What’s up with reel-to-reel cassettes?

Reel-to-reel cassettes can be seen in almost every YouTube video that shows off vintage hi-fi equipment. Why they have become so popular, and do they have any merit?

Technical merit

On a reel-to-reel tape recorder the smallest distance between spindles is defined by the sum of the radii of the reels. Compact cassette does away with the reels, or more precisely, with the reel flanges, so the spindles can be moved closer together.

Cassette improves on reels in two different areas: quicker tape loading, and a more efficient use of space.

A regular 60-minute cassette would lose one third of its capacity, if converted to a reel-to-reel cassette. A 90-minute cassette would lose about 40% of its capacity.

There are other issues besides the recording time.

If the reels are made of metal, they can damage the tape unless the metal edge of the flanges is polished and smoothed to perfection.

Tape may experience excessive tension because of the reels squeezed inside the cassette shell.

The playback stability often suffers, resulting in excessive wow and flutter.

Considering the above, reel-to-reel cassettes have no technical reason for existence. But after all, why not have some cheap fun with reel-to-reel cassettes? Well, they are not cheap. Not anymore.

Financial Merit

If you want to get one, you will be facing a dilemma: an original, or an imitation. The original cassettes are not made anymore, so you will be looking either for a used one, or for a New Old Stock — a wrapped unused cassette that was sitting in someone attic or basement for thirty years.

The original TEAC cassettes sell for very steep price on online auctions, which does not seem to depend on tape type, from $70 to $100 per cassette. Cheaper Eagle C15 cassettes were sold for just £0.75 in 2015. Nowadays they easily score $20 or more on eBay. Handmade cassettes cost about the same: $10 to $20.

Who in their right mind would pay this much for a product that is inferior to a regular compact cassette in every measurable way?

Aesthetic Merit

Reel-to-reel cassettes are used primarily as props for showcasing cassette tape recorders, they are not meant for regular listening.

My theory is that these golden or silver reels are associated with professional tape usage. As such, they elevate the perceived quality and status of the equipment they are played on. They serve the same function as hot babes at a car show.

The urban legend says that the Japanese electronics manufacturer TEAC originally made reel-to-reel cassettes for in-store demonstration purposes, and then a salesman suggested selling them to the general public.

Left: Nagra SN Micro (1971), Right: a cassette player with the cover removed.

To me, the tiny reels look awkward confined inside a large component deck or a boombox. They look more natural in a portable player, reminiscent of spy recorders from the classic James Bond era.

Option: big-hub cassette

If you are partial to large cassette hubs but want to avoid the silliness of reel-to-reel cassettes, you may want to look at 46-minute cassettes. These were popular for a brief period in the 1980s and were sold mostly in Japan and Korea. Presently, they may cost as much as a homemade reel-to-reel tape, but unlike reel-to-reel tapes they are as good as any other cassette in terms of tape quality and mechanical precision.

Big-hub cassettes compared to a reel-to-reel Pioneer cassette.

A quick warning: not all 46-minute cassettes have large hubs! You should verify this before buying.

Option: tapeless deck

If the visuals are of high importance to you, how about going beyond imitating a reel-to-reel tape inside a cassette, and fake the cassette itself.

Different cassette skins offered by Tapeless Deck project.

A guy in Poland rips out the mechanism from old decks and replaces it with a smartphone that runs a music player app. The app has several dozen cassette skins and looks very believable.

Now the sky is the limit, as you can have virtual reels as large as you like them.

Also, a spinning cassette can be enjoyed in the dark, this is a clear improvement over any of my decks, none of which has back-light.

Option: switch to modern media

Of course, the most rational choice is to get rid of the old-school cassette paraphernalia and switch to modern tapeless, disk-less solid-state media and players.

Seriously, I paid just $20 for a128 GB card that I bought recently, it can fit as many as 180 CDs in full uncompressed Redbook quality! Why would anyone want to continue to fiddle with tapes?

Physical media: still makes sense to some

I guess, modern solid-state and streaming music is missing the physical aspect: I cannot touch all these 180 albums on the memory card, whereas with cassettes or CDs come in different colors and textures and liner notes. Sometimes I just like fiddling with them instead of tapping a cold glass screen.

Oh, well.