Fact Checked

How Do I Choose the Best Reel-To-Reel Tape Recorder?

Alex Newth
Alex Newth

A reel-to-reel tape recorder is an open-reel recorder that uses two different reels and records audio on the tape spun between them. If purchasing a used reel-to-reel tape recorder, then finding the best often starts by checking the quality of the capstan drive, because a damaged drive can warp recording. There may be either one or two record and replay heads; a single head allows the user to listen to audio after recording, while two heads allow the user to listen to the recording as it occurs. The user should select a device that can fit enough tape to make a proper recording. An auto-stop feature also may be desirable, because it will stop the tape under certain conditions, which can keep the tape and reels from being damaged.

The capstan drive of a reel-to-reel tape recorder is responsible for driving the reels when the device is recording or playing back. As a standard, the capstan drive is made of rubber, which has a tendency to deform and stretch with age. If the user is purchasing a used recorder, then it is important to check the capstan drive’s quality to ensure it is still usable. Otherwise, the audio will be warped or the recorder will be unable to function.

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Man with hands on his hips

Reel-to-reel tape recorder devices come with either one or two record and replay heads. If there is just one head, then the user will be able to hear audio only if the device is not recording. Two heads enable the user to listen to audio quality while recording. While two heads are more expensive, they make it easier to record professional-quality audio.

Tape and reel size also are important, because this determines how long the recoding can be when using a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Each device will have a maximum reel size, depending on its measurements and build. The user should get a recorder that fits the minimum amount of required tape for the desired recording. Otherwise, recordings may require two or more reels.

Auto-stop is not necessary on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, but it will prevent tape damage. This feature stops the reel from moving under certain conditions, such as at the end of a reel, if the tape snaps or if the reel is stuck and cannot move. Without this feature, the user will need to stop recording manually, and failing to stop the recorder can result in reel, tape and device damage. Having auto-stop will ensure the recorder stops, even if the user is unaware of these problems.

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Discussion Comments


@talentryto- I have a friend who is taking film in college, and bought an old reel-to-reel tape recorder just for the historical value of it. It's is really interesting to study it and see how much technology has changed.


Many people who are into music, film, and technology like to collect this type of tape recording equipment. Some people buy them to play old reel-to-reel films while others simply like relics of the past.

Yard sales, antique shops, and online auctions are all great places to look for an old reel-to-reel tape recorder. Though you may have issues with one that you purchase due to its age, there are also people who restore and fix these machines of the past.

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