Interview: Greg Beron of ‘hybrid’ R2R deck maker United Home Audio

United Home Audio (UHA) is an American high-end audio retailer based in Northern Virginia near Washington, DC. The company, which is headed by Greg Beron, also has another interesting bow to its string: for the past twelve years UHA has been ‘re-manufacturing’ reel-to-reel tape decks. Greg takes vintage Tascam decks as his starting point and uses them to create what are commonly known as ‘hybrid’ decks, combining vintage elements with brand new parts and tech. The company has won an impressive collection of awards for its trouble and, if that’s not enough, has been a key player in banging the drum of R2R at hi-fi shows across the USA and worldwide. Greg’s clearly a busy man, but he kindly took the time to talk tape with the reel-to-reel rambler.

Hi Greg, great to chat. Let’s start with what brings us all here: music. What are you into?

Ok, you got me, I admit it, I’m a geezer rock guy mostly…. Greg = ‘Geezer Rock Expert Guy’. Ha! But personal tastes aside, what really stands out for me in the world of music is how tape, the right tapes, can sound so amazing. I have tapes of some music that are now unlistenable to in other formats. Just a couple of examples are Janice Joplin’s Cheap Thrills, Dr John’s Gris Gris and Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow. I have them in almost every format out there (not to mention various pressings of vinyl) and, compared to the tapes, what a difference!

Are you a ‘die-hard analogue man’ at heart, or are you open to any and all audio formats?

For the car or dinner parties CDs are fine, but I never listen to digital for ‘real’ listening. I even have a $90,000+ vinyl rig that I don’t listen to either. Why bother if you have access to some of the best tapes in the world! There are so many great tapes available now from many sources and people are getting on the bandwagon. I chased Chad from Acoustic Sounds for years to issue tapes of the vinyl he was pressing. It got to the point that if he saw me coming, he’d run away! But now he’s on the tape bandwagon too, and so instead of running away he askes me to play his tapes at the audio shows!

What triggered you to start building tape decks under the UHA brand?

A combination of exasperation and logic! I’ve been an audiophile since a young age – mowing grass to buy audio gear, and was into R2R way back in high school. What eventually triggered me was the multitude of formats we audiophiles have been accosted with over the years.

When CDs came out we were told this was the ‘be all end all’ format, no more pops and clicks on vinyl. But then there were SACD discs, then DVD audio, then all manner of hi-res digital forms and sampling rates. The industry wanted us to buy all the music we liked on every new format, so it was spend after spend, looking for that holy grail of sound. I have Zeppelin, The Who, The Stones, etc, in every format going at a cost of who knows how many dollars. My music collection was spiralling out of control. And then the real shocker… the resurgence of vinyl! We went almost back to where we began, buying the same darned albums in a format we’d given away years ago. That was the exasperation part.

But personally, I’ve never cared for the surface noise of LPs. That, combined with the fact that what we’d learned from all of this was that the best was actually behind us, made me decide to just get off the format merry-go-round and go back to the real, original roots of recorded music: tape. If all the old greats were recorded onto tape initially, why change formats to manipulate the analogue tape into some other format? That goes against every key principle in the high-end audio world! That’s the logic part. So now in my reference system there’s no digital or vinyl, and there never will be. 

Why did you choose the Tascam deck that you use as your basis? Do you have large stocks of them?

Basically, I all I needed was a transport because I was going to rebuild everything else in the deck from the tape heads all the way to the output connectors and everything in between, using all-new UHA designs and hardware. So, I needed a very available machine with good reliability, particularly since I wanted to include a two-year parts and labour warranty. And yes, I have many raw Tascam decks!

What areas of the original Tascam are kept?

Just the parts that spin the tape, the tape transport – that’s it.

What particular advances have been made over the years that enable you to build a better machine now than could be built back in the day?

Andreas Kuhn with a UHA deck

Almost everything, too much to list out here, so by way of just one example (of many possible examples), let’s talk purely about wire for a moment…

Nowadays we have solid silver wire, we even have cast silver wire, not extruded, we have hyper-pure copper, we have various dielectrics, not to mention various geometries and of course all types of shielded wire. You can imagine what type of wire was used back in the day – even aluminium wire!

So, think about all the options we have in 2020 for gain stages, caps, resistors board materials and dielectrics – and bam, you have some really great choices to upgrade the R2R format!

In my (long) experience, every time I make a logical part or design change in the UHA decks to improve the sound, I get deeper into the vast amounts of information stored on that 1/4” tape. The big question is… where does it end? If you think about the sheer amount of analogue information stored on a tape, it may have almost infinite possibilities. Of course, the tape format has its frequency limits, as does any format, but I’m not talking about frequency limits here, I’m talking about what’s available between those limits.

Are there any particular design challenges you’ve encountered in building a hybrid machine?

Sure! Let me give you an example. When building a machine to a strict audiophile level, even just the damping and vibration improvements can be daunting. Take, say, the isolation of a transformer. I use a ¾” piece of MDF that is J-B Welded and then bolted to the base of the UHA outboard power supply. Then there are special diamond-shaped vibration damping devices specially set between the MDF board and the transformer. So now the transformers sit decoupled from the rest of the vibrating world that’s being attacked by acoustic airborne vibrations when playing music. When I play rock on my MBL Reference system with the omni-directional Radialstrahler 101EMK2 speakers at concert level, you can actually excite the air in the room with the 360-degree omni drivers. You can actually reach a point where the room is alive in a vibrational flux, it’s truly a thrill ride! So, with all this acoustic vibrational flux in the room, I figured I’d avoid acoustic airborne vibration issues in every aspect of the UHA decks and make sure the sound doesn’t get fluxed up. Ha!

Have you tried modifying machines other than the Tascam?

Yes, and it all ended in tears! That’s when I realized that I can’t offer a two-year parts and labour warranty on these things. I tried Technics, ATR and Studers. But then I got lucky in that I found a reliable transport in the Tascam unit. Also, something that buyers rarely consider is that when you buy an old tape deck there’s about an 80% chance that what you get will sustain some kind of damage in shipping. Sometimes I have to use two or even three decks to rebuild one deck to the UHA standard! But then the UHA decks are pretty-bullet proof once they’re rebuilt.

Do you do all of the work on the decks yourself, or do you have a team?

At this level one needs a team of experts. I have a great team.

How many different decks do you currently offer and what’s the price range?

I’m currently offering three decks:

Phase11 = $18,500
Phase12 = $19,500
Ultima4 = $24,500

We also offer the option of a DC outboard power supply on any UHA deck (rather than the standard built-in supply), which adds $6,500.

Do you sell your tape decks worldwide or mainly in the USA? Around how many do you make / sell a year?

The USA and all over the world. I even have a deck in Bangladesh.

Sales are only limited by my capacity to make decks. I can make maybe one deck a month. I have 4-6 months of advance orders.

Do you make them on demand / to order? Is each one customised to the buyer’s requirements?

Yes. I discuss the needs of each customer and design the cosmetics they desire with the operational specifics they need. That seems to make everyone happy as they know what they are getting and it’s exactly what they want. Simple.

Do you have any plans / ideas to further extend your range? Or to do something else?

Yes, but that’s all I’m saying for now! You’ll have to wait to see what happens…

Intriguing! You have a really eye-catching style. Do most customers go for the bright colours and patterns on offer, or do they tend to stick with the more sedate styling?

Black and red headblock covers

I would say it varies, some want bling, with gold-plated everything, some want crazy designs, some just want plain colours.

Once I made up a crazy red deck with a big multi-coloured Celtic cross smack-dab in the centre of the deck. I did this because people would look into my room at audio shows and laugh and ask if I had 8-track players and such things. So I thought, if you want to point and make fun, I’ll give you something to point at – and so they tore me up on the tape forums. But that deck was the most photographed thing at the shows. Some people really liked it and actually Scot Hull at bought that deck – so there!

Hey, I wanted to say congratulations on all your awards from The Absolute Sound, and particularly for being the first ever tape deck to win a Golden Ear Award! That must’ve felt pretty great, especially after some of the flak you’ve had on various online forums. How many awards have you racked up exactly – looks like a very impressive collection!?

Good question, I was wondering that just the other day… Let’s see, I’ve won Product Of The Year Awards from The Absolute Sound, AV Showrooms, Positive Feedback Online. There’s even been a Gizmo Award from Positive Feedback Online and there are very, very few recipients of that award. But the biggest one was the ‘Top 100’ award in the 40th anniversary edition of The Absolute Sound: they awarded the top 100 most influential products of the past 40 years and UHA received one of the awards.

I’m very honoured by these awards. But I have to confess to just one regret… my father was a scientist (he invented a lubricant that’s still used today in harsh conditions by the US Military) but he died just before I launched into this tape thing, and so he never got to see any of it unfold. He would have gotten a real kick out of it.

Can I please give a shout out to three guys who’ve given some amazing support to the UHA tape decks… Jonathan Valin at The Absolute Sound wrote the most incredible review about his experiences with the UHA tape decks. Peter Breuninger at AV made a great video that’s had more than 1.1 million views. And David Robinson, editor of Positive Feedback Online, for giving us a Brutus Award and the very rare Gizmo Award.

Where do you see the future of tape? Are you optimistic / pessimistic for where it’s likely to head from here?

Look out – the tape movement has legs! I’m getting more calls and emails all the time, and my email newsletter has about 10,000 subscribers. A YouTube video about my tape-based system has reached over 1.1 million views – so how about that for an indicator of tape interest?

But, tape fans, the beginning of the tape movement wasn’t all roses. In the beginning, the only high-quality commercially available tapes were those from The Tape Project. Also, at that time, hi-res digital and double SACD were hot tickets at the audio shows and there I was in a room with a tape deck. Needless to say, people didn’t get it initially. However, I knew I had to get people to listen to it, then they’d come. So I embarked on doing all the audio shows I could – every freaking show! Everyone grew to know me as the tape guy at all the shows. Slowly, more and more people started to get the message that tape was something special, like gourmet audio. Maybe it wasn’t for everyone, but plenty of people got it. Enough people bought UHA decks to keep our R&D going, so we could invest in advancements in design and of course sound quality. But doing all these shows has a cost and so it’s been a financial outlay over twelve years. Big money. But if you want to break into anything and promote any new idea or concept to the world at large, you have to be ready to spend some money on getting the word out there.

While the audio shows were expensive, they were an investment, because the best way to get the message out there is by letting people simply listen. The quality of tape speaks for itself, so it has to be done that way, there’s no getting around it.

On that subject I have so many people to thank, and brands who’ve supported us at shows: Jeremy Bryan and his wife Tara at MBL, Carl Marchisotto of Nola Speakers, Audio Research, Nordost, Constellation Audio, Magico, Lumen White, Ayon, Gryphon Audio, Synergistic Research, Tara Labs, Vitus Audio, Audio Solutions, Kharma, Von Schweikert Audio and more… stand by because in 2020 there’ll be more new brands that UHA will show with!

Thanks so much for your time Greg – hope to catch you again at a show here in Europe soon. Till then, keep up the great work spreading the R2R word!

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