Top 10 Open-Reel Decks Page 2

I use mine for five to six hours on the trot, and it hasn't chewed a single tape. Because demand is so crazy for these machines, not least due to the convenient shape and size, the market where the most were sold is the one to tap: the US, which swallowed plenty of 110V models. You can find these on eBay, hifishark or other online auction sites – when I last checked hifishark, it had over 100. And worry not about the voltage because converters don't break the bank.


ReVox A77/B77
The solid-state replacements for the G36, and both are plentiful, available in various formats and easy to service. These are truly wonderful machines, but prices are all over the place. I've seen decent ones for £300 but the market seems to be stable at £350-£500 for clean units needing no parts, up to £1200-£1500 for minters, and all points inbetween. Whatever model you choose, whether you go for the A77 or the more slick B77, what's constant is that all offer two speeds. 'Low' means 3¾ips and 7½ips; 'High' gives you 7½ips and 15ips.

If, like me, you're planning on using only vintage pre-recorded tapes, you obviously want the low-speed ¼-track versions, but if you're planning on making high-quality tapes, go for the high-speed machine in ½-track form. The A77 made it to Mk IV status, the B77 to Mk II, and there are cults for all of the various iterations. If you fall under the Revox spell, buy the book ReVox Reel To Reel Tape Recorders 1949-1993 by Luca Maria Olgiati and Paolo Bologna (ISBN no 978-1-36-659060-2). It will save you a fortune, prevent headaches and guide you through the selection of two of the most popular open-reel decks in history.


ReVox G36
For some, this valve unit is the best-sounding playback machine ever made, but it runs hot, it's full of valves and it always needs TLC. They made plenty of them, so prices for good ones are only £350-£750. Also available as a half-track deck and with various speed combinations, but look for the ¼-track with 3¾/7½ips speeds. Without repeating everything I wrote about its solid-state replacements, the G36 – which reached Mk III guise and total production of around 43,000 units of all types – is the template for the range of A77/B77 variants, and also begging the purchase of ReVox Reel To Reel Tape Recorders 1949-1993 before you even consider logging onto eBay.

The issue is this: because the G36 contains so many valves – 21, I believe – and is crammed full of point-to-point wiring, working on it is akin to 'disassembling a sandwich', according to Audiophiles Clinic's Petronel. Another consideration is that G36s can only play in the horizontal, not the vertical, if it's an issue for you. That said, I will forever cherish my Tim de Paravicini-modified G36, which I savour on special occasions.


Sony TC-377
The sloped-front-panel alternative to the Akai GX-4000D, and one of the best-selling reel-to-reel decks of all time. 7in spools-only, feature-laden, affordable, compact – it's hard to choose between this and the GX-4000D. Working machines can be found for just £80, but £250-£300 should secure a gem and £400-£500 a mint example. It's not just ubiquity or price that makes this deck so appealing: it really is something special, not least that it sounded so good for the price. One neat detail is that its preamp signal goes straight to the transistors without a capacitor in the way – a clever Sony invention.

It boasted 'TMS' – or 'Total Mechanism Shut-Off' – which turned off the machine completely when tape play ended; it worked vertically or horizontally; featured 'Ferrite & Ferrite' heads for long life, and offered a panoply of controls, unlike its prosaic sibling, the TC-350. If you prefer a rarer version, the Sony TC-377 was an update of the TC-366, while the Japanese market's model was the TC-6360-A. For perspective, when launched in the UK in 1973/4, the TC-377 sold for £105 (£1281 in 2020 pounds), or a third of the price of an A77.


Sony TC-350
Basic, nay crude, 7in spools-only, devoid of frills, but (I am not kidding) amazing sound! Friction transport, so if a tape breaks, it doesn't stop the tape from unspooling, but hey, I've seen these for £20, so don't grumble. Yes – two tenners. I use my '350 daily. £150-£200 should get you something in perfect condition, or walk away. It must be emphasised that in so many ways this is the ideal machine for those who aren't 100% committed to the idea of delving into the world of reel-to-reel tape, but are at the very least curious. I cannot emphasise what a dirt-cheap way this is to at least try the format.

This is proper Japanese engineering, in a machine that is so user-friendly that no manual is needed if you've used a tape deck before. What's more, it's so light and compact as to be almost portable. Yes, it's so basic that it doesn't even have locking spindles – the spools here are held in place by rubber grips which you'll mistake for the feet of an amplifier. And the TC-350 is clunky. You cannot leave it playing alone (see above about tape unspooling.) But the sound! And all for the cost of four Big Macs! This is a deck that deserves to heard.


TEAC X-Series
The 'pretty ones', eg, the X3 (pictured), X7, etc, because they were plentiful, robust, sound great and remain affordable, unlike the X-1000, X-2000, etc, which shot up in price after a starring role in Pulp Fiction. 7in spool-only examples start at £250, 10in spool models from £500. Fabulous decks.


Technics RS-1500/1700
This is the 3-speed (3¾, 7½ and 15ips), 7in/10in spool deck du jour, the later variants playing ¼- and ½-track. The only thing this NAB deck doesn't do that Otari's MX5050 does is offer CCIR EQ as well. Prices are going crazy, because high-enders adore this deck and it's favoured by the refurbishing companies who are buying up donor machines.

This means allowing at least £1200-£1500 for working samples and then adding £200-£400 for the auto-reverse RS-1700. And if that's daunting, one reseller of completely rebuilt, customised units asks $8000-$12,000. And I promise you: prices are rising faster than those of any other deck.

My advice?
Spend at least a month scouring eBay, try to visit one of the Tonbridge Audiojumbles, when it restarts, contact one of the many companies servicing decks for quotes, stick to a budget and take your time. If you want one machine that does everything, the Otari MX5050 and Technics RS-1500 will never disappoint. If like me you only want to play vintage pre-recorded tapes, you can get away with any machine without 10in spool capability and save a lot. Shop around, budget for a full service and expect problems. But the sound will make it all worthwhile. Happy hunting!