Saturday, October 10, 2015

Reel-to-Reel Tape is the New Vinyl

Like string theory, audiophile subculture is complex and defined by unresolved questions. Is an insanely expensive cable really better than an outrageously expensive cable? Do tube amps trump solid-state amps? Horn, electrostatic, or ribbon hybrid speakers? What about Kind of Blue — mono or stereo? Each position can be defended or attacked with various specs, waveform graphs, and double blind listening tests.

One question, however, has been resolved: tape or vinyl? Even the most dubious critics find no ambiguity here. The verdict: tape sounds better than vinyl. Period. Not the cassette tapes of Walkman era, of course. Not those 8-track bricks from the land of shag carpet supervans either. That crude tech is an insult to tape, the same way Velveeta is an insult to cheddar. The real vinyl killer turns out to be reel-to-reel tape. Played on unwieldy machines that conjure visions of ABSCAM sting operations and Boogie Nights bachelor pads, R2R tape is the latest retro-trend for hi-fi geeks and design fetishists who curate their living rooms like a MoMA exhibit.

The roots of this audio trend can be traced back to 2013, when a persnickety critic for The Absolute Sound shocked his readers by proclaiming that a new reel-to-reel deck designed by a team of fanatic engineers absolutely crushed the highest rated turntable rig ever reviewed by the magazine. A refresh of this same audiophile tape machine snagged one of The Absolute Sound’s coveted "Editors’ Choice" awards this year. That fancy R2R, which is handmade and can be customized like a Bentley, is one of the most popular demos on the audio show circuit.

The resale market is booming, too. There are currently 13,729 "Reel to Reel" eBay listings, and the online auction house has posted a guide for prospective buyers. The pop-culture pervasiveness that feeds every trend is also evident. In hit shows like Narcos and The Americans, and major studio movies like Black Mass, R2Rs have become production design shorthand for hardcore audiophilia.

"We sell our open reel decks as quickly as they come out of the repair shop," says Jerry Gahagan, the owner of Oak Tree Enterprises, a website that specializes in vintage audio equipment. "This resurgence is about nostalgia and cool. It’s like buying an old Harley with a suicide shifter. These tape machines are chunky, solidly built, and sound great." Set decorator Kate Foster, who will be using several classic Tandberg decks in the upcoming season of the F/X series The Americans, says a R2R is more than just an old tape player. It’s a symbol. "Big tape reels suggests an audio connoisseur with technical skills," says Foster. "You don’t get the same vibe with a turntable. A R2R on the bookshelf means sophisticated and smart."

by Rene Chun, The Verge |  Read more:
Image: Jeff Jacobs