What is the best Reel To Reel machine ever built?

Everyone who has listened to master tapes or dubs knows about the well balanced sound they provide. But it is also important to have a fine tape recorder or playing machine to enjoy the tapes' qualities in a good system.
Maybe my question was raised once before but the relevance of the topic is now greater as the tapes are back to more and more audiophile friends, especially those who are owning excellent phono chains.

I have seen many big & professional machines being recently offered and sold on e-bay, Audiogon and other platforms and I am discussing within a small group which machine is really the "holy grail" among the R2Rs. So why not here. I am interested in findings.
the ATR is a Mastering Machine.
I read: The Ampex ATR-102 tends to work best on rock, metal and hip hop styles, and even folk or acoustic-based music that needs ‘warming up’. Where it doesn’t work well is when a mix is already quite compressed, dull or heavy in the low frequencies – in these cases the tape only tends to exaggerate these areas.

best & fun only
Thuchan, please elaborate on how the R2R application is coming back. What is the source material and where can you buy it?? I have zero knowledge about R2R, so a brief education would be appreciated.

FWIW, I remember in the "old" days when high end R2R machines were made by Crown, TEAC and Tandberg. I never got into that end of the hobby but these machines were works of art, especially the Crown which was the Cadillac of the day.
Big question and like hi fi, it depends. I can comment from the pro side. The old Ampex machines were nice, but the tube electronics were designed to be simple and easy to repair in the field but not audiophile grade. Sound beautiful but limited dynamic range and too much color! Many old tape transports have been separated from their electronics and now have specially built electronics. I've seen Mike Spitz from ATR tape in NYC sells machines like this to some pros who want top level tape performance. This is probably the best machine available for record/play performance.

Another friend, CHris Mara, is modding and upgrading old MCI machines for studios, but this is a pro application.

For playback only, I saw Paul Stubblebine was doing modded Panasonic and tascam machines, not sure if he still is. He was offering a tape library awhile back.

One issue is the raw tape-the best tape makers went away a few years ago and now ATR/Mike Spitz has begun to manufacture his own tape. There are some other sources as well. I hear good things about ATR tape. But tape does not store well, so its not ideal long term medium. Sure sounds great though.

Other than a few private sources, where would you get a steady source of material?
That is a crazy question. I have had many different Reel to Reel tape machines and many of them had radically different sounds and features. I have had my last 3 reel to reel machines for over 10 years and I will probably not sell them. I had many of the big Akai, Technics, Pioneer, Ampexs, but settled on three Revox reel to reel machines a G36 and two B77MKIIs. I like them the best out of all the reel to reel machines I have owned but I doubt they are the "best". They just have a sound that I really like.
The old Ampex machines were nice, but the tube electronics were designed to be simple and easy to repair in the field but not audiophile grade. Sound beautiful but limited dynamic range and too much color!

This is not true.

The problem here is that when Ampex made their tube electronics was a good 40-55 years ago! They were amazing when they were new (many Living Stereo LPs were recorded on them) but have gone downhill due to age. If they are properly rebuilt they will take any solid state electronics ever made to task. If not rebuilt properly then I would agree that they can be colored- paper coupling caps perform well, but don't last for decades!

The transport is a different matter. It is arguable that the ATR was indeed the state of the art, but if you really wanted to make things go, find a way to make it work with the 351 tube electronics.
you may look for sources at Audio Kharma ( reel to reel ). there are many sources mentioned where you can buy tapes. Master Tape dubs you may get e.g. from the Tape Project or AAA in Germany.

I know some audiophiles in the States, Switzerland, Germany who build up their tape collection right now. It looks to me like a small but exclusive renaissance of the R2R which you may also follow on systems displayed on Audiogon - but a small one!

best & fun only
why is it a crazy question? If you meet someone asking where to buy the best ever built R2R machine for high quality recording & playback do you think the ones you mentioned will win the race? :-)

best & fun only
interesting question. and one i've personally been trying to answer for 4-5 years. and i don't yet have the answer.

my first deck was a 1/4" ATR-102 completely redone by Jeff Gillman of Precision Motor Works. this deck also came with a 1/2" head stack.

then i acquired a pristene condition 1/4" Studer A-820 that was redone by Fred Thal.

then i added a very clean 1/2" Studer A820.

recently i purchased an Ampex 350 in traveling cases, which is a virgin and super clean, but in need of a thourough going thru, which Dave Dintenfass will be re-doing for me.

and lastly i've acquired a very clean Nagra T which should be in my room next week.

at various times all the above machines have been characterized as the best from one perspective or another.

currently i have one set of custom output electronics, the King Cello. i've also purchased a pair of Ampex 351 Mic pre's, which i'm planning on using with a transformer for the low impedence modern heads....once Dave get's those done. i'd like to add one more set of output electronics.

i've been 'told' that the Studer A-820, A80, and Ampex ATR-102 are the very best transports in terms of tape handling and speed accuracy. heads seem to be a matter of taste; different people view those differently based on a sonic compass.

many tape decks are judged by their native output electronics; which mostly are crap, with a few exceptions. some love the tubes, others not.

which one is best? as a machine and considering build quality; there is the Studer A-820 and then there is everything else.

just one man's opinion.
your A820 looks like it is in a very good condition. It is of course the crown of all modern Studer machines with five motors and its build quality is from another world. It is also a very rare type you have. You are very priviliged to work with such a machine. I was told the weak point may be the computerized design. new parts a not easy to get but I do think this counts for all Studers exept of the A810.
Oh yes the Nagras. What about the Sonys and MCIs?

best & fun only

Alright, MIKE!!

First, there was the tribute to vinyl...
and now...
the R2R arsenal :-)

Of course, there is Ki's pantheon to analog reel tape!

I have a Studer A-820 ;-)

Eckart -- how're you doing?
I use Sony TC 765 for all my replay....not the super machine, but very good sound and build to last.......
Dear all,
thanks for contributing so far. I know about the Studer machines but there are so many other nice machines out there. I recently saw a vintage Sony prototype on ebay in very good condition, only a little overprized.

Sam, oh yes you are a lucky owner of a A820. May I ask you and Mike if are using the A820 at 30 ips?

Besides of the A820 which machine really has "best of all time status" or which one would you recommend going for?

best & fun only
Even though I myself won't be pursuing R2R (not enough easily available material I'm interested in to play), one thing I would be curious about is what these R2R worthies think of the vinyl vs. tape comparison. Too often, it seems to me, the magic word "analog" is bandied about almost exclusively in relation to vinyl, to which it is not a synonym. An occasional reminder of the difference could be healthy for the perspective, I believe.
I feel that that it is too hard for there to be one best reel to reel. I have owned many. The objectives for me and my reel to reel tape machines are not the same for others who may also own reel to reel tape recorders. I like the three reel to reel tape recorders I own. I have spent a lot of time going through and sorting out the issues my machines had as a result of age, mainly old electrolytics caps. I also spent years looking for new old stock heads belts and other items that fail. All three of my machines sonically are superior compared to all the other reel to reel tape machines I have had owned in the past. Almost all the reel to reels machines I have owned in the past I have been able to sell them to friends and people I know well. One bought one of my previous big fancy Technics R2Rs and according to the buyer the his reel to reel with lots of feature any speed and tape options is the best and that I was crazy to sell it to him and buy three reel to reels to cover my reel to reel tape needs. I have another friend who says the same thing about the big bad fancy Akai, and another friend who bought my vintage done right Ampex. I have to admit that vintage Ampex sounds great but the Revox machines sound even better according to me. These guys are funny when they come over with a newly found treasure usually a prerecorded tape found at a yard sale in great condition. I get grilled "why does it sound so good in your system" then they make fun of my funny looking Revox machines. Anymore who cares about the best, what you like is what counts! The best is an opinion of some one.
you`re absolutely right. Being a connoisseur of R2Rs as I learn from your history you know about "your treasures" quite well. I regard the Revox machines as very good ones too. Nevertheless I experienced that the professionnel studio machines offer some advantages we as home audio guys did not know before.

In my youth I started with Grundig and Philipps R2Rs. When I rediscovered Tapes in the 90ies I first bought a TEAC X2000 and later picked up a Studer A810 in Switzerland but had to calibrate the machine. This one was a true friend for about six years. When I was confronted with one of the best restored Studer C37 R2R I have ever seen I added the C37 and from now on enjoy the tube sound of a studio tape recorder.

I also compared the sound of the C37 with the A820 being able reproducing over 15.000 Hz. The A820 is from my point of view technically the superior unit but musically I prefer a little the C37. This is today`s situation, but who knows...

best & fun only
Studer C-37 with thoughtful modification. Had two of them. Never heard more faithful, dynamic or physical presence from any R2R. Together with "air" and soundstage.
The Studer's when they were brand new. Today any R2R 'best' is best measured by its condition or reconditioning. Since parts are very hard to come by at reasonable prices, the ability to have a fully functioning, calibrated machine is the starting point. I have five decks, including sony, teac, technics and akai. I play pre recorded broadcast tapes from Drake, Radio Arts and AFRTS and have found great sound, often better then digital.
Sorry to sound like a broken record but "Best" is in the eye/ear of the beholder. There is no definitive "best" anything, it's all subjective. When you ask a question like this, the answers will always be what folks think is "best" to them in their system.
as far as best Reel to Reel machine ever built, i'll agree it does become a matter of personal preference. but there are some objective things that can be said. there is a difference between consumer machines, pro-sumer/broadcast machines, and master recorders. and only master recorders, where the build level and transports are not compromised, are really candidates for being the best machines. there is a reason that the master recorders were used in studios to make our beloved music.

this is not to say that a particular hot rodded broadcast level machine cannot have perfect heads and output electronics and sound better than nice master recorders.

i still own a stock Technics RS-1500. i owned a deParavicini modified RS-1700, which sounded great. but when i compared either of those to my Studer A820, either with or without the King/Cello.....there was a refinement to the music with the Studer which the Technics could not attain.

and when you look at the way tape is handled, my Studer A820's and ATR-102's simply are in another league compared to even broadcast machines. i think the Nagra T would also fall into that territory.

so talking about the best ever tape player you need to consider the build quality and tape handling mostly. heads and output electronics can be changed. i'd liken it to a turntable and arm in vinyl. yes, the cartridge and phono stage is important; but if the turntable and arm don't properly put the cartridge in the perfect position to do their job there is compromise.

and since all these machines are 25-60 years old; how do you objectively compare RTR decks that are in such variable states of repair and optimization?

as far as which master recorders are best, i have very limited experience. maybe Ki Choi would be the guy to have the most to say about that question. he owns almost every master recorder ever built, in most cases multiple, and is able to work on them too. i suspect i know his preference.

there is a RTR repair facility which does answer this question from a slightly different perspective. here is the question they ask. and here is their answer.

i'm not sure i 100% agree with them. but they know quite a bit more than me about the subject. and their answer is a bit self-serving.
Well, while I certainly agree regarding mechanism and transport, I have good reason for recommending the C-37 especially for home use 2-track playback. Carefully serviced, their built-in amplification is about as close as you can get for the best possible in tube-based RTR playback.
Sure - there are customized ss based playback amplifiers by notable audiophile origin (Cello etc.), but they never moved the earth beneath my feet.
A top-notch C-37 may have more hiss in playback than most japanese RTRs of the 1970s/80s and certainly can't compete with Nagra either, but then you will have a very hard time getting the dimensionality, soundstage, micro-color and "live-feeling" a C-37 can provide.
After all we are talking home use playback here - not recording, not pre-mix master taping.
My vote for playback - and meant for that purpose only.
Another point - easy access (at least in Europe...) to NOS/NIB original parts. Tube-based plug-in devices can be serviced quite comfortably too.
Lastly and maybe of relevance - I am not bias on tubes.
My power amps are SEFets, battery powered - for good reason.
Most studios in the US with functioning tape machines have newer Studers. There were still a few new ones for sale as recently as a few years ago. Sadly, most of them sit in the corner unused. There are a few engineers who still insist on them, but its getting to be a very small number-mostly engineers with private studios of their own. The pressure and speed (and budget) of the modern studio/client combo makes it a tough decision and a big commitment. Its so cool to see Stevie Wonder Innervisions liner notes and see a friend (who now works at JBL) listed as "Tape Operator".
i almost traded my Dobbins Garrard 301/Loricraft for a 220v 50hz C37 from Europe....but in the end i did not want to deal with the power converter issues. so i purchased the 'American' C37, the Ampex 350. which, like the C37 in Europe, has lots of parts available and has that tubed output. and i purchased an additional set of Ampex 351 output electronics to be able to use that too.

which is better in that light? C37 or Ampex 350/351? many different opinions on that. lots of great music was mastered on both.

i do think that neither of those machines are the 'one answer' for all tapes. and the tape transports of either are crude and abrupt compared to the A820/A80/ATR-102.
Dear Mikelavigne, yes - most great european generated music - classical as well as jazz and rock, beat etc. - was recorded on Studer - most american on Ampe(re)x.
The voltage conversation isn't all that great deal at all - this does frequently scare many audiophiles on both sides of the pond to give vintage gear from the "other side" a try.
Unless one wants to actually record / master new recordings on his own behalf, I still think it is about playback quality when talking about RTR for home use.
having never heard a Studer C37, or an Ampex 350/351 for that matter, i can't say whether they might sound the best for playback. in fact; those i know that have the most experience say to me that those 50's and 60's machines actually make the best live recordings, but more contemporary machines sound better for playback.

i do think that quality of transport matters to the sound. it's not the only thing, but it's part of the picture.

i think we will see more custom electronics coming to market as the RTR audiophile movement matures. also; perceptions of specific output electronics is extremely context driven. i've had many tell me that the King/Cello sounds wonderful in my system, but maybe not as good in other contexts.....and i've heard the opposite too.

so there is more than one viewpoint as well as method.
John Stephens built the very best sounding professional deck ever built.

Just try to find an owner willing to sell one.

Hello Eckart,

Sam, oh yes you are a lucky owner of a A820. May I ask you and Mike if are using the A820 at 30 ips?
I have some 30 ips, half-track, half-inch master dubs around. Also, I have some 24-track master tapes that I imagine were recorded at 30 ips...Hmmm -- maybe, a Studer A827 in the future?? Hehe :-)


Hello Sam,
We did not talk about the Nagras and the MCIs so far.
I have also not seen any comments about the big Sony machines.

when the big DASH machines were introduced they did quite some good recordings, e.g. for the ECM label. The problem seems to be that the digital sources are getting rare.

best @ fun only

Hi Eckart,

I haven't any direct experience with either the Nagras or MCI's, but I'm quite interested in the Nagras for location recording.

At present we have the Ampex 351-2 (updated), the Studer, a very nice Sony (allows you to change from 1/4" to 1/2" tape in seconds), an Otari and a Tascam.

In the past I used to do a lot of the on-location work with a Magnacord, a nice tube machine that is excellent but does not get much mention.

Mike is right about the rather crude setup of the Ampex 350 transport (we also have a 300 transport and things are no better with it). When I did the update/upgrade of the Ampex I chose the AG-440 transport. At least it has automatic head lifters! It also has a flutter idler in the headnest.

Years ago I did a recording of a large choral/orchestral work called Canto General. Mikas Theodorakis was in town to conduct, so I didn't want any screwups. So I used two tape machines, the Studer A-80 and the Ampex and made two master tapes. In playback the Ampex could use either tape and was obviously more musical than the Studer. The Ampex-made tape also sounded better on the Studer than the tape that it made. Both machines were in good condition and this was in 1986.

Now the difference I heard was one that is often described as the difference between tubes and transistors, so if you prefer transistors you may well have liked the Studer's tape more. I have to say- it was/is damned impressive.

The biggest weakness I have heard in tape machines is actually in record mode- transistor machines are prone to a certain kind of modulation noise that shows up most in simple passages. This is due to the head driver transistor being sensitive to the bias signal- special traps have to be used in SS machines to reduce this problem. Tube machines are immune.

So if you are in playback only IMO you have greater flexibility about which machine is the 'best', however it will certainly be a mastering deck unless somebody has really tweaked the hell out of a lessor machine. BTW the mastering machines respond really well to such tweaking. We have replaced every chip and coupling cap in sight in the Sony and the results were spectacular.
Thucan, is it stll possible to pick up a like new rehabbed Crown or Tandberg R2R? If so where?? Here on S'gon or eBay??
Hey R2R mavens, got a question. Just checked eBay and saw there a number of Crown R2Rs: (1) a Crown 800 and (2) Crown SX-724. Both drive only 1/4" tape. Are these good units? Is 1/4" tape the tape of choice, as compared to something wider?
you are describing deep experiences with R2Rs. I share your assessments you made so far and it shows that looking on master tape machines needs a more detailed approach and comes to different results than the repair facility which Mike mentioned believes.

And of course it us all about recording quality and the transistor/tube output of the mastering deck. One may ask if we do need the technical options of a big studio machine but when you operate one of the giants, let's say the A820, it is a lot of fun and a very nice haptic feeling you have.

This is also part of the story. You have this with the C37 as well whenever the transport mechanism is not as soft as with the A820 and maybe the Ampex.
I have no experience with the Crowns. Tandbergs you find on ebay or here on Audiogon. I would recommend going for a 1/2" if you looking for quality recording & playback.

best @ fun only
Bifwynne, As you may or may not know, the better Crown tape recorders have interchangeable heads, can be modified therefore to use half-inch tapes. At one time, Crown was considered to be right up there with anything else made for home use and I think they were used in studios as well. And they are built "like a tank". My old and sadly departed boss used to have four, yes FOUR, Crown tape decks in his audio system, set side by side by side by side in his listening room. Then he had a spare bedroom entirely devoted to storage of first-generation master tapes he collected, floor to ceiling shelves with free-standing shelves in the middle of the room as well, all first generation. The sound was awesome. But when digital came along, some salesman sold him a bill of goods, and he replaced all that stuff with a Sony CD player, which sounded awful. Years later I asked him what had become of his tape collection; he had given it away!!!!
Dear Lewm,

this is a true story I am sure. Many people got rid of their vinyl collection too. And today? Some really lucky ones still have a collection, others are building it up cause there is so much vinyl out there, and in Jazz and Classics records are usually in a good condition.

In tapes we have a few sources getting second or third master dubs, even of modern Rock and Jazz productions. Nevertheless I am still waiting for a guy like your former boss reading these lines considering to make himself a little lighter...

best @ fun only
Lew, I agree 100% with you. Anything built by Crown back in the 70s would last forever. I still have two Crown amps that refuse to die: I gave the DC300A to my son; I keep the D150A Series II as a back up. Both amps went to the factory for a check up -- just a couple of caps and resisters were replaced and both amps perform at original factory spec, which is pretty impressive in its own right.

For nastalgia's sake, I would love to pick up an old Crowm R2R that's still in great shape, but to what end?? I am not interested in making tape back-ups of music and I'm not even sure where I could pick up pre-recorded tapes. But it was a different time back then -- much slower than what's going on today. And Crown was the standard bearer.
I don't know how a fully tweaked and top of the line Crown would compare to the Studers, Ampexes, MCIs, etc, that have come up in this discussion. But I do think that Ralph would have one if he thought it competed sonically with those big boys.

Thuchan, Several years transpired between the day I sat aghast listening to the horrid first generation Sony CD player that had replaced all those Crown tape decks and the day I asked my boss about the fate of his tapes. By then I was ready to jump on them myself, if he by some luck had stored them away. I forgot to say also that when I heard the Crown cum first-generation tapes, he was using Bose 901 speakers driven by a huge McIntosh amp. When later I heard the Sony CDP, he had also truly upgraded to giant Dunleavy's. So he had much better speakers in the latter instance, yet there was no comparison in sound quality to what I had heard earlier from the very lowly Bose speakers. The Dunleavy's enabled one all the better to appreciate the shortcomings of CD in those days.

He was a renowned scientist and a true music lover, an aficionado and patron of all local concerts, a man who entertained some of the great artists in his home, including conductors and soloists who might be performing at the Kennedy Center in DC. Sometimes they played for him. (All the names escape me now.) Yet he could not hear how terrible the Sony was and could not therefore appreciate his grievous error. He often made fun of me (in a nice way) for continuing to listen to vinyl. In turn, I could never bring myself to tell him what I really thought about his ultimate choice in source material.
Ralp (Atma Sphere) -- if you catch my posts and Lew's comments, we would appreciate it if you would weigh in on the quality (sonics and build) of the Crown and Tandberg R2R machines back in the 70s. As I recall, they were SOTA, but mostly for the consumer market. I think Crown may have served the pro market too, but I don't have any experience with that application.

How would rehabbed old Crown and Tandberg machines compare to some of the SOTA gear listed above?

Wow, that's one hell of a story, Lewm!
I'm glad I had the opportunity to enjoy it, vicariously :-)

I don't think Crown was into audiophile level quality. I repped them from 1980 to 1990 or so. The family was into missionary work, and Crown recorders were designed to be simple, repairable and operable in difficult environments. They used to set up broadcast facilities all over the world (and also built transmitters they sold mostly direct).


I don't think it is difficult to get into the Tape Business again. You are able to buy excellent master dubs on the market (e.g. Tape Project). If you have some friends sharing this specific adventure you might  be able to make copies for your personal use and also exchange ideas about new sources (search under The Audio Archive).

Don't start with a feeling of limitation, regard it as an exclusive window in your audiophile chain. Whenever you are listening to well recorded tapes you migh agree that this is setting the standard in your system. Also for comparing to vinyl or certain cartrigdes. And don't forget the haptic feeling when you are operating a tape machine. We could ask Mike, Albert or Sam if they stay cool when being in contact with their R2Rs...

best @ fun only
Transaudio is correct; the Crown was originally designed to be able to survive a fall off of a donkey. For real.

The weakness in them is the electronics. Seems to me there was an original version that was tube, but I have never seen one... anyway, the transistor units have a lot of the failings that transistors often have IMO. I may still have some LPs that Robert Fulton (founder of the modern high end cable industry) recorded using his 'modified' Crown; those recordings are excellent, although musically they are typical audiophile, which is to say ABYSMAL :)

There has been speculation locally about whether or not Fulton really did modify his machines. After he died (rather suddenly) a friend of mine obtained one of them from his estate and it was entirely stock!

So other than my comment about transistor vs tubes... perhaps my comments about the electronics might be taken with a grain of salt (although if you find one cheap I would not turn it down, and also I would expect to replace every electrolytic capacitor in sight in the electronics). I've usually stayed away from them mostly because they seem more consumer than pro to me (same for the Revox...)


It's tough to remain cool around so much HOT gear ;-)
Certainly, central A/C plays a vital role in keeping me stable, haha.


 Sam, I just saw this funny dialog. You may like it...


Hello everyone
I just bought an A820 and i try to figure out how calibrate it us i am new in tape.
Does auto alignement means that i don't have to use MRL?
Can anybody discribe me the alignement procedure?
I've downloaded the manual but i don't want to make something that will hurt the machine.

Thanks in advance
Wed Mar 30, 2011 4:45 am


everything you're saying is all wrong. i think you may have already damaged this machine. you'll need to crate it up and have it shipped to me right away. i'll have a look and see what i can do. it will take some years, though. 

man, you're lucky i saw this.
Wed Mar 30, 2011 6:31 am
That is so kind of you but it only solves half of my problems as i have two of them
Wed Mar 30, 2011 8:19 am

best @ fun only
Atmasphere, is correct. the mastering machines benefit greatly from bypass caps and general parts upgrades. Have donr quite a few myself.

What is not mentioned is the large leap in head technology that occurred at the peak of the analog mastering days. take a 1950s or 1960s vintage ampex 300 or tube magnecord, and slap in a set of the better nortronics heads or JRF headds, and those machines take a giant leap in sonics.

I still do some live to 2 track work, mostly hi rez digital, but sometimes still lug along a hi speed analog half track.



I still do some live to 2 track work, mostly hi rez digital, but sometimes still lug along a hi speed analog half track.

ALRIGHT! What mics, pres, and mixer are you using for your location gigs?

Best regards,
Sam, the best mixer for on-location is none at all if you can get away with it!

I use Neumann U-67s. They have their own faults but those are far outweighed by their benefits :)