Written by 5:46 am Analog • 19 Comments

So, There’s a Secret Reel-to-Reel Tape Club?

Jerry Del Colliano gets lost in the hotel hallways at CES…

If you read my articles over at HomeTheaterReview.com, you might be hip to the crazy concept called The Bel Air Circuit. If not, it’s basically a somewhat hush-hush club that gives some of the richest and most connected people in the world access to first run movies in their home on a day-and-date basis. Yes, these lucky few (I think there are a little over 500 people in the club now), mostly in return for investing in movies, get the key code and/or hard drive for a new, first run movie in 4K, complete with all of the theater-quality, object-based surround sound to watch from say a Friday through a Sunday night. These people don’t have home theaters like you and I do, by the way; they have actual movie theaters in their homes, complete with projection rooms, fully vented $100,000 4K Christie or Barco projectors, and whatnot. I will warn you that, much like flying in a private jet the first time, you will never be the same after experiencing The Bel Air Circuit experience. It is the ultimate in home theater, luxury, and convenience, and unless you hit Powerball and decide to invest in movies (I’ve tried it and I highly recommend against it), you likely aren’t getting into this exclusive little club–no matter how cool it is. 

AR-JRRRTR2a.jpgBut what if there was a similar club for Audiophiles? A way to get analog master tape right into your life? 

I just heard about a clandestine, loosely associated crew that has been quietly operating on a global basis with significant ties to the recording industry. The name-less club deals in quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape copies of very significant music, and has been around since the launch of the Compact Disc in 1983. The idea was to make backup, one-off copies of meaningful music and preserve them while also enjoying what is a damn-close-to-the-master-tape copy of an album. By design, copying said tapes can be tricky, if not a downright pain in the ass. Hell, getting access to high quality blank tape isn’t easy anymore. The reel-to-reel tape decks themselves aren’t easy to find, and require a certain amount of care and long-term maintenance that is found more in a recording studio than in an audiophile’s rig. If you wanted to make a copy, by definition you are getting farther and farther away from the analog master tape, thus a deterrent in the basic nature of the club. Logistics also suggest that you need two reel-to-reel machines to make a copy, thus raising the barrier to entry.

AR-JRrtr3a.jpgIt is very unclear how to get invited into the exclusive audiophile club. I saw my friend at CES (yes, I went for the day for a project not related to HomeTheaterReview.com and had a little time to see the barely-there displays on the 29th floor of The Venetian Hotel) and he taught me about this new world of audio goodness. My buddy was playing quarter-inch reel-to-reel tapes in a pretty trick Classé Audio and Magico rig, and I was compelled. 

I’ve seen other audiophiles playing tapes of truly fantastic albums on reel-to-reel at shows, only to learn when I asked how said tapes were acquired that the guy made a dub from a Compact Disc. That’s not what we are talking about here. These reel-to-reel tapes are basically a “safety copy” of the real deal master tape. And they sound good. Really good. And while this audio is analog, it is not vinyl. It sounds much, much better. With reel-to-reel master tape, you don’t suffer from highly limited dynamic range. You don’t have crackles, pops, and general overall distortion that you get from vinyl or cassette. What you do hear is an incredibly clean, spacious, detailed sound. While listening to The Final Cut by Pink Floyd, I could hear the detail of the reverb being used in ways that can get lost in all but the best digital rigs. It was audiophile crack glowing in the glass pipe and whispering in your ear to take a puff.

AR-DaveBrubeck-BlueRondo.jpgCan you get into the club? Doubtful. I don’t know what you need to bring to the table, but it seems to be an invite-only type of thing. I saw partial copies of records like Steely Dan’s Aja, The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Blue Rondo à la Turk, Pink Floyd, Cat Stevens, and more. The albums don’t even really fit onto one reel, so my buddy–for safety (and space) concerns–only brought half of most of the albums. One listener asked if my friend could cue up a specific part of the Pink Floyd record. No buddy. That takes too long. Tape is clunky, awkward, and fragile. Once it is carefully spooled up, you are best to sit down and listen. If you want to jump around, shuffle songs, and whatnot, then break out your phone

The cost of said club? It ain’t cheap, let me tell you. A copy of a good record–if you get the chance to buy it–can be over $400 per copy. While that might seem insane, when you consider it the super high-octane fuel for your audiophile race car that isn’t available anywhere else, it isn’t that expensive. I mean, how much is that next preamp upgrade that you want? More or less than $400? My buddy says there is a “drug deal like effect” to the whole experience. I want to believe that there is a list these albums on reel-to-reel on the dark web and that you can only by them in crypto currency. Like black tar heroin, only slightly less addictive. 

AR-Tascam-Machine.jpgWould you join such an exclusive audiophile club if you had the chance? Would you bring a big, clunky-ass (but super cool looking) reel-to-reel right into your audiophile system? Would you pop for $400 for yet another copy of Aja if it was the best you’ve ever heard? (By the way: the original CD mix of Aja is widely considered the best over the SACD and other esoteric offerings, but come on–you’ve bought all of those crazy imports, haven’t you?) Chime in via the comment section below.

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