As a hi-fi journalist of international standing, Ken Kessler has a breadth and depth of experience in all things audio. In fact, there’s not much in the world of hi-fi that he hasn’t seen or heard and, as his readers know and appreciate, he isn’t afraid to be candid in sharing his opinions about it (cue classic quote: “Streaming is to physical media what online porn is to real sex.”). So where does Ken stand on reel-to-reel? Very much in favour, as it turns out. Here, he shares a touchingly personal story of his life in tape.
It was always there: my earliest audio memories are of my father making open-reel tapes to swap with big band enthusiasts in the UK in the 1950s. Great Britain was suffering post-war hard times – the scale of austerity was far worse than today’s cutting back – and my dad, living in Portland, Maine, USA, was making copies of his LPs to send to deprived music lovers in England. I was reminded of this when cassettes arrived and the record industry warned us that “Home Taping Is Killing Music,” but I doubt that ever occurred to Solomon Kessler.
My dad was most assuredly NOT an audiophile and was in no position financially to indulge in McIntosh, Scott, Fisher, Marantz, Harman Kardon or other high-end delights of the era. He owned a Columbia record player, a Concord reel-to-reel deck and a home-made mixer, probably from a kit sourced from Radio Shack or Heathkit. The tape deck was massive and heavy, mono of course, and, from what I recall, blessed with 3¾ips and possibly 7½ips speeds.
What this did for me was strictly rudimentary: I learned how to handle tape, spool it and look after it. At a young age, then, I knew to keep tapes away from magnets, always put them in their boxes and other tips to preserve their integrity. Of course I was also taught how to handle LPs.
Admittedly, I was not a reel-to-reel user when I finally came of age in hi-fi in 1968, because pre-recorded tapes were too expensive, as were decent tape decks, and I grew up in the era of vinyl. But I did get involved with reel-to-reel in the late 1980s, when I recorded a few live gigs at local bars, using borrowed machines like TEAC X7s, the occasional Revox and Sony 377s. As much as I loved the format, though, it was never a primary means of musical pleasure at that point.
Somewhere along the way, however, I started to acquire numerous tape decks, but they swiftly went into storage. I recently rediscovered three of them, including two Revox G36s – both half-track, one high-speed and one slow – and a Tandberg 20A SE that had never been out of its box. (I’m serious – it had never been switched on, so opening the box was like discovering a time capsule.) This machine is an oddball, in that it is a high-speed quarter-track version.
All three, as I write this, are with The Audiophiles Clinic being checked over, after 19 years in hibernation. New capacitors, lubrication, alignment – I’m hoping all can be salvaged. We’ll come back to these in future instalments.
My fourth deck, a seminal element in this tale, is a quarter-track Revox G36 modified by Tim de Paravicini. It was the machine I used in the 1990s, until I gave it back to Tim for servicing, and I then forgot about it for at least a decade. It is now back in my possession, and Tim is probably grateful to get it out of his factory. But it is Tim that must be credited with following my father as a major influence.
As enthusiasts the world over know, Tim has been using a fine Denon tape deck as his primary source at hi-fi shows – even though he manufactures CD players and turntables. Tim is, beyond question, the world’s R2R deity, as I was reminded in early September when I had the privilege to visit Bob Ludwig at Gateway Studios. Bob is the industry’s numero uno mastering wizard and one of his two main ATR 1-inch tape decks uses Tim’s electronics. Bob’s praise for Tim’s skills reaffirmed my beliefs.
In 2017, at the Tokyo high-end show, Tim was using stacked Falcon Acoustics LS3/5As, which he insisted I hear. Suffice it to say, I was blown away, but the real surprise was the tape he was playing: the US commercial pre-recorded version of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on Capitol. It massacred every version I had ever heard before.
It runs at 7½ips and the base tape is Ampex. To my delight, when I got back to the UK I found that I had a near-mint copy. I set up the same stacked pairs of LS3/5As to reproduce Tim’s set-up and sure enough, it was as magical as what was heard in Tokyo. From that moment on I was hooked on pre-recorded reel-to-reel tapes all over again.
Many thanks to Ken for his reflections – of which there’ll be more in the coming months. Watch this space, as they say!
After working as Assistant Editor for the short-lived Stereo – The Magazine, Ken Kessler joined Hi-Fi News & Record Review in 1983, where he still serves, latterly as Senior Contributor. In 2013, he was appointed Editor-at-Large of the watch magazine, Revolution. A collector of old hi-fi components with a passion for the history of audio, Ken is the author of Quad: The Closest Approach and McIntosh… For The Love Of Music, and co-author of Sound Bites and KEF: Innovators In Sound. He is currently working on another four audio histories.