deck overview
A unit with on-board amplifier and/or speaker(s) is a full recorder. A 'deck' is usually equipped with input and output jacks for connection to stereo system and has no on-board amplification. It's important to note that early decks often have no on-board electronics at all and require connection to a separate record/play preamp.
There are also 'players' that have no facility for recording. If there are no microphone jacks or input jacks, it's a player. One of the most notable 'player only' units was the Sony TC155. It sold new at the time for ten dollars less than Sony's entry level full deck, the TC250A, and was produced for two years.
Working they will fetch 50.00 to 100.00. Non-working but complete will fetch around 25.00.
Early Recorders (1947 - 1956)
Keep in mind that tape recorders did not exist in the U.S. prior to 1946, (and the only ones in the U.S. that did exist that year were the Jack Mullins prototypes, which were captured German recorders that were modified and used to pre-record the Bing Crosby radio show). The first error I usually spot in a listing is someone guessing that the recorder they are selling is from the 30's or 40's. The only consumer recorder manufactured in the late 40's was the Brush BK-401, Soundmirror in late 1947. Bell introduced a recorder in 1949 and other recorders were soon to follow in the 50's by Eicor, Pentron, Crescent, Webster/Webcor, and many others.
Many of these consumer recorders were not HiFi by today's standard. Many were pretty simple in construction too, but by 1952 or so there were some more complex and higher quality machines being made, by Magnacord, Webster Chicago/Webcor (the model 210 was the first auto-reverse recorder), Recordio, Voice of Music, Ampex and mainstream makers like RCA.
A working early recorder like the Brush BK-401 can, conservatively, fetch a few hundred dollars, provided it's fully restored to like new condition. A non-functional recorder may be worth only 10.00 or 20.00, and a working unrestored machine may fetch 50.00 to 100.00 at most.
Just because it's old and cool looking, and has tube electronics doesn't mean it's worth a great deal of money. The rarity and desirability is what gives a recorder value. It also depends on who is bidding or watching your item.
When I've sold old machines that were less than mint or in need of repair I started them at 9.95 and let the market decide the value.
When I see an auction for an old Pentron, Eicor or Crescent that's worth maybe 20.00 (if working), start with a 100.00 opening bid with a 300.00 reserve, I know it's not going to sell or even get a second look. This happens more often than not.
Recorders 1957 - 1965
By this time, the recorders were definitely better, but the lower priced models still weren't any better than the earlier machines. In fact, Crescent, made the same recorder for nearly 15 years by upgrading the cosmetics and changing it over to solid state in the 60's. By that time they were making these almost exclusively for Sears Silvertone in both monaural and stereo versions. The transport was identical to their original machines produced around 1950 or 51, (In fact my Sentinel Model 10 is one of these).
With the emergence of 4 track stereo, and units being imported from Japan and Germany, quality got better.
Early stereo recorders came in a 2-piece configuration, with the recorder in one carrying case with electronics and speaker for the left channel, and a second case would contain just the electronics and speaker for the right channel. Too often, an unknowing seller will sell these separately, unaware that both pieces constitute one recorder. Just as an example, you'll often find a Voice of Music 722 recorder, without the right channel component. This reduces the value considerably.
In 1957 Wollensak started producing the famous T1500. A great sounding, well built recorder that became standard equipment for schools, churches, law enforcement, military, as well as consumers. It is popular with collectors, and they usually hold up well, but they aren't worth a great deal because so many were produced over a 20 year period. 10.00 for an untested unit is about right, and 30.00 to 50.00 should be the going rate for a working example. The AV1520 which came out in the late 60's goes for more, as it is later in production, and most of these feature an auto-stop function, and they are solid state, making them a bit more reliable for everyday use. As late as 1990, they could still be acquired brand new(184.95)from some distributors. In good working condition, these can fetch 50.00 to 100.00 typically. Non working or untested, we're talking 10.00.
The Wollensak T1515 was the stereo version of the T1500, and is worth about the same as it's monaural counterpart.
For more detailed information about Wollensak, check out the eBay guide, Wollensak Recorder History and Guide written by a former employee. Very informative!
The machines from this period are often over-valued, with a few exceptions. Some units by Viking, Ampex, Sony, Concertone/Berlant, V-M, Crown, Revox and Magnacord are still great units, and legendary in performance, and therefore, desirable and valuable. Not thousands of dollars, but certainly hundreds in some cases, provided they are working and not worn out. These appeal to audiophiles and hobbyists alike.
TEAC ( acronym for Tokyo Electro Acoustic Company and commonly pronounced 'tee-ak') was building transports for Concertone/Berlant in the early 60's, and finally launched they're own recorder line in 1964 (S4000). Akai was being marketed under the Roberts and Rheem trademarks. It was about this time the Japanese manufacturers started to take over the tape recorder market. These early Akai (also tagged as Terecorder) versions in working order are in the 100.00 range, but some of the M series can go as high as 300.00 provided it's in good working condition.
A word about The Voice of Music and Webster/Webcor
These two brands have a fan following that seems to transcend time. There are many new, (and very young) collectors that are drawn to these two brands, as well as those of us that remember them fondly. Mint examples can go for considerably more than even some of the high-end and professional recorders in the right setting. To get an idea, or if you need new factory parts for a V-M recorder, go to: www.thevoiceofmusic.com. There are sites dedicated to Webster/Webcor as well with parts available.
I think these are still so popular because they were sturdy, repairable, designed to last for years and manufactured with pride in the USA. These are still good performers.
Small Portable Recorders
These started appearing around 1958, but the inexpensive Japanese 'toy' recorders didn't start to appear in any great numbers until about 1963. The inexpensive recorders from Lloyds, Midland, Juliette, and others (Like the infamous Apolec/Apollo RA-11) were rim drive types, meaning there was no capstan to maintain a constant speed. Many people collect these recorders now, and they can range in price according to rarity and condition. Don't expect to get more than 20.00 for an RA-11 in good shape. In the box like new might fetch 50.00. The recorder has to be really rare and sought after to garner big bucks. Most common recorders might fetch 10.00 at best.
The RA-11 was also branded as Raleigh, Universal, Star-Lite, Lloyds, Encore and a whole host of others. The same recorder went through cosmetic changes and was on the market in various forms for nearly 10 years. But the early Apolec/Apollo version is the most desirable. The later versions featured a circular window in the head cover exposing a flag that would change from white to red when recording.
The rarest toy recorder is probably the Aiwa TP1003 stereo recorder. I remember seeing one of these in the Sears or Wards Christmas catalogs in the mid 60's. It is a true 4 track stereo recorder, with 3 inch reel capacity, but incapable of music recording because it has no capstan.
I've only seen one in mint condition with the box on eBay and it sold for well over 400.00. A good example without box just sold with mics (March 2010) for 132.00. This is the first one I've seen posted in years. (If you'd like to see what one looks like, go to: www.radiophile.com/aitp1003.htm).
Recorders from this period with a capstan can go for a good deal more than rim-drive types. An early example would be the Steelman from about 1958, and later ones by fledgling Pioneer was sold under many American brand names. The Philips/Norelco Continental 100 and 101 are very desirable too, and will usually sell for about 100.00 for a complete working example. The later Craig 212 as well as the 2106 (5" reel version) stay in the 50.00 range, while a mint Sony TC123 can go for 100.00 or more.
The Mayfair FT series which uses 5" reels is desirable, but it is rare to find these in operational condition. Usually the electronics are dead, and they need rubber. While desirable, they are not worth a great deal. 9.95 for a non-functional recorder, and maybe 50.00 for a functional one. If you have one of the later versions, like the FT-157 in good condition with all of the accessories and the box, then you can expect it to exceed 100.00.
These are unusual, in that the two speeds are 7 1/2 and 3 3/4 IPS as opposed to 3 3/4 and 1 7/8 IPS that is more typical in 5 inch portables. Also, it uses DC bias for recording, (as opposed to the more common AC bias). Remarkably, the record quality for music is as good as any other small portable recorder using AC bias.
1966 - 1987, The End of Consumer Recorder Production
I could break this down further, but there is a lot more commonality with the machines produced from 1966 on. One of the notable additions that became common on many decks was the addition of a bias/EQ selector, enabling use of higher bias, low noise tape, such as Maxell's UD and TDK's SD series of tape. On high end decks there was often a fine bias adjust too. The last generation decks had bias/EQ selectors for 'normal' and 'EE' tape (EE tape was chromium oxide).
Full recorders would disappear around 1974 or so, with a few exceptions. Akai, TEAC, Aiwa, Tandberg, Revox, and others pretty much ruled the market by this time. Akai and TEAC decks and recorders rule eBay too. Your best bet is to watch some of the auctions on whatever recorder you own, and see how high they sell for at auction close.This will give you some idea of where to start your opening bid or to set your 'buy it now' price.
A TEAC 4010S in good condition will sell for 100.00 to 200.00 typically, while a Sony TC350 from the same period may only go for 50.00. Reason; The Sony is a single motor deck with 3 heads, and the TEAC 4010S is auto reverse, has three motors, and 4 heads (extra play head for reverse), and was a much better overall recorder. There is a big difference between features and composition on vintage decks of this period that vary widely in value.
The later TEAC 4010SL includes bias/EQ selection. The last version of this deck was the 4010GSL which featured the bias/EQ selector, glass-ferrite heads, and a pause control which occupied the spot where the torque selector had been on the S and SL. This is the most desirable version of the 4010, and can fetch 300.00 or more, in good working order.
Last generation Akai decks can go for a very high premium, provided they are properly serviced and maintained. I sold my Akai GX747 a while back for $700.00, with some small issues. Had I fully repaired and serviced it, and restored the cosmetics, it would have fetched from $1,200.00 up to $2,200.00, with the right people bidding. Only if you take the step to have a machine gone through or repaired by a certified pro, can you attain maximum value.
Catalog brands by Allied, Lafayette, Olson or Radio Shack's Realistic brand, (with the exception of the TR3000 as it is actually a TEAC deck) would be of interest to collectors and hobbyists and will range from 10.00 to 150.00. This would also include brands from Sears, Wards, JC Penney and the like. These are all single motor decks and most are two-head (erase, play/ record combination) with only a very few with three heads (separate erase, record and play heads), and while they can perform well, they are not high end machines by any means.
The stereo decks sold by Allied in the late 60's were re-branded JVC decks, as were some models sold by Radio Shack. Others were made by Matsushita, Sanyo, and many others.
TEAC, Tandberg, Crown, Akai, Revox, Ampex and other high end makes will have a wide ranging value to audiophiles and serious home recordists.
A simple rule of thumb if you are not sure: base the value of a unit on the number of motors in it. High end decks will always have at least 3 motors and heads, and lower end consumer machines always have a single motor regardless of the number of heads in the unit. There are a few two motor units out there too, but these are rare, and usually fall between high-end and low-end recorders depending on the features and specifications.
Sony also made a few auto reverse recorders that used combination heads for play/record, and are incapable of source/tape monitoring, which places these decks on the lower tier.
About Tube Electronics
Some people post these old recorders with the idea of re-purposing them for use as a guitar or harp (harmonica) amplifier, and tend to over-value the tube amps in them. Most of the amps are pretty simple, single output tube types that have a limited frequency response (100Hz to 8,000Hz is typical) with an output power of 2 to 5 watts, max. The output tube usually serves double duty for the record bias. They are not all that unique in 'tone' either, which is major factor for guitarists (and yes, I do play professionally and know about 'tone').
Some of the later more complex recorders used more sophisticated amplifiers with more power, but these are more related to HiFi than to instrument amplification. Even though the later electronics were better, they are still not anything an audiophile would find enchanting, or a guitarist would find inspiring. I've plugged my G&L Legacy into my Sentinel Model 10, it sounds like an old Pignose amp. Not bad, but nothing great.
CAUTION! Never Power up Old Tube Electronics to test them yourself
Unless you own a Variac, and have some experience as a bench tech or are at least a seasoned hobbyist, never plug this old stuff in to test. The reason; the electronic components can go way out of tolerance over time, particularly capacitors, that will not only keep a recorder from working, but can cause damage to the electronic components that are still good, possibly start a fire, or cause electrocution to the operator. Also, old 50's era tube type recorders were made for 110-to-115 VAC, and main voltage in the US is currently 117 to 125VAC. Old components don't stand a chance with that much voltage introduced suddenly. POOF!!
By slowly, (and I emphasize SLOWLY), ramping up the voltage with a Variac, problems can be detected without destroying other components. Once the item is brought up to full voltage, and if nothing is smelling, smoking or humming, and the unit plays, then you have a working example. However, just because it's working for the moment, doesn't mean that the components are good as new. It only means that they are still close enough within tolerance to still work together. It is standard practice to measure all components (capacitors and resistors mainly) and replace the ones that have gone out of tolerance. It's generally best to replace all old caps and resistors to assure an extended life to the unit, and bring it up to full spec.
If you've already plugged in an old recorder (or other vintage electronics) and you got an immediate loud hum, you've probably smoked additional components, may have damaged the tubes and irreplaceable parts like transformers, coils, or vibrators.
How to find out how many heads and motors are on your recorder
Easier than it sounds. Most recorders have the number of motors and heads printed on the face plate, or on the back panel.
If the number of motors is not listed on the unit, remove the back and have a look.
If the number of heads is not posted on the unit, and they are not readily visible, you may have to remove the head cover.
On older consumer tube type recorders, it's a sure bet it has a single motor, and has either a single integrated head or is a two-head configuration (erase, and record/play combo).
Early high end or professional recorders often have three motors and heads, but when in doubt, open it up and look. While you've got it open, take a few photos of the recorder's internal components for your auction. Prospective buyers will appreciate as many photos as you can provide.
Why Doesn't My Deck Run?
If you are selling something like a TEAC, Akai, Sony, or other deck that features an automatic shut off, and you try to run it with no tape threaded, it will not operate. The auto shut-off switch is located somewhere in the tape path, usually on one of the flutter guides or under the head cover.
In the case of early TEAC decks, the flutter guide on the right, between the capstan and take-up reel table, needs to be moved to the position it would be in if a tape was threaded. Doing this, the capstan should start spinning. Hit the play key, and the pinch roller will engage and the take up reel table will run. On later TEAC and Akai decks, both flutter guides have to be in the 'threaded' position.
On other makes, (like Sony), there is usually a thin linkage or wire under the head cover so that when a tape is threaded, it's pushed up to actuate a micro-switch to allow the deck to run. On some makes you may have to hunt around the transport to find just where the auto shut-off switch is concealed. A few machines even used photo-electric cells.
It's best to just get a small reel of tape and take-up reel (check at yard sales) so you can thread the deck and run it.
If you post it in your auction that you could not make it work, or it doesn't run, it's going to knock the perceived value down by half or more.
Heads and rubber parts
These are a major concern to anyone thinking of buying your recorder.
You should always take photos of the heads so a potential buyer can see if they need to be replaced or re-lapped (lapping is a method of re-surfacing worn tape heads), and of the internal parts if possible.
If the heads are dirty, use alcohol and cotton swabs to clean them before your photo shoot.
Old recorders from the 50's often use fabric belts that use tension and friction to drive the take-up, fast forward and rewind. The only source I've found so far for fabric belts is www.thevoiceofmusic.com. While fabric belts will break, they usually dry out and turn to dust before that happens. If you've got good fabric belts in your recorder, make sure they are not operating under any undue stress that will accelerate wear. Signs of deterioration is usually in the form of a fine powdery dust on parts near the belt's travel path.
In addition to the fabric belts, the capstan is usually driven with a rubber belt or idler wheel. This should also be inspected and photographed if possible.
Rubber is usually the main issue. The rubber pinch-roller (opposite the capstan) can be hard to replace and expensive to have rebuilt. Make sure to get photos of this and the capstan as well.
Internal rubber parts are also expensive to get. Single motor recorders use idler tires to transmit power from the motor to the capstan flywheel, take-up reel and supply reel. Recorders with three motors use a belt to go from a dedicated motor to the capstan flywheel, and the reel tables are direct drive. On some later high end decks, the capstan is also direct drive.
In a nutshell, if you have a single motor recorder that powers up but nothing moves with a tape loaded, don't state in your auction that it needs belts unless you know for sure. It most likely needs idler wheels.
While idlers are easily removed and installed, there are no new replacements available these days, and the originals would have to be rebuilt. Idler rebuilding is typically 55.00 per wheel. Most single motor decks use two idlers, and some few use a capstan belt as well.
A three motor deck with no motion will be due, most likely, to a bad capstan belt. These belts are around 20.00, but a lot of disassembly is involved, and only a competent pro or knowledgeable hobbyist should try to replace one.
In TEAC decks, a common cause for non-function is grease. The grease for the internal linkage that pivots to engage the pinch roller to the capstan often will crystallize and keep the deck from running. If you are handy, it's easy to take it apart, clean and replace the grease in about an hour. If you aren't handy, don't even think about it!
I hope you find this helpful. This guide, again is still under construction. Please give me a helpful vote if you found this informative.