The Enduring Appeal of Magnetic Audio Tape Series – IV
Depending on operating speed, an open reel deck may be able to record for up to:
6 hours 24 minutes per side (at a speed of 1-7/8 inches per second (ips));
3 hours 12 minutes per side at 3-3/4 ips;
1 hour 36 minutes per side at 7-1/2 ips (common playback speed for commercial pre-recorded tapes);
48 minutes per side at 15 ips (a common tape mastering speed).
The open reel user must decide whether they want the very best sound quality, in which case the highest speed of record/playback will be selected, or a long playing time, in which case sound quality is somewhat sacrificed.
However, a well set up, correctly calibrated tape deck can record and playback at low speeds (3-3/4 or 1-7/8 ips) and still sound acceptable for many hobbyists. I had excellent results with my fully restored Revox A77 Mk IV (low speed, 4 track version), recording and playing back music from vinyl sources at 1-7/8 ips. I now get superb sound from my (unrestored) TEAC A-3300S, which offers 3-3/4 ips and 7-1/2 ips.
My second deck, a TEAC A3340S 4-track simulsync deck, offers 15 ips, but I have never felt the need to use that. 15 ips recording would be useful when recording live music, perhaps, great for live demo masters, but at £30 for a 3600 feet reel of tape (at time of writing, example RMG pancake of LPR35 tape), a playing time of 48 minutes per side is pretty expensive.
There is no inherent quality difference between 10-1/2-inch reel decks and the standard 7-inch reel decks. The TEAC A-2300S deck is mechanically similar to my A3300S deck, other than the size of reel it can accommodate.
The 7-inch reel offerings from Akai, Pioneer, Sony, Panasonic, Technics and TEAC, among others, are often superb in terms of audio performance. The best small reel deck I have even owned was a near mint Sony TC-377, which was the sonic equal of any large reel deck I’ve owned since (I regretted selling that Sony), and it was superior in sound to my Nakamich Dragon, my Studer A710, and, yes, even my beloved TEAC C-1.
For sound quality, the best cassette machines cannot match even good-to-middling open reel decks in perfect operating condition! If you have not the budget nor the space for a big reel deck, a small reel deck can still look stunning. Again, 7-inch suitably badged metal reels add the finishing touch.
Cassette and 8-track decks can also catch the eye. I personally prefer understated, ‘studio-style’ decks over lots of flashing lights, but that’s purely a matter of personal taste. I owned an Akai CR-81D 8-track player a few years ago, a beast of a machine, which operated beautifully and made decent recordings, considering the quality of tape available for this medium.
I have heard good reports of the Wollensak 8-track players, too – here’s their 8075A model, a 1974 offering, playing America’s A Horse With No Name.
If that isn’t cool, I don’t know what is!
My current main cassette deck, a TEAC C-1 (restored by Sam at Skywave Tape Deck Repair in 2012 not only has a professional look and build quality; it also matches my TEAC A-3300S very well in terms of the colour of the fascias, though the creamy white VU meters of the cassette deck contrast with the black VU meters of the open reel.
Visually, the most striking decks I have owned were the Pioneer CT-F1250
and the Phase Linear 7000 Series Two
(electronically identical to the Pioneer CT-A1 but with a different colour scheme). The Pioneer CT-F1250 is not my favourite Pioneer deck, however—that would be the CT-F1000 with conventional large VU meters, but absent the optimal settings required to get the best from Type IV (metal) tapes. Sadly, these impressive sounding cassette decks suffer reliability issues as they age. In the case of the Pioneers, a failing clutch assembly in the idler wheel causes poor take-up, wind and rewind speeds. The Phase Linear is overly complex electronically, and is prone to failing components and dry solder joints.
I’ve previously owned a Nakamichi Dragon cassette deck, which is a model that tends to fetch high prices. It’s a great, very complex deck, which deserves its accolades, but in all honesty my TEAC C-1 sounds just as good, is more robustly built and more strongly appeals to my classic tastes, aesthetically.
Watch for our next post in the series:
‘Technique – Skill through practice‘
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