In early 2017 I hopped on a plane to Germany to visit the Hamburg Hi-Fi Show (Norddeutsche HiFi-Tage / Hörtest), having heard that a brand new tape machine was about to be previewed. The machine in question was the Ballfinger M 063. Fast forward to the Munich High-End Show in May 2018 and the M 063 is in full production, on the market and available to buy.
At the time of writing Ballfinger’s website is only available in their native German language and so here are a few of the details and specs in English to whet your appetite….
The M 063 comes in four different editions (you wait decades for a tape deck then four come along at once!), all of which are designed for professional use – but of course are of equal appeal to the ambitious music lover. The aim is to offer a range of flexible solutions for different needs, purposes and budgets. More on the four editions later – first let’s take a quick look first at the overall design and construction.
Since the M 063’s transport was developed for professional purposes, it features two very high-torque direct-drive spool motors that use state-of-the-art control electronics. There are two versions of the capstan drive: the technically sophisticad brushless direct drive for the shortest start-up times, or you can opt for the less costly belt drive soloution.
The chassis is made from high-strength aluminium. All of its transport-mounting surfaces are precision-milled to provide a superb foundation for the head block, heads and transport elements. The various assemblies – motors, power supplies, audio electronics – are arranged such that signal paths are kept as short as possible. Those components that are susceptible to interference are kept well apart, and those with the most sensitive parts and cabling are carefully shielded against electro-magnetic interferrence.
This same level of attention to detail is also apparent in the M 063’s external appearance. Its clean, clear design is not only aesthetically pleasing – it’s also informed by strict adherence to a well thought-out design grid created to ensure exemplary usability and ease of maintenance, service and upgrading/reconfiguration. For example, all elements used for playback are on the left while those for recording are on the right, with the drive functions arranged in the middle.
Now for those four distinct editions –
At the entry level is the compact M 063 H1, an audiophile playback-only deck without built-in audio electronics, hence for use with a third-party tape head preamplifier. Add-on options (at extra cost) include a direct drive capstan motor, provision for 12” reels and a three-speed version. Although not yet available, provision is also made for a second playback head. Thus if a four-track head was added and was used with a switchable EQ tape head preamplaifier, then together with the three-speed option this machine could replay virtually all stereo tapes whether vintage four-tracks or modern two-tracks.
Next up, the M 063 H3 adds on-board playback electronics (which can be either CCIR or NAB), as well as a recording function. Again, options include a direct drive capstan motor, larger direct drive winding motors to accommodate 12” reels, and a three-speed version, and also balanced audio inputs and outputs.
At the top end, the M 063 H5 is every inch the professional machine and includes a raft of features such as balanced inputs and outputs, a three-speed three-motor direct drive, 12” reel capacity and switchable NAB / CCIR replay equalization.
Finally, the M 063 HX is essentially the bespoke Ballfinger. A fully-customisable machine, it offers the ultimate in built-to-order configurability. In its most basic form it’s similar to the entry-level H1 – a playback-only machine without on-board audio electronics. However it can be configured with any of the features of the top-end H5.
In fact, with the exception of the M 063 H1 (which has a smaller chassis), all models are crafted around a modular strategy which means that they can be reconfigured at any time according to needs and that parts are easy to remove and replace.
There are many more features, options and accessories – see www.ballfinger.de for full specifications. It’s a good website – clear, uncluttered and well-structured, so even if you’re not a German-speaker you can fairly easily find your way around. The information available on each model is commendably comprehensive. It’s also mercifully free of marketing blah-blah, preferring instead to stick to a clear presentation of features and facts – which means that if you run the German text through Google translate (or similar) you’ll get a pretty good understanding of what’s on offer.
Prices are as follows (including 19% German sales tax):
M 063 H1 from 9,997 euros
M 063 H3 from 15,890 euros
M 063 H5 from 23,980 euros
M 063 HX from 11,878 euros
Roland Schneider, the man behind Ballfinger and the machines’ designer, was recently quoted on the Bloomberg website (1) as saying that he has “received distribution requests for them from more than 80 companies, including ones in the U.S., Hong Kong and Dubai.” This sounds highly encouraging, suggesting that there are potentially quite a few die-hard reel-to-reel fans out there. Schneider was also quoted as saying that he “has the capacity to produce about 200 machines a year, seeks to sell 20 to 30 players this year and about double that next year. And he’s in talks with other producers with more manpower (Schneider has two employees and a handful of freelancers) to potentially license his technology.” Again, all very encouraging for the revival of this vital format.
I take my hat off to Schneider and Ballfinger for bringing the much-loved technology slap-bang into the modern age again, where it belongs.
Dusseldorf-based Ballfinger is a designer-maker of sophisticated, fine art instruments.The company’s credentials, like its products, are impressive. Back in 2004 industrial designer Roland Schneider founded the company with a headline-grabbing innovation which grew to win both industry respect and serious market demand. The Ballfinger desk lamp, an architectural design, drew on two great classics – George Carwardine’s 1933 Anglepoise Lamp and the Artemide Tizio by Richard Sapper in 1971 – but then added a whole new dimension. Until that point, moving work-lights could only be moved on two axes. Ballfinger used ball joints and gimbal suspension to pioneer an entirely new approach, allowing movement around a third axis. For the next decade, an extensive series of Ballfinger light fixtures featured in a wide range of modernist classic and contemporary designs around the world, from Le Corbusier to Hadi Teherani.
In 2010 the company turned its attention to wristwatches and its first ‘Triplex’ model featured a design in which the product’s physical appearance served multiple purposes far beyond purely aesthetics (though the aesthetics were sublime). In fact the watches’ innovative design and the complex manufacturing procedures required to produce them led Ballfinger to develop fresh new production techniques.
This is typical of the company’s approach, in which time-honoured design and craftsmanship is married with cutting-edge innovation and genuine invention, all of which is underpinned by an intimately close collaboration between designers and engineers at every stage of development. What’s more, the company retains tight control of quality and precision throughout and as many components and processes as possible are developed and manufactured in-house.
Ballfinger entered the world of hi-end audio in 2013. While the comeback of vinyl was everywhere apparent, Schneider’s particular fascination for magnetic tape was already taking hold. As a designer with a deep respect for the classics and a keen urge to reinvent and take them forward, it was irresistible. “Magnetic tape technology places the highest demands on precision, design and manufacturability,” he explains. And as a music lover, he was hooked on the format long ago. “Until the early 1990s, magnetic tape technology was the starting point for all other recordings, from vinyl to CDs. Then digital technology changed everything but it couldn’t replace tape. Its sound characteristics have never been bettered so it’s vital that it continues to exist alongside digital recordings.” “Besides,” he adds, “while new technologies are always tempting at the beginning, as humans we want more than just a user interface, we also want real substance. We are, after all, physical beings in a physical world.”
Both the Ballfinger M 063 open reel tape recorder and the Ballfinger PS 2 turntable have been nominated for the German Design Award 2018.
1. Bloomberg.com article The Ultimate Analog Music Is Back.
All M 063 product information and images are taken from the Ballfinger website www.ballfinger.de