Reel-to-reel tape decks have always been highly prized by audiophiles. It isn't just the superior dynamic range, excellent signal-to-noise ratio, and all those glorious switches and buttons. The big selling point is that not everyone can afford one. "It's a pride of ownership thing," says Myles Astor, the executive editor of AVShowrooms.com. "R2Rs are expensive, need to be regularly maintained, and there's not that many of them around. It's like buying a Ferrari. Once you have one, you're part of an exclusive club."
This modded R2R sounds so good it's used in professional recording studios. Whether listening to the best master dubs, making party mix tapes, or recording needle drops to preserve precious vinyl, the J-Corder is analog magic.
Although it sells for a fraction of the cost of other customized R2R decks, the base price of $7,735 isn't cheap. Prerecorded and blank tapes also are pricey. The control panel build quality will offend snooty audiophiles. Some buttons and switches feel chintzy. May clash with Zen interiors.
How We Rate
- 1/10A complete failure in every way
- 2/10Barely functional; don't buy it
- 3/10Serious flaws; proceed with caution
- 4/10Downsides outweigh upsides
- 5/10Recommended with reservations
- 6/10A solid product with some issues
- 7/10Very good, but not quite great
- 8/10Excellent, with room to kvetch
- 9/10Nearly flawless, buy it now
- 10/10Metaphysical product perfection
He's not kidding about the expense. That's always been the story behind these imposing boxes, with their hypnotic spinning reels and bouncy VU needles. Take the Ampex AG-44B, a modest studio deck popular with audiophiles during the Paleotube era. It cost $3,250 in 1968. To put that number in perspective, Car &Driver's top-rated sports sedan under $3,000 that year was the BMW 2002, and you could get one for $2,850. Imagine lugging a large box into the den of a suburban ranch house and explaining to your adoring nuclear family that you just blew a third of your salary on a tape player.
A high-end R2R deck—each a complex assembly of motors, servos, and enough precision mechanical parts to fill several shoe boxes—is an absurdly costly proposition. But that attention to detail in the manufacturing comes through in the sound. Listen to a quality recording on one and you'll begin to understand why some degenerate audiophiles were willing to pay so dearly for them. The UHA Phase 12 is a $24,000 bespoke deck engineered and assembled like a Mars rover. Then there's the Sonurus ATR10, another tech-laden custom machine that touts "Acoustic 3-D and Holographic Imaging Technology." With the matching pre-amp, it runs $18,500. And don't forget the proprietary Sonurus tapes. A large reel, which will supposedly conjure a virtual soundstage in your living room, goes for $225 a pop. What's an analog guy on a budget to do?
Meet the J
The answer is the J-Corder, another über R2R that routinely draws standing-room crowds on the audio show circuit. The base model, stripped of cosmetic finery, lists for $7,735. Amazon and Newegg bargain-hunters might find that outrageous, but in the twisted parallel universe of audiophiles, a primo plug-and-play tape deck for under eight grand is a steal. But even that stack of bills doesn't get you something new, just something rebuilt and improved, like a resto-modded muscle car finished off with a premium paint job.
A cottage industry specializing in refurbishing and modifying vintage professional decks has sprung up.
You can't buy a new R2R today. The Otari MX5050, a Japanese pro machine that earned a reputation in the '70s as a studio workhorse, was the last deck standing. Otari's North American distributor sold its final MX5050 in July. At $9,300 there simply weren't enough orders (20 a year in the U.S.) to keep the assembly line humming. A cottage industry in refurbishing and modifying vintage professional decks has filled the void. The UHA Phase 12, for instance, is built on the iconic Tascam BR-20 template, while the Sonurus ATR10 borrows the classy Revox PR99 platform for its reboot. Likewise, the J-Corder's core DNA can be traced to the Technics RS-1500. Although it was not, strictly speaking, a pro machine, the RS-1500 was so well engineered and manufactured that it could pass for one. Audio Magazine, which covered the RS-1500 in its May 1977 issue, said this was one of the best R2Rs its editors had ever tested: "The performance of the RS-1500 deck leaves substantially nothing to be desired by serious audiophiles. For the professional, the major limitations would be in the area of input/output interfacing." Sweet.
Professionals have given the J-Corder a big thumbs up. Steve Hoffman, a revered engineer who remasters and releases classic recording on vinyl and CD for audiophiles, praises the machine's "accurate representation of a flat output signal." His Ruby 1520 is proudly showcased on the J-Corder website. "Almost every project I've worked on begins on the J-Corder," Hoffman says matter-of-factly. "The Doors, Peter, Paul, and Mary, all the Nat King Cole albums, America, Eric Clapton, Bread… I wouldn't be without it." Amateurs like it, too. Audiophile Mike Bovaird regularly conducts shootouts at his home, pitting his J-Corder against a cavalcade of flagship digital components. "Some guy came over with the EMM Labs DAC2X and tried to make a statement," recalls Bovaird. "He couldn't believe the J-Corder's sound, and ran out with his tail between his legs." To the uninitiated, the DAC2X is a massive aluminum block DAC with a master clock circuit that produces less than 1 picosecond of jitter.
Impressive endorsements, one and all. To see what all the fuss was about, we requested a J-Corder review unit, wheeled it into WIRED's shag-carpet anechoic chamber (not really), and gave the reels a spin. Does this R2R live up to all the analog hype? After several weeks of tape-head immersion with this 60-pound, candy-colored monolith, the results are in.
The Brains Behind the Beast
The "J" in J-Corder is Jeff Jacobs. He is an unlikely star in the rarefied world of R2R gurus. He's not a hotshot electro-mechanical engineer or a circuit topology genius. He's a 68-year-old Green Bay, Wisconsin, native who learned everything he knows about electric circuits from his TV repairman father. And while he does attend audio shows, Jacobs claims he's not an audiophile. But he does enjoy the lush sound of open reel tape, and knows a great R2R when he sees one. That's because for almost two decades he owned a stereo shop that sold all the marquee names: Sony, Teac, Akai, Revox, and Panasonic. "I noticed that the only tape decks I sold that didn't come back for repairs were made by Technics," says Jacobs. "Tandbergs, for instance, sounded good, but I knew they'd be back in the shop within six months. Technics machines always cost the most, but were worth the money. They have the perfect combination of sound quality and reliability." Jacobs refurbs every J-Corder personally, in a garage in Gig Harbor, a speck on the map 30 miles south of Seattle. He becomes indignant when asked if his J-Corders are as bulletproof as the RS-1500s he sold back in the day: "Haven't had one returned yet."
There's a reason disco-era RS-1500 decks still sell for a thousand bucks. It was arguably the best consumer tape player ever made. Conceived when Japan's audio industry was at the height of its creative powers and manufacturing prowess, the RS-1500 features all the usual prosumer features audiophiles demand: 10-inch reels, variable speed control, dual play heads for half-inch and quarter-inch tape, and robust direct-drive motors instead of belts. The big bonus, though, was the Teflon slippery "Isoloop" transport. Propelled by a super accurate quartz-regulated capstan motor, the magnetic tape passes across the heads in a symmetrical U-shaped path at such a precise speed that there's virtually no measurable error.
The RS-1500 is certainly an excellent vintage deck. Through the 1980s, the RS-1500 was a popular field deck for both documentary filmmakers and Deadheads, who used it to record concerts around the country. Jacobs sells stock models, fully refurbished, for $4,995. But he knew a customized version would sound even better. The idea was to jack up the power to take advantage of the new tape formulations. Manufactured by ATR and RMGI, this next-gen tape stock can handle a much stronger signal than old tape ever could. These are known as "Plus-9" tapes, meaning they can handle a recording level over 9dBs, sans distortion. Pushing the signal without saturating the tape means no hiss or background noise, even at low volume. "I wanted enough juice to pound the hell out of the tape and pin those needles in the red," says Jacobs. "If you have a great deck, a hot recording like that sounds absolutely amazing."
To pull off this hi-fi parlor trick, Jacobs tracked down the chief engineer for Crown, an American company known for producing high quality commercial tape machines in the 1970s. After extensive tinkering, the retired Crown guy managed to bump the output voltage from 0.42 volts to 0.61 volts. That may not seem like a big power surge, but Jacobs compares it to building a hotrod. Electric components had to be upgraded to accept the higher voltage, and mechanical parts, like springs, brakes and roller bearings also had to be beefed up. "It's like converting a Toyota Corolla into a race car," Jacobs says. "Imagine a powerful engine generating lots of torque. If you don't have a strong suspension system and a heavy-duty rear end, the car won't be able to stay on the road."
Some audiophiles insist every switch, button, and dial on their hi-fi rigs must be hand-milled from unobtanium ingots and transmit a haptic thrill that makes the heart flutter. Anyone who just nodded in agreement should pass on the J-Corder. Despite all the shiny options—$500 chrome knobs, $300 gemstone inlays—deep down this is a decades-old Japanese hi-fi product. Considerations must be made. The cutout tolerances on the instrument panels, for example, don't meet aerospace standards. Some buttons wiggle a bit. And nine of those buttons are made of (brace yourself) plastic. Turn the unit around and you'll see the rough-hewn edge of the MDF side panel. If you can overlook these shortcomings, the J-Corder is still one handsome piece of audio gear. My review deck was fully loaded, coming in at $10,777. The "Automotive Finish" paint job ($995), a PPG metalflake called Lexus Red, combined with "Piano Black Side Panels" ($495) and "Custom Black Headblock" ($125) is the kind of bold color palette sorely lacking in the monochromatic world of high-end audio. Everything else, though, is rock-steady, from the industrial strength power cord to the custom aluminum hubs used to batten down the reels ($350). Even the reels themselves are impressive ($295/pair). Each is machined by hand, and the center hubs have much thicker flanges than the original Technics reels. The fatter gauge provides greater stability when fast-forwarding through Steely Dan cuts on your friend's mix tapes.
Every song on the tape, across the entire dynamic range, exudes that organic analog texture and presence that audiophiles pay through the nose for.
The stereo components I used to audition the J-Corder are all vintage: a 1970s Marantz Model 2245 stereo receiver, a bulletproof Pioneer PL-12D-II turntable, and freshly recapped KLH Model Fives speakers. The only new link in the audio chain is a Grado Prestige Gold cartridge.
Jeff Jacobs doesn't believe in buying $450 master tape dubs from The Tape Project or other online sources. Instead, Jacobs makes his own tapes, recorded straight from a "crappy" '90s Panasonic DVD player, patched into the J-Corder with $5 Radio Shack cables. He claims these digital-to-analog recordings sound just as good as the pure analog master dubs that some audiophiles splurge on. "I went to CES one year, and plugged my J-Corder into a million dollar tube system with $240,000 Hansen speakers," says Jacobs. "These stoic guys were saying stuff like, 'That oboe sounds off-pitch.' Then I cued up my tape, and everyone got really animated. They loved it. When I said the source material was a CD, their jaws dropped."
To prove his point, Jacobs sent along one of his signature mix tapes, a funky pop music sampler with cuts ranging from a live concert performance in the Netherlands (Gino Vanelli's "Walt Whitman Where Are You") to "some song I heard at the end of a Richard Gere movie I liked" ("Baby Angel," by Mica Paris). Hardcore audiophiles will roll their eyes and tell you it's pointless to record CDs to tape, but Jacobs is right. This is some killer SQ. The hot signal captured on the supersaturated ATR tape is stunning in its clarity and depth. Gino's loopy falsetto on the "Walt Whitman" intro is positively crystalline, but without the usual digital bite. Any edge or brightness that may have been on that CD has been lost in analog translation. In fact, every song on the tape, across the entire dynamic range, exudes that organic analog texture and presence that audiophiles pay through the nose for. The frequency extension hits you like a velvet hammer, especially at the low end. Tapeheads rave about the tightness and gut punch of R2R bass. That's no exaggeration. The best part is that it all sounds so eerie accurate and natural.
Needle and Laser Drops
Jacobs likes to red line the needles when he records. If he's not peaking at 12dB, he's not happy. At British studios in the '60s and '70s, this was standard procedure for rock acts. Laying down a "hot" signal eliminated the need for any Dolby hocus-pocus, which was required to minimize annoying tape hiss. Who's Next was recorded at a scorching +10dB. That signal boost naturally compressed the sound, while also keeping hiss out and saturation goodness in.
As a Bob Ludwig homage, I cued up a blank reel of ATR quarter-inch tape, ramped up the line-in level, and made a recording using a Best Buy Philips DVD player that was only slightly less "crappy" than Mr. J-Corder's shop beater. The reference CD was Mark Levinson's expertly mastered Distinguished Friends of Cello Vol. 1. Listening to Guitar Gabriel's baritone howl on "Trouble In Mind" sounded scary good. Big Boy Henry's plaintive vocal on "Old Bill" was also ear-popping and conjured images of a smoky juke joint in swamps of Baton Rouge. The guitar plucks on both cuts resonated through the speakers like virtual strings. OK Jeff Jacobs, CD transfers sound damn good.
For the obligatory vinyl-to-tape recording, known as a "needle drop" in geek-speak, I cued up a fresh copy of Nina Simone's Little Girl Blue. Granted, there was a hint of LP surface noise. Still, first time out of the gate? Pinch me. If you do happen to dabble in vinyl arbitrage, and want to make some carbon copies of those $1,000 Blue Note discs before flipping them to some trust fund kid in Tokyo, this is the way to do it.
Sorry, Jeff. Your J-Corder absolutely kills it, but you're wrong about CDs sounding as good as master tape dubs. As good as laser drops sound, tape-to-tape transfers, when properly sourced, sound even better. Auditioning Jazz Sampler #1, a production copy recorded and dubbed by Jonathan Horwich at IPI, is like trying on a new pair of glasses, walking outside, and noticing blades of grass for the first time. Mr. Horwich has been recording live jazz since the mid-'60s. Drawing from his extensive personal archive, he sells "Direct Master Copies" (one-to-one dubs of a master tape; $450) and "Production Copies" (two generations removed from the master tape; $150) of these performances to jazz obsessed tape fiends. The standout performance on the sampler is Jeremy Kahn's "The Shadow Of Your Smile." When the tenor sax gushes out of the speakers, the aural sensation is—apologies, Sonurus—acoustic 3-D and holographic. And listening to the Stan Getz riffing on "Big, Tiny, Little" is like sitting in on a live gig. Part of that is the magic of analog tape. The other part is the way Horwich recorded the musicians: just two spaced B&K Omni mics. That's a highly unorthodox setup for taping a quartet, but this sounds the way live music should sound: natural. Too many mics on stage can spoil a recording, with each instrument fighting to stand out of the mix.
Should you buy a J-Corder? If you have ten grand burning a hole in your Apple Pay account, enjoy performing the tea ceremony that comes with owning an open reel tape machine (Don't forget to degauss the heads!), and have flirted with the idea of recording a local band and becoming Rudy van Gelder 2.0, then, yes, by all means, order a Tesla "Coca-Cola Red" J-Corder immediately. For everyone else: Start brown-bagging it, forsake Starbucks, sushi dinners, $20 mixologist cocktails, and every other overpriced extravagance. In several years, you too could be redlining needles, just like Mr. J-Corder.