The reel deals: Hi-Fi News features Ken Kessler’s definitive guide to buying tapes, new and secondhand

Tape lovers, grab your copy of the September issue of Hi-Fi News magazine. In it, self-confessed tape junkie and hi-fi journalist extraordinaire, Ken Kessler, shares his hard-won wisdom on how to get your hands on some seriously good sounds.

“For any format, whether new or revived, it is the availability of pre-recorded music that determines its health,” says Ken. “That’s why the LP came back like gangbusters.”

When it comes to stocking your library of reel-to-reel tapes, there are basically three routes, and here, he runs through the pros and cons, and his experiences, of each.

Route 1

The first route is vintage pre-recorded tapes, which Ken knows a thing or two about, having acquired more than 1,100 of them in the past two years, both online and in secondhand record stores.

While there’s no denying that building an open reel collection is going to dent your music budget quite severely, “bargains are out there, if your tastes are wide-ranging,” he reassures, and illustrates with an example of having bought a batch of 40 tapes with an average cost of US$5 or £3.85! “Of course, specific artists are the reason that given tapes have high values, and the most expensive on and eBay are Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles,” he adds.

Route 2

The “second route to musical bliss” is via the growing number of current labels specializing in open-reel tape, which range “from full catalogues with dozens of titles to those with a mere one or two.” See Where to buy music on tapefor listings and links. Here, Ken runs through a number than he’s sampled, and concludes that “the good news is that all sounded, well, fantastic.”

Route 3

Recording The Masters’ blank audio tapes

And last but not least, we have the third route, namely “banking the blanks” – which is of particular interest to those of us whose budgets are sadly capped, but who still want to experience the best possible sound quality we can.

“A blank tape costs less than an LP and, if copying off LP, CD, FM, DAB or streaming sources sounds like a ludicrous reason for getting into the open-reel revival in 2020, let me leave you with this thought,” offers Ken. The thought in question is this: a couple of decades ago we discovered that commercial CDs burned to CD-Rs could end up sounding better than the source discs. Similarly, there are those who swear that the transfer of a vinyl LP or CD to open-reel tape can impart an enhanced sound quality to the music. Doubtful? “Having now heard this miracle many times, I’ve also acquired 40 or 50 blanks!” says Ken.

Read Ken’s four-page investigation in full, in the September 2020 issue of Hi-Fi News, on sale now.

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.