Six of the best: in which Ken Kessler atones for prior tape ‘sins’ by stocking up on vintage decks

About a month ago, we learnt that renowned hi-fi journalist Ken Kessler has harboured a life-long love of tape. Now, he comes clean about the full extent of his fondness for all things open reel.

At this stage, it’s worth letting you know just how badly infected I am by the open-reel bug. Having just read the scribblings of an idiot in a major newspaper about the irrelevance of reel-to-reel, the sheer, recently-emerged enthusiasm for the format – however niche – deems it fully relevant to those who have the means and initiative to indulge in it. He can kiss my arse.

Also at this point, we must be frank about our passion: Using analogue reel-to-reel tape in the 21st century is akin to using a typewriter instead of a word processor, or telegrams instead of e-mails. (Hmmm … can you still send telegrams?) That said, not one individual who’s heard tapes in my system would disagree with the argument that R2R tapes wipe out all other formats.

Having had my reel-to-reel awareness reawakened by Tim de Paravicini’s demos at assorted hi-fi shows, most notably in Tokyo in 2017, it was time to play catch-up … and offer penance. I had to atone for letting go of both a nice Sony TC-755 and a Tandberg 64X-R for stupid money not all that long ago. Then I recalled that I had one deck with Tim and three in storage, as recounted in my last instalment on this blog. All deserved reviving, while Petronel Butuc at The Audiophiles Clinic (see R2R engineers) found a pair of perfect machines for me to use as a reviewer.

With the help of Petronel, as well as Tim, I now have the following array of machines. I use these for playing modern pre-recorded tapes, e.g. those from Opus 3 and Chasing the Dragon, for use as a reference source when reviewing equipment for Hi-Fi News and for enjoying irreplaceable pre-recorded tapes from the 1950s-1970s.

1. Revox G36 (quarter-track 3¾ips/7½ips)

This machine has been in my possession for more than 25 years, was modified by Tim and recently serviced by him. It’s my reference for playing US pre-recorded tapes, and Tim has confirmed that it’s optimised for NAB equalisation.

Otari MX-5050

2. Otari MX-5050 (quarter-track/half-track 3¾ips/7½ips/15ips)

For feeding my reference system, this machine has been assigned the primary role as my main tape source because a) it plays all three speeds, b) it has switchable IEC/NAB EQ and c) it has switchable quarter-track and half-track capability. Above all, though, it has balanced outputs, ideal for feeding the Audio Research Ref 6 pre-amplifier when I need to review products in all-balanced mode. This is now my go-to playback machine.


Technics RS-1500

3. Technics RS-1500 (quarter-track/half-track 3¾ips/7½ips/15ips)

Like the Otari, this deck plays all three speeds and has switchable quarter-track and half-track capability, but has only single-ended outputs and is NAB-only. I love it, though, for a number of reasons, and would never give it up because it’s an absolute joy to use. I can understand why the prices are escalating.

4. Tandberg 20A (quarter-track 7½ips/15ips)

This freak is, we believe, the only Tandberg so-configured and Petronel was amused to learn of its configuration. The question is: why the hell did I ask Tandberg to build me a high-speed quarter-track machine??? Nobody records 15ips quarter-track! It’s currently undergoing a full overhaul, since it sat in storage for 19 years and, in fact, had never been used before. I will use it to play 7½ips quarter-track pre-recordeds, and for recording off-air, but I doubt it will ever see 15ips operation.

5. Revox G36 (half-track 3¾ips/7½ips)

Currently undergoing a major service, this is the sister machine to my other G36 and will be used to play new-wave R2R pre-recorded tapes offered as half-track 7½ips. (Watch this space: I’m currently assessing some as a money-saving alternative to 15ips tapes on 10-inch spools…) All three of my G36s have been with me for 25 years or more, purchased when people were dumping them for £100. Aaah, those were the days…

A duo of Revox G36s in the foreground

6. Revox G36 (half-track 7½/15ips)

This machine may not be salvageable, but I do hope the miracle worker can find a refurbished motor for it; the high-speed mod appears to be after-market rather than factory. As I adore the sound of G36s, I would love to have a high-speed, half-track version in my arsenal.

Ultimately, these machines will form a studio of sorts, where I intend to make high-speed, 1-to-1 safety copies of my irreplaceable, 50-year-old commercial tapes and I will play those instead of the originals. Do I intend to buy any more machines? Clearly, that would be stupid, but I do lie awake at night thinking about owning a Nagra IV-S, a Stellavox, a Ballfinger, some of the later Revoxes, the new Metaxas if it ever appears, a Studer 800-series, an Ampex and my dream of dreams: a Crown. Any Crown. Sigh …

The ‘Casa Kessler’ listening room / studio

You can also catch Ken talking tape in his ‘Off The Leash’ column in the November issue of Hi-Fi News – in which he reckons that his belief in the superiority of reel-to-reel over all other formats is now considered “quite sane” (hear, hear!). Then look out for his next ‘ramble’ here, in which his tape addiction takes an unexpected turn…



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.