Are there sonic differences between tape transports?

#1
I need advice. I want the best system possible for playing reel-to-reel tapes. Currently I have the Technics RS 1520 tape deck with Flux Magnetics heads and a King/Cello tape preamp. Eventually I met upgrade the preamp to something like the Doshi or the Merrill. My question is this. Focusing purely on sound quality, would there be any benefit to upgrading the tape deck to something like a Studer A80 or A820 or an Ampex ATR 102, or any other machine--assuming I'll be using an external preamp, not the built-in Electronics? Does the transport even make a difference to the sound?

I keep hearing that all that matters are the tape heads and the electronics, and that all transports sound the same. Is this true? It seems unlikely to me, since in the turntable world it is generally recognized that turntables make a big sonic difference (and not just cartridges and phono preamps). In fact, I know this to be true for turntables, since I've compared turntables using the same cartridge and the same preamp and they sound different. Has anyone tested this for tape decks? Has anyone done an A/B comparison between two tape decks using the same tape preamp, to see if the transport makes a difference?
 

rbbert

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Dec 12, 2010
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#2
The top end tape transports probably contribute noticeably less than the various preamps to eventual differences in sound quality. Turntables have a lot more going on mechanically than tape transports, where the only significant variables are likely speed constancy and tape to head contact. Lots of ergonomic differences between transports, though, and the mechanical noise of the transport could be an issue as well.
 
#3
Thanks, I appreciate the response. But I'm skeptical of answers based on theory. Theoretically speaking, you might think that all high-end turntable should sound the same so long as they rotate at constant speed and isolate vibrations. But we know from experience that that isn't true. Similarly, theoretically speaking, you might think that all cables should sound the same, or at least that all digital cables should sound the same, since all they do is pass on zeros and ones. And yet there are audible differences. In general, I don't think we have a good theoretical understanding of all the factors that contribute to sound. So I'm wondering if anyone has done A/B comparisons between transports holding the tape preamp (and, if possible, the tape head) constant.
 
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rbbert

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Dec 12, 2010
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#4
For turntables, in addition to speed constancy and isolation (both of which differ significantly and measurably between 'tables, even expensive ones), there are the mechanical and electrical interactions between the table, arm, cartridge and pre-amp; so I don't think it's reasonable to say high-end 'tables are "the same", either theoretically or practically.

There are several members here and at audionirvana.org with multiple tape decks and years of experience with them and different pre-amps; they will probably chime in eventually.
 
May 30, 2010
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#5
(...) Focusing purely on sound quality, would there be any benefit to upgrading the tape deck to something like a Studer A80 or A820 or an Ampex ATR 102, or any other machine--assuming I'll be using an external preamp, not the built-in Electronics? Does the transport even make a difference to the sound?
Yes, tape transports make a real difference. This difference was clearly measured and quantified in the past - the best machines have better scrape flutter measurements. Curiously the three you refer are considered the best! This issue has been addressed in WBF - see this great thread on it
https://www.whatsbestforum.com/threads/do-different-tape-transports-sound-different.22018/.
and links referred in the thread.

I keep hearing that all that matters are the tape heads and the electronics, and that all transports sound the same. Is this true? It seems unlikely to me, since in the turntable world it is generally recognized that turntables make a big sonic difference (and not just cartridges and phono preamps). In fact, I know this to be true for turntables, since I've compared turntables using the same cartridge and the same preamp and they sound different. Has anyone tested this for tape decks? Has anyone done an A/B comparison between two tape decks using the same tape preamp, to see if the transport makes a difference?
Yes. As far as I remember these opinions were reported in forums such as www.gearslutz.com and in the forum section of the Tapeproject site. Our member Ki Choi also has large experience on it. I own a Studer PR99 III and a couple of A80s. There is a fundamental difference between a tape being played in the A80 or the PR99 - after listening to the A80 you feel the PR99 sounds blurred and thin. However, although the preamplfier was the same - the Bottlehead - the heads were different.
 

Mike Lavigne

Member Sponsor & WBF Founding Member
Apr 25, 2010
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#6
i've owned a pristine Technics RS-1500, and later a Tim d'Paravicini modded RS-1570. and i'm a fellow King Cello owner. both these are nice 'prosumer' level transports. then there is another step up to a 'broadcast' level transport such as a Studer A-807. bigger, heavier chassis.

but master recorders are another step up from the broadcast level decks.

i owned the Ampex ATR-102 for 5 years, and now own 3 Studer A-820's. there is a significant difference to my ears going to the 'master-recorder' level decks like these in terms of transport solidity, like what Micro says.

my 2 cents would be in terms of ease of repair, and parts availability in North America; i would recommend the ATR-102 as the most friendly machine; the A-80's that are really nice would be second choice and A-820's if you can find a sorted out one and have a friendly repair person my third choice.
 
Sep 15, 2018
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#7
I need advice. I want the best system possible for playing reel-to-reel tapes. Currently I have the Technics RS 1520 tape deck with Flux Magnetics heads and a King/Cello tape preamp. Eventually I met upgrade the preamp to something like the Doshi or the Merrill. My question is this. Focusing purely on sound quality, would there be any benefit to upgrading the tape deck to something like a Studer A80 or A820 or an Ampex ATR 102, or any other machine--assuming I'll be using an external preamp, not the built-in Electronics? Does the transport even make a difference to the sound?

I keep hearing that all that matters are the tape heads and the electronics, and that all transports sound the same. Is this true? It seems unlikely to me, since in the turntable world it is generally recognized that turntables make a big sonic difference (and not just cartridges and phono preamps). In fact, I know this to be true for turntables, since I've compared turntables using the same cartridge and the same preamp and they sound different. Has anyone tested this for tape decks? Has anyone done an A/B comparison between two tape decks using the same tape preamp, to see if the transport makes a difference?
That all depends on your appetite for maintenance, upkeep and finding the right example. Is this for playback only, record only or a mix. That matters, because certain mastering machines are good at both, some are superior more for playback. And then, what kind of tape are you wanting to run. Vintage or modern. Again it makes a difference, because some mastering machines will eventually ruin anything pre 1963 +/- and others units will not.

Any of the decks mentioned in this thread are superior to any consumer machine.

Buck
 

Edward Pong

Industry Expert
Jun 24, 2013
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Locust Hill, Ontario
#8
I use 2 Studer A80s as transport & have heard my tapes played on various decks. I would say, "there is no free lunch in audio". At the very top levels of performance, everything makes a difference & one cannot deny the physics behind a massive well engineered deck such as the Studer A80 & ATR102...... IMHO

Ed
 

jdza

Well-Known Member
May 3, 2010
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#9
There exists a Rosetta Stone to answer this. The Studer A80R and the Studer B62 have identical audio electronics. Although their heads are not identical their electrical characteristics are. Yet the 2 machines sound significantly different. The B62 is a much more mechanical machine with less rolling surfaces and a complex mechanical braking system while the A80 is a much more refined transport with more electronic control.

How do they differ in sound? The B62 sounds more alive and boppy with a rhytmic engaging sound quality while the A80R has a much more controlled sound . Which one sounds better? Belt or idler really.



 
#10
Is this for playback only, record only or a mix. That matters, because certain mastering machines are good at both, some are superior more for playback. And then, what kind of tape are you wanting to run. Vintage or modern. Again it makes a difference, because some mastering machines will eventually ruin anything pre 1963 +/- and others units will not.
Sorry, I should have specified.

This machine will be primarily for playback. In fact, it might have to be for playback ONLY. For I want it to be able to play all my tapes, including old 2- and 4-track prerecorded tapes from the 50s and 60s. So I may need to replace the record head with a 4-track play head.

So which studio machine sounds best for playback, and is gentle enough to handle all these old tapes?
 
#11
i owned the Ampex ATR-102 for 5 years, and now own 3 Studer A-820's. there is a significant difference to my ears going to the 'master-recorder' level decks like these in terms of transport solidity, like what Micro says.
Having owned both, did you notice any sonic differences between the Ampex and the Studers, differences that you would attribute to the transports rather than to the electronics?
 

topoxforddoc

Well-Known Member
Feb 20, 2015
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213
Cheltenham, UK
#12
You'll find it difficult to find a studio (broadcast or mastering) machine, which will play a 4 track commercial tape. A 4 track commercial tape is recorded with tracks 1&3 playback for side A and a reverse recording of tracks 2&4 for side B of the album (just like your cassette but with wider tape width and higher speed). The 1/4 inch studio mastering decks will be all pretty much 2 track playback. 4 track replay of commercial tapes is really within the domain of the domestic R2R, as opposed to a broadcast or mastering deck.
 
#13
You'll find it difficult to find a studio (broadcast or mastering) machine, which will play a 4 track commercial tape. A 4 track commercial tape is recorded with tracks 1&3 playback for side A and a reverse recording of tracks 2&4 for side B of the album (just like your cassette but with wider tape width and higher speed). The 1/4 inch studio mastering decks will be all pretty much 2 track playback. 4 track replay of commercial tapes is really within the domain of the domestic R2R, as opposed to a broadcast or mastering deck.
I know that a studio machine won't come with a 4-track head. But I may be able to replace the record head with a 4-track playback head
 
Sep 15, 2018
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#14
Sorry, I should have specified.

This machine will be primarily for playback. In fact, it might have to be for playback ONLY. For I want it to be able to play all my tapes, including old 2- and 4-track prerecorded tapes from the 50s and 60s. So I may need to replace the record head with a 4-track play head.

So which studio machine sounds best for playback, and is gentle enough to handle all these old tapes?
I would recommed an A80 for acetate tape and older tapes that may have some age-related condition issues. I've never broken a splice or 1.0 mil tape of any kind on that model. With the Sony APR and A827's you must be more careful. Ditto with the Ampex ATR unless it is set up with lower torque in mind.

It is a archival issue more than a machine issue. 70 yr old acetate tape is stable, but dry as the Mojave desert.
 

srs148

Well-Known Member
Jan 4, 2016
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#15
You'll find it difficult to find a studio (broadcast or mastering) machine, which will play a 4 track commercial tape. A 4 track commercial tape is recorded with tracks 1&3 playback for side A and a reverse recording of tracks 2&4 for side B of the album (just like your cassette but with wider tape width and higher speed). The 1/4 inch studio mastering decks will be all pretty much 2 track playback. 4 track replay of commercial tapes is really within the domain of the domestic R2R, as opposed to a broadcast or mastering deck.
Easily addressed by adding a quarter-track head to the block - this is common and if you're in the US, JRF Magnetics can do that for you.

However, given that you're looking to primarily play 4-track commercial tapes, you're splitting hairs sweating over which top-line mastering deck is going to sound the best. You can't go wrong with the ATR, A80, A810/12/20, or the others mentioned here.

Then it comes down to tape handling with the A80 and A820 probably being the most gentle of the bunch.
 
Jan 18, 2012
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#16
I have several A80s and one A810 and A812 and the A80 sounds more solid, stable, whatever you call it
I think the chassis has a great impact as it anchors the brakes , motors etc in a torsion stable way
the chassis is heavier, stiffer and supports all mechanical and electronic parts much better
the bass and midbass differentiation on an A80 is in another league than the A810 or A812
btw my repro only A80 has custom 4T replay head instead of record head
Todor Dimitrov of Mastertapesoundlab in Thessaloniki, Greece did the conversion
 

Mike Lavigne

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Apr 25, 2010
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#17
Having owned both, did you notice any sonic differences between the Ampex and the Studers, differences that you would attribute to the transports rather than to the electronics?
sorry for the delay in my response. when i read this originally i had to think about it some, and then forgot.

i would have a hard time isolating performance differences back then to transport differences. in stock form i slightly preferred the A-820 to the ATR-102 i had. it seemed more refined and authoritative. the ATR had maybe a bit more sparkle on top.

my friend Ki Choi added a head switch to the A-820 so i could use the King Cello, after that i mostly listened to the A-820. i never tried the ATR with the King Cello. i did prefer the whole tape handling elegance on the A-820 to the ATR, and preferred it's look and feel too. finally the A-820 was dead quiet with no fan (it was swiss after all), the Ampex had a noisy fan which i disconnected for in room listening, but i never liked that.

my opinion is that those 2 are equals in performance. the A-820 is just more a 'pretty thing'. obviously i now own three of them. my babies.

later i added the Trafoless output cards to all three of my A-820's which made a significant difference in the stock performance. i think that would have been significant if i still had a stock ATR to compare to.
 
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Jan 18, 2012
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Drobak Norway
#18
the stock audio boards of the A820 are the same as A810
the MTSL modded A810 sounds close but not quite as good as my MTSL modded A80s
the difference is mainly the transport...
the A820 and also the A816 are considered to be the pinnacle of tape transports, but I wouldn´t want to own one without an experienced tech nearby...their sm psu´s are considered to be a nightmare to fix...and they´ll need a fix sooner or later
 
May 25, 2010
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#19
I have two ATR-102s. Both have two sets of headblocks (1/4" and 1/2"). If you want to be able to switch quickly between 1/4" and 1/2" tape, then the ATR-102 can be done, headblock and two tape guides in about 90 seconds - faster if you are more coordinated than me. I also had all four headblocks wired to switch between external tape preamps as well as staying with the Ampex playback electronics. My two external tape preamp (Doshi and Merrill) are a good size step up from the internal Ampex playback electronics, which have a good reputation.

To play my 7.5ips 1/4 track stereo prerecorded tapes, I had Greg Orton of Flux Magnetics install a 1/4 track stereo playback head in one of my 1/4" head blocks. The Ampex head block can hold four heads, so there is no problem keeping full record and playback capability on the headblock. To balance the reel weights, when I playback a plastic 7" reel, I put an empty 10.5" reel on top of it (using the reel hub tightened on the smaller plastic reel). This allows the tape to be played easily with a 10.5" take up reel.

If you get a pro machine (Ampex ATR-102 or Studer A80 or A820 or others) first note that these are big, very heavy machines. Second, I would ask around and make sure you have a top notch tech not too far away, particularly one that does house calls. My experience is that in and around large metropolitan areas there are some around. Maybe harder to get in smaller population areas. I'm not a big DIY person, but my tech has taught me to make small adjustments myself. Reading manuals, even the English language Ampex manual, is not my idea of fun.

Larry
 

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