9th June 2020

Open reel – an appreciation

Still accepted as the best way to faithfully record sound, open reel (or reel to reel) has been largely moved off the scene by the convenience of digital.

Yet is still hasn’t completely gone away. In fact it’s even staging a small comeback. Why? Well, firstly there’s the incomparable sound quality. Audiophile bible The Absolute Sound recently undertook a no-holds-barred sound comparison which came down conclusively in tape’s favour. Better than CD, better than any online streaming, better than vinyl. And not just any old vinyl – the turntable beaten in the test was the formerly world-conquering Proscenium Black Diamond V costing over $100,000.

And it isn’t just the sound. Open reel also involves the listener more. You have to load the reel, thread it through the playback heads, attach it to the waiting empty reel. Fiddly? Well maybe, but its also satisfying and tactile, especially when compared to the all too easy push-a-screen-button of digital.

There’s also the looks. Some time around the late 1970’s open reel tape recorders stopped trying to minimise themselves. Designers realised that instead of trying to hide open reel’s complexities, they could make a virtue of them. More buttons, more sliding controls and more backlit VU meters made the decks look more high tech, more nuanced, more desirable. And instead of being flipped on their side, with horizontal reels, they were stood upright so that the user could get a better view of all the technical controls and see the reels (which by now had been re-designed to look cooler) turning in all their glory. Open reel recorders had been re-designed to the point where they wouldn’t look out of place in a Bond villains’s lair.

It’s this cool-factor combined with their superb audio performance that has stopped open reel machines from disappearing completely. Since the mid 2010’s there has been an increased interest in open reel machines, with more refurbished models appearing for sale and prices increasing steadily. One German manufacture, Ballfinger has started to make brand new machines. We can’t vouch for the sound (we’re guessing it’s pretty good) but we can say they look superb. Although with prices starting around £10,000 you’d need to be pretty enthusiastic to buy one.

If we’re being sensible, unless you’re a serious audiophile (or Bond villain), its hard to make a case for open reel over a smaller, cheaper and more convenient digital system, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own unique appeal, which we can fully appreciate. They sound great, they look great, they’ve got cool.

It’s this appeal that led us to design our Open Reel t-shirt.  Available in azure blue shortsleeve or navy blue longlseeve it’s our graphic tribute to this intriguing format, catching the essence and movement of open reel. You can see them here.