Top 10 Open-Reel Decks

Ken Kessler brings you his guide to the best secondhand buys...

While it's true I am obsessed with open-reel tape, I am constantly reminded – not least via our postbag – that 'getting back into tape' is costly for both hardware and software. There are no current decks being produced besides the Ballfinger at £15,000+, brand new pre-recorded tapes start at £200, blanks ain't cheap for those who want to record their own music, and buying vintage pre-recorded tapes requires a sort of fortitude akin to driving in the London-to-Brighton veteran automobile rally.

Reality Check
Having lost myself in open-reel, I was losing touch. A slap upside my head came from reviewing the Quad Vena II Play [HFN May '20] amplifier, EAT's B-Sharp turntable [HFN Jul '20], the MoFi phono stage [HFN Mar '20], and other affordable products this year; they proved to be a much-needed reality-check. It's not as if I am totally divorced from 'real world' gear. We examine our fair share of reasonably-priced kit at HFN, if not quite rock-bottom items like £99-per-pair speakers. Indeed, I pride myself in not being unaware of the components which 99.99% of hi-fi users own.

Even more of an opportunity to get back to my reel-to-reel roots has presented itself through the current self-isolation situation. I imagine all of you are finding yourselves with more time to exploit the joys that our sound systems were created to provide, and to indulge in tweaking and experimenting. Raise your hands, all of you who thought, 'What the heck, let's A/B some Toslink cables'. Either that, or you finally built your Lego Millennium Falcon.

Recently, I've also taken to making imaginary lists, triggered by something external, eg, which ten vintage cars would I buy if I won the Lotto. In that case, it was inspired by a show about a guy who buys cars cheap and then flips them after a rebuild. I've also been fielding questions from many of you about what used reel-to-reel deck to buy and – unless you have Ballfinger money – the choices are all secondhand.

More Ambitious
Default decks soon emerge, because the world is awash with Akais and Sonys at affordable prices, but I realised that you lot are more ambitious. Here, then, in alphabetical order, are my 'Top 10 Used Open-Reel Tape Decks'. The provisos – with one or two exceptions, which I've noted – are that all the machines are of ¼-track format, not ½-track professional stuff.

All of these will play 3¾ips and 7½ips pre-recorded tapes, all can handle 7in spools (or 10in spools if so indicated) and all are domestic or at their most elevated, part of the grey area we call 'semi-pro', like the Otari MX5050.

Amateurs Rule!
I purposely avoided ex-studio/broadcast machines, heavy-duty professional gear like 800-Series Studers, because they are either scarily expensive, often worn-out because of true workhorse usage during their lifetimes, or both. And why alphabetical? Because I don't want to start a run on a given machine – eBay gets enough action from me. Here's my list of safe buys for those who want to savour open-reel tape, and what you can expect to pay.

One last thought: I've been assembling this list over the past six months, and – vigilant as I am in following the market – I'm both delighted and concerned about the growth in the 'R2R Revival'. I'm delighted because it might inspire manufacturers mooting the production of new machines to speed up their development. But concerned? That's because prices are escalating like used Rolexes. Well, not that bad, but almost. I saw an Akai GX77 for $7700…


Akai GX-4000D
This is one of the best basic decks I can think of: plentiful, rugged, serviceable and relatively gentle on your tapes. 7in spools-only, from £100 for a beater, to £350 for a near-minter, up to £500 boxed and cherished, or over a grand for one so mint that you'd swear it was new-old-stock. The Akai GX-4000D uses no belts, only idler wheels which are becoming difficult to find, though aftermarket, generic wheels could save a machine.

While certainly easy to use, there is one insufferable quirk in the '4K – to change the speed, you need to screw and unscrew an adapter that changes the diameter of the drive pillar that rotates the pinch roller. When playing without the adapter, it resides on a post under the head cover. Remember to make sure there's one with the machine!


Denon DH-710S
This is the personal favourite of Tim de Paravicini of EAR Yoshino, and for good reason: sound quality is breathtaking. The DH-710S doesn't play 3¾in, but if you can afford one, you can buy a Sony TC-350 or other beater for slow speed duties. You'd be lucky to find a DH-710S for £1500, so consider its siblings, the DH-510 and DH-610, for less layout.

The handling is superlative thanks to the double-capstan system, but the deck's appeal has escalated of late thanks to external units like the Doshi Audio V3.0 Tapestage tape preamp. The DH-710S is, to my knowledge, the only deck with an umbilical lead straight from the heads, so you can feed it with ease to external high-end preamplifiers.


Otari MX5050
The all-in-one that does everything: speeds, reel-sizes, formats and EQ. This has the same spec as Technics' RS-1500 but built to semi-pro or even pro standards and, unlike the RS-1500, has switchable NAB/CCIR EQ. It's XLR-output-only, not pretty, but what a deck! Well-used from £500-£750, excellent shape from £1200, near perfect for £2-£3k.

Ignore the studio variants such as the 8-track decks unless you're opening a studio. You want the ¼in tape model that's got switchable ½-track and ¼-track. By the way, Petronel Butuc at Audiophiles Clinic says Otari produced the last-ever open-reel decks until Ballfinger appeared. This means its 2005-6 units are the 'newest' of used decks.

Pioneer RT-707
The sleeper awakens, for this auto-reverse, 7in spool-only unit, 19in rack-mountable gem has been rediscovered as not merely a pretty unit designed for domestic acceptability, but also as one of the nicest-sounding of them all. Oddly-dimensioned at 12½in deep but standing a mere 9in tall, it is one of the most easily-accommodated in hi-fi equipment stands. Prices are currently escalating vertically, with good examples now commanding £600-£1500. The RT-707 boasts good, durable heads, the auto-reverse system is one of the best, its ease-of-use is second to none, spooling is rapid, and tape-handling excellent.