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Sanritsu Memotape TC-5 Tape Recorder, 1965?
Although this Memotape TC-5 is quite clearly a miniature tape reel-to-reel recorder, it would be more accurate to call it dictating machine. The features that make this so are basically the supplied microphone, which has a remote pause control, and the earphone with its stethoscope adaptor, which makes transcribing recordings in a noisy office environment, or for privacy reasons, a lot easier.
Here are some more verifiable facts. It is housed in a tough metal case, with all of the key internal components also made of metal. The deck features a simple capstan drive mechanism, which ensures speed stability and for good measure the high quality drive motor has a mechanical speed governor. An electromagnetic tape head is used to erase recordings prior to making new recordings, and for security; machines of this size generally have permanent magnet erase heads, which are a lot cheaper but not especially effective. The 5-transistor amplifier circuit is another really well made item and it can take reels of up to 75mm in diameter, which give around 20 to 30 minutes recording time per side.
The TC-5 was made in Japan, almost certainly in the mid 1960s by Sanritsu Electric Machine Co. Ltd. And that is about all that can said about the TC-5 with any certainty. It doesn’t appear anywhere on the web or in any of the usual reference books, and the only vague and by no means certain mentions of Sanritsu Electric suggest that it may have been founded in the 1950s. Over the years it looks like Sanritsu produced a dozen or so ‘Artemis’, ‘Spica’, ‘Sanritz’ and ‘Super Knips’ branded transistor radios, as well as the TC-5 and may or may not have been wound up in the early 1990s when Sanyo, it’s main customer, pulled the plug on a contact to manufacture cassette decks.
This lack of information is a little odd considering that the TC-5 is a quality item and probably cost a fair bit back in the day. This is usually enough to ensure some sort of printed legacy, reviews or advertising. Expensive pieces of office equipment tend to be well looked during their working lives, which improves their chances of survival. On the other hand it might simply indicate that it was a flop and few were made or sold, either way it makes this one something of a rarity.
I suspect that I bought it in the 1990s; at any rate it was long enough ago for me to forget exactly when or how much I paid for it, though it is unlikely that it was more than £10. I’m guessing it came from an antique fair or car boot sales, rather an ebay or an online seller as it came with the bottom half of its substantial box. Boxes were rarely included when large or heavy items like this were sent through the post.
It has a few light scratches here and there and the maker’s badge is missing from the top part of the case but judging by the lack of any modern components on the circuit board and the fact that it still works means it is in more or less original condition. Although it is well past its fiftieth birthday sound quality is pretty good and probably not that different to when it was new. Recording speech isn’t that demanding in any case but the manufacturers went to a good deal of trouble to ensure that it was as good as it could be and the capstan drive and speed regulated motor would have made it a cut above the contemporary competition.
What Happened To It?
The arrival of the Compact Cassette format in 1963 was the kiss of death for almost all types and sizes of reel-to-reel tape recorders, though it took a decade of so before the takeover was complete. During that time manufacturers of small machines like this one either fell by the wayside or shifted production to cassette. That seems to have been the path taken by Sanritsu, assuming they are the same company mentioned earlier. It appears that they became a sub-contractor, supplying assemblies and components, rather than becoming a brand in their own right. If so they would have eventually fallen foul of the shift in production of consumer electronics products away from Japan towards China and other Far Eastern countries where wages and manufacturing costs were, and still are substantially cheaper.
When it comes to value dictating machines are simply not that popular with collectors and the TC-5’s somewhat sketchy history doesn’t help. Build quality and rarity gets it a few points but I doubt that it would fetch more than £20 – 25 on ebay. As usual, though, things can and do change and almost any vintage reel-to-reel tape recorder, especially it is in reasonably good condition and still working is worth snapping us. High-end equipment using this long obsolete technology can attract three and four figure sums and as the well dries up rising prices should, in theory at least, trickle down to rhe less well-visited corners of the market.
First Seen: 1965?
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £25 (0320)
Features: 2-track recording, capstan drive deck mechanism, 75mm tape reels, electromagnetic erase, rewind, play/record transport modes, microphone with remote pause, earphone with stethoscope adaptor, 5-transistor amplifier, 50mm speaker, speed stabilised motor
Power req: 9 x 1.5 volt AA cells
Dimensions: 185 x 115 x 65mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 9
Clipper TC-300 Mini Tape Recorder, 1962
On the face of it recording sound seems like a fairly complicated business, involving a lot of advanced technology. The fact is Thomas Edison managed to do it back in 1877 with a simple mechanism that you could replicate today a couple of tin cans and some aluminium foil. That's a bit of an over simplification and there is a little more to it - take a look at this entry on the HowStuffWorks website. The point is, though, we have become so accustomed to the problem solving ability of the almighty microchip that we sometimes loose sight of older, much simpler solutions.
The innards of this Clipper TC-300 miniature tape recorder are a prime example of vintage ingenuity. Ignore the rat's nest of wires; essentially there are just three crucial elements: a small motor, a simple 3-transistor amplifier (connected to a magnetic tape head and a small speaker) and a rotary switch. The motor is mounted on a bracket coupled to the switch which, when turned, presses the elongated motor spindle on to one or the other rubber-rimmed tape platters. At the same time the switch applies power to the amplifier and motor. In Play or Record mode the thinner right-hand end of the motor spindle acts on the take-up reel, drawing tape past the tape head at around 6.35mm per second, picking up or recording the audio signal, which is, or has been processed by the amplifier. In Record mode previous recordings are first erased by a small permanent magnet, pressing against the tape. This moves into position by flipping the Play/Record slide switch on the front panel. Rotate the main switch the other way and the thicker, brass-bushed end of the motor spindle comes into contact with the feed reel platter, rewinding the tape at a relatively higher speed.
That is the essence of Rim-Drive tape transport mechanisms. They were very widely used on small and cheap tape recorders like this one made from the late 50s to the early 1960s. Unfortunately it was just before Compact Cassette appeared, which all but destroyed the reel-to-reel tape recorder market. More complex, higher-performance, Capstan-Drive mechanisms continued on a handful of surviving up-market reel-to-reel machines and in miniaturised form in Cassette tape recorders. But it was the end of the line for the millions of little tape recorders being produced at the time for a wide variety of applications, including sending and receiving audio letters, dictation, telephone recording, playing bit parts in spy movies and TV programmes and as kids toys
The Clipper TC-300 would have been comfortable doing any one of those jobs, though the low price and very modest specification meant that it was mostly bought by or given to children as playthings. The twin-track mono tape deck and restricted reel size provided only around 15 minutes of recording time per side and the lack of speed stability was only really suitable for recording speech. It came with a crystal lapel microphone and there's also a socket for an earphone. The case is fitted with a folding carry handle and it is powered by a pair of 1.5-volt C cells and one 9-volt PP3 battery. The absence of a fast forward function was common to the design and another limitation but it is difficult to convey how incredible tiny machines like this seemed back in the early sixties, when full-size tape recorders sold for hundreds of pounds and were virtually unheard of as items of home entertainment.
This machine was one of several dozen that I bought on ebay around 15 years ago, when they were cheap and plentiful, and shipping from the US was still affordable. In total it probably didn't cost me more than £10 - £15, which was a good deal considering that it came in its original box, with all of the accessories and a couple of reels of tape. This model was actually quite common and closely related to another machine featured on these pages, the Royal 410. There are significant differences in the design of the case, amplifier board and battery holder, but the deck mechanism is very similar and almost certainly shares a number of common parts. It had been very little used and the condition was, and still is, near mint. It still works as well as it ever did though, after laying idle in its box for the best part of a decade the motor and tape platters needed a little encouragement, and a drop or two of light oil, to get it going again.
What Happened To It?
We've already dealt at length -- here and elsewhere in dustygizmos -- with the main reason for the demise of reel-to-reel tape recorders, and the fate of the company that made the Clipper TC-300 is another familiar story. They were almost certainly one of scores, if not hundreds of small concerns producing small tape recorders in early sixties Japan, and the same model often bore a number of different names or badges. A tiny handful of those companies survived to go on to bigger and better things. Other companies took over a few of them but most, including the one responsible for the Clipper, simply vanished without trace. Web searches failed to turn up any other examples of this machine or any evidence of the manufacturer's existence.
Needless to say it's apparent rarity has little impact on its current value, which I've put at £30 - £50 and that is almost entirely due to it being in such good condition and still having its original box and accessories. Small tape recorders from the early sixties can still be found on ebay, occasionally for very little money (especially if the photographs or description fail to give an impression of size). It remains an area of collecting with a lot of future potential, especially for newcomers but be quick, the supply of raw material is getting smaller by the day.
First Seen: 1962
Original Price: £5.00
Value Today: £30 (0120)
Features: Single-speed, (6.35mm or 1/4 inch tape at 4.76 cm/sec or 1 7/8 inches per second), 75mm dia. spools, 2-track rim-drive deck mechanism, Play, Record, Rewind transport modes, permanent magnet erase, 55mm speaker, 3-transistor amplifier, folding carry handle, crystal microphone & magnetic earphone, microphone in & earphone out sockets (3.5mm mono jacks).
Power req: 1 x 9volt PP3 & 2 x 1.5 volt C cells
Dimensions: 205 x 120 x 60mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Standard Radio Unicorder 61 Tape Recorder, 1964
By my reckoning more than 300 makes and models of miniature portable reel-to-reel tape recorders were on sale during the decade from the late fifties to the late sixties. The defining characteristic is reel size, which for the sake of argument is any machine using reels that are 90mm (3.5-inch) or less in diameter.
The vast majority of them -- somewhere north of 95 percent -- had relatively crude ‘rim drive’ transport mechanisms. Suffice it to say they were simple and cheap to manufacture but not very good when it came to speed stability, reliability and sound quality but since most of them were little more than toys, it hardly mattered.
The other five percent mostly used the same sort of transport system found in larger and more expensive consumer and professional tape recorders, namely capstan drive. This involves a significantly more complex and expensive mechanism that ensures the tape passes the tape head(s) at a constant speed. In other words this little Standard Radio Unicorder 61 (61 SR-F61 RT, to give it is full name), with it's compact capstan drive transport mechanism, is something of a rarity, and definitely not a toy!
Reel size is one of the main considerations when it comes to a tape recorder’s ultimate purpose. The 75mm (3-inch) reels commonly used on mini tape recorders can only enough tape for around 15 minutes worth of recording, though to be fair most early machines recorded two tracks (one each side) but that still only gave 30 minutes or so recording time, which isn’t much fun for listening to music. Longer recording times are possible by reducing tape speed but that has a major impact on sound quality. Given that the Unicorder 61 probably cost the equivalent of £200 or so in today’s money you have to ask what was it for?
One clue to the answer lies in the two jack sockets. Marked ‘Pause’ on the top and the side of the machine. Essentially it is a piece of office equipment for dictation or recording telephone calls with the record/playback pause function controlled by a switch on the side of the microphone or a separate foot switch. The next question is if it is only going to be used for recording speech, why bother with a fancy capstan drive mechanism? The answer is compatibility Due to the constantly changing head-to tape-speed of rim drive machines; recordings are only just about acceptable when replayed on the machine they were made on. This could be inconvenient in an office where multiple dictating machines are in use. (It’s also fair to say that bosses didn’t do mundane things like typing in those days…). The last clue is the socket on the back of the machine for a mains lead. Whilst it can be powered by batteries (ten AA cells), machines like this would have spent most of their time on desks. It’s also worth pointing out that it has a ferocious appetite for batteries, draining a set of cells in less than an hour.
Other features that set it apart from the hundreds of other small tape recorders available in the sixties include two-speed operation. To change the speed from 9.5 cm/sec to 4.75cm/s the capstan’s outer roller is detached and stowed on a metal peg just beside the take-up reel so the reduced diameter of the inner capstan roller passes tape at the slower speed. It has an electromagnetic tape head, rarely seen on cheap and cheerful mini recorders. These generally had a small permanent magnet mounted on a swing arm to wipe the tape before a new recordings was made. It has small recording and battery level meter mounted on the top panel and a Fast Forward tape function, rarely if ever fitted to rim drive tape recorders. It’s also really heavy at 2.2kg and this is largely thanks to the mains power supply and all metal construction. Build quality is outstanding, from the speed-governed motor to the four transistor amplifier, which pumps out a more than adequate 330mW of surprisingly crisp audio into a pair of 55mm speakers, built into the front of the case.
You are excused for thinking that a little gem like this would generate some enthusiastic bidding and a healthy price on ebay, where I found this one. Usually they do but for various reasons there were only two bidders on this one, me, and my rival, who gave up at £3.80. This was unusual considering that it had been well photographed, accurately, although only briefly described, and the auction ended at a respectable time. It had clearly been really well looked after and although there was no mention of it working in the description, that wouldn’t necessarily have been a turn-off for many collectors. It also came with two leather-cased microphones. One of them was a classic lapel mike, which routinely sells on ebay for £10 or more. The original leather case was also included though it was a bit tatty and in need of some serious TLC. The machine was in good working order, though the moving parts benefited from some light lubrication, and a small tab on the transport lever needed replacing, though this only took about 15 minutes to fabricate. There was barely a mark on it, anywhere and the clear acrylic hinged lid looked as if it had just left the factory.
What Happened To It?
The Philips Compact Cassette, launched in 1963 made this, and almost every other reel-to-reel tape recorder, effectively obsolete. By the early 70s the market for open reel machines was effectively dead and to make Philips killed off reel-to-reel’s tenuous grip in the dictating machine market with the introduction of the Micro Cassette, in 1967.
Tokyo-based Standard Radio Company Limited was founded in 1955. Although it almost certainly started out making radios, the evidence on the web suggests that it spent most of its time, from the late 50s onwards, building reel-to-reel tape recorders. So far I have only identified a small handful of models, of which the Unicorder 61 appears to have been the most successful. There’s little or no evidence that Standard Radio made the transition to cassette and it fortunes appeared to have taken a turn for the worse in the mid sixties and towards the end of the decade it was acquired by Marantz, after which it disappeared from view.
One possible reason this example slipped under the UK collector’s radar and sold so cheaply is the Standard Radio brand, which isn’t well known outside of Japan and the US. In spite of its obvious quality it can be difficult to see just how small it is in photos and without some sort of scale or reference it can be easily mistaken for a much larger and therefore less interesting tabletop model. That means bargains like this are still possible. If they come from an office environment there is a good chance they will have been well looked after and working or not they are always worth considering, at the right price, and providing they’re not a total wreck. Materials and build quality are top-notch and most faults should be reasonably easy to fix by anyone able to wield a screwdriver and soldering iron.
First Seen: 1962?
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £25.00 (1219)
Features: 2-track mono recording, 2-speed capstan drive (1 7/8ip/s 4.75 cm/s & 9.5cm/s 3 3/4 ips), 75mm/3-inch reels, electromagnetic erase, Play, Rewind, Fast Forward & Record transport functions, twin 55mm speakers, 300mW audio output, battery/level meter, remote pause, external speaker output, line audio input, microphone socket
Power req: 230VAC and 10 x 1.5 volt AA cells
Dimensions: 20 x 170 x 82mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Teltape Miniature Tape Recorder, 1958
Notable firsts in vintage technology are a dustygizmos speciality so this little Teltape Portable Tape Recorder is assured a place on the website as the leading contender for the title, ‘World’s First Transistor Tape Recorder’. It is not the sort of thing that’s authenticated by official bodies and there may well be other claims but until someone can come up with a commercially produced transistor tape recorder made prior to1958, the honour belongs to Teltape. You might be forgiven for thinking that it came from one of the handful of countries that pioneered transistor technology, i.e. the USA, Japan and the UK, but you would be mistaken. It’s origins are not too surprising, however, and it hails from the county where the modern magnetic tape recorder was invented, Germany in the 1930s, or rather Western Germany, as it was known when the Teltape appeared.
As well as being the first of its kind it’s possible it was the inspiration for the hundreds, if not thousands of miniature tape recorders that were to follow, mainly from Japan, over the next ten years. The distinctive feature is the single motor tape transport system, better known as a ‘rim-drive mechanism’. Put simply the motor has two elongated spindles – one at each end -- mounted on a pivot so that one spindle or the other comes into contact with a rubber ring on the underside of the tape platters. The right hand spindle drives the take up reel for Play and Record modes and the other one, fitted with a brass bush, drives the feed reel. The larger diameter of the bush means the left hand platter spins faster, in the opposite direction to the take up reel, for the rewind function.
It works well enough for lo-fi recording applications but the two basic flaws are that there is no fast forward function and the speed at which the tape passes the head changes, as one reel empties and the other fills up. It’s hardly noticeable when replaying recordings made on the same machine but tapes made on other recorders can sound a bit odd. Teltape’s solution was to fit a manual speed control. Small variations in tape speed are smoothed out by the heavy metal platters and a high quality motor, which has a speed governor.
Another feature, later borrowed by Japanese makers of small cheap tape recorders, is a permanent magnet erase system. Magnetic tape needs to be erased before a new recording can be made. It’s a standard features on all tape recorders and more sophisticated machines typically have an extra tape head, driven by a high frequency oscillator that both erases the previous recording and ‘biases’ the magnetic particles in the tape in preparation for the new recording. However, a similar, though much less precise effect can be achieved by pressing a small permanent magnet against the tape, and flipping it into position is the job of the small red-topped lever close to the feed reel.
The rest of the controls are dotted around the top panel. From left to right they the on/off push-button power switch. In the middle there’s a two-position toggle switch for selecting record or playback mode; above that is the lever for tilting the motor (three positions: Play/Record, Stop and Rewind). And on the far right there’s a rotary control for adjusting tape speed. There’s also a second ‘fine-tune’ speed adjuster accessible through a small hole on the underside. In the middle of the top panel there’s a red indicator lamp that glows and acts as a sort of crude battery level indicator when the machine is running.
In case you are wondering where the speaker grille is hiding, there isn’t one. It plays back through a pair of headphones, which are supplied with the machine. There’s also a separate microphone, which uses a carbon-type insert. Apparently it is the same as those used in the German telephones of the day. The headphones and microphone plug into ‘banana’ type sockets on the side of the case. Speaking of which. The stylish maroon housing is made of an early thermoplastic material. It’s almost certainly another first, and not just on transistor tape recorders; in the late fifties metal, wood and thermo-setting plastics like Bakelite were the materials of choice on consumer products like this one.
The Teltape has no pretensions for sonic excellence. It was essentially a toy, though there are clear signs of it being marketed in the US as basic voice recorder and dictating machine, which is something it would have been well suited to. Since there is no speaker the amplifier has also been stripped to bone, using just two Germanium transistors, though it’s worth remember that at the time transistors were still quite exotic, and expensive. Sound quality is poor, it’s fine for speech but little else and the 76mm (3-inch) diameter tape reels limited recording time to around 15 minutes.
This particular Teltape recorder has been in my collection for at least 20 years and was a swapsie with a fellow collector, for another vintage tape machine. It came in its original box with all of the accessories and was then – and still is – in pristine condition and full working order. At the time the only reasons I made the trade was the odd shape, striking colour and unusually good condition and looking back now I can see that I got the better part of deal. The tape recorder I swapped was a fairly ordinary Japanese model with nothing like the backstory of this one.
What Happened To It?
The Teltape’s design is credited to German engineer Willi Braheim. His other claim to fame is another classic tape recorder, the Minifon Protona, an early cassette machine that appeared at around the same time as Philips Compact Cassette, which eventually became the predominant format.
Teltape doesn’t seem to have had much of a presence in the UK but it was widely marketed in its home country and in America, by Filnor products, and it seems it was quite successful. They do make occasional appearances on ebay US and because its part in the history of consumer technology is rarely mentioned prices tend not to be too alarming, anywhere between £30 and £80 for one in decent boxed condition. By rights they should be worth quite a lot morel maybe this mention will make future auctions a little livelier… In short if you can find a good one at a fair price it could be a nice little investment for the future.
First Seen: 1958
Original Price: 90 Deutchmarks ($29.95 in US)
Value Today: £50.00 (0819)
Features: 2-track mono recording, rim-drive transport mechanism, permanent magnet erase head, 76mm tape reels, motor speed stabilisation, variable speed control, 2-transistor amplifier, headphone output, carbon microphone,
Power req. 4x 1.5-volt C cells
Dimensions: 222 x 160 x 70mm
Made (assembled) in: Western Germany
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Penncrest Tape Recorder, 1964
They’re known as Private Labels in the trade but we generally refer to them as Own Brands. It’s been common practice for years and concerns large companies flogging anything from baked beans to cars, bearing their name and logo, trading on their own reputation for quality and value. Own brand items are usually competitively priced and sometimes they’re every bit as good as rival branded products; in some cases they’re identical and may even come from the same factory. Occasionally they’re actually superior and that seems to be the case with this Penncrest miniature portable reel-to-reel tape recorder.
Penncrest was one of the house brands of J C Penny, the major US department chain store with outlets in almost every large shopping mall. This little machine dates from the early 1960s and at the time was one of thousands of Japanese made portable reel-to-reel tape recorder flooding the market. When tape recorders first appeared in the mid fifties they were an expensive novelty and comparatively rare, in the home at least, but the arrival of the transistor and Japanese manufacturing skills changed all that. However, models like the Penncrest were at the lower end of the domestic tape recorder performance scale. In fact most small machines were little more than toys, due to their poor sound quality and short running times of 10 to 15 minutes, but in general they worked well enough for recording speech. Many of them were used in quite grown up applications, such as inexpensive dictating machines or for making ‘audio letters’, to send to friends and relatives abroad. In the US they were especially popular with families with members in the armed forces serving overseas.
This model is fairly typical of the breed with a simple rim-drive deck mechanism. To re-cap, this is where the reels are driven directly by the motor spindle, acting on the rim, or via an idler wheel. It’s a cheap and reliable method of spinning reels of magnetic tape reels but the speed at which it passes the head changes as one reels empties and the other fills up. It’s hardly noticeable when the tape is replayed on the machine it was made on but it can sound a bit odd on other rim-drive machines, or an upmarket model with a constant-speed capstan drive mechanism.
The design is a little unusual, though. It looks like a quality product with stylish, black mirror-finish case panels, heavily chrome-plated reel platters and neat little touches, like a custom case for the microphone, held in place by clips inside the detachable lid. The transport mode and volume controls are neatly laid out on the front panel, along with mini jack sockets for the supplied microphone and earpiece. Otherwise the spec follows a familiar pattern with two-track mono recording and a 4-transistor amplifier handing recording and playback signals. There’s a small built-in speaker close to the left hand supply reel, and like almost all modestly priced rim-drive machines, it has a permanent magnet erase and just four basic transport modes. They are Stop, Play, Record and a quick-ish Rewind. Fast Forward is very rare on machines of this type due to the added complexity, and cost. Even so it is surprisingly well made with an all-metal chassis, one of the better designs of Japanese motors and smooth moving parts. It uses two 1.5-volt ‘C’ cells for the motor and a single 9-volt PP3 type battery for the amplifier. These all live in a compartment on the underside of the case. It also has a detachable carry handle, a removable and it would have come with a full tape and empty take-up reel.
I’ve had this machine in my collection for more than 20 years and its origins are long forgotten. However, the lack of case marks and any signs of internal tinkering indicated that it has had little use in its long life and is still in near mint condition. I wouldn’t have paid more than £5 – 10 for it that being the going rate and my upper limit for small tape recorders bought in the late nineties. It still works as well as it ever did, though the supply reel platter was a bit stiff but it freed up easily with a squirt of spray grease. Sound quality is fine for speech and there’s plenty of volume.
What Happened To it
This Penncrest model would have suffered the same fate as almost every other reel-to-reel tape recorder in the 1960s. It was probably on sale for only 2 or 3 years as after its launch in 1963 the Compact Cassette format took off and quickly dominated the home recording market. Basic machines like this one were mostly unceremoniously dumped or stored away in cupboards, lofts and garages until the next big clear out. Overall millions of mini tape recorders were made and a fair few have survived, but rarely in such good condition, which is why my estimate of £50 for this one is at least plausible, though the lack of instructions and original box might limit its appeal to serious collectors.
Collecting mini reel-to-reel tape recorders from the 1960s has become a bit of a minefield. Reliable investments include any from well-known makers, especially if they are still in business, and machines that has a strong association with popular TV or the movies. The really tiny ones often appeared in spy and secret agent films and shows of the day and that can command a premium on ebay. However, condition is everything and whilst original packing and instructions can add to the price, any case damage or internal faults destroys their value making them only useful for parts. If it’s an area you are interested in choose wisely and unless you know what you are doing and are handy with a screwdriver and soldering iron stay clear of cheap ‘fixer-uppers’ as spare parts can be expensive, or unobtainable.
First Seen: 1963
Original Price: £10.00
Value Today: £50.00 (0719)
Features: Single-speed (4.76 cm/sec, 1 7/8 ips) two-rack rim-drive recording mechanism, 4-transistor amplifier, 75mm (3-in) reels, Play, Record, Rewind functions, permanent magnet erase, built-in speaker, detachable flexible carry handle, 3.5mm jacks for crystal microphone and earphone
Power req. 2 x 1.5volt C cells & 1 x 9 volt PP3
Dimensions: 235 x 140 x 75mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Modernage Bookcorder 405, 1964
It looks like the sort of thing ‘Q’ might issue to James Bond, and 007 did indeed make use of a Bellwood miniature tape recorder hidden inside a book in Thunderball. Sadly it is unlikely that many real-life secret agents would have much use for this cunningly disguised Modernage Bookcorder. To be fair it is a working tape recorder, and the case might well escape the attention of a super villain or one of his (or her henchpersons), but with a recording time of around 10 - 15 minutes, it’s ability to capture interesting conversations that might lead to our hero saving the world are a tad limited.
The fact is it is a toy, but you would need to be a really sad old fogey not to want to play with it. Apart from anything else the sight of two spinning reels and the gentle whirr of a small electric motor is a darn sight more evocative and interesting than any fancy solid-state recording device, even if they can record squeaky clean digital audio for more than 15 minutes This is actually the second Bookcorder featured in dustygizmos, and you may well spot some similarities between it and the Parrot RSR-423. That’s because they are almost identical. The only significant difference is the design of the book’s vinyl cover, and in particular the way that it opens. It also appears that this model pre-dates the Parrot by around a year, though little inside seems to have changed.
Both models use a two-track rim-drive tape transport mechanism. Regular visitors will know that this is the simplest way of moving tape past a static tape head. The reels are driven directly by the motor spindle (or a brass bush), pressing against the rubber rim of the tape platter – you can get an idea of how it works in the photo (below). There’s very little to go wrong, but the trade off is speed stability, which constantly changes as the take-up reel fills up. It doesn’t matter too much when a recording is replayed on the machine it was made on, but it can sound a bit odd on other types of rim-drive recorder, or more up-market machines that use constant-speed capstan-drive mechanisms. Sound quality is also quite poor; it’s just about okay for speech but far too thin and tinny for music. But even if the quality had been better the 30 minutes or so recording time (15 minutes per side) would have limited its usefulness as an audio component. On the plus side it is very well made. The metal chassis and tape transport components are built to last – as indeed this one proves – and the simple controls and captive microphone, which fits into a compartment on the top panel, makes it really easy to use. The only likely point of failure is the book cover’s ‘hinge’. This one is just starting to show very slight signs of fatigue, but considering it is now well over 50 years old, it’s not doing too badly.
I bought this little machine a great many years ago, when I first started collecting miniature tape recorders in the 1980s. It was a golden era; they were still plentiful and largely overlooked by collectors. I rarely paid more than £5.00 for them at jumble sales and antiques fairs. It was, and still is in near mint condition, and it works really well, with plenty of volume. It’s also unusual in that the amplifier circuit board is entirely original. Normally components like electrolytic capacitors fail after a couple of decades but these are all in fine fettle. It probably helped that it has been powered up every so often, to check it was still working, and this has the effect of ‘re-forming’ aging caps, and weeding out any parts that may have been on the verge of failing.
What Happened To It?
In a word, or two, it was the Compact Cassette that killed off reel-to-reel tape recorders, of all types and abilities, relatively soon after its introduction in 1963. Needless to say cassettes also passed their sell-by date in the early noughties, thanks to advances in digital recording. At the time of writing there has been a minor revival of interest in tape, and high-end machines continue to enjoy a loyal following amongst hi-fi buffs and collectors, but this can be a very expensive pastime as older reel-to-reel machines can be demanding in terms of maintenance and repair. Small machines like the Modernage can still be found at sensible prices, though, and very occasionally real bargains turn up on ebay and at car boot sales. It’s present value is hard to gauge; it is in full working order and excellent condition and if it still had its original box and instructions on a good day a determined collector might part with £50 or more for it. One sold recently on ebay US for over £100. On its own this specimen is probably worth in the region of £20 to £30 so it’s not going to make me, or anyone else rich but that’s not the point. For those of a certain age, anyone with unfulfilled aspirations of being a 1960s secret agent, or just a love of cheesy old gadgets, it’s priceless.
First Seen: 1964
Original Price: £10.00?
Value Today: £30.00 (0419)
Features Single-speed (4.76 cm/sec, 1 7/8 ips) two-rack rim-drive recording mechanism, max reel size 76mm (3-inches), max recording time 15-mins, mono sound, magnetic erase, record, play, rewind transport modes, volume thumbwheel, integral (wired) crystal microphone, 55mm internal speaker
Power req. 1 x 9 volt PP3 & 2 x 1.5 volt ‘C’ cells
Dimensions: 230 x 160 x 42mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 8
Philips N4308 4-Track Tape Recorder, 1968
For most of the twentieth century the Dutch company Philips was one of the most highly respected brands in electrical and electronic appliances. They made everything, from light bulbs and fridges to home entertainment systems and monster TVs, and for the most part their products were sensibly priced and reasonably well made (just don’t get me started on their eighties washing machines…). Indeed, many people firmly believed them to be a venerable British concern, preferring their wares to what was often perceived as dodgy foreign rubbish. Foreign they may be but Philips stuff definitely wasn’t rubbish, though there were one or two lemons…
More about Philips' formative years and what they’re up to nowadays later on but first, a guided tour around this Philips N4308 tape recorder from the late 1960s. It’s a fairly typical example of the sort of thing their audio division was churning out 50 or so years ago. It’s a mid-sized, mid-range, mid-priced, mid-market tabletop model – Philips had a definite leaning towards the mainstream. It’s a 2-speed, 4-track machine with a capstan-drive tape mechanism, powered by a single motor. The sound output is mono and a modest 4-watt, 10-transistor amplifier drives a built-in speaker. Other highlights include a level meter, and for once it actually does something with manual level controls for the microphone, line and phono inputs. By the way, as with most Philips AV products up until the nineties, it relies almost entirely on nasty DIN sockets for connections to the outside world. There’s a three-digit tape counter, a set of ‘piano-key’ transport controls, the all metal chassis is housed in a sturdy wood-sided case, and it works just about anywhere thanks to its multi-voltage (110 – 240 volts, 50/60Hz AC) mains power supply. Since it uses a mains synchronous motor the speed differences that occur when using 50 or 60Hz mains is adjusted by changing the position of the main drive belt on the motor’s double pulley.
Talking which, all four drive belts on this particular machine -- found at a car boot sale in Surrey -- had turned into a disgusting black sludge. I didn’t know that at the time of but the stallholder was honest enough to admit out that it didn’t work but in his words, it had to be worth a few quid for spares. After some very brief haggling we settled on £3.00, which seemed a very fair price considering that on the outside at least, it appeared to be in excellent condition.
The decomposing drive belts turned out to be the most obvious reason it wasn’t working, but it became the most difficult and time-consuming fault to fix. It was completely dead though, which usually means one of two things: a quick and simple power supply fault or something difficult and expensive to sort out and it will be ending its days in parts, or the bin. Fortunately it was the former and a quick poke around with the multimeter showed that the mains wasn’t getting past the on/off switch. It’s a simple toggle-action push button and the thin layer of grease it depended on to keep things moving had congealed. A few squirts of contact cleaner got it moving again and the next time it was plugged in the motor and amp hummed into life.
Cleaning up the mess left behind by the remains of four rubber belts took a little longer. Half a day to be precise, and as usual most of the contents of a tub of cotton buds, several metres of paper towel, half a litre of isopropyl alcohol and at least ten pairs of disposable latex gloves. Even now you can still see the clear and immovable stains left by the rubber belts on the metal chassis; what on earth did they make them of? The only good thing to come out of it is the convoluted path taken by the main drive belt is still very easy to see. I managed to find exact or near-sized replacements in a bumper-bundle of 50 drive belts purchased from ebay a few years ago (for the princly sum of £5.00). The cleanup also turned out to be a good opportunity to replace the dried out (or washed away) grease on the many moving parts.
Before final reassembly I did some homework on this model to see if there were any other issues that might need attention. A couple of tape recorder enthusiast forums mentioned weaknesses with the clutch on the take-up reel. Once again deteriorating rubber parts were to blame. This one appeared to be okay but I did pick up some very useful tips on how to fix it if (or rather when) it fails, using three readily obtainable neoprene washers. Otherwise everything else checked out, the head was given a good clean and the final test, this time with some recordings, showed that the machine was back on full song. Audio quality is fine, that is to say about what you would expect from a relatively inexpensive late sixties mono reel-to-reel tape recorder; speed stability is also in line with expectations, which amounts to it being a perfectly useable machine, but sadly some way short of the level of sound quality that we now take for granted.
What Happened To It?
Gerard Philips and his dad Frederick founded what was to become the mighty Philips empire in 1891 in the Netherlands town of Eindhoven. The very first products were carbon filament light bulbs. Things didn’t exactly go to plan; the pair ran into trouble and came close to bankruptcy. Fortunately Gerard’s market savvy brother Anton came to the rescue and helped put the company back on track and by 1912 the family fortunes had been turned around. Light bulbs paved the way to manufacturing valves and so began the company’s involvement in electronics. In the late twenties they set up a broadcasting division and within ten years they were branching out into portable generators, radios and electric razors, a foretaste of the amazing product diversity that was to come. The coming of the Second World War forced most of the senior family members into exile in the US whilst back home, the Eindhoven factories were badly damaged by allied bombing.
Once the war was over the Philips family returned to the Netherlands to get the company back on its feet and kick start a half-century of innovation and expansion. Headline consumer products include the formation of Philips Records in 1950, later to become Polygram. The introduction of the Compact Cassette in 1964 changed how we listen to music and the recording industry forever and ironically became the killer blow for reel-to-reel tape recorders like the N4308. Other notable firsts include the video cassette recorder in 1972, the ill-fated V2000 system in 1977and the slightly less disastrous Laser Disc in 1982. In the late 80s Philips teamed up with Sony to develop Compact Disc, which was launched in 1992. Recordable CD-R and CD-RW swiftly followed, which eventually spawned the DVD and Blu-Ray formats. Moving the corporate headquarters from Eindhoven to Amsterdam in 1997 heralded major changes in the structure of the business, with the focus of its consumer electronic concerns shifting away from domestic audio and video products to more specialist areas like healthcare. It continues to be a major force in electronics and manufacturing, though nowadays much less of a household name but throughout its history, right up to the present day Philips continues to be one of the world’s leading manufacturers of light bulbs and lighting equipment.
The N4308 comes from one of Philips’s consumer electronics division’s most productive periods, when the quality of construction and materials were still relatively high. A couple of decades later a lot of its audio and video products were being cheaply built in the Far East. To be fair in that time audio recording technology made some monumental strides, build quality became much less of an issue but in spite of this vintage machine working well and being a handy tool for listening to listening to commercial and home-made tapes from the sixties, it is not a practical hi-fi component. Quite a few of them appear to have been made, and thanks to the high standard of construction, have survived to be sold on ebay. They do not, as yet, attract serious money but that in no way diminishes their appeal and you can expect to pay a modest £25 to £50 for a clean runner. As this one shows bargains like this one are out there (providing I put the horror of the goo removal out of my mind), and if you are handy with a screwdriver, soldering iron and multimeter -- and the price is right -- even duff ones are well worth considering.
First Seen: 1968
Original Price: £30?
Value Today: £25 (1118)
Features 4-track recording system, single motor capstan drive tape mechanism, 2 –speed 4.75 & 9.5 cm/sec (1 7/8 & 3 3/4 ips), max reel dia 17.5mm, recording level meter, internal speaker (150mm elliptical), 4watts (approx) mono output, digital (mechanical) tape counter, Play/Record, Fast Forward, Rewind & Pause transport modes, line, variable phono & mic inputs, volume & tone controls, line, phono, microphone inputs, speaker & headphone outputs (all multi-pin DIN), carry handle
Power req. 110 - 240 volts AC mains
Dimensions: 415 x 150 x 300mm
Made (assembled) in: Austria
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
Sharp RD-303E Tape Recorder, 1965
During the 1960s small reel-to-reel tape recorders generally fell into one of two broad categories. The first included mostly cheap and basic rim-drive machines that were little more than toys – many were just that – and the rudimentary deck mechanisms meant that they were just about capable of recording speech. The second category, which this Sharp RD-303E belongs to, had constant-speed capstan drive tape transports so they could record more complex sounds, like music, without disgracing themselves. The RD-303E definitely makes the grade in that respect and Sharp were well ahead of the game, giving this cute little mono machine the option of mains or portable battery operation, provision for an external speaker, remote pause, automatic recording level control and a line input socket, for recording from a radio or record player. The only real limitations are the mono sound – normal for the early sixties, though – and maximum size of the tape reels it can accommodate, which is 95mm, giving only around 20 - 25 minutes of recording or replay time per side.
It has a full set of transport modes and this includes Rewind, which may not sound unusual, but it actually was back then. In fact it was quite common, especially on cheap tape recorders, which often only had a fast forward function. If you wanted to rewind a tape you had to flip the reels over. It’s a smart-looking design with an integral, hinged carry handle, a compartment in the base for cables, and a small storage box for the supplied microphone (sadly missing on this one), which sits next to the feed reel. The tape platters have sturdy spring-loaded clips so the machine can be used in the upright position.
Inside the case there is more evidence that it is a class act. Virtually everything is mounted on a tough metal chassis. The speed stabilised motor drives a small flywheel via a rubber belt, further reducing wow and flutter, which can become a problem when the machine is being carried. All of the important moving parts are made of metal and the single circuit board is built to a very high standard.
The machine you see here was a very lucky find, at a Dorset boot sale. The stallholder had decided it was virtually worthless and dumped in a damp cardboard box full of bric-a-brac. Everything on show was priced at £1.00 so it was another haggle-free deal. The stallholder even called me back to give me the mains lead, which I hadn’t spotted in the bottom of the box. This turned out to be another piece of luck as it uses a very unusual 3-pin connector on the side of the case. The overall condition was pretty good, it had the usual layers of dirt and grime on the outside, and inside, which all cleaned up well. To be on the safe side I treated the moving parts to a fresh application of grease and oil. Broken and gloopy drive belts are a frequent problem with elderly tape recorders (and record players, VCRs and so on), this one on this RD-303 had dried out and dropped to the bottom of the case. Luckily I had a near perfect replacement and it was easily fitted. At some point in its long life it had suffered from a leaky battery but fortunately no damage had been done and the few spots of dried crud cleaned up easily with a few cotton buds and some white vinegar.
With fresh batteries in place the reels began to twitch but it took a couple of minutes and some manual persuasion before the fresh lubricants got to work and it ran smoothly thereafter. The speaker crackled from the get-go, which bode well for the condition of the amplifier and after lacing up a tape, sounds from the distant past came from the speaker. The tape that came with it has been recorded at a child’s birthday party, and this machine may have been one of the presents. Judging by the children’s clipped speech and the music playing in the background this was taking place at some point in the mid to late sixties. The condition of the machine suggests this may have been the first and possibly one of the last times it was used – what stories it could tell…
What Happened To It?
The Sharp Corporation is one of the oldest Japanese consumer electronics companies, dating back to 1912. However, its first product, and the origin of the name, came from the EverSharp propelling pencil, which was pretty much all they made until 1923, when an earthquake destroyed the Tokyo factory. Two years later they were back up and running, this time in Osaka. The name changed to the Hayakawa Metal Works and its first products were radio receivers. The Sharp brand makes a reappearance in 1953, on Japan’s first homegrown range of TVs and it went on to produce the world’s first transistor calculator in 1964. The Sharp Corporation grew steadily, with the occasional economic blips that affected many Japanese companies in recent years, and these days its consumer division is a major player in the TV market and the first to market a model with 8K resolution.
Sharp had a more or less constant presence in home audio until the turn of the century and its reel-to-reel tape recorders suffered the same fate as everyone else’s. The first and as it turned out, the fatal blow, came in 1963 with the launch of Compact Cassette. Sharp followed the trend into personal and portable cassette players, combi units, separates and stack systems but its interest in mainstream audio appeared to have fizzled out by the time digital audio took hold.
In its 60s to 80s heyday Sharp were fairly prolific manufacturers of tape recorders and models like the RD-303E are not hard to come by with one or two examples on ebay most weeks. Aside from a small handful of rare and iconic models, small reel-to-reel tape recorders like the RD-303 tend to attract comparatively little attention from serious collectors. As a result prices continue tend to be quite modest, anywhere from £10 to £30, a little more if it is in showroom condition and comes with its original box. Sooner or later that’s going to change; the supply of all reel-to-reel machines is steadily drying up and that goes for tape spools (empty and full) as well, so keep a lookout for bargains. It’s never too late to plan for your pension…
First Seen: 1965
Original Price: £25.00?
Value Today: £25.00 (1018)
Features Single-speed 9.5cm/s (3.75ips) capstan drive deck, magnetic erase/bias, Play/Record, Fast Forward & Rewind transport modes, automatic level control, 95mm elliptical speaker, 85mm (3.5-inch) reel size, 6-transistor amplifier, carry handle, external speaker, microphone, line-input & microphone 3.5mm jack sockets
Power req. 240VAC & 4 x 1.5 volt D cells
Dimensions: 270 x 190 x 95mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
Ferguson 3247 4-Track Tape Recorder, 1970
This Ferguson 3247 Auto Recorder is notable for two things. It was one of, if not the last reel-to-reel tape recorder manufactured by the British Radio Corporation – more about them in a moment – and it cost me just one British pound, something else we’ll return to later on.
As medium–sized domestic tape recorders go it is unremarkable. It’s a four-track mono design, not to be confused with four ‘channels’, which is what stereo machines generally have. It has a single speed capstan-drive tape transport and just a small handful of extras, like an edgewise level-meter, a 4-digit mechanical tape counter and automatic or manual recording level control. It can take up to 17.5cm diameter reels and there’s a removable hinged lid, built-in carry handle, and screw-on reel retainers, so it can be used in an upright position. It all sounds very reasonable and it might have been quite successful, but unfortunately for the British Radio Corporation (BRC) and almost every other manufacturer of reel-to-reel tape recorders in the early 70s the Compact Cassette was doing to them what an ancient meteorite did to the dinosaurs…
The 3247, also sold as the Marconiphone 4247, simply couldn’t compete, not even with cassette recorders costing half as much. Mono sound had been in decline for several years, since the mid to late 60s and in the wake of stereo singles and LPs and almost from the start (in 1963) compact cassette tape recorders had stereo sound systems. It’s possible the 3247’s designers attempted to give it some stereo capability and it has an output socket that allows two of the tracks to be replayed as independent stereo channels, but it would have to be connected to an external amplifier. If so it was a desperate last gasp; cassette had reel-to-reel beat on just about every level, from convenience to portability. The only area where old school machines had a slight edge was on sound quality. Even that advantage was short lived – in the home Hi-Fi market at least -- with the introduction of new tape formulations and advanced noise reduction systems. In short the 3247 was doomed, even before it appeared on the shelves and that’s apparent from its relatively short production life, which lasted just two years.
And so to this specimen, which was found at a South coast car boot sale a while ago. It looked like a wreck, shoved into a damp cardboard box along with an assortment of household clutter. The seller thought it was pretty worthless too and asked a nominal £1.00 for it, which suggested that if I hadn’t taken an interest it would have ended its days in the bin.
Normally at this point I say that once I got it home, under the muck and grime it was in near showroom condition and worked straight away. Not this time, it really was a complete disaster, and had clearly led a challenging life with at least one nasty tumble. The underside was very badly cracked with pieces missing and there were a lot of rattles coming from inside the case. The operating keys and the reels were locked solid, one of the knobs was missing and the other one felt like it had seized. The only reason I didn’t scrap it straight away was the possibility that there might be some salvageable parts inside.
There is a happy ending and it turned out that the case rattles were caused by the broken case parts. A few bits were missing but it was possible to reconstruct it using some super-strength plastic cement. The rest of the innards appeared to be intact, even the two rubber belts were still useable, but it took a while, and a fair amount of penetrating oil and grease to free up seized parts on the function keys, the idler wheel, reel platters and tone control pot. That done the last job was to track down the source of a nasty clicking sound coming from somewhere in the vicinity of the motor, when the platters were turned by hand. This turned out to be the cooling fan, which had come adrift from the drive spindle. Luckily it was a friction fit and with a bit of wigging and help from a pair of long-nosed pliers it was possible to get it back in place. Time to power up; the lack of smoke and sparks was a good sign, as was the motor spinning up. Apart from some stickiness on the control levers, and initial stiffness on the platter bearings everything seemed to be in order. There was even a hopeful crackle from the speaker, suggesting that the 6-trasnistor amplifier and speaker still had some life in them. The last step was to clean tape dust and gunk from the tape heads, pinch wheel and roller, and the tape path, before loading up the tape that came with it. This was a commercial recording, Handle’s Water Music, from The World Record Club. In spite of being 40 plus years old, and in mono, it never sounded better…
It still looks a bit rough around the edges and I suspect most enthusiasts would turn their noses up at it, but for just £1.00, another pound or two in materials and a day’s worth of tinkering this tape recorder, which was just one step away from landfill turned out to be one of my most satisfying restoration projects.
What happened To It?
The story behind the companies responsible for the 3247 is a sad one and typical of the decline of many legendary British manufacturers. It started quietly enough though and the BRC dates back to around 1923. My normally reliable sources, and the Internet were surprisingly vague about their early years, apart from the fact that they were located in Weybridge in Surrey. BRC resurfaces again in 1957 when the name is acquired by Thorn Electrical Industries, who also owned the Ferguson, HMV and Marconiphone (amongst many other) brand names. Thorn became Thorn Consumer Electronics in 1972 -- around the time I worked for them -- and following more acquisitions, take-overs and mergers it became Thorn EMI. Thorn de-merged from EMI in 1996 and was sold to the Nomura Group, who flogged it to Terra Firma Capital after which the once mighty corporation quietly disappeared from public view.
The Ferguson brand also had a chequered history after the Thorn break-up, but this time it hasn't completely vanished. Initially the name was purchased by the French electronics giant Thompson in 1987, just a short time before they decided to pull out of the consumer electronics market. Dixons, as was briefly took over the license but it didn’t last long and they passed it on to Comet, where the badge appeared on some tacky DVD players and TV set-top boxes; Comet went bust in 2012. Ferguson resurfaced once again in 2017; this time the Thompson license was acquired by a UK company called Cello. Their plan is to re-launch the brand in late 2018 on a range of electronic products, including UK-built Android smart TVs.
There’s no need to dwell on the rapid and inevitable near extinction of reel-to-reel tape recorders. It was all over by the mid 70s, leaving just a tiny handful of specialist and top-end manufacturers catering to the professional market and die-hard enthusiasts. On the plus side this meant that good quality vintage machines have become very collectible, and expensive. Alas Ferguson and the 3247 was never in that league though; it was a budget machine, albeit quite a well made one, but sonically if falls far short of qualifying as a Hi-Fi component. It is still functional though and if you hang out on ebay you should be able to find a decent one for between £20 and £50. On a good day my one might make £10 but it has too many dinks and scratches to excite serious collectors. That doesn’t matter; even though it’s outclassed by everything from cheapo cassette recorders to digital media players the fact that it survived, and came back to life, is priceless.
First Seen: 1970
Original Price: £25.00
Value Today: £25 (0818)
Features: single-speed, capstan-drive transport mechanism, 4-track mono (stereo capable) audio, 17.5 cm reels, 6-transistor 3watt amplifier, 13cm elliptical speaker, recording level meter, 4-digit mechanical tape counter, rotary volume & tone controls,, preset tone (music or speech), 2-pin DIN speaker/headphone socket, 5-pin DIN line in/out, 6-pin DIN optional external stereo adaptor, detachable lid, carry handle
Power req. 250VAC
Dimensions: 307 x 125 x 265mm
Made (assembled) in: UK
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 5
Coomber 393 Cassette Recorder, 1997
Here’s another one of those behind the scenes or 'pro' audio products that you won’t see in the shops but may well have encountered during your time in school or college.
It’s the Coomber 393, basically a fancy cassette recorder designed for ‘group listening’, in classrooms, language labs and so on. It’s a very close cousin of the Coomber 2241-7 CD Cassette Recorder, featured a while ago, but without the CD player and few other bells and whistles. This one is the more basic version with cassette-only operation, mono sound and fewer headphone outputs.
In most other respects, though, it serves the same purpose, namely to allow a number of people to simultaneously listen to a recording through headphones, or the built–in speaker, under the direction of a teacher or tutor. It’s not a pretty sight and here are no frills to speak of. That’s not meant to be a criticism; it is designed to be very simple to use, withstand rough treatment and continual use. Hi-Fi sound quality is not an issue either as most of the material it is expected to play will be speech based. Not that the sound quality is poor, far from it, but the fact that it’s a bit of a lump and won’t win any audio performance awards also means it’s not that attractive to thieves, which continues to be a concern for educational organisations.
Starting with the cassette deck, it’s a simple front-loader with mechanically linked piano keys and an auto-stop mechanism. There are only two controls: volume and tone, plus a reset button for the three-digit mechanical tape counter. All of the socketry is on the front panel and it comprises six standard jacks for the headphones, another jack for a external mike input, a standard 2-pin DIN connector for an external speaker, a 5-pin DIN for line input and a 2.5mm jack for an external remote pause control. The only other item of interest on the front panel is a built-in microphone, for ‘memo’ recording. It is mains powered but there is provision for battery operation (8 x 1.5 volt ‘C’ cells), which live in a compartment on the left side of the cabinet. There’s also an option for a re-chargeable battery pack, but this had to be factory fitted. Incidentally, the only slightly unusual feature is the lack of any sort of on/off power switch, which seems a bit strange but these things are subject to very stringent regulations, and Coomber has been in business long enough to know what they are doing so it’s doesn't appear to be a safety issue.
The tape deck is a decent quality item with smooth opening tape holder, light key action and cue and review functions (Fast Forward & Rewind in playback mode). This wasn’t apparent when I first got it home, in fact it didn’t make any sound at all and the only signs it wasn’t a complete Dodo were the permanently lit Power and Record lamps. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It came from one of my favourite hunting grounds, an open-air antique fair in Surrey and it cost me £2.00, no haggling required. As is so often the case it had seen its fair share of muddy fields but it looked a lot worse than it was and once the crud and remnants of a half a dozen scraggy stickers and labels had been removed it looked quite presentable. There was a reassuring hiss and crackle from the speaker whilst wiggling the volume knob so it appeared that most, if not all of the faults were likely to be on the tape deck assembly. The jammed tape mechanism cleared almost miraculously when I upturned the case to open it; I was aware that something was rattling around inside the case and this turned out to be part of a switch contact, which had broken off and probably trapped in the works. This was also the cause of the silence on playback and the permanently on Record lamp. Repairing the switch proved to be a bit fiddly but I managed to find a suitable piece of thin springy brass to act as a bridge and solder the detached contact back in place. Apart from that, and a general internal and external clean up, it’s now almost as good as new.
What Happened To It?
For a detailed history of the company and model range see below. In theory the 393 can still do the job it was designed for but things have moved on and in spite of the well-established benefits of Compact Cassette there are plenty of more sophisticated digital devices on the market that do it a lot better. To be brutally honest it’s not much use as a hi-fi component, so one way or another vintage oddities like this are interesting to look at and play around with, but have little practical value. It’s definitely worth more than the two quid I paid for it, though, and if you really want one there’s usually half a dozen or more of them ebay selling for between £10 and £40 (at the time of writing). Later versions with a blue coloured case, fancier cosmetics and the logic-controlled tape deck tend towards the upper end of the price range, but don’t dismiss cheap fixer-uppers. They’re not that complicated and if you’re handy with a screwdriver and soldering iron, most common faults (broken drive belts etc.) are likely to be reasonably easy to fix.
Thanks to a dustygizmos reader, intimately connected with Coomber Electronics from the early 1970s to 2010, we now have a highly detailed account of the company’s history.
393/R Cassette Recorder
with built in rechargeable battery.
390 Interview Player.
Playback only using half-track for listening to the Police Recordings made by
NEAL Recorders. Lower track audio, upper track time code. Similar principle to
398. Used by the Police, Home Office, HMRC and other organisations where
recordings with time tracks were used.
We were a very well
organised and profitable Company that was never afraid to invest in machinery
and new designs.
First Seen: 1997
Original Price: £100?
Value Today: £20 (0818)
Features: ‘soft touch’ mechanical 4-track mono tape deck with auto stop, auto recording level, internal microphone, 5 watt mono amplifier, internal speaker, variable volume & tone, line input, 5 x headphone sockets, external speaker output, corded remote pause, 3-digit mechanical tape counter, built-in carry handle
Power req. 220VAC, 8 x 1.5v C cells
Dimensions: 330 x 195 x 160mm
Made (assembled) in: UK
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 5
Harmon Kardon HK2000, 1975
You won’t see Kylie Minogue mentioned very often in dustygizmos but the diminutive aussie warbler has been credited with helping to start (yet another) revival of the Compact Cassette format following the release of her album Golden. Cassette sales are apparently up over 90 percent in 2018. That sounds a lot but given that UK sales in 2017 amounted to a little over 22,000 tapes it represents only a small fraction of a percent of the album market as a whole. But it’s a start and follows hard on the heels of the ongoing and even more successful vinyl revival -- over 13 percent of physical album sales at the time of writing.
That makes this episode of dustygizmos unusually topical and cassette players like this Harmon Kardon HK2000 are the perfect way to get back into Compact Cassette, or if you’re too young, or never indulged, find out for yourself what all the fuss is about. That’s because the HK 2000 is a no-nonsense high-end player. In its day it was one of the finest machines that money could buy, which was around £400, or equivalent to £1300 or so in today’s money. That was no small change then, or now, and the good news is that it won’t cost you anything like as much to buy one today, but more on that in a moment.
It dates from 1975 and was one of a series of pioneering decks from the US-based company that consistently broke new ground in terms of quality and performance. However, what set this one apart from most of its predecessors was that it was one of the company’s first models to be made in Japan. At the time HK kept quiet about who made the HK 2000 but it wasn’t long before eagle-eyed audiophiles spotted the remarkable similarities between this model and the classic Nakamichi 500. This was another highly regarded player, which set a new benchmark for frequency response, earning its spurs as a proper piece of hi-fi equipment. Even the traditionally snooty audiophiles started to take notice. The HK and Nakamichi machines are not quite identical twins but you can take it as read they were both in the top league of cassette players.
The HK 2000 had all the latest bells and whistles and these included a high performance tape head, Dolby B Noise Reduction, chrome (CrO2) tape compatibility, a full set of manual controls for adjusting record and playback levels, twin VU meters that could be calibrated using a built-in test tone generator. It has switchable MPX and subsonic filters and enough inputs and outputs to accommodate the most elaborate audio system. The tape deck is an entirely mechanical design with auto stop. In comparison with the logic-controlled, soft-touch tape decks of the late seventies onwards it seems a little crude, but it was of its time, and even without all the gimmickry it could hold its own as far as speed stability was concerned, thanks to sophisticated power supply and motor control circuitry, and not forgetting the build quality. That was also apparent from the outside with its classy brushed stainless steel clad casework super smooth (and to this day) crackle-free slider controls, hefty switchgear and those large backlit VU meters.
A busy and unusually fruitful open air antiques fair in the Midlands was where I found this one and the it was the shiny metal case, the prominent price tag and the Harmon Kardon badge – in that order -- that drew me to it. It looked like it has been fairly well cared for, and anything made by Harmon Kardon has to be worth a look but it was the asking price of only £10.00 that had me reaching for my wallet. There had to be a catch and not surprisingly the stallholder admitted that although it lit up, nothing worked. A quick check of the underside and the dirt-encrusted case screws suggested that it hadn’t been interfered with, so there was a good chance it was complete inside, and possibly fixable. Following a very short haggle we settled on £8.00, which seemed reasonable, even if was to end up being a box of spare parts. A quick test confirmed that that the power supply, at least was still alive and there were no ominous smells so it was off to a good start. Opening the case quickly revealed the first in a potentially long line of faults. Two of the rubber drive belts had decomposed in black goo, making a horrible mess on the deck mechanism in the process. That had to be sorted before anything else as if left the rubber residue goes everywhere, making troubleshooting a nightmare. Over the years I have developed a clean-up procedure and my recipe is a box of disposable latex gloves, a tub of cotton buds, a bottle of isopropyl alcohol, a dozen or more wooden stirrer sticks filched from coffee shops and a very large roll of industrial strength kitchen towel. To cut a very long story short removing every last trace of the goop from the pulleys, rollers and anything else it has touched is a really foul business taking at least half a day, and if anyone has found an easier way to do it, please tell me!
All cleaned up and with some replacement belts in place the deck slowly came back to life. It took a while for the moving parts to ease up, helped by a few drops of oil and a smear or two of grease before it settled down and every function worked. It was well worth the effort, though, and luckily everything else was in good working order. I had forgotten just how good cassette tape could sound. Years of listening to digital media has made me more aware of background hiss, and it’s always there on cassette, albeit at very low levels on this machine, even on good quality tape and noise reduction engaged, but your brain quickly filters it out revealing a characteristic full-bodied analogue sound. Familiar tracks on tape sometimes reveal tiny details that digital systems are inclined to suppress or ignore. Much as I would like to believe that analogue sound might one day make a comeback, realistically it cannot compete with the convenience of digital. But if you have a collection of old tapes (or vinyl) I urge you to re-visit the formats on decent kit and rediscover the warmth and depth of recordings made and replayed on equipment that doesn’t chop music up into little bits and fiddle around with it.
What Happened To It?
If asked to list the most influential consumer electronic or home entertainment product in the last 50 years. Compact Cassette would be at or close to the top of mine. From its launch in 1963 it made home audio recording affordable and near idiot-proof. It went on to become an international technical standard for recording, playback and pre-recorded media. It single-handedly created the personal and mobile entertainment phenomena. It became a catalyst for the development of highly effective noise reduction systems and the use of high-performance recoding tapes. The enclosed cassette concept spawned countless derivatives for recording video and digital data. Cassettes enabled anyone to make their own mix and compilation tapes – not a million miles in essence from listen to what you want, when you want it services like Spotify. And throughout its 40-plus year life the audio cassette provided a fertile breeding ground, inspiration and essential tool for several generations of musicians, DJs, artists and audio engineers. The fact that it is still with us and growing in popularity says all you need to know about its durability, and it’s going to be around for a while yet.
Harmon Kardon is also still going strong. Sidney Harmon and Bernard Kardon, both of whom had been working for a company manufacturing public address systems, formed it in 1953. They hit the ground running aunching a series of innovative Hi-Fi products many of which were credited with starting new trends in design and performance. Kardon retired in 1956 but Sidney Harman continued at the helm of the rapidly growing business, responsible for launching dozens of milestone audio products. Following a short career in politics in support of Jimmy Carter, he was appointed as the Deputy Secretary of Commerce. Under US law be was required to relinquish his business interests and the company was sold to Beatrice Foods. Sales promptly fell by 40 percent due to the lack of innovation. At the end of the Carter Presidency Harmon reacquired the company in 1980 and put it back on track, reviving product development and embracing digital technology. He finally retired in 2007 and in 2017 Samsung Electronics acquired Harmon Kardon and its subsidiaries.
To save you asking, yes, you do need a decent cassette player in your life, especially if you have a collection of old tapes gathering dust somewhere. However, beware of the modern stuff. It’s mostly cheap and nasty plastic rubbish and be immediately suspicious of anything sporting a USB socket; keep it old school analogue! You really do need to go back to the format’s heyday -- the 70s and 80s -- to get the best original sound. Once again avoid the budget and mid-range boxes, but be quick. High-end players like the HK 2000, which the experts grudgingly found worthy of praise are currently cheap, sometimes absurdly so, considering what they originally cost. Good examples can sometimes be found on ebay for under £50 but a lot of them are in the US, so watch out for the shipping cost. But it can be a lottery. Whilst most of the top name machines were very well made and faults like broken or stretched belts and sticky mechanisms can be relatively easy to fix, if you don’t know what you are doing it is safer to pay a bit extra for a player that has been serviced by a reputable dealer.
First Seen: 1975
Original Price: £400
Value Today: £40.00 (0718)
Features: Stereo recording and playback (freq. resp 20Hz - 16kHz), ferric/chrome tape compatibility, Dolby B noise reduction, MPX filter, subsonic filter, built-in test-tone generator, twin illuminated VU meters, individual (R+L) microphone and line input recording level, and playback level controls, mechanical tape counter, speed adjustment, Dolby, Record mode and Peak warning indicator LEDs, mechanical tape deck with auto stop
Power req. 230V AC
Dimensions: 380 x 262 x 140mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Nivico (JVC) TR-514U Handcorder, 1969
The Nivico brand is not very well known in the UK, or at least it is, but by a more familiar name, JVC. We’ll get to the name convolutions shortly but for now the subject of this episode of dustygizmos is the Nivico TR-541U Handcorder, a capable mid-size mono machine from the late 1960s. By the time it appeared reel-to-reel tape recorders were a dying breed thanks to the runaway success of the Philips Compact Cassette (launched a few years earlier in 1963), but there was still a lingering belief that big reels and wide tape meant better sound. Even though the market was in rapid decline there were enough believers people around the world for Japanese (and a handful of European and US manufacturers) to keep the faith. However, it took Japan’s wizardry with transistors, miniaturisation and mass production to make it a worthwhile exercise, that and the foresight to make a universal machine (the ‘U’ in the TR-415’s model number).
In short the TR-514U could be used almost anywhere as it’s a mains/battery portable, but this meant it had to be able to operate on between 100 and 230 volts AC at 50 or 60Hz. The voltage isn’t so much of an issue, but traditionally many mains powered tape recorders rely on mains frequency for speed stabilisation, and with the imminent takeover of Compact Cassette few manufacturers at the time would have thought it worth the bother to work around the problem of two differing mains frequency standards.
Not only did Nivico or rather JVC, avoid complications by using a speed stabilised DC motor, they used their skills to cram a lot of technology into a small space to create a (relatively) lightweight and compact 2-track machine using 12.7cm (5-inch) reels. These can provide over 3 hours recording/playback time (90 min per side), albeit at the slower and lower quality LP speed (4.7cm/sec or 1 7/8 ips), or 90 minutes of higher sound quality (45 min per side) at SP Speed (9.7cm/sec or 3 3/4ips). The TR-541U is a mono machine, which wouldn’t necessarily have been seen as a drawback in the late 60s as there were comparatively few stereo sources available to record from. Otherwise it has most of the features, useful or necessary on a decent home tape recorder, namely a 2-speed capstan drive tape mechanism, though speed selection is a bit clunky. It requires the user to fit or remove a metal capstan pinch roller. When not in use (in LP mode) the adaptor can be safely stowed on a metal pillar between the two reels, close to the rear of the top panel. The transport mechanism is a fairly basic affair with a three position rotary selector for Rewind Play and Stop. For Fast Forward it’s necessary to press the button next to the rotary switch before selecting Play. Similarly, Record mode involves moving a switch (the red one) before engaging Play mode. There’s a three-digit mechanical tape counter on the far left of the top panel and a switch, labelled Monitor, which allows the sound being recorded, from a radio for example, to be heard through the built-in speaker. It also works for microphone recording, though it’s advisable to use a headphone or earphone to avoid feedback; plugging one in mutes the speaker. Recording and playback operations are handled by a five-transistor amplifier, rated at 1.5 (unspecified) watts output, with a sixth tranny used as an oscillator in the AC bias/erase circuit. The microphone (fitted with a remote pause switch), earphone and line input connections are a row of 3.5mm jacks on the left side of the case; the power cord packs away into a compartment on the underside, next to another compartment for the six 1.5 volt D cells it uses when running on battery power.
This TR-514U was a surprise find at a Surrey boot sale a while ago. What made it stand out to me, and may have dissuaded casual buyers, was the fact that the stallholder hadn’t bothered to remove it from its rather tatty Nivico labelled box. If other punters had cared to look inside they might have noticed that it was in near pristine condition and had probably spent most of the past 40 odd years in there. The stallholder’s somewhat hopeful opening valuation of £20 was quickly haggled down to £10 after I asked if it came with a microphone (it didn’t) and if it worked or not (he said he didn’t know). Often this is car boot-speak for I know damn well it doesn’t work, but maybe not in this case… Even so, at a tenner it was still a gamble, though the clean appearance and lack of corrosion in the battery compartment was a very good start. It could easily have been a wreck inside though, at best a mush of gooey decomposed rubber drive belts; at worst a blown motor and/or electronics or rusted mechanism, any of which could be a nightmare or even impossible to fix.
As it happened it was as clean on the inside as it was outside. The rubber belts were all intact and pliable. The initial test on battery power resulted in a second or two of grumbling from the motor before it, and the amp, came alive. Once fully awake from its long slumber speed stability turned out to be rock solid and all of the transport functions were working properly. The only maintenance it required was some light lubrication on the moving parts plus a few squirts of switch cleaner on the tone and volume pots and a clean up of the rubber capstan roller and tape heads. After some basic safety checks the AC power supply also worked straight away. On the principle that if it aint broke… I resisted the temptation to do anything else, including swap out the long past their sell-by date electrolytic capacitors on the circuit board.
What Happened To It?
JVC or the Victor Company of Japan started out in 1927 as a subsidiary of the American Victor Talking Machine Company, later to become RCA-Victor, initially manufacturing phonographs and records. Following the outbreak of WW II JVC severed relations with its US parent. The name Nivico dates from the mid 1960s and was derived from NIppon VIctor Corporation. It was created as a sub-brand for US importer Delmonico for a range of low cost televisions and audio equipment. It is worth knowing that in the 60s companies and products made in Japan were still regarded with some suspicion in the US, so it wasn’t at all unusual to play down the Japanese connection.
Although from the mid to late sixties Compact Cassette was sweeping the board across Europe and the Far East in the more conservative and slow-moving US consumer electronics market reel-to-reel and 8-track systems remained quite popular. Although the TR-514U still had a ready market, to make it properly viable it also needed to sell in Europe, hence the provision of a universal power supply, which allowed the Japanese to streamline manufacture and International distribution. But the fact was reel-to-reel tape recorders were on borrowed time and this model probably didn’t remain in production for more than 4 or 5 years. By the mid 70s JVC had only one or two high-end reel-to-reel tape recorders in their catalogue, the rest were cassette machines.
Nivico branded JVC products are not very common in the UK and this one may be just one of a handful of TR-514U’s to have made it to these shores, possibly via US service personnel based in Europe. Prices for the few 60s and 70s vintage tape recorders that have appeared on ebay vary tremendously but recently an unboxed but GWO TR-514U sold in the US for more than £150 so this one could turn out to be a very good investment. Working reel-to-reel tape recorders are worth having in any event, as they can turn out to be practical vintage gadgets. Boxes of old audio tapes are not uncommon at antique markets and car boot sales. Valuable missing episodes of popular radio shows, and recordings of performers and bands that later made it big are undoubtedly still out there, just waiting to be discovered by someone with the right equipment.
First Seen: 1969 (Manual)
Original Price: £20?
Value Today: £20.00 (0618)
Features: Capstan drive, 2-track mono recording, dual speed 9.5 & 4.7 cm/sec (3 3/4 & 1 7/8 ips) (interchangeable capstan roller) transport modes: fast forward, rewind, play & record, AGC recording, rotary controls: volume & tone, 3-digit tape counter 12.7cm (5-inch spools) max play/rec time 1 or 2 hours, 1.5 watt 6-transistor amp, freq. Response 100Hz to 7kHz (9.5cm/sec) electromagnetic AC bias/erase, monitor function, 150mm oval speaker, remote pause (hard wired on mike), microphone, line input & earphone 3.5mm minijack, folding carry handle,
Power req. 100 – 230VAC 50/60Hz & 6 x 1.5 volt D cells
Dimensions: 294 x 234 x 90mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 8
Renown High Fidelity 402 Tape Recorder 1963
Here’s a handy fact for breaking the ice at parties. From 1960 to around 1965-ish there were several hundred different makes and models of miniature Japanese-made reel-to-reel tape recorders on the market. Most were made by companies that you’ll never have heard of and probably didn’t last until the end of that decade. Exactly why there were so many of these little machines at that time is open to debate but one thing is sure, only a handful are still around to tell the tale. That’s partly because many of them were cheaply made and easily broken, but the vast majority were simply thrown away, caught up in a mass-extinction event, bought about by the introduction of the Philips Compact Cassette, launched in 1963.
This is one of those rare survivors, it’s the Renown High Fidelity Model 402, a classic rim-drive machine with a 2-track recording system, using 5.5mm (1/4-inch) tape on 75mm (3-inch) reels, which gave between 10 and 15 minutes recording time per side. The Renown’s general spec is broadly similar to most of its contemporaries, though it is a little chunkier, which can be explained by one quite unusual feature. That is the ‘piano-key’ transport controls on the front panel. Normally these were only fitted to larger or more up-market machines. Virtually all rim drive tape recorders had a simple rotary knob, which tilts the single motor so that one or the other of its elongated spindles comes into contact with the rubber-rims of the tape spool platters. There is one other rarely seen feature and that’s an electromagnetic erase tape head, though in performance terms it doesn’t make a great deal of difference. The normal setup is a small permanent magnet. This is mounted on a swing arm ahead of the recording head in the tape path; its job is to wipe the tape so that a new recording can be made. A small coil generates the magnetic field on this model, which is simpler and more efficient than a permanent magnet. In theory there’s less to go wrong and another small sign that this machine was a cut above the rest.
Before we move on it’s worth just running through the pros and cons of the rim-drive mechanism, compared with the capstan drive system, which is the norm on better quality mini reel-to-reel machines, full size tape recorders, and Compact Cassette. The plus point for rim-drive, and there is only one, is that it is simple and cheap to make. There are plenty of drawbacks, though, like no fast wind function, but the biggest one is the significant variation in the speed at which the tape passes over the recording and replay head(s). This is inevitable as one tape reel fills up and the other one empties. It doesn’t matter too much when a tape is replayed on the machine it was made on but on any other machine it can sound awful. Speech is just about tolerable but music is a no-go area. On capstan-drive machines tape speed is (or should be) accurately maintained, and recordings can be replayed on any other machine, operating at the same speed. Because of this the mechanics and electronics on capstan drive tape recorders also tend to be more complicated, better quality, and needless to say, they cost a lot more.
In spite of the mischievous ‘High Fidelity’ badge on the Renown 402’s motor cover, rim drive machines like this one were never intended for serious applications. In fact most of them were little more than toys though it is probable a fair number were bought for dictation purposes as well as for making and replaying ‘audio letters’. This was quite a big thing in the sixties, especially in the US; recorders and tapes were small enough for troops to take with them to places like Vietnam where they could be used to keep in touch with the folks back home. What it lacks in distinctive features it makes up for with easy operation, solid construction, and speed stability issues aside, it actually works quite well. The fact that it is still around, and in good working order also says volumes for the solidity of the original design.
The controls, such as they are, are clearly marked and need no explanation. The socketry is also very straightforward, just two 3.5mm mono minijacks for the microphone and an earphone. On the underside there’s a removable hatch covering the battery compartment, which takes 2 x 1.5 volt C cells, for the motor, and one 9-volt PP3 battery, used by the 4-transistor amplifier. Tape to head contact is maintained by a pair of spring loaded felt pads and it comes with a detachable leather carry strap.
I cannot remember precisely when I bought this little machine, or how much I paid for it, but it was probably in or around 1998/9, in the very early days of on-line auctions. The chances are it came from the US – shipping costs were a lot less back then – and it is very unlikely that I paid more than £10.00 for it; they were still quite plentiful and cheap… It must have been a runner, or at least, had only a very simple fault as the printed circuit board and wiring are untouched and it still has all of its original electrolytic capacitors. That is unusual as they have a strong tendency to fail after two or three decades; the ones used in the Renown 402 must have been made of sterner stuff, as they are all still going strong. The case has a few minor scuffs and scratches but nothing to suggest it has led anything other then a very quiet life. Even the transparent, detachable cover is free of serious marks or crazing, which implies it hasn’t been open or removed very often.
What Happened To It?
In a word – well two words – it was the Compact Cassette that killed off all but high-end reel-to-reel tape recorders; cheap little machines like this never stood a chance. Probably the only reason they were still around until the end of the 60s was that so many of them were made, and whilst the cassette was launched in ’63, it took a few years before prices fell to the point where they became a commodity item.
Mini reel-to-reel tape recorders are still a bit of a specialist area for collectors; mainstream vintage audio and hi-fi enthusiasts tend to be a bit sniffy about these cute little machines. Prices continue to creep up slowly, though, but apart from a very small number of models, like ‘spycorders’ (sub-miniature models that appeared in sixties movies and TV shows), most of the run-of-the-mill examples that appear on ebay sell for between £20 and £50, depending of course on condition and whether or not they come with the original accessories and packaging. This one lies somewhere between; it is a bit unusual and in good working order, but without the box and its other standard issue bits and pieces, or any verifiable brush with stardom – that I know of – its appeal and value – other than to the small band of specialist collectors -- is sadly limited,
First seen: 1963
Original Price: £5 - 10
Value Today: £30.00 (0318)
Features: Rim-drive transport mechanism, 2-track mono recording, Piano Key Controls, Play/Record, Stop Rewind modes, 4-transistor amplifier, microphone & earphone sockets (3.5mm mono minijack), rotary volume, electromagnetic erase head, 75mm (3-inch) max reel size, leather carry handle
Power req. 2 x 1.5v C cells, 1 x 9v PP3 battery
Dimensions: 215 x 140 x 80mm
Made (assembled) in: Ja
Ehrcorder TP-421 Mini Tape Recorder, 1964
As cheap mini tape recorders from the early sixties go the Ehrcorder TP-421 is fairly unremarkable, except that this one, and a few others like it are still here and often in good working order. It’s a real survivor and that’s largely due to the uncomplicated, robust design.
The TP-421 was one of hundreds of mini reel-to-reel tape recorders on the market at the time. The vast majority of them were essentially toys, and this was reflected in the price, typically between £3.00 and £5.00. Recording quality was generally poor, but it didn’t matter too much for speech or a pop song sing along and almost every youngster back then wanted to get their hands on a ‘real’ working tape recorder. As it happened proper grown up reel-to-reel tape recorders were still far from common in the home. In fact most people regarded them as rather exotic, expensive, big, heavy and difficult to use. However, the real problem was the price, and the simple reason that apart from the odd radio program there wasn’t much worth recording…
On the other hand mini tape recorders like the TR-241 were cheap enough to be playthings, for kids of all ages. A few of the more serious looking machines – and the TP241 fitted the bill – could be even used as basic dictating machines or for taking memos. The 75mm (3-inch) reels, which gave around 10 to 15 minutes recording time also happened to be a convenient size and length for ‘voice letters’ to send to distant friends and relatives. They could also seem quite glamorous; some if them made it into the movies and on TV. They made perfect props, as ’spycorders’, playing vital roles in secret agent shows like Mission Impossible, Danger Man, The Man From U.N.C.L.E and of course the James Bond films. Sadly I am not aware of this particular model making it on the large or small screen but I would be very surprised if it hadn’t made at least one appearance.
There are no frills or fripperies and thanks to the ultra simple rim-drive tape transport mechanism, no fast forward function, just Play, Record, Stop and Rewind. A single chrome lever protruding from the front right hand corner of the case controls everything, apart from the volume. It is connected to a rotary switch and coupled to a sliding bar that tips the motor to the right or left. This presses the rotating spindle onto the rubber-rimmed tape platter on the left, for the rewind function, and an idler wheel pressing against the take-up reel on the right for playback and recording modes. Another common feature that helped keep the cost down is the permanent magnet erase head. This is also attached to the sliding bar and in record mode it is pressed against the tape, erasing whatever was on it, just before it passes over the recording head. There is little to go wrong, which has to be one of the reasons why the tape mechanisms on these 50 plus year old machines often still work, even after years of inactivity. Other problems can and do occur, though, and the most common fault is failure of the electrolytic capacitors on the tiny amplifier board. Fortunately almost anyone handy with a screwdriver and soldering iron can swap them for modern replacements, costing just a few pence, in about half an hour.
The TR-241 came with a crystal lapel microphone and a magnetic earpiece, which plug into sockets on the front of the case. What look like two tiny metal handles at either end of the case are for a carry strap, which was also included with the outfit. Learning how to use it doesn’t take long, as you will see from the very brief instruction leaflet, which also helpfully includes a circuit diagram for the amplifier.This is one of four TP-241s in my collection, accumulated in the early days of online auctions, mostly from sellers in the US. They rarely cost more than £5.00, plus the same again for shipping. Happy times…
As I recall it needed just the usual capacitor swap, a re-grease of the moving parts and a squirt of switch cleaner on the volume control to get it running, and sounding, like new. The case and everything else that came with it had been well looked after by the original polystyrene packing, and for once it hadn’t reacted with the mic and earphone cables, which can melt into the foam. A quick word on sound quality, and yes, by current standards it is awful, noisy and incapable of recoding anything other than speech. The rim-drive mechanism suffers from the usual problem of speed stability, or rather the lack of it. It varies constantly, as one reel empties and the other fills up. As usual it doesn’t matter too much if recordings are replayed on the machine that made it (or an identical model) but on more advanced models with constant-speed capstan drives it just makes bad quality even worse.
What Happened To It?
Almost nothing has been written, (on the web or in the usual reference books) about the Ehrcorder name or brand. The only certainties are that it was made in Japan and it first appeared in the early 1960s. The TP-241 seems to be one of only two products bearing the Ehrcorder name (the other was a semi pro tape recorder, possibly dating from the late 70s), and unusually, the 241 doesn’t appear under any other guises. If anyone has any more information please let me know.
Predictably the TP-241 suffered the same fate as almost every other reel-to-reel tape recorder, small and large, from that era, and that was an almost total wipeout following the appearance of the Philips Compact Cassette format in 1963. It took the revolutionary newcomer a few years to get a foothold, but once the economies of scale kicked in, and the market for pre-recorded tapes (Musicassettes) had developed there was almost no reason for anyone want to buy a reel-to-reel tape recorder any more. Cassettes were superior in almost every respect that mattered, and although the sound quality of early machines left something to be desired, it was perfectly adequate for low-end and mid-range home hi-fi and portable use.
A few high-end models survived into the 70s and 80s, but the consequence of Compact Cassette’s appearance was that in the space of less than a decade an entire technology had become virtually obsolete. Vast numbers of reel-to-reel machines must have disappeared into landfill and small cheap models like the TP-241 were almost certainly the first to go. Nevertheless a few escaped the cull and got shoved into the backs of cupboards, lofts and garages and then forgotten. Those that made it in good condition into the twenty first century have become collector’s items and the few really rare or genuinely innovative models can command quite healthy prices. The small size, smart looks and a good chance of it working (or being fixable) makes the TP-241 quite desirable and every so often, when a particularly clean one appears on ebay it can sell for as much as £50.00, though £30 to £40 is more usual for well used examples. Enough of them were made for the occasional bargain to find its way onto the market, and over the years I’ve seen a few at car boot sales (though not recently) but there’s bound to be a few still out there so if you spot one, grab it!
DUSTY DATA (Manual)
First seen: 1964
Original Price: £4 19s 6d (£4.97)
Value Today: £30 (1117)
Features: 2-track mono recording, single motor rim-drive mechanism 1 7/8 ips, permanent magnet erase, max reel size 75mm (3-inches), Single lever operation, transport modes: Play, Record, Rewind, Stop, built-in speaker (55mm), earphone & mic sockets (3.5mm jack), 4-transistor push-pull amplifier. Supplied accessories: crystal microphone, magnetic earphone, carry strap.
Power req. 2 x 1.5 volt C cells, 1 x 9 volt PP3
Dimensions: 205 x 125 x 70 mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Duvidal FT-66 Mini Tape Recorder, 1962
You might think that collecting cheap, miniature, reel-to-reel tape recorders from the 1960s would be a reasonably straightforward business. After all how many of them can there be? The vast majority of them were made in Japan, probably by only a dozen or so volume manufacturers and roughly the same number again of smaller companies. The point is, sixties Japan had a vibrant consumer electronics industry with many of those companies into serious, hard-core badge engineering. It’s not unknown for the same tape recorder to be sold under a score of different brand names. Then there’s the churn factor, with small companies being swallowed up by larger ones, new arrivals all the time and lots of failures. In short anyone hoping to amass a reasonably comprehensive collection, or even create some sort of archive can expect it to be a never-ending job. At a rough guess there are more than a thousand machines out there, and it could be a lot more. On the plus side there is a lot of satisfaction to be had discovering a previously undocumented model, like this Duvidal FT-66. At the time of writing there’s no record of it anywhere (except here…), and that includes the closest thing to a collector’s Bible, Phil Van Praag’s estimable ‘Evolution of the Audio Recorder’.
The FT-66 doesn’t deviate too far from the near standard spec for these little machines. To begin with it has a rim-drive tape transport mechanism. It has a single motor that acts upon the rubber-rimmed edge of the tape reel platters. It sounds like a good idea, and it works well enough for this kind of application low cost, low quality audio recording and playback. The big drawback is variable tape speed, as one reel empties and the other fills up. It doesn’t matter when replaying recordings made on the same machine but they can sound a bit weird when played on a tape recorder with a constant-speed, capstan drive mechanism, and vice-versa.
Most rim drive machines, and this one is no exception, also suffer from a lack of a fast-forward transport function. It does simplify the controls though, and apart from the volume thumbwheel there’s only one – the four position rotary switch for Play, Stop, Record and Rewind. There’s not much in the way of connections either, not even an earphone socket, just a solitary 3.5mm jack for the crystal microphone. In fact the only slightly unconventional feature is the batteries, which consists of two 1.5-volt C cells that live in a compartment on the underside. Normally machines of this ilk use two AA or C cells plus a 9-volt PP3 type battery. The C cells are used exclusively by the motor and the 9-volt battery powers the amplifier. This simplifies the design and helps prolong battery life and it’s unusual not to have the 9-volt battery because back in the 60s most electronic devices used germanium transistors and these work more efficiently at higher voltages.
The only other features that warrant a mention are the retractable carry handle, the detachable transparent lid, and it came with its original microphone retail box and poly packing, in fact the only notable omission was the instructions. Almost everything has survived in remarkably good condition; typically on machines of this vintage bits are broken or missing, which by rights should make this little machine a desirable collector's item, in theory at least...
This one has been in my collection for more than fifteen years and although I cannot recall exactly when it was. The chances are it came from ebay, which in the early noughties was awash with little machines like this. I definitely wouldn’t have paid more than £5 to £10 for it and it probably came from the US, when shipping charges were still comparatively low.
It appears to be in almost as new condition, it works too, as least as well as most of its contemporaries, which is to say it’s fine for recording speech, but not much else. When I opened it up to take the photos I was surprised to see that I hadn’t done anything to it; paint seals on the internal screws were untouched, even on the amplifier board, which I almost always future-proof by replacing the electrolytic capacitors. In short it’s as close to original as it is possible to get.
What Happened To It?
Duvidal, or whoever was behind the name seems to have disappeared without trace, probably in the mid to late 1960s The only other Duvidal products I am aware of are a couple of microphones and a simple mike mixer, all appearing to date from around the same period. On the evidence so far the FT-66 seems to be extremely rare, if not unique, which suggests that it was not around for very long, or a big seller, at least not in the UK. Even if it had sold well it wouldn’t have lasted much beyond the end of the sixties as by then the Compact Cassette had all but wiped out open-reel tape recorders, at the budget end of the market at any rate. As is so often the case, though, scarcity in doesn’t necessarily translate into value, especially on products from obscure and probably short-lived manufacturers. Even though it is almost one hundred percent complete and in near mint condition it is probably only worth £30 to £40, possibly a little more to a serious collector, or someone called Duvidal…
First seen: 1962
Original Price: £5.00?
Value Today: £30.00 (0817)
Features: 2-track mono recording, single motor rim-drive tape transport, max reel size 75mm (3-inches), permanent magnet erase head, 4-transistor amplifier, external crystal microphone (3.5mm jack), 55mm (2.4 inch) speaker, carry handle
Power req. 2 x 1.5 volt ‘C’ cells
Dimensions: 175 x 180 x 70mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 9
Grundig TK 141 Tape Recorder, 1970
Keeping up with the latest trends in home entertainment can be a tricky business. However, given the current fad for retro technology, and following on from the successful vinyl revival and talk of a comeback for compact cassette, it’s surely only a matter of time before reel-to-reel tape recorders become the next big thing. The smart move now, before it all kicks off, is to get ahead of the game and snap up some original vintage machines. As soon as it takes off the very limited supply will quickly dry up, prices will shoot up and within a few months high-priced repro gear will be coming out of the woodwork, sporting Bluetooth and USB connectivity, of course. This will be followed by shed loads of cheap and nasty tat, and then it will be all over, to make way for the next passing craze.
So, if you want to get foothold in the forthcoming reel-to-reel revolution – pun intended -- and you’re on a tight budget then it’s worth keeping a lookout for one of the many fine machines made by Grundig during the 60s and 70s (earlier, mostly valve-based models can be troublesome). Grundig were prolific; their machines had a reputation for being well made and reliable, and they sold in large numbers, in spite of being slightly dearer than rival brands. This TK 141 is a good example. It’s a compact 4-track design. It sounds good, looks the part and it’s built to last so there’s a better than average chance of finding one that works, or can be easily fixed. Sadly, in spite of the 4-track recording system (2 tracks per side) sound output is monophonic; a conversion is possible though it’s hardly necessary as there are stereo models of similar vintage, appearance and price available (look for TK 147 and above).
What sets the TK 141 and the others in the range apart from the crowd is robust metal chassis, high performance motor and dependable electronic circuitry. Just about the only things that wear out are the drive belts but modern replacements are readily available, and quite easy to fit, once you know the trick – more on that in a moment.
All transport functions are controlled by the large lever (or knob, on some models) on the right side of top panel, so it is very easy to use and mechanical problems are few. It has a simple capstan drive mechanism, in this case a single speed setup, running at the industry standard mid-fi 9.56 cm/sec (3 ¾ ips). It takes reels up to 15cm (6-inches) in diameter, giving around an hour per side (or 2 hours if you rewind and listen to the other track). There’s a set of sliders for adjusting volume, tone and recording level, shown on an illuminated meter. It also has a tape counter, a solid 4 watts output through a 15 cm elliptical speaker and a smart seventies style ‘executive’ carry case with a compartment for the mains lead. In fact the only operational downside, apart from mono-only operation, is the assortment of input and output sockets. They’re all multi-pin DIN type connectors, and a real pain in the arse when it comes to hooking up to modern audio equipment.
An otherwise disappointing car boot sale on the South Coast was the where this one was found. It was a last minute purchase. The weather was foul, stallholders were packing up early and I spotted it on the way out, on the last pitch before the car park, just as the stallholder was about to load it into his van. He was clearly happy to see the back of it and keen to get home to his Sunday lunch as he instantly accepted my cheeky opening offer of £2.00. Apart from a layer of mud and general grime on the outside of the case it was in excellent condition, but a few minor faults needed fixing.
The first was the power button, which had become jammed in the on position. A few squirts of switch cleaner got things moving again, and a few more were applied to the almost always-scratchy volume and tone sliders. The machine powered up and there was a promising low-level hum from the speaker and the capstan roller was spinning but there were no Play or Fast Forward functions. Manually turning the take up reel bought forth loud musical type sounds from the speaker, which meant the likely culprit was a broken or lose drive belt, so off came the bottom cover. This was the start of my lesson in how not to replace belts on Grundig tape recorders. I may have been given false hope by an early victory as I spotted the belt for the tape counter has also broken. A new one took about 10 seconds to fit.
The main drive belt turned out to be a real head-scratcher, though. After unscrewing everything in sight I was no closer to getting the new belt in place. In fact in the first hour all I managed to do was extricate the old belt, which at least allowed me to work out the size of the new belt. Luckily I had one to hand that would fit, it came from a Chinese ‘bumper bundle’ pack of 50 miscellaneous drive belts bought on ebay for just £2.99, less than a third the price of a single belt from a spare parts dealer.
Finally I did what I should have done from the outset and googled ‘replace grundig TK 141 belt’. It took just a few seconds to learn that it’s very a common problem, and easily fixed. The previously mentioned trick is whip off the top panel (5 screws and the carry handle) from where you can loop the belt around the flywheel. Flip it over and remove the 2 screws retaining the bearing plate for the capstan drive pulley. Once that’s out of the way snag the belt with an unfurled paperclip and loop it over the pulley, replace the bearing plate and it’s done. From start to finish it only takes around 5 minutes.
Before refitting the top and bottom covers I took the opportunity to apply some light grease to the moving parts, squirted some more switch cleaner where it would do some good, brushed out the dust and debris and cleaned the heads and pinch roller. It’s now back to its old self and whilst performance is some way below today’s mainstream hi-fi, for a piece of equipment that’s rapidly approaching its fiftieth birthday, it doesn’t sound half bad with plenty of depth, and a surprisingly crisp bass. Even the lack of stereo isn’t as much of a problem as you might think, especially when it’s belting out 50s and 60’s rock tracks, many of which would have been recorded in mono.
What Happened To It?
Grundig are still with us but realistically in name only. The once highly respected brand is now a shadow of its former self, owned by a Turkish manufacturer of home appliances. German radio engineer Max Grundig founded it shortly after the end of World War II and by the end of the 1940s the rapidly growing company was building and selling radios. Production of tape recorders began in the early 50s and expansion into other areas was rapid. In the seventies Dutch rival Philips started to take an interest in Grundig and by the mid eighties they were into almost everything electronic, from VCRs and TVs to high-end hi-fi and in-car entertainment. Philips and Grundig parted company in the early nineties and by the early noughties it had drifted into insolvency, resulting in its current change of ownership.
The build quality of reel-to-reel tape recorders from Grundig’s golden years was so good that many have survived in good condition. I suspect that a lot of them are gathering dust in cupboards, too good to throw away but almost certainly non-functional, in many cases for the want of a replacement drive belt. In most cases it’s a quick, simple and cheap fix. This means prices for non-runners on ebay and at car boot sales can be surprisingly low, and occasionally an absolute bargain, especially for those with a few simple tools and some basic DIY skills.
First seen: 1970
Original Price: £30
Value Today: £20 (0517)
Features: 4-track mono recording, capstan drive, single speed (9.53 cms/3 3/4 ips), max reel size 15cm/6-inches, 4 watts audio output, illuminated recording level meter, tape counter
Power req. 220-Volts AC Mains
Dimensions: 295 x 162 x 295mm
Made (assembled) in: United Kingdom
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
Protona Minifon Attaché Tape Recorder, 1959
All credit to Philips for
the phenomenal success of the audio Compact Cassette format, launched in 1963, but if you look through Dustygizmos you will see that it wasn’t the first or even necessarily the best tape cassette system of its day. In fact there is little doubt that Philips would have been aware of this one developed by German company Protona, (later to become Telefunken), whilst it was working on Compact Cassette. It belongs to the Minifon Attaché, first seen in 1959, though the cassette had been designed a few years previously. There are numerous similarities between the two formats and the recorders, including the tandem reel layout, two-side recording, capstan drive mechanism; the only significant differences are that the Minifon cassette is a little larger and uses quarter-inch wide tape (Compact cassette tape is 1/8th inch wide), but ironically, while the cassette is bigger the Minifon Attaché is only around two-thirds the size of first generation Cassette recorders, and a good deal more sophisticated.
The feature list is as good a place as any to begin and the most obvious one is the row of piano key controls. These were very unusual on late 50s tape recorders, and almost unheard of on one as small as this. And it is very small; it fits easily into a coat pocket and it’s highly portable, thanks to it being battery powered. That wasn’t uncommon back then but the ‘Mini-Accu’ battery it uses was. It’s a rechargeable type using what was in the late 50s the relatively new Nickel- Cadmium technology known generically as DEAC (‘deek’) cells, named after the pioneering manufacturer Deutsche Edison Akkumuatoren Company.
Another reason it is so small is due to it using transistors, instead of valves in the amplifier circuit. Once again this was cutting edge stuff and it was one of only a small handful of transistorised tape recorders in the late fifties. One more reason for the diminutive size is the lack of a built-in speaker, instead it was supplied with stethoscope type earphones and an external speaker was available as an optional extra. It also came with a microphone, fitted with a remote Play/Record switch and it was supplied with a very well made leather case.
The machine is exceptionally well made. The case and chassis are both made of metal, and the moving parts are excellent examples of German precision engineering. Then there’s the speed-stabilised motor, which looks like it was made in a watch factory. The circuit boards have are a repair person’s dream and are meant to be easily get-attable, though this one, and the two others that passed have through my hands all worked faultlessly.
There’s no need to go through the controls, they are clearly labelled and very easy to use; the only thing that’s missing is a fast-wind function, though this would have been no great hardship in its intended application. So, the question is, at a time when tape recorders were still a long way from being a commonplace consumer product, who was it aimed at? The small size and functions are clearly suggests it was a piece of office equipment. It would have been used for dictation and taking notes, however, when you take a closer look at the optional extras there are a few surprises. Why, for example, would anyone need a microphone disguised as a wristwatch? Then there’s the telephone recording adaptor and an easily concealable miniature microphone. Of course it is quite possible that it was used for serious espionage. This was the start of the Cold War after all, and if the movies and books are to be believed Germany was a hotbed of spooks. However, covert recording would also have been regarded as a legitimate business tool and no doubt tiny machines like the Attaché were routinely used for eavesdropping on meetings and gathering industrial secrets.
No prizes for guessing where this one and the others that I have owned came from. It was ebay, but bought at least 10 years ago, when machines like this were still plentiful, and cheap. I do not recall how much it cost but I wouldn’t have paid more than £10 or so for it, and that included the leather case and accessories. The original battery was long gone, in any case it would have been useless; early rechargeables had a very short life. It’s was easily overcome, though, and it (they) all worked when connected to a mains power supply, and it would be a fairly simple matter to construct a holder for modern batteries. As I indicated they were all in good working order, though to make sure they stayed that way moving parts were lubricated and any iffy looking rubber belts replaced. Although the tape moves at a relatively sedate speed of 4.76cm/sec sound quality is pretty decent, it’s by no means hi-fi quality but its fine for speech and musical recordings are far from terrible. Given the advances that gradually improved the performance of compact cassette machines I have no doubt that they could have been applied to the Minifon, had it been a commercial success.
What Happened To It?
Clever marketing by Philips ensured that Compact Cassette saw off all of its rivals, not that the Attaché ever had any pretensions as an entertainment device. It resulted in the eventual demise of reel-to-reel tape recorders, though they lingered on for another couple of decades by occupying a niche at the top end of the market. Protona were taken over by Telefunken in 1962 but the Minifon continued in production, going through several revisions and badges (at one point it was branded ITT) until 1967 when the Attaché and Protona names disappeared from view.
Sales of the Attaché must have been quite good and up until a few years ago there were usually one or two on ebay at any given time. The supply eventually dried up, though and the few machines that appear on the market are snapped up quickly, sometimes for quite astonishing prices. With so few examples to go it is hard to say exactly how much they are worth but anywhere between £50 and £100 would be a good starting point for one in working condition, and a case and accessories can only add to its value.
First seen: 1959
Original Price: 950DM (£80.00)
Value Today: £100.00 (0317)
Features: Single speed capstan drive, proprietary cassette using 0.25 in (0.63cm) wide tape, tape speed 1.8ips (4.76 cm/sec), running time 30 mins 15 min per side), 3-digit tape counter, battery/recording level indicator, 6 transistor amplifier, piano-key controls (Stop, Rewind, Play/Listen, Record)
Power req. 7.5v mini-accu DEAC rechargeable battery
Dimensions: 178 x 100 x 43mm
Made (assembled) in: West Germany
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
Sanyo MC-1 & MC-1A Mini Tape Recorders, 1963
This might look like four almost identical miniature tape recorders, and you wouldn’t be far wrong but take a closer and you'll see that there are some subtle differences. In fact there are two distinct models and they are the Sanyo MC-1 and MC-1A, the focus of this episode of dustygizmos.. The differences between them are fairly minor, though, and they include the position of the volume and speed control knobs, a few mechanical and cosmetic touches, like the way the reel platters are retained on the spindles, a cover over the record/replay and erase heads on the MC-1A, badges, case markings and so on. The other two machines are the Craig TR-401 and 404, which are essentially badge-engineered versions of the MC-1 and MC-1A and sold in the US. The name change was probably a marketing strategy. In the early sixties American public opinion was still a bit iffy about overtly Japanese-made products; Craig on the other hand was regarded as a familiar and well-established US brand. But their origin is in no doubt and aside from the name badges and the lids (the Sanyo ones are removable, the Craig lids are hinged); they’re all peas from the same pod.
Now we’ve got that out of the way it’s time to take a closer look at this extraordinary little tape recorder and the first and most noticeable feature is the size. It’s tiny, a little shorter and a few millimetres fatter than a VHS cassette, if you can remember what they look like. The tape reels are just 65mm (2.5 inches) in diameter and last for around 10 – 15 minutes, depending on the recording speed. That’s a big limitation when it comes to recording music, and the quality is quite poor, but its good enough for speech and that’s exactly what they’re for. These machines were mainly intended business use, for taking notes and dictation, and audio letters, and being so small they’re easy to pop into a pocket or kitbag. That’s a clue to what was probably the biggest market. They were ideal for the hundreds of thousands of US service personnel serving in Vietnam and stationed around the world, to keep in touch with folks back home. In one of the photographs, further down the page, you can see an example of a tape that made it halfway around the world, from the Asian conflict zones to Philadelphia, still in its original cardboard sleeve with just a scribbled address and three stamps.
Although these machines were very well made, with tough all-metal cases the mechanics, and in particular, the transport mechanism is about as rudimentary as it gets. A single motor mounted on a pivot drives the reels. Switching between Play/Record and Rewind presses the rotating spindle against either the right or left rubber-rimmed tape platter. Yes, it’s another example of the infamous rim-drive mechanism, elegantly simple but suffering from two fundamental flaws. Firstly, as one reel empties and the other fills up the speed at which the tape is drawn past the tape head varies continuously. That’s not a problem when a recording is played back on the machine that it was made on, or one with identical mechanical properties. However, on tape recorders with a constant-speed capstan drive tape mechanism recordings can sound a bit weird and for that reason when these machines were to be used for sending and receiving audio letters they were often sold in pairs. The other problem is the lack of a fast forward mode, though these models do have variable speed control. It’s not a substitute bit it can help skim through recordings made at slower speeds.
Controls are few and far between in fact there are only five of them so they’re really easy to use. There are two knobs for adjusting replay volume and replay speed and three slide switches for setting Play/Record mode, Rewind/Forward tape direction and On/Stop. By the way, here’s a tip if you manage to get your hands on one of these little machines. When not in use always set the Rewind/Forward switch midway so both reels rotate freely. If you don’t the motor spindle will eventually leave a permanent dent in the rubber of whichever reel it is pressing against, resulting in a nasty ‘bump’ in playback and a horrible noise…
These machines run on four 1.5-volt AA cells, powering both the motor and the four-transistor amplifier. There is a small 55mm speaker is built into the underside of the case and it comes with an external microphone, fitted with a remote pause switch. This, and the supplied earphone fit into a little pouch attached to the end of the rather smart black leatherette carry case, which is also included with the outfit.
The first Craig and Sanyo machines I bought was more than 25 years ago, when they were still quite cheap and plentiful. Sometimes I would get lucky and buy a pair or they would come with a collection of tapes. Over the years I have probably owned more than 20 of them, mostly bought from ebay in the US, but one by one most of them have been sold or swapped, leaving just the four you see here. I can’t say for certain how much I paid for any of them, but it wouldn’t have been more than £5 to £10. The few I have seen recently on ebay sold for more than £50, so my collection is unlikely to get bigger anytime soon. The condition of the ones I bought was generally very good; they’re really robust and most of them had been well looked after. The majority worked straight off and only needed cleaning and oiling. A few had little or no audio but changing the electrolytic caps on the amplifier board usually got them going again.
What Happened To It?
In a word (or rather two…) Compact Cassette. It killed off these and almost all other reel-to-reel tape recorders. It was no contest. Cassette tapes were smaller, lasted longer, sounded better and eventually the tapes and the machines were much cheaper than their reel-based counterparts. The Philips designed audio cassette first appeared in 1963 and by the early 70s it had almost wiped out reel-to-reel tape recorders, but they never completely died out. High-end machines continued in production for another couple of decades and a few classic models have become highly prized by audio enthusiasts. Small and cute machines like these Sanyo and Craig models have become collector’s items, and consequently they’re much harder to find nowadays. Their occasional appearance on ebay almost always receives a lot of attention, and sometimes some really astonishing prices, but every so often one still slip under the collector’s radar, so don’t give up if you fancy adding one to your collection.
DUSTY DATA (Manuals, Craig TR-401/4)
First seen: 1963
Original Price: $30
Value Today: £60 (0117)
Features: 2-track rim-drive mechanism, 65mm (2.5 in) tape reels, variable speed, magnetic erase head, remote pause, Play/Record, Rewind transport mode, built-in 55mm speaker, carry case
Power req. 4 x 1.5v AA cells
Dimensions: 135 x 90 x 53mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 8
Phonotrix Model 1 Miniature tape recorder, 1959
Miniature tape recorders like this little Phonotrix Model 1 are frequently associated with spies and secret agents. They often turn up as props in sixties and seventies movies and TV shows but the reality is most of them were far too basic to be of any real use for serious espionage and a lot of them were simply toys. Apart from anything else small machines like this one, using 3-inch reels and a simple rim-drive mechanism, do not have the capacity to record for more than a few minutes, and the quality is almost always dreadful.
The Phonotrix 1 was a notable exception, though. It’s the real deal, spy-wise, and apparently used by the CIA during the Cold War – more about that in just a moment. This one wasn’t a toy, even though it was made by a toy maker, the Trix United Toy Factory of Nuremberg, in West Germany. Mechanically it is a lot more sophisticated than the majority of so-called ‘spycorders’ coming out of Japan throughout the 1960s. It has a proper grown-up capstan-drive tape mechanism, which helps to maintain a constant head to tape speed. It was quite expensive and would have been sold for serious applications like dictation. However, on this model playback speed is constantly variable, from 3 to 15 cm/sec. This would have been quite useful for transcribing speech and may well have been the key feature that bought it to the attention of the US spy agency’s version of Q-Branch.
According to the excellent Dutch-based Wireless For The Warrior website (a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in the history and nuts and bolts of military communications) a modified Phonotrix 1 was taken from a CIA agent caught operating in East Germany. The machine had been adapted to send secret messages in Morse Code; it’s known in the spook business as a high-speed keyer. The idea was the machine recorded a Morse message at the slowest speed; the tape was then rewound and played back at the highest speed. An add-on circuit detects the clicks from the Morse key on the recording and converts them into pulses, which are used operate the transmitter’s keying circuit. This dramatically reduces the time it takes to send a message, and as a consequence the chances of the transmission being intercepted and the sender located.
It’s a fairly straightforward role and one that this little machine was well suited to. Back then it would have been a fairly commonplace piece of office equipment so it wouldn’t have aroused much suspicion if one was found in your possession. Sadly this one is the plain vanilla civilian version but it’s still interesting and a good example of post war German engineering. The case body and pretty well all vital moving parts are made of metal, so it’s a really tough little customer. The motor is a very high quality design with electro-mechanical speed stabilisation, and its own unusual backstory, as we will see.
To save space and weight and make it easy to use it has just the bare minimum of controls, and functions. These include a small sliding lever on the front for forward and rewind tape transport, and there’s a sliding switch on the side for selecting record or playback mode. There are two small knobs; the one on the side, next to the record switch is for adjusting the audio output level and the other one, next to the tape take-up reel, is the variable speed control. Power is supplied by a set of four 1.5volt cells, which powers both the motor and the simple three transistor amplifier circuit. One of the reasons this machine is so small is because it doesn’t have an internal speaker; an external speaker is supplied and along with the microphone, it plugs into a pair of sockets on the side. The mike and speaker plugs look a bit like standard 3.5mm jacks but they’re a weird proprietary design, with a spiked central conductor, and a nasty habit of falling out of their sockets. The whole kit was supplied in a custom-made leatherette covered case. When new it would have looked very smart though the one that came with is machine has clearly led a tough life. On the plus side it did its job well, protecting the contents, which have only very light signs of use.
This machine came from a small local antique fair in the early noughties and it cost me just £5.00, no haggling needed. In spite of the tatty case it looked like a bargain; the recorder, mike and speaker were all a bit grubby but there were no signs of corrosion, inside or out, making it a prime candidate for a restoration job. As it turned out it needed very little attention, just a good clean up and a few drops of oil on the moving parts. It came with four reels, three of them full, though any recordings had long since been erased or degraded to just a background mush and the occasional rumble. It is still able to make new recordings and whilst it’s not into hi-fi territory is it fine for speech, even at the slowest speed; it was also clearly good enough for the CIA’s purposes.
What Happened To It?
Trix was a very long established toy maker based in Nuremberg and its speciality, from the early 1930s until the late 90s, was high quality model railways. In 1997 Trix got into financial difficulties and was taken over by competitors Marklin. Back in the 1950s, in an attempt to branch out into new markets Trix launched a number of new products. These included tape recorders, model cars and even electric razors. It wasn’t as much of a departure from its core business as it might seem and many of the new items used the same high performance electric motors as their model locomotives. The Phonotrix 1 was followed by the larger Phonotrix 2, which had the speaker built into the case. Sales of both models were disappointing – possibly due to the relatively high prices, and low demand from the CIA – and production of tape recorders appears to have ended by the mid 1960s.
A few Phonotrix machines have survived, thanks to the very high standard of construction, and every so one turns up on ebay. In spite of their comparative rarity and unusual history prices vary a lot, from just a few pounds to more than £100. This isn’t always dependent on condition or whether or not they need attention. Bargains do exist and if you ever come across one of those modified CIA models grab it quick, collectors of Cold War memorabilia will probably pay you a small fortune for it.
First seen 1959
Original Price 140 DM (German Deutsch Marks)
Value Today £50 (1116)
Features 2 track, capstan drive, variable speed (3 – 15cm/sec), Play, Record & Rewind transport modes, 75mm reel size, permanent magnet erase head, 3 transistor amplifier (OC71, OC72, GET 21), external speaker, proprietary mic, speaker & external power sockets
Power req. 4 x 1.5v D cells
Dimensions: 170 x 125 x 88mm
Made (assembled) in: West Germany
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Sanyo MR-115 Mains Portable Tape Recorder, 1969
Although reel-to-reel tape recorders never completely disappeared, by the time the Sanyo MR-115 came on to the market, sometime around 1969, open reel tape recorders were rapidly becoming an endangered species. This near mass extinction was almost entirely due to the almost instant runaway success of the Compact Cassette, launched by Philips in 1962.
It was no contest. For sheer convenience and effortless, fuss-free recording and playback of both home made and pre-recorded sounds, cassettes wiped the floor with open reel machines. The only thing left to the old format was sound quality, and even that would be threatened in the largely undemanding home hi-fi market, following the development of efficient noise reduction systems and improved tape formulations. The question then is why, in the late 60s, with cheap and in some cases quite decent cassette recorders coming out of the woodwork, would anyone want to spend several weeks wages on this outwardly rather ordinary machine?
Sanyo were not alone in continuing to keep one or two moderately well equipped reel-to-reel tape recorders in their product ranges in the late sixties and early seventies. Clearly there would always be a small cohort of users with collections of tapes that they would want to be able to listen to, plus there's the usual assortment of die-hards and enthusiasts who simply refuse to accept the new format. Either way the MR-115 and its ilk was a last gasp for most manfacturers and within a couple of years they had virtually disappeared from sight.
That’s a pity because at any other time the MR-115 might have done quite well. The headline features include mains and portable battery operation, a twin-speed deck (4.8/9.5 cm/sec or 1 7/8 & 3 3/4 ips in old money). It had an automatic level control and simple mixing facilities, a mechanical digital tape counter and a remote pause function on the microphone (which lives in a compartment on the underside). It has a good range of inputs and outputs and a meaty 7-transistor amplifier pumping a little over a watt into a good-sized elliptical speaker. It takes reel sizes up to 128mm (5-inches), which hold 180 metres (600 feet) of tape, for around 30 or 60 minutes (depending on the speed), of recording and playback per side. The only minus points are the fact that it’s a mono machine, which was a bit of a throwback in a world increasingly accustomed to stereo sounds, and the audio quality which, to be brutally honest, is unremarkable.
It is very easy to use with just one mechanical tape transport control, a simple joystick that selects Play, Forward and Reverse fast wind. Changing the tape speed is a bit of a faff, though. Going from fast to slow involves removing the tape head cover unscrewing the capstan roller next to the pinch roller and stowing it on a small pillar close to the joystick control. Everything else is next to idiot proof, including the recording level, which is handled automatically. There’s a simple pause switch on the microphone and for portable operation all you need is a set of 6 1.5 volt D cells, which will keep it running for a couple of hours. Mains operation relies on a proprietary, and rather dodgy looking male three-pin plug sticking out of the side of the machine. It looks a bit flimsy, and I suspect quite sparky if the lead is pulled out quickly or accidentally.
This one had obviously been well cared for, prior to its appearance at a local car boot sale, and the last owner may well have been a jazz fan, judging by what was on the reel of tape that came with it. The stallholder (a regular at this event) said it came from a house clearance some weeks previously. It had been on his stall for the last three Sundays and he was surprised that no one was interested. It would have attracted more attention if he hadn’t put it in with a load of kitchen junk, and given it a wipe over. He was asking £5.00 for it, I offered £3.00 and the deal was done. I’d had a chance to check the battery compartment and it was filled with a set of crusty looking EverReady D cells. They were stuck fast and may have leaked, which could be why there had been no other takers. I’ve become a dab hand at removing battery leakage and repairing the damage so it doesn’t worry me; £3.00 wasn’t much of a gamble since the tape spools were worth that on their own.
It turned out to be very lucky find indeed, and surprisingly well made, which undoubtedly contributed to its survival. Fortunately the batteries hadn’t leaked and the compartment was free of corrosive gunge. Following a general muck-out, oil change and thorough internal and external clean up, it worked straight away. The only very minor problems were a scratchy volume control (quickly sorted with a squirt of contact cleaner), and an unreliable fast wind. This was also speedily fixed by re-seating a spring, used to keep an idler wheel in position. Sound quality and volume were pretty much as expected, about right for a late 60’s mono tape recorder. It’s possible a little more could be squeezed out of it by changing the aging electrolytic capacitors but since it was working adequately well I decided to let sleeping dogs lie. Invariably, as soon as I start messing about with one thing, something else comes out in sympathy…
What Happened To It?
References to the MR-115, in reviews and adverts in audio and electronics magazines of the period, fizzle out by 1971, which suggests that it was on sale for just two or three years. Nevertheless Sanyo was a respected name back then and no doubt a fair few were sold, in spite of the price, which at the time was considerably more that even top-end cassette players. MR-115’s make very occasional appearances on ebay and typically sell for £25 - £50, depending on the condition, so this one was a very good deal. It’s not going to make me or anyone else rich, though. Sadly it’s not a classic, or notable for any particularly innovative features, but it did have its part to play – albeit only a small one -- in the long history of sound recording so it deserves this brief mention for posterity and if you ever stumble upon a clean one selling for silly money, do your duty, save it from the tip and give it good home.
First seen 1969
Original Price 49 gns (£51.48)
Value Today £30.00 (1016)
Features 2-track mains/battery portable tape recorder 128mm/5-inch reels, 2-speed: 4.8/9.5 cm/sec (1 7/8 & 3 3/4 ips), automatic level control, 3-digit mechanical tape counter, 2-source mixing (mike & line in), remote pause on mike, AC bias, DC erase, 1.2w output, 155mm/6.25 elliptical speaker, rotary volume & tone control, response: 9.5cm/s 150 – 6kHz, 4.8cm/s 150 – 4kHz, line in, microphone & ext speaker 3.5mm mono jack, remote pause 2.5mm jack, proprietary 3-pin mains connector
Power req. 115/230VAC 50/60Hz mains & 6 x 1.5 volt ‘D’ cells
Dimensions: 288 x 268 x 100mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Royal/Royco 410 Miniature Tape Recorder 1962
Most of us will have memories of a cherished toy or two from our childhood; here is one of mine. It’s a Royal miniature reel-to-reel tape recorder, dating from the early sixties. Sadly that machine is long gone. It would have ended up in bits shortly after I acquired it, following my best efforts to find out how it worked and futile attempts to put it back together again. It didn’t die in vain, though; it helped to fuel a lifelong enthusiasm and eventually a career centred on electronics, technology and a love of gadgets.
Back in the late nineties, in a fit of nostalgia (or possibly one or two too many beers), I made it my business to honour its passing and get another one. It took a while but I eventually managed to track one down. One thing led to another and now I’m knee-deep in old tech from my youth, but it was definitely worth it, and it keeps me off the streets. This is its story…
In common with most of the other cheap and cheerful mini tape recorders from that era it was essentially a toy. With such poor performance and limited facilities there are very few serious applications for such a machine but I suspect that a fair number were sold during a brief fad for sending short audio messages on tape or ‘voice letters’ to distant friends and relatives. However, the vast majority probably ended up in the hands of youngsters like me. To the average sixties sub-teen a small device, not much larger than a book with the ability to record, and playback sounds -- if only for a few minutes -- was pure magic (there wasn’t much in the way of kid’s entertainment back then…). Better yet, it didn’t look like a toy; indeed many similar models had bit parts in movies and TV cop and spy shows, pretending to be serious surveillance kit. I can’t point to any actual large or small screen appearances of this model (also sold as the Royco 410), but I would be very surprised if it hadn’t been used as a film prop at some time or another.
It is a smart looking little machine, and very well built with an all-metal chassis. Nevertheless, the heart of the machine, the tape transport mechanism, is about as basic as it gets. It’s a rim-drive type whereby a single motor powers both Play/Record and Rewind functions. It is elegantly simple, though. The motor is mounted on a pivot, controlled by the knob in the centre of the front panel. This tilts the motor so that one of its two spindles comes into contact with the rubberised rims of the two tape reel platters. The left hand spindle is fitted with a brass bush, which acts like a gear, so the reel spins faster in Rewind mode. On the plus side it works, and there’s very little to go wrong.
The downside is speed stability, which is poor because rate at which the tape passes the tape head varies, as one reel empties and the other one fills up. Nominally it runs at the industry standard 4.76 cm/sec (1 7/8 in/sec), but this can change by as much as 20 percent over the length of a tape. It doesn’t matter too much if tapes are only ever replayed on the machines on which they were made, but compatibility goes out of the window on other machines, especially ones with fixed speed capstan drive transport mechanisms. None of this would have concerned most user’s though, proper grown up reel to reel tape recorders in the home were still a bit of rarity in the 1960s, and for its one and only practical application, voice messaging, all you had to do was make sure that the recipient had the same or a similar model.
Other than the ultra simple deck mechanism, compact size and build quality there’s not much else to say, though a couple of features deserve a brief mention. It has a permanent magnet erase head, which is pretty much as it sounds; in Record mode the previous recording is erased by a small permanent magnet that comes into contact with the tape, just before it passes in front of the record/replay head. It’s simple and effective and the Record/Play switch on the front panel that swings the magnet into place also moves a red coloured indicator to show that the machine is in record mode. The two sockets on the right side of the control panel are for the supplied crystal microphone (lapel type) and a magnetic earphone, and last but not least, power for the motor is supplied by a pair of 1.5 volt C cells and the 4-transistor audio amplifier – used for both recording and playback – uses a 9v PP3 type battery. The three of them live in a compartment on the underside of the machine.
My original Royal machine almost certainly came from one of my favourite haunts, a truly marvellous place in London’s High Holborn called Headquarters & General. It specialised in flogging army surplus equipment and electronic gadgets like the Royal. I am fairly sure it was priced at £4 19 shillings and sixpence (I came across an ad some time ago in an old issue of Exchange & Mart, another treasure trove of old sixties tech…). I can’t remember exactly when I bought this one but I reckon it was sometime around 1998-9, from a US seller on early days ebay, and I doubt that I paid more than £5.00 for it, plus the same again for postage. It came in its original polystyrene packaging and was in near perfect condition. In fact it was so clean that I doubt that it had been out of the box more than a couple of times in the previous 30 plus years. The mechanics just needed a few dabs of light oil to loosen things up but the audio section was as dead as a doornail. Fortunately it didn’t need much work to get it running and swapping all of the old foil-type electrolytic capacitors for modern, and much more reliable tantalum types, was all that it needed. It’s pointless dwelling on performance. By any measure it’s pretty dire but you have to cast your mind back to a simpler time, when home audio recording was in its infancy and for it even to be possible on a machine as small as this one, was genuinely impressive.
What Happened To It?
Virtually all reel-to-reel tape recorders were doomed by the runaway success of the Philips Compact Cassette. The first cassette recorders appeared in ‘63 and to begin with they were quite expensive with, but by the end of the decade it was all over for open reel. The price of cassette decks and tapes fell rapidly and performance was on a steep upward curve. Reel to reel technology survived in high-end audio and professional markets but the low end was completely wiped out.
These little machines had a low survival rate and the vast majority would have been thrown away the moment they failed or replaced by a cassette recorder, so there’s no too many of them left. However, whilst collectors have begun to take an interest they have a fairly low status in the reel-to–reel hierarchy and prices are still quite modest. There are a few exceptions, though, and anything with a connection to cult 60’s TV shows like Mission Impossible, Danger Man, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, and so on will attract a small premium. The Japanese companies that made these things were incredibly prolific and at the last count there were more than 100 makes and models of this type of machine. If you keep your eyes peeled it should still be possible to get a decent collection together for a relatively small outlay. Be quick, though, I suspect it won’t be long before serious tech collectors realise what they’ve been missing!
First seen 1962
Original Price £4 19s 6s (£4.97)
Value Today £25 (0716)
Features Single-speed, 2-track rim-drive deck mechanism (nom 1 7/8 ips), Play, Record, Rewind transport modes, permanent magnet erase, 55mm speaker, 4-transistor amplifier, folding carry handle, crystal microphone & magnetic earphone, microphone in & earphone out sockets (3.5mm mono jacks).
Power req. 2 x 1.5v C cells & 1 x 9v PP3
Dimensions: 207 x 115 x 66mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Coomber 2241-7 CD Cassette Recorder, 1998
One of the lesser-known backwaters of the audiovisual industry is the small group of companies manufacturing products for what can only be described as institutional and ‘group’ markets. These include education -- schools, colleges places of learning and so on -- plus small public venues like local community centres, village halls and indeed anywhere there is a need for recorded sound to fill a largish space. Portability is another key requirement, which also means the equipment in question has to be rugged, dependable and as near idiot-proof as possible.
The Coomber 2241 Stereo Cassette Recorder meets all of those criteria with ease, and you may well have seen, or more likely listened to one of them, probably without realising as all you normally see, as the member of the class, audience or group, is a box that looks a lot like an ordinary loudspeaker. Seen from the other side it is immediately obvious what it is. The top half of the front panel is taken up by a cassette deck and a set of controls and sockets, whilst a CD player occupies the lower section. What really strikes you, though, is that almost no effort has been spent on styling or cosmetics. In fact it looks like something a hobbyist might knock together from spare parts in their garden shed.
Now that’s not meant to be a criticism, far from it! It is what it is, a purely functional piece of audio equipment, designed to withstand a lot of careless handling, and the lack of eye appeal has to be a bonus when it comes to security. It’s simply too big and ugly to be attractive to thieves and it helps that it weighs almost 10kg. Its bulk attracts attention; anyone trying to pinch one would quickly get tired, and you can forget running with it…
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the 2241 is that Coomber went some way down the garden shed route, mentioned a moment ago. It is built around several off-the-shelf components, and for very good reason. After all why bother re-inventing the wheel? The CD deck is a good example; it is basically a generic, Malaysian-made player (badged Soundlab) case and all, screwed to the bottom of the box. The cassette deck mechanism is an unbranded component and identical to the type fitted to scores of 80s and 90s portables. It’s much more than a parts-bin special, though, and Coomber are responsible for the important nuts and bolts stuff, like the 2 x 10 watt stereo amplifier, control and connector boards, the tape deck electronics and the power supply. These are all bespoke designs, some of them probably made in-house
Operation is about as simple as it can be, which is just as well as many users will have little or no time to learn how to use it. All the user has to do is plug it in, switch it on select the mode (CD or tape), load the necessary tape or cassette, press the appropriate Play key or button and adjust the volume, tone or balance controls to suit. Additional facilities include recording audio on the tape deck using either a built-in microphone or an external mike. Playback can be through the internal stereo speakers, a set of external speakers, which plug into a pair pf 2-pin DIN sockets on the front panel, or through headphones. It can accommodate up to six pairs, plus one ‘master’ headphone, which plug in to a bank of standard jack sockets. The CD player is a fairly ordinary early 90’s era motorised drawer front-loader with 21-track program memory, optional remote but no other special features. The only other embellishments are a mechanical tape counter, a sturdy carry handle on the top, and a high-visibility orange coloured mains lead, which presumably is a safety requirement for electrical apparatus used in public buildings. The case is a mixture of plywood and MDF; it probably accounts for at least a quarter of the weight, and most of its strength.
I spotted this one, looking a bit sad and lonely, under a trestle table at a car boot sale near Brighton. The grubby state suggested that this wasn’t it’s first boot sale and the stall holder was clearly tired of lugging it around, judging by the £5.00 asking price. I couldn’t resist a haggle and my counter offer of £3.00 was readily accepted. Even if it were a complete no-hoper I reckoned it would be worth at least twice that for parts, or ballast… Luckily it was a runner – sorting out problems on mixed media audio component systems can be a real headache. The icing on the cake was that turned out to be in exceptionally good condition, inside and out, though only after liberal applications of surface cleaner, to remove the film of mud and grime. After some basic circuit checks I powered it up and, with no expectations, pressed the Play button on the CD as the display suggested a disc was loaded. It turned out to be a rather good compilation of 70’s Rockabilly and what came out of the speakers was a complete surprise. The combination of the custom made stereo amp and small (10cm) but good quality drivers performed really well. It produced a rich, lively and unexpectedly loud sound that would put a lot of budget and mid-range home hi-fi systems to shame. The generously sized enclosure was almost certainly partly responsible, but the downside was the stereo image. With the speakers so close together there’s little in the way of channel separation but that’s easily fixed by hooking it up to a pair of external speakers. The cassette deck, on the other had, was fairly ordinary. It’s not a very sophisticated design, a little hissy, but certainly no worse than the bulk of tape players made at around the same time.
What Happened To It?
Coomber Electronics, based in Worcester started out as a family-run business, established in the early 1900s. They must have been doing something right over the years and they produced specialist audio products, mostly for the educational sector but also anyone needing group audio and small PA systems. There's a more detailed history in the Coomber 393 item. Even comparatively recent models look a wee bit old fashioned and you won’t find many of the bells and whistles associated with modern consumer audio products but the company obviously knew what its customers wanted. Nevertheless it made some concessions there’s a noticeably more contemporary look and feel on some of its products. They certainly moved with the times in other areas too – albeit at a fairly sedate pace – with the addition of features like tablet computer connectivity and control integration on some of the latest models.
Coomber kept the 2241 model series going until well into the early noughties, and whilst the shape, layout and basic spec remained pretty much the same, there were a number of updates to the innards. Later models sported a smaller in-car style slot-loading CD deck with variable speed replay and a built in MP3 player with a USB socket and SD memory card slot.
To be honest relatively recent devices like this 2241 have limited appeal outside of their intended markets. They’re a bit too big and brutal for living room use, and not sufficiently retro or trendy looking to appeal to today’s audio equipment buyers. It’s not a completely lost cause, though; vintage audio equipment, from the 40s, 50s and 60s have been on the collector’s radar for some time, and as time goes by – and the supply dries up -- interest tends to shift from mainstream to specialist products. Who’s to say? In 20 to 30 years time the Coomber brand and this 2241 could become future classics; generations as yet unborn might even pay a few quid for them. Meanwhile, if you have an inexplicable urge to own one right now, ebay is the place to go. There are usually a couple of dozen Coomber products on sale. Older models, like this typically sell for between £30 and £50. More recent ones, that might not look too out of place in a contemporary setting, are surprisingly cheap, given the performance and build quality, but read the descriptions carefully as quite a lot are sold as fixer-uppers or with one or other of the main components ‘needing attention’.
First seen 1998
Original Price £300
Value Today £40 (0816)
Features 2 x 10 watts (RMS) stereo amplifier, internal stereo speakers (10cm Cliff F110), CD player (Soundlab G060A), stereo cassette deck with soft touch controls and auto stop, numerical tape counter, internal microphone, 6 x headphone outputs (6.35mm, 1/4in standard Jack), mic input & line output (std Jack), external speaker output (2-pin DIN), volume, bass, treble & balance controls, carry handle
Power req. 220 - 240VAC 50Hz
Dimensions: 370 x 300 x 255mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 4
Stellaphone ST-456 Tape recorder, 1963
Sometimes the most unpromising looking piece of junk can turn out to be genuine treasure. This little Stellaphone ST 456 tape recorder is a good example. It came from a regular Midlands antique fair and was mixed in with a pile of household utensils and bric-a-brac; everything on show was priced at £1.00. At first glance it appeared to be a tatty old mains radio, though it was hard to say exactly what it was through the mud and grime. It was still there when most stallholders were packing up. The pickings had been slim that day, the pitch was on the way to the exit, so I grabbed it on the way out and it turned out to be one of the best pounds I had ever spent. More about the clean-up operation in a moment.
The Stellaphone ST-456, which dates from the early 60s, is a compact, semi portable reel-to-reel machine, aimed at home users. It may have one of the earliest mains-powered open reel machines with all transistor circuitry; valves were on the way out by that time but they were still quite common on big home decks until the mid sixties. It has a fairly basic spec with a single-speed 9.53cm/sec (3.75 ips) capstan drive deck mechanism, but it does have 4-track recording (two mono tracks per side), a moving coil level meter and a good selection of inputs and outputs, including a phono input socket for connecting to a record deck. The maximum reel size is 15cm (6-inches) so it’s capable of recording for almost 4 hours on a single tape.
Although this model was probably only ever sold in the UK it would work happily in most other countries. On the underside, in the mains lead storage compartment there’s a rotary voltage selector (110, 220 and 245VAC) and a label close to the single motor shows two positions for the drive belt. This is to compensate for speed variations in 50 and 60Hz mains supplies. A chunky flywheel further maintains speed stability and this transfers motion to the feed and pick up reels through a set of rubber-rimmed idler wheels. These are all mechanically operated with Play, Stop, Fast Forward and Rewind functions selected by single knob/lever on the right hand side; record mode is engaged by pressing the button on the left side. Everything is bolted to hefty metal chassis and it is quite clearly built to last.
Without knowing anything about how well it had been treated and the conditions it had been kept in, there was no way I was going to plug it in to a mains socket so it was treated to a complete strip down and clean up, to assess the damage. The first very pleasant surprise was the condition of the plastic case. Once the layers of gunk had been removed not only was it completely intact, there were no cracks or serious surface marks anywhere. The deck mechanism was a scary sight, though. Decades of dirt, dust and fluff, sucked in by the cooling fan on the motor, had become encrusted into the dried out oil and grease on almost every moving part. Removal involved liberal applications of Isopropyl alcohol, before any lubricants could be re-applied.
Unfortunately, no matter how well they’re made, the rubber components (belts etc.) in most tape recorders from the 60s and 70s tend to decompose, either by becoming soft or gooey, or hard and brittle. This one was no different and the main drive belt had snapped long ago, and bits of rubber from the first idler were scattered around the bottom of the case. A new belt was easy to find and fit but the rubber on the idler had to be replaced. I decided to experiment with a couple of oversize washers. These were bored out and fitted onto the capstan cylinder then reduced in diameter by gently sanding them down by spinning it in the chuck of my pillar drill. It sounds a lot more complicated and Heath Robinson than it is but it only took around fifteen minutes, and as we’ll see, it worked perfectly. The alternative would have been to search -- probably in vain -- for a vintage replacement part, have it professionally refurbished or get a new one made. Either way it would have cost vastly more than this machine is worth.
At last the time came to see if there was any chance of getting it to work, or was it destined to join the growing queue in the rainy-day renovation box? After checking mains side components for signs of burning, making sure there were no loose wires and all of the mechanical parts were moving freely I plugged it in and waited for the bang. There wasn’t one, or any worrying smells or smoke. The motor spun up to speed and all of the wheels turned, doing what they were supposed to do. I wasn’t expecting anything from the amplifier; at the very least the electrolytic capacitors would probably need replacing and early germanium transistors have a nasty habit of popping their clogs if you so much as look at them, but there was an encouraging click from the speaker when it first turned on. However, after loading a tape all that could be heard was a low hum. This was still a good sign, though, and I found that pressing hard on the record button produced a surprisingly loud hiss, but there was still nothing from the tape. That was when I spotted a thick deposit of crud, which I had missed, on the face of the record/replay head. More isopropyl alcohol on cotton buds took care of that, and several squirts of switch cleaner on the sliding mode switch on the PCB sorted the gungy contacts. The next time it was powered up it was back in business, quite possibly for the first time in many years.
Some components are undoubtedly on borrowed time and will eventually need replacing but I am a great believer in the old maxim, 'if it 'aint broke...
For such an old machine sound quality and volume is not half bad. Speed stability appears to be spot on too and although there’s a fair amount of background hiss, listening to music, even though it’s mono, is by no means hard on the ears. The deck mechanism is a bit clunky and still a little stiff but that should free up with time and use. All in all it’s a still a pretty decent piece of kit and cleaned and polished it looks pretty sharp too.
What Happened To It?
Stella Radio and Television Ltd, latterly of Oxford Street in London, began trading in 1953. However, as far as I can determine they never actually made anything. The Stella brand was created by the Dutch electronics giant Philips; legend has it the name derives from the stars, which appear on the Philips logo. Stella and Stellaphone products were manufactured by Philips in Austria and this sort of thing was quite common back then.
The idea was Philips’ prestigeous premium products could be sold exclusively by its network of authorised dealers, whilst slightly cheaper or lower spec (but essentially identical under the skin) Stella branded products were distributed through wholesalers, department stores and so on. This meant that they could sell their stuff to the lower orders, on ‘tick’ if required (also known as the never-never or hire-purchase), without tarnishing the parent company’s image. A lot of electronics manufacturers did this (for example, Thorn EMI's brands included Baird, Ferguson, HMV, Marconiphone, Radio Rentals Ultra etc.) and it carried on until well into the 70s, when credit cards became widespread, removing the perceived stigma of HP. Stella never made it that far, though and it went into voluntary liquidation in 1966. The range had stagnated but in any case Philips virtually pulled the plug on home reel-to-reel tape recorders when they introduced the Compact Cassette, not long after the ST-546 appeared.
There has always been a lot of interest in reel-to-reel tape recorders but since the takeover by cassette, and more recently digital media, it has been largely confined to collectors of high-end, high performance models, and, to a lesser extent, ultra small and novelty machines. This has left a lot of ordinary, middle of the road models like the ST-546, out in the cold, and in many cases, to end their days quietly rotting away or ending up in landfill. Ironically that means that these largely unloved and uncared for recorders are becoming quite rare and if you combine that with the current trends for retro, vintage and all things sixties, prices are starting to climb. It’s also possible the still growing interest in vinyl recordings will spill over into reel-to-reel tape recording. We’re at the beginning of that process, though, and finds like this are not uncommon, though you’ll be lucky to find another one as cheap as this so expect to pay a bit more than £1 for anything that stands a decent chance of restoration, If you want one that you can plug in and use be prepared to shell out upwards of £25 to £30, and somewhere north of £50 for a really clean example.
First seen 1963
Original Price 28 guineas (£29.40)
Value Today £20 (0616)
Features 4-track, capstan drive, 3.75 ips (9.53cms), 15cm max reel size, VU meter, 6 transistors (2 x OC75, 2 x AC107, 2 x OC74), built-in 95mm internal speaker, microphone & phono inputs (5-pin DIN), external speaker, built-in carry handle
Power req. 110 – 245VAC (selectable) 50/60Hz
Dimensions: 300 x 240 x 140mm
Made (assembled) in: Austria
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Sony M-100MC Mic’n Microcassette Corder, 1997
It seems like only yesterday that Sony was a byword for innovation and style in consumer electronics and once upon a time it could have taught Apple a thing a two when it came to design and clever marketing. By the late 1990s a combination of the faltering Japanese economy, the rise and rise of Korean and Chinese manufacturers, slow reactions to changing markets and a distinct lack of wow-factor products resulted in a fast decline. Sony didn’t give up without a struggle though, it managed a few flashes of the old brilliance and the M-100MC Mic’n Micro was one of them. It’s a Microcassette tape recorder and, as well as being superbly well specified, it’s a real eyeful but the sad fact is it was just a bit too late, and niche, to get it the sort of attention it deserved.
At first, and even second glance it looks a lot like a tiny camcorder, and that cannot have been a coincidence. In the late 90s the home video market was enjoying a resurgence following the introduction of digital camcorders and small, high performance machines were coming out of the woodwork. Fortunately the M-1000’s styling also happens to be entirely practical; it fits comfortably in the hand, for dictation or reporting and the built-in stand makes it ideal for desktop recording.
The bit at the front that looks like a lens barrel houses a versatile microphone with switchable uni or omni-directional sensitivity, so it’s equally at home dictating, recording interviews, boardroom meetings or a lecture in a large auditorium. Important passages can be bookmarked using the Cue function, which records a discreet buzz/bleep sound on replay and there’s a voice activated recording (VOR) feature that saves tape and battery power by only recording when the microphone picks up sounds. For good measure it also has a 3-digit tape counter, fast playback mode and one-handed controls for play, record, pause, cue and review functions. The Microcassettes it uses lasts for up to an hour (30 minutes a side) and it runs on a pair of AA cells. All that plus the legendary Sony build quality, a precision deck mechanism and proprietary Clear Voice noise reduction system adds up to a small, cute and in spite of the highish price (around £85 at launch) an extremely capable pocket tape recorder. About the only thing they got wrong was to call it Mic’n Micro; definitely not one of Sony’s more memorable product names…
I had a brief encounter with the M-100MC at an unrelated Sony product launch in late 1996 and recall that the distinctive styling and advanced features generated a lot of interest with my consumer press colleagues. However, despite requests to review it Sony reckoned that it was aimed at the business market so it probably received little publicity outside of the specialist office equipment magazines. Fifteen years later I found this one looking sad and lonely on a table at a south coast car boot sale. The stallholder reckoned quite a few people had looked at it, thinking it was a camcorder but put it down as soon as they realised it was a just tape recorder. This may explain why he was happy to accept my offer of £3.00 for it (he wanted £8). It came with a set of batteries and a tape and I was able to test it on the spot. Not only did it work, it was in excellent condition, so that was definitely three quid well spent.
What Happened To It?
Whilst business users were undoubtedly the target market for pocket-sized dictating machines like this one I suspect that given the Sony name, eye-catching looks and a genuinely useful line up of features the Mic’n Micro might have appealed to a much wider audience (especially if they had given it a less cheesy name). Sony may well have missed a trick by not putting a bit more effort into promoting it, but the clock was already ticking. By the early noughties analogue tape-based recording systems were winding down – excuse the pun. Digital voice recording devices were popping up all over the place and it was even starting to appear on mobile phones as an added feature.
It’s difficult to say when Sony stopped making them but I would be surprised if production continued much beyond 2002/3. It seems to be have been quite popular in the US, though, where there’s always a few for sale on ebay, often in ‘as-new’ condition or NOS (new old stock) and usually for a fraction of the original selling price. It’s still a very useable little gadget and in performance terms it compares favourably with many of today’s digital recording gadgets, thanks largely to the quality mike. Sadly there’s no escaping the fact that it’s vintage technology, with lots of mechanical parts that are going to fail sooner or later but don’t let that put you off. Clean working examples are going to become increasingly scarce and because the Sony brand still has a lot of kudos over time prices should go up so if you want one you probably shouldn’t leave it too long.
First seen 1997
Original Price £85
Value Today £10 - 20 (0416)
Features Microcassette tape, capstan drive, 2-speed (1.2 & 2.4cm/sec), switchable uni/omni-directional microphone, 3 level mic sensitivity (lecture, meeting, dictation), VOR (voice operated recording), cue marker, 3 LED battery/record level, cue/review, fast playback, built-in folding desktop stand, tape counter
Power req. 2 x 1.5 AA cells
Dimensions: 126 x 68 x 40mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Midland 12-204 Mini Tape Recorder, 1964
As 1960s miniature reel-to-reel tape recorders go the Midland 12-205 is technically unremarkable and towards the larger end of the scale but that certainly doesn’t lessen its appeal. To put the size issue into context, it’s just a little bigger than a hard-back book. It also has the distinction of being one of the most popular designs of its day. The transport mechanism and chassis is used on at least a dozen different models that I am aware of, and probably a great many more. It’s not difficult to see why though; it’s an incredibly simple design with a single motor providing the motive power for both forward and rewind transport modes. There’s a bare minimum of controls, a rudimentary 4-transistor amplifier and all-metal chassis, so the ones that have survived intact stand a fair chance of still working, or being fairly easy to fix.
Before we get too carried away it’s worth pointing out that, like the majority of small, cheap tape recorders from the early sixties, it is not a serious audio recording instrument. In fact it is little more than a toy but it would be unfair not to acknowledge the creative skills and ingenuity that went into its design and manufacture. The key feature, and one of the reasons that these cute little machines were so cheap – they mostly sold for between £5 and £10 -- is that a single motor operates the whole tape transport system, using a technique known as rim-drive.
We’ve described how this works many times before but for those who missed it the basic idea is that the motor is mounted on a pivot that is tilted by the central control knob on the front panel so that the spindles emerging both ends of the motor come into contact with one or the other rubber rimmed tape capstans or platters.
The spindle on the left side is fitted with a brass bush so that when this is pressed against the left reel, in Rewind mode, it spins the platter clockwise at a relatively high speed. The right end of the spindle is unbushed, so when this comes into contact with the right-hand platter it turns counter clockwise, at a much slower speed, drawing the tape past the single record/replay head at a nominal 1 7/8 inches per second. In practice the speed varies considerably, as one tape reel empties and the other fills up. It’s not a huge problem if the tape is replayed on the machine it was recorded on, but tapes from other recorders can sound a bit weird so the manufacturers have helpfully given this model a variable speed control.
Apart from the speed variation there is another problem with rim-drive mechanisms and that is there’s no easy way to fast-forward a tape, other than by turning the reels over and rewinding the tape. Another common cost-cutting feature is the lack of an erase head. Some means of wiping the tape before making a new recording one is essential, though, as the new and old sounds would be heard together. The solution in this case is to use a small permanent magnet. This is mounted on a swing arm and in Record mode it comes into contact with the tape immediately before it passes the recording head.
In spite of its simplicity it really does work, though the quality is only good enough for speech and recording time is limited to around 10 – 15 minutes per track. As well as being popular with youngsters they also proved useful for dictation and audio letters; a lot of these machines ended up in the hands of military personnel serving abroad, so they could exchange tapes and keep in touch with family and friends back home.
The Midland 12-204 was pretty typical of the breed, it is powered by a set of readily available batteries, two 1.5-volt ‘C’ cells for the motor and a 9-volt PP3 for the amplifier and these fit into a lidded compartment to the rear of the tape reels. The outfit also includes a piezo or ‘crystal’ tie-clip type microphone and a magnetic earpiece, which mutes the internal 55mm speaker when it is plugged in. There’s also a carry strap and it’s attached to the case by a clever buckle arrangement that doubles up as latches for the detachable case lid.
This is one of a pair of Midland tape recorders that came from a fellow collector around twenty years ago. As I recall I swapped them for one of my machines, which he lacked in his collection. It was a good deal; both of them were and still are in excellent condition, and they were fully working, though subsequently the electrolytic capacitors on the amplifier circuit boards have been replaced. They were also complete with their original accessories, boxes and polystyrene packing.
What Happened To It?
I cannot be certain if the Midland brand is the same or has evolved into the US-based company of the same name that is now involved in the manufacture of communications equipment. However, in the 1970s – which is as far back as the present company’s history extends – it was one of the leading brands in Citizens Band Radio equipment, and most Midland products were made in Japan, so there may well be a connection.
Either way small reel-to-reel tape recorders like this one came and went roughly between 1962 and 1968. Their novelty value was quickly lost following the introduction of the Philips Compact Cassette format, which rendered virtually all domestic open-reel tape recorders obsolete by the end of the sixties.
Small machines had been pouring out of Japan at this time and there were hundreds of different makes and models. Many of them, like this one, shared common components and mechanisms but most were poorly made, and even if the Cassette hadn’t arrived when it did, it is unlikely that many of them ever lasted longer than a year or two. That means that with few exceptions the ones that are still around were better made and built to last, worth preserving, and potentially a good investment.
There’s another reason to seek them out and quite a few mini tape recorders made cameo appearances in spy and detective movies and TV series. Dozens famously went up in smoke in the opening sequences of the original Mission Impossible and they always attract a premium on ebay. Sadly I haven’t been able to connect this one to any films or TV programmes but if an when I do, and I can make a decent screen grab, my ‘spare’ one will be on ebay like a shot. As it stands, on a good day it would probably fetch between £30 and £40; a verifiable small or big screen appearance could easily add another £20, particularly if it’s in a well-known film or programme.
First seen 1964
Original Price £5.00
Value Today £30 (0316)
Features 2-track, rim-drive mechanism, variable speed, max reel size 75mm/3-inches, nominal tape speed 1 7/8 ips, 4-transistor amplifier, permanent magnet erase, Forward/Record, Rewind & Stop transport modes, 55mm speaker, detachable lid, carry strap, crystal microphone & magnetic earphone included
Power req. 2 x 1.5-volt C cells & 1 x PP3 9-volt battery
Dimensions: 210 x 155 x 67mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Benkson 79 Mini Tape Recorder, 1964
The vast majority of miniature reel-to-reel tape recorders sold in the early sixties were cheaply made and definitely not built to last. They were, after all, mostly toys and not designed for serious audio recording. Many were made, and there were hundreds of different makes and models, but the relatively small number of them that survived intact, and their often-quirky looks, has resulted in a small but growing collector’s market.
This is one of them; it’s a Benkson 79 (also sold under the Honeytone brand) and it fits the basic criteria in that it was made in Japan in around 1964. It is small, not much larger than hardback book; it takes reels up to 85mm/3.5inch in diameter and it has a cranky rim-drive mechanism – more on that in a moment. Like most of its contemporaries the sound quality is dire, but in one important respect this one deviates from the norm. It’s the all-metal construction, and that includes the smart attaché-styled case. There’s hardly a plastic part in sight, and you might suppose that this means that there are lots of them around. In fact the opposite is true and this is one of the rarer examples of the breed.
Ironically one of the main reasons why so few lasted into the twenty-first century is all that metalwork. It’s not well protected, just a thin layer of paint and some glued-on leatherette, so it was prone to rust. In the hands of it’s intended owners – mostly young children – it was inevitable that sooner or later it would get wet, and unless it was dried off immediately, inside and out, it would be rusted beyond repair in a matter of days. Even if it didn’t get a dunking rust would often take its toll, especially in humid environments.
How this one managed to escape the ravages of time must remain a mystery but it did, and is still in very fine fettle, but before we get to its current condition a few words about its most notable features. Like almost all low-cost tape recorders from that period it has a simple rim-drive mechanism. This uses a single motor, with a round bush on the end of the spindle. This presses against the rubber rims of one the two tape reel platters, depending which transport mode (Play/Record or Rewind) has been selected. It seems like a good idea but the problem is the speed at which the tape moves past the tape head. It varies significantly, as the take-up reel fills and the supply reel empties of tape. It’s not a huge problem if recordings are only ever played back on the machine they were made but the speed variation does become very noticeable on other rim-drive machines, or tape recorders with a constant-speed capstan-drive mechanism. The other big disadvantage is that it’s difficult to incorporate a fast-forward function, and rewind speeds are generally quite sedate. Another unusual feature of the Benkson 79 is the Fast/Slow speed option (nominally 1 7/8 and 3.75 inches per second), but all this really does is reduce record/replay time on a full spool of tape from around ten minutes, to five.
There are few controls; it has a three-position rotary switch for selecting transport mode and two slide switches for selecting tape speed (Fast/Slow) and Record/Play mode. The latter moves a small permanent magnet into contact with the tape in record mode, to erase the previous recording. There’s a volume control knob in the top right hand corner of the deck and two 3.5mm minijack sockets for the microphone and an earphone. A small 60mm speaker is mounted on the bottom right corner. You may have noticed that the tape path is a bit convoluted and an extra guide post has been fitted to keep it clear of the control knob. It almost looks like an afterthought... In the close-up photo you should be able to see the reel platter drive bush, which pokes out of the crescent-shaped slot between the two reels.
Inside the case everything is well spaced; all of the electronics – a simple 4-trasnistor push-pull amplifier – is mounted on a narrow PCB and the other key components are solidly made and rigidly mounted on the metal chassis. The three batteries that power it (2 x 1.5 volt C cells for the motor and 1 x 9 volt PP3 for the amp) are held in place by a pair of metal clamps. The standard of construction is typical for the time, which was pretty good, and should it need attention, everything is very easy to get at.
This one was one of the earliest mini tape recorders in my collection, which I started more than 25 years ago. Condition is outstanding with no trace of corrosion, anywhere and it has only ever required a simple service to remove dried out grease and the application of light machine oil to moving parts.
I cannot remember exactly where it came from or how much I paid for it -- I rarely spent more than £5.00 back then -- but I am fairly sure I bought it in this country as the voices on the tape all have English accents, and I always try to keep any tapes I get with the machine they came with. Yes, it does still work, and it’s one of the few 60’s recorders I've owned that hasn’t needed any work on the amplifier board. Normally the electrolytic capacitors have to be replaced as they go short or leaky over time but these ones are well within spec. There’s still plenty of volume but it goes without saying that the actual sound quality is as expected, noisy with a very narrow response so it is really only capable of speech recording.
What Happened To It?
The market for almost all types of open reel-to-reel tape recorders went into a fast and permanent decline in 1963, following the launch of the Philips Compact Cassette. Cheap mini tapes recorders like this one were early casualties; cassette machines outperformed them on every conceivable level, and towards the end of the decade they were becoming cheaper as well. By the mid seventies little rim drive machines like he Benkson 79 had all but disappeared and the majority of those that remained ended their days in landfill.
Prices for these machines varies widely and it is still possible to strike lucky and pick one up at a car boot sale or on ebay for a few pounds but the general trend is upwards, especially for really small examples, any with an interesting heritage, like cameo appearances in TV programmes and movies and a small handful of distinctively styled or super-rare models. Price is also highly dependent on physical condition; good working order is a major bonus though most electrical and electronic faults are easy to fix so it’s not necessarily a deal breaker. You can expect to pay anywhere between £25 and £50 for a decent runner, complete with reels and tape; and add another £10 to £20 if that also includes the original box, packing and instructions. At the top end of the market several exotic and iconic models can fetch upwards of £80 to £100 on ebay, possibly more on a good day with a couple of enthusiastic bidders on the case. Sadly Benkson 79s, even though there’s not many of them about, do not command the really big bucks but the few that do come up for auction generally sell for between £25 and £40 so it’s worth keeping an eye out for under priced, and most importantly, rust-free bargains.
First seen 1964
Original Price £10.00?
Value Today £25 (0316)
Features Mono 2-track recording, 2-speed, max reel size 85mm/3.5-inch, rim drive, Record/Play, Stop & Rewind transport modes, microphone & earphone jacks (3.5mm mono minijack), permanent magnet erase, 60mm built-in speaker, leather carry strap
Power req. 1 x 9v PP3 & 2 x 1.5v C cells
Dimensions: 223 x 135 x 60mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Fisher-Price 826 Cassette Recorder, 1986
A great many people over the age of 25 will instantly recognise and have either owned, purchased or known someone who had a Fisher-Price 826 cassette recorder. Yes, it is just a toy but that doesn’t alter the fact that it was a true design classic and between 1981 and 1987 several hundred thousand, and quite possibly more than a million of them were made, (though I have yet to see a definitive number). What isn’t in dispute is how well Fisher-Price knew their young (and older) customers.
For several generations of kids the 826, and the models that followed, was an introduction to recorded sound and their first brush with an electronic entertainment device and although it was designed for ages 5 and up, it was a proper cassette recorder with a four function tape deck (Play, Record, Rewind & Fast Forward), push button controls, built-in microphone and speaker and an integral carry handle.
The outfit came with a tape cassette; on one side it had tunes and stories and the other side was blank, so the young owner could try their hand at making recordings. Above all, though, it was super tough. The case is made of a thick, heavy duty plastic; drop it on a hard surface and like as not it will bounce. You can bash it, splash it with all sorts of wet and sticky substances and it will probably still work. It’s also tough on the inside and you can stab at the Eject and transport keys until you are blue in the face and throw it across the room in a tantrum and it should survive. In short it is almost indestructible, and there are plenty of them around, many of them still working.
Technically the internals are fairly unremarkable, except that they have been built to withstand a lot of punishment. One notable innovation is the use of a single chip amplifier (LM389), as opposed to a more conventional circuit (for the time) using discrete components and this would also have contributed to the unit’s robustness and reliability. A lot of thought went into the design and layout of the innards. Potentially delicate parts are well protected and everything is very securely bolted down, even the cables are fixed into rigid guides, to stop them flailing around in the event of a tumble.
My own children (now in their late 20s) when they were toddlers gave one of them a very hard life, lasting four or five years; it lived to tell the tale, and went on to a second life with a friend’s children. This one caught my eye recently at a local car boot sale. It stirred a few mixed memories (mostly of endlessly repeated nursery rhymes and Disney favourites…), but with an asking of price of only 50 pence, it proved irresistible. Aside from the inevitable accumulations of gunge and grime it looked like it was in pretty good shape. Thanks to a stamp inside the case I can say with some certainty that it passed its final quality control check on the 31st of March 1986. Rather than try to scrub away the slimy nastiness I treated it to a full strip down, clean-up and rebuild and with a set of batteries installed it powered up and worked first time. Sound quality is still surprisingly good and although the volume was intentionally limited to avoid irritating young (and old) ears, it’s still loud enough to be heard across a noisy room.
What Happened To It?
The 826 was hugely popular and it remained in production, virtually unchanged for around six years. It was eventually replaced by the 2209, a similar design but available in a range of colours. By that time it had spawned numerous imitations though with few exceptions they were not a patch on the 826. I doubt that many of them lasted more than a few months in the hands of the average 5 year old. Further additions to the Fisher-Price junior tape recorder range, up until the early noughties, by which time the tape cassette format had come to the end of its life. Kids, even ones as young as five, were becoming more technical savvy and being plied by the toy industry with vastly more sophisticated electronic toys and entertainment devices. For all that I doubt that children in the nineties and noughties playing with portable CD players, winking, bleeping and trundling toys had half as much fun as an eighties youngster with one of these.
Every so often I check the prices for 826’s on ebay and there really does seem to be a small but steady upward trend, particularly for really clean ones, and especially if they come with a box, instructions and the original freebie tape. However, don’t get too excited, most of the interest seems to be in the US at the moment. It will probably be a while before they qualify as proper collectible here in the UK and stand any chance of increasing in value. The flip side is that this is the time to get hold of one, while they are still relatively cheap and easy to find. UK prices are currently hovering around the £5 to £10 mark, but the biggest bargains are to be had at car boot sales where you stand a fair chance of finding them for less than a fiver. Although they are by no means rare, with every passing year there will be fewer of them in circulation, and as the tape cassette slips deeper into obsolescence, influential and iconic designs like the 826 can only become harder to find, and more expensive.
First seen 1981
Original Price £15
Value Today £10 (0915)
Features Four function cassette deck (Play, Record, Fast Forward & Rewind), 70mm speaker, push-button controls, LM389 power amplifier
Power req. 4 x 1.5v C Cells
Dimensions: 178 x 196 x 82mm
Made (assembled) in: Mexico
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 4
AIWA TP-32A Mini Tape Recorder, 1963
Aiwa was one of a number of well known consumer electronic brands that flourished throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s but suddenly vanished, almost overnight and with hardly anyone noticing, but we’ll come back to that in a moment. However, in the decade before Aiwa rose to prominence in the hi-fi and video markets, it was making things like this small, and it has to be said, fairly crude little tape recorder. The TP-32A was one of hundreds of small, nondescript reel-to-reel machines – most of them little more than toys -- coming out of Japan in the early 1960s; it would be a while before Aiwa got into its stride with the sort of flair for design and manufacturing that would eventually make it a household name, though you can see evidence of this change in the TP-60, which came out a couple of years after the TP-32A.
Nevertheless, there are early signs of at least an attempt to be different, and although this machine is not what you would call pretty, it is fairly distinctive, with the large central transport mode knob and understated silver, brown and beige cosmetics. The specification is pretty basic, though, with two-track recording on standard 5mm (0.25-in) tape spooled on 84mm (3.25in) reels. This gives around 10 – 12 minutes recording time per side at a nominal 1 7/8 inches per second. The tape deck uses a simple rim-drive transport mechanism, based around a single motor with extended shafts. The motor is mounted on a pivot so that when the control knob is turned one of the two shafts comes into contact with the underside of the left or right tape reel platters. The left hand shaft is fitted with a brass bush, which makes the feed reel spin at a faster rate for the rewind function.
It works, and that is about the best you can say of any rim drive mechanism, but inevitably it suffers from speed instability; in fact it changes constantly, as one reel empties and the other fills up. It’s just about okay when replaying recordings of speech made on the same machine but hopeless if you want to listen to tapes recorded elsewhere, or on a tape recorder with a constant-speed capstan drive.
The only other controls are a volume knob and a slide switch for record mode, and this also moves a small permanent magnet so that it presses against the tape for the pre-record erase function. There are three jack sockets; the one to the left of the transport knob is for an earphone and the two on the right side (3.5 and 2.5mm) are for the microphone, which has a slide switch for a remote pause function. A 55mm speaker is built into the case (in front of the right hand take up reel) and it is powered by a single 1.5 volt D cell for the motor, and a 9 volt PP3 battery for the electronics. The latter is a simple 4-transistor push-pull amplifier, mounted on a bracket behind the speaker. Supplied accessories include the previously mentioned crystal microphone and a magnetic earphone, contained in a soft carry pouch. It also comes with a flexible carry strap that attaches to a pair of hinged loops, which double up as latches for the removable case lid.
This machine has been in my collection for around 10 years and I cannot recall exactly where it came from or how much I paid for it, but it wouldn’t have been much more than a fiver, and it probably came from a flea market or antique fair. As you can see it is in remarkably good condition with hardly any signs of wear or tear. It also came complete with the instruction manual and all of its accessories; it even has the original Aiwa branded tape reels. Inside the case it is very clean and at some point I must have given it a good service, changed the oil and so on, as everything works like new, or rather as well as it ever did, and you can take it as read that sound quality is quite poor.
What Happened To It?
My guess is that the TP-32A was in production for a couple of years as Aiwa went on to make several more minature machines during the mid 1960s and during the next 20 years, a number of high-end reel-to-reel tape recorders. However, it would have been clear by the time the TP-32A appeared that Compact Cassette was destined to be the dominant tape format for home recording and Aiwa quickly became one of the early pioneers. At around this time Sony started to take a very strong interest in Aiwa and invested in the company; by the late 1960s it was the major shareholder, though this very close connection was not widely known outside of the industry.
Although the two companies had separate product ranges they were both heavily into portable and personal stereos and competed strongly in the middle and top end of the market. Unfortunately, in spite of broadening its reach to include some very decent audio, home cinema and video products, and some of them were quite successful, the Aiwa brand never had the glitz and cachet of Sony; by the end of the millennium it was in steep decline and heading towards bankruptcy. Sony came out of the closet and took over what was left if the company in 2002 and despite a couple of re-launches, aimed mostly at the youth and PC markets it never really recovered and production finally came to an end in 2006.
Back to the 1960s, and it appears that a fair number of TP-32As were made and the occasional survivor appears on ebay from time to time, though they are often in poor condition, with cracked cases, seized deck mechanisms or faulty electronics. Prices can vary widely, from a few pounds to £50 or more for a mint, boxed example. It’s unlikely ever to make the big time, though, it’s just not that interesting but it certainly deserves a place in the company’s history, possibly even marking a turning point, when it stepped up its game and led to it becoming one of the worlds best known home entertainment brands.
First seen 1963 (manual)
Original Price £10?
Value Today £25 (0315)
Features Single-speed rim-drive deck, twin-track recording approx. 1 7/8 ips, ¼-inch tape 84mm (3.25-in) reels, Play, Stop, Rewind transport functions, remote pause
Power req. 1 x 1.5v D cell, 1 x 9v PP3
Dimensions: 235 x 150 x 68mm
Weight: 1.1 kg
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
National RQ-115 Tape Recorder Home Adaptor, 1964
In spite of the almost overnight success of Compact Cassette, which first appeared in 1963, there were several valiant attempts to maintain interest in small open reel machines for home use. This is one of them, the National RQ-115, which was pitched as a dual-purpose design. On its own it functioned as a reasonably portable, battery-powered machine, capable of halfway decent recording quality, and when connected to its companion Home Adaptor, it became a semi serious piece of home audio equipment. Needless to say Jacks-of-all-trades have a poor track record for not being particularly good at any one task. And so it was with the RQ-115, and this had the added disadvantage of stiff competition from Compact Cassette, which beat it hands-down on almost every level.
The RQ-115 deserves to be remembered though, and it is a competent machine with several features found on high-end and even semi-pro recorders. It has a two-speed (4.75 & 9.5 cm/sec, 1 7/8 & 3 3/4 in/sec) capstan drive tape transport mechanism; the speed is altered (from slow to fast) by changing to a larger capstan idler roller, normally stowed on a pillar between the two reels. It has a full set of transport functions with everything except Fast Forward controlled from the large chrome plated lever (FF works in Play mode and is engaged by pressing a lockable push-button on the front). There are individual tone and volume controls, a recording level/battery meter, a built-in speaker, sockets for a microphone with remote pause function, and connections for the Home Adaptor module on which it sits when used at home.
Build quality and materials are well up to the standard that we have come to expect from National (the name changed to National Panasonic in 1980 and just Panasonic from 2008 onwards), however, there are a couple of issues. The most annoying one is the battery compartment, which takes 12 AA cells. In short it is almost impossible to load; they keep trying to jump out before you can close the cover. In the end the only way to do it is to get a friend to help hold them down, with a ruler or stiff piece of card while you gently attach the lid. The other, rather more serious problem, and one of the reasons it was never going to have much of an impact on the market is the 84mm reels. They hold enough tape for between 20 and 60 minutes worth of recording per side, which is okay for recording speech at the slowest speed but nowhere near long enough for music, especially at a time when 60 and 90-minute tape cassettes had become the norm.
The Home Adaptor has three basic functions. It serves as a convenient stand for the RQ-115 but its primary role is a mains adaptor. It was worth having for that alone as apart from the difficulty of loading a dozen AA cells, running on batteries could be an expensive business as it can get through a set in a couple of hours. It also serves as an extension speaker. Mounted on the base of the largely empty box there’s a chunky 10cm speaker, and it’s a quality item, beefing up the 0.7watt output from the tape recorder’s built-in amplifier. Normally having a downward facing speaker is a bad idea but National’s cunning plan was to fit the Adaptor with four tall, vane-shaped feet that direct the sound outwards. Provided it is placed on a solid (i.e. non-vibrating) surface, it doesn’t sound too bad. There’s also provision to make it sound even better, or at least louder, as there’s a slotted hole on the top panel so it can be hung on a wall, to direct the sound outwards
I came by this one at the regular Sunday flea market held in Brighton Marina and after a little haggling I got the price down to £12.00. That was a tad more than I wanted to pay for something that was impossible to test, but a quick examination showed the two units to be in fair to good condition with no signs of corrosion in the battery compartment and the controls and reels operated freely. Later inspection revealed just two minor problems; the drive belts for the supply and take-up reels had both perished but they were quickly and easily replaced and after a thorough spring-clean and a few spots of oil, it worked faultlessly. Speed stability is very good indeed; for once the tone control actually does something and sound quality at both speeds would have been very acceptable for the time, especially when heard through the Home Adaptor,
What Happened To It?
It’s an oft-repeated story and the arrival of Compact Cassette meant the more or less instant demise of small low-end and mid-market portable reel-to-reel tape recorders. I cannot say for certain how long the RQ-115 was in production but I seriously doubt that it was much beyond 1967/8. Even with a price of around £20 - £25 it would have been a fairly niche product and I doubt that many were made; one thing is certain, though, and relatively few have survived, and RQ-115s with a home adaptor are few and far between. Prices on ebay seem quite modest and when they do come up for auction they rarely seem to make more than £20 to £30, which isn’t a lot for such a smart, well made, and in its own way, boldly designed little machine.
First seen 1964
Original Price £20
Value Today £30 (0115)
Features Capstan drive, 2-speed 4.75 & 9.5 cm/sec (1 7/8 & 3 3/4 inches per sec) with interchangeable capstan, 1/4 inch tape, 84mm reels, Play/Record, Rewind & Fast Forward transport functions,0.7 w audio output, 6-trasnistor amp, battery/recording level meter, 75mm speaker remote pause, thumbwheel volume & tone controls, microphone & monitor out (3.5mm minijack), remote & AC Adaptor sockets, carry strap, leather carry case
Power req. 12 x 1.5v AA cells, 9v DC external mains ‘Home Adaptor’
Dimensions: 200 x 190 x 62mm
(Home Adaptor 200 x 190 x 75mm)
Weight: 1.9kg (Home Adaptor 1.2kg)
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Pion TC-601 Tape recorder, 1962
In 1961 a relatively obscure Japanese loudspeaker manufacturer, called Fukuin Denki -- which had been around since the late 1930s -- became the Pioneer Electronic Corporation, a name change that sat much easier with Western ears (and tongues…). It showed foresight and good timing and a year later it made a proper name for itself by launching the world’s first separate stereo system. That same year, 1962, Pioneer introduced another new name, and product, the Pion TC-601 transistorised tape recorder, but this time both seem to have been largely forgotten. .
To some extent it’s understandable; the TC-601 is technically unremarkable and was one of scores, and quite possibly hundreds of small tape recorders coming out of Japan in the early sixties. The crude rim-drive tape transport mechanism meant it was little more than a toy, really only capable of recording speech, and the twin-track recording system and 3-inch tape reels limited running times to around 10 to 15 minutes per side.
There are, however a few interesting features. The first one is the detachable speaker/microphone module, which sits in a compartment on the right side of the case; the other one is the unusually smart and stylish case; it is also worth saying that it is well put together and sturdily made from quality materials, all signs of things to come. Unfortunately that is about as far as it goes, it is not exactly pocket sized, which would have given it some credibility as a dictating machine, it has no special talents and record/replay quality is pretty much as you would expect and not helped by the limited dynamic range of a small speaker, acting as a microphone.
I cannot recall exactly when, or where this one came from but I suspect it was bought from ebay or one of its early rivals, probably in the early noughties. It is also likely that it came from North America; Canada is a distinct possibility as there is a sticker in the battery compartment with the name Importhouse of Canada and an address in Scarborough, Ontario. I rarely paid more than £5 - £10 for small tape recorders in those days and shipping charges were still quite reasonable. What is certain is the condition; it is close to mint with virtually no signs of use or wear, in fact I doubt that it was ever removed from the box. Inside the case there’s not a speck of dust, no scratches or corrosion on the battery contacts and the record/replay head looks as clean and shiny as the day it was made.
What Happened To It?
Without anything to set it apart from all of the other small and cheap sixties tape recorders – and it was a very crowded market – it probably wasn’t around for very long. In any case Pioneer was busy getting involved in more serious audio products, so this little machine is probably quite rare. I cannot recall ever seeing more than one or two other examples over the years. In theory this should make it quite valuable but collectors of vintage tape recorders tend to be mostly interested in larger and more sophisticated machines. Given its condition and the fact that it comes with its original box and foam packing it might make £30 or so on a good day, possibly a little more if it came to the attention of a hardcore Pioneer enthusiast but whilst it is never going to make anyone rich, it is quite good news for the small band of mini tape recordcer collectors and it is still possible to pick up the (very) occasional bargain.
First seen 1962
Original Price £10
Value Today £30 (1214)
Features 2-track (double sided) 0.25-inch/6mm tape 76mm (3-inch) reels, single motor, rim drive mechanism, detachable microphone/speaker, 4-transistor amplifier
Power req. 2 x 1.5v C cells, 1 x 9v PP3
Dimensions: 265 x 93 x 58mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Dokorder PT-4K Mini Tape Recorder, 1965
1960s miniature reel-to-reel tape recorders generally fall into one of two broad categories. The vast majority of them are essentially cheap toys, but no less interesting for that. The rest are altogether more serious, designed for the most part for dictation, with the odd sub-miniature model aimed at the security and surveillance market. Then there’s the Dokorder PT-4K. It’s a bit of a maverick, neither fish nor fowl, a little too large and heavy for dictation and, as always, limited by how much tape can be spooled onto a 3.25-inch reel (around 15 minutes worth). Nevertheless it is capable of half-decent speech reproduction, thanks to a chunky motor and flywheel stabilised capstan drive mechanism, but it’s not quite good enough for music recording.
It’s a quirky design, a bit of a committee job by the looks of it with the person responsible for the controls not speaking to the chap who designed the case, or the bloke with the apparently thankless task of figuring out where to put all of the sockets. Either that or someone just threw all for the parts into a table and where they fell is where they ended up on the final product… Maybe that’s a little unfair, and once you get used to the fact that nothing is where you expect to find it, it’s many idiosyncrasies are quite endearing, and it does look unusual, especially the weird deck layout.
The capstan and pinch wheel are a case in point, they’re top centre, immediately before the take up reel, and you may have noticed in the specs that it’s a two-speed design ((1.7/8 & 1.3/4 ips). This is accomplished by swapping sleeved capstan rollers – one thick (slow) and one thin (fast) -- and you can see the second one (for the slower speed) screwed in to the top panel, to the right of the pinch roller. There are two heads, the one on the left is a magnetic erase head and it rotates, to bring a tiny permanent magnet inside the head cylinder into contact with the tape. A pair of spring loaded pressure pads are mounted in front of the heads on a hinged plate, making it easier to thread the tape and clean the heads and in case you get confused the convoluted tape path is handily printed on the top of the deck panel.
There are plenty of other small oddities. For example a set of shiny smooth-action push button controls for Stop, Play and Record have been very craftily concealed on the back panel where you can’t see or get to them, but there’s a large, ugly and stiff rewind lever stuck on the left side, along with the volume control and a microscopic meter for recording level and battery condition. On the bottom edge there’s a slot for the battery holder (5 x AA cells), which probably sounds like a good idea, except that there’s no easy way to get it out, without resorting to a screwdriver.
I have had this PT-4K for at least ten years. I cannot recall exactly where it came from but it was probably early-days ebay, or one of the other auction sites around at the time that I used to frequent, before ebay swallowed them all up, but the one thing I can say for certain is that I would not have paid much more than £5.00 for it.
Thanks to the high standard of construction and quality materials, like the all metal case and chassis, it was then and still is in good working order but it will win no prizes for sound quality, However, unlike most other mini tape recorders from that era, the tape speed is rock solid, and it is surprisingly loud, thanks to a beefy 6-transistor amplifier. The general condition is good, it has a few minor dinks and scuffs but generally speaking it has worn quite well.
What Happened To It?
To the right of the battery compartment is the maker’s name badge and here we find another minor curiosity. This says the PT-4K was made by Denki Onkyo Co. Ltd, and the few mentions that I have found on the web usually reckon that the company behind the Dokorder brand became either Onkyo, or Denon. In fact neither is right. Denki is Japanese for light, as in light-industry, and Onkyo is a fairly common word for sound harmony; well-known Hi-Fi brand brand Onkyo is an entirely different company. Denon has nothing to do with it either, though the confusion probably arose because it is a contraction of Japan Denki Onkyo Ltd, an unconnected company, which became Denon when it merged with Nippon Columbia.
By the time this machine hit the shelves the days of reel-to-reel tape recorders were already numbered, curtailed by the arrival of the Philips Compact Cassette in 1963, which out-performed machines like this on almost every level. By the late 60s Denki Onkyo appears to have moved away from small machines like this, and into high-end and specialist models, but it never made the big time and in 1982 was taken over by Murata Manufacturing, which nowadays makes electronic components and a bike riding robot called Murata Boy.
Average Dokorder PT-4Ks like this one do not come up for sale very often and when they do, fetch between £30 and £50, depending on the condition. Boxed examples are super rare, though and the last one I saw, a couple of years ago, sold for over £100, so keep your eyes peeled!
First seen 1965
Original Price £15?
Value Today £30 (1014)
Features Single motor capstan drive, 1/2 track mono, dual speed (1.7/8 & 1.3/4 ips, using capstan sleeve adaptor), separate record/playback & magnetic erase heads, 6 transistors, battery/level meter, 3.5mm jacks for remote pause, earphone/ext speaker/microphone, DC power, push button controls (Stop, Play Record, slide rewind) 60mm speaker, 6mm (1/4in) wide tape, max reel size 82mm(3.25 in), folding carry handle/stand
Power req. 5 x 1.5v AA cells
Dimensions: 200 x 100 x 55mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Sony TC-50 Cassette Recorder, 1968
In flight entertainment takes on a whole new meaning with this unassuming Sony cassette tape recorder. It’s the TC-50, and you can judge how important it is from the fact that it has been exhibited in some of the world’s most prestigious museums, including the US National Air and Space Museum, and the Science Museum in London. In flight entertainment, in this context, is a tad more ambitious than those the (mostly) awful long-haul seatback offerings, it’s to the Moon and back as this was the cassette recorder of choice for NASA’s Apollo programme.
What makes this cassette recorder even more unusual is the fact that the machines that went into space were essentially the same as the ones you could buy over the counter. Normally the ancillary equipment that goes up in rockets either has to be specially designed or heavily modified in order to be ‘qualified’ for use in space vehicles. According to NASA documents (Handbook of Pilot Operational Equipment for Manned Space Flight), the only changes made to the stock TC-50 was the addition of a metal label on the cassette compartment door, with some simple operating instructions, and the jacks for the remote control, microphone, monitor and external power input were covered in sticky tape, as they wouldn’t be needed during flight operations.
The TC-50 was one of the earliest of Sony’s portable cassette recorders that led eventually to the revolutionary and iconic Walkman personal stereo player. However, in 1968, when it first appeared, entertainment probably wasn’t high on the list of intended applications; basically it was a pocket-able dictating machine, and NASA doubtless meant it to be used for note taking but the astronauts found it useful for playing their mix tapes to while away the hours of their long journey. In the photo that’s Lunar Module pilot Eugene Cernan holding a TC-50, alongside Command Module pilot John W. Young on board Apollo 10 in May 1969).
NASA’s decision to use this machine is not difficult to understand; it is superbly well made -- by then Sony’s reputation for design and engineering was well established. The large, simple controls made it easy to use, clearly an important consideration if you happened to be wearing a cumbersome space suit and gloves, but above all, it was tough and reliable, again a major plus point for space voyagers as Sony Service centres are a bit thin on the ground, once you leave Earth orbit.
Speaking of controls, there are only three of them, for the transport functions. The large shiny-topped sliding lever selects Stop and Forward modes; to record press the red button before sliding the lever and pressing the small black button in Stop mode engages Rewind, or Fast Forward in Play mode. The only other control is a volume thumbwheel, mounted just above the tape compartment flap. The microphone is built into the front of the case, there’s a 50mm speaker on the backside and on the top there is a tiny round meter showing battery condition and recording level, not that you could do much about is as it is controlled automatically.
There are a few points of interest inside the case and first off is the D-201 motor, in its own way a minor technical marvel, and famed for its speed stability and reliability. You can just make it out in the photo and unusually it is angled at around 45 degrees to the case. Whether this was deliberate, or forced upon the designers by the confines of the case has never been explained but the result was that it in this orientation it was less prone to wow and flutter, if the machine was rapidly moved or shaken. Sadly history doesn't tell us if this was an advantage in zero gravity. The circuit board is densely packed; I recall read somewhere that it uses integrated circuits. They were certainly around in the late 60s but it would have been very unusual to see them in consumer products like this. Maybe they were used on later versions but this one at least has only discrete components. Fortunately it is in good working order as thanks to the complex wiring loom and watch-like construction, repairing one would be a nightmare!
Power is supplied by a proprietary NiCad re-chargeable battery pack (BP10) and the one that came with this specimen would have expired decades ago but for once it is not a problem. Inside the pack, which opens easily, there is a compartment for three AA sided cells and it’s a simple matter to pop in a set of modern replacements. I suspect that a purpose-made AA adaptor was either supplied or offered as an optional extra. It comes with a mains charger adapter and Sony showed considerable foresight by fitting it with a voltage selector switch (100/110-120/220-240V), so that it could be used anywhere in the world; at the time mains adaptors tended to be made for the country – and mains supply -- where the product was originally sold.
All things considered, and after almost half a century, performance is pretty good and although it was designed primarily for voice recording, it has a decent enough stab at reproducing music; it is certainly good enough for use in spacecraft, which are probably not the most acoustically-friendly of environments
I have been trying to fill the TC-50 sized gap in my collection for some time and have, until recently, been put off by the usually ridiculously high prices being asked (and paid) for them. Most of the world’s supply of this model appear to be in the US and ebay sellers tend to shamelessly capitalise on the Apollo connection but a few made it to Europe, and somehow this one ended up in Belgium and eventually on ebay, where I bought it, with no competing bids, for the amazingly low price of 20 euros. It came with the original NiCad battery pack, leather carry case and mains charger and all of them were in excellent condition. It worked straight away but as a precaution the drive belt was checked and key moving parts treated to a spot of light grease.
What Happened To It?
There is a short history of the TC line of recorders in the TC-55 write up further down the page and the gist of it is that it was part of the evolutionary process that resulted in the TPS-L2, the first Walkman, and the birth of the personal stereo revolution. Its role in the Apollo program and later space missions has been largely unsung, and surprisingly it wasn’t something that Sony capitalised upon, though this may have been a contractual obligation but it has definitely earned its place in museums, and the history of the cassette recorder.
Prices vary widely and even in poor condition they can make your eyes water. I have seen absolute wrecks selling for as much as £50, though runners in fair condition usually go for between £50 and £100 and really clean and boxed examples can make £200 or more. There is no disputing the fact that is a historically significant machine but a fair number were made, a lot have have survived and as this one proves there are still some bargains around, but be warned, as time goes by they are becoming much harder to find.
First seen 1968
Original Price £50?
Value Today £50–£200
Features Mono two-track recording, built in microphone and 50mm speaker, battery state & recording level meter, Play/Record, FF/Rew functions, volume control. Sockets: external remote pause (2.5mm jack), external microphone and headphone/monitor (3.5mm jack), external DC supply. Accessories: wrist lanyard, leather case, battery pack, mains adaptor/charger
Power req. 4.5 volts DC, (BP-10 battery pack containing 3 x AA NiCad cells)
Dimensions: 140 x 90 x 37mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Amerex Alpha One Tape Miniature Recorder, 1971
In the small, strange and mildly obsessive world of vintage Spycorder collecting the Amerex Alpha One is one of the all-time classics, and a genuine rarity. It is tiny, a little larger than a compact cassette library case, but that is not what makes it special; it’s the quality and precision of the engineering and materials, which has been justly compared with iconic Swiss-made Nagra sub-miniature and professional reel-to-reel machines.
It dates from the early 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, and was made in Japan, by Amerex Electronics, for a US outfit called Identcorporation, based in New York, and that’s about all I can say for certain about its origins. Both Identcorporation and Amerex Electronics in Japan seem to have vanished without trace giving some credence to stories that it was either developed for or designed by the FBI or US Security Services. It seems improbable, but true or not, it only adds to the air of mystery surrounding this brilliant little machine.
The technology is pretty straightforward; the tape is housed in a custom cassette, spooled with the same 3.8mm (1/8th inch) wide tape used in Compact Cassettes. It runs at the standard 4.76 cm/sec (1 7/8 ips), giving each cassette approximately 2 hours recording time (60 mins per side). It has a simple single motor capstan drive mechanism with electronic speed control. The tape deck controls have been pared to the absolute minimum, presumably to save space and weight and maintain reliability. There’s really only two transport controls, a power switch for the motor, and a hinged lever in front of the single tape head, (this also houses the capstan roller, two tape guide and a felt pressure pad). Operating mode is determined by which accessory is plugged into the multi-way socket on the right hand side. For example, if one of the two microphones is connected it will be in record mode, and if the earphones are plugged in, it’s in playback mode. Moving the lever assembly sets tape speed and direction; fully in for Play or record, one notch out is neutral and when moved to the second notch, the tape rewinds. The small slide switch to the rear of the deck mechanism is for voice operated (VOX) recording control and it only records when the microphones pick up sounds, which greatly extends recording time and battery life.
In common with the legendary Nagra SN construction is all-metal; the mechanics are solid as a rock and it looks and feels like a precision instrument, which it is. Power is supplied by a pair of 1.4 volt button cells; the larger one is for the motor the other is for the electronics, which are notable for using some of the earliest (and smallest) audio amplifier integrated circuits (ICs) available at the time.
I have been unable to find any record of the only chip with legible markings and it is possible that these were a custom design, developed specifically for this application.
Like all good spy kit it comes with its own lockable, custom-fitted flight case. This has foam cut-outs for three tape cassettes in the lid, and spaces in the base for the recorder, microphones (one plug-in and two body-worn), the purpose designed stereo earphones and slots for spare batteries. Q would have been proud to issue this to James Bond, though it has never – to my uncertain knowledge – ever featured in any movies or TV programmes. Maybe it was a well kept secret. It still is, to some extent, and there is very little information about the Alpha One on the web so I would be grateful if anyone can fill in the gaps. Incidentally, it bears a very strong resemblance to another tiny tape recorder, this time from a company called EDI, but I know even less about that model, so again, any info is welcome..
I had been aware of the Alpha One for some time but for the ten years or so I have been after one only a couple appeared on ebay and they always sold for eye-watering amounts. This one also looked like it was going to go the same way and my bank manager troubling bids were instantly beaten so I bowed out. It was a huge surprise, therefore, when ebay sent me an email a few days later mentioning that it had just been re-listed – probably due to a non-paying bidder -- with a very realistic buy it now price. From reading the email to clicking the BIN button took around 10 seconds! For the record it cost me £148, plus half as much again in shipping and customs charges, making it one of the most expensive tape recorders I have ever bought but I am fairly confident that I will never see another one for that price..
It is in near mint cosmetic condition but sadly it had a little problem. It was sold as a non-runner and a couple of loose wires in the battery compartment were swiftly and easily fixed. However, there’s a nasty crack on one side of the motor support bracket that stops it applying the necessary pressure to the flywheel. On the plus side the audio circuitry is in very fine fettle and it’s possible to intermittently get it into record and playback modes by poking and prodding the motor with a toothpick.
UPDATE: eventually I got around to fabricating a new bracket. I began by taking some detailed measurements and several close up photos of the cracked piece. The replacement was made from a small chunk of aluminium, cut from a CPU heatsink. It involved a lot (and I mean a lot!) of filing, much swearing, and a great deal of trial and error; it’s not quite as neat as the original but it works perfectly!
What Happened To It?
Without knowing anything about the history of Amerex Electronics and Identcorporation it is difficult to say but for all of its appeal, highly specialised, precision-made devices like this would have had a very small market, almost entirely confined to spooks, spies and private eyes. It must have cost a small fortune to make, and I can only take a wild stab in the dark at the original selling price.
Unfortunately its appearance, in the early 1970s, was just a few years after the launch of the Philips Minicassette, which resulted in lots of modestly-priced and well specified tape recorders, two thirds the size of the Alpha One. Full-size cassette recorders were also shrinking in size, with machines from the likes of Sony and Akai not much larger than the Alpha One. My guess is that any self-respecting spymaster with an eye on the expenses budget, would go for a cheaper off-the-shelf alternative, and lovely through it is, the Alpha One didn't stack up too well against the smaller and cheaper competition.
I cannot be certain how many of them were made but from the few serial numbers I have seen on machines owned by fellow collectors, and in photos on the web, I suspect it was no more than a few hundred. This makes it a very scarce commodity indeed, and probably not the sort of thing you are ever likely to stumble across at your local car boot or antique fair. If you do, needless to say, jump on it, fight for it if you have to because it is a truly wonderful little thing that makes rocking horse droppings look really common...!
First seen 1971
Original Price £300?
Value Today £600? 0714
Features 4-track stereo recording, proprietary cassette, 3.8mm tape, 120 minutes recording time (60 mins per side), capstan drive tape transport, Play/Record, Rewind, Stop functions, Voice-Operated (VOX) function, proprietary
Power req. 1 x RM-625 1.4v button cell, 1 x RM-822 1.4v button cell
Dimensions: 130 x 73 x 25mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 9
Sony TC-55 Cassette Recorder, 1972
The Sony Walkman TPS-L2, launched in 1979, earned itself a place in history, and is rightly regarded as one of the most iconic gadgets of all time, but it is also worth pointing out that it didn’t materialise out of thin air. The first Walkman can trace its origins back to a range of compact portable machines from Sony in the late 60s. One of them, the TC-50, has it’s own claim to fame, and was used by astronauts as music players and note takers on several Apollo Moon missions. This wasn’t a specially tweaked model either, it was a bog-standard, off the shelf machine, which, at last, brings us to the TC-55. This was the sucessor to the TC-50 and it led, three years later, to the TCM-100 Pressman, which was the Sony cassette recorder on which the world's first Walkman was based.
Okay, so it’s a fairly tenuous series of connections and as far as I am aware the TC-55 doesn’t have any historic associations of its own but it is still an interesting little machine and deserves at least a mention in the Technology Hall of Fame (as soon as someone gets around to creating one...).. Until that happens it will have to make do with a brief outing in Dustygizmos and we’ll begin with the features that set this, and many other Sony products of the time, apart from the competition. Picking one up tells you everything that you need to know about the design, materials and build quality. It’s heavy and it feels exceptionally solid, and that’s because it is mostly made of metal and so fairly obvious why NASA chose this family of machines to go into space.
It packs an impressive amount of technology into a small space, including a compact, high precision motor driving twin flywheels and a complex pulley system to ensure very stable tape speed. Although it is a mono recorder, and designed primarily as a dictating machine it is more than capable of handling music. Legend has it that was a favourite with bootleggers who used them to make illicit and covert recordings at concerts. It would have been ideal, there’s even a dedicated music recording mode; it has a directional, high quality Electret condenser microphone, built-in speaker, frugal battery consumption and there’s even a tiny recording level meter, though this is largely superfluous as it has fully automatic recording level control. There’s also one of the smallest tape counters you are ever likely to see, and all of the controls are easy to use one-handed.
Power comes from a detachable battery pack, filled with four AA cells; a rechargeable pack was also available as an optional extra. Connections to the outside world are handled by three 3.5mm jacks on the rear panel. They are for an external microphone, remote pause and monitor, or earphones; just above the jacks there’s a mounting point for the supplied wrist strap. There’s also a socket for external power. The push-button transport keys are mounted on the top panel (Rec, FF/Cue, Fwd, Stop & Rew) and on the front there‘s two sliding switches, for power on, Music/Speech record mode and a volume thumbwheel.
I found this one around five years ago on ebay and as I recall it cost £10, or thereabouts. It was then and still is in excellent condition and full working order, which is a little unusual considering the complexity of the mechanics and the unfortunate habit of rubber drive belts to turn into a nasty black mush after a couple of decades. Given the lack of marks it seems likely that this one had led a fairly sedate life, spending most of it stored in cool dry conditions; either that or it had been recently serviced before it came into my posession, Sound quality is still pretty good for such an old machine, and although it lacks the noise cancelling refinements of later models, background hiss is well suppressed and heard through a decent pair of headphones you are hardly aware it is in mono.
What Happened To It?
The TC-55 was the last of the line for this particular model range but it certainly wasn’t a dead end and the design elements and philosophy that paved the way for the revolutionary Walkman are clear to see. Of the three TC models (40, 50 and 55) the 50 is easily the most desirable, thanks to its lunar connections, and clean ones can sell for anything between £20 and £100. sometimes more when a couple of collectors get into a tussle. The TC-55 is overshadowed by its more illustrious stablemate; it doesn’t have the same cachet and this is reflected in auction prices, which means there are bargains to be had. Good examples routinely sell for between £15 and £30, which is little enough to pay for such a well-built recorder from the early days of the cassette. If there’s a gap in your cassette recorder collection for an early space-age classic don’t wait too long because they will become harder to find and prices will inevitably creep up.
First seen 1972
Original Price £50
Value Today £20 0814
Features Capstan drive mono recording, automatic level control, Music/Speech record modes, record/battery meter, built in microphone and speaker, 3-digit tape counter, auto stop, remote pause
Power req. 4 x 1.5v AA cells
Dimensions: 145 x 98 x 36mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Belwood, James Bond Spycorder, 1963
The opening sequence of Thunderball, where Bond James Bond escapes from the villains using a Bell Rocket Belt had a lasting effect on me and many of my generation and most us who saw it were convinced that one day we too would be flitting about the sky, strapped to personal jetpacks. Unlike many Bond gadgets this one actually existed at the time; it wasn’t until a lot later that I learned that it only carried enough fuel for 30 seconds or so of flying time and after more than fifty years its modern counterparts are still only able to stay up for less than a minute. Thunderball was notable for another working, real-world gadget, though blink and you will have missed it as it was only on the screen for a few seconds, and most of it was concealed by the book it was hidden inside (see screengrab below).
It was the Bellwood Memo Corder, one of the smallest and rarest mini tape recorders from the early sixties. I can be fairly sure about the date as Thunderball was made in 1964 (released in 65), so it is safe to assume the Memo Corder had been around for a year or so before it came to the attention of the movie’s props department. It is typical of tiny tape recorders of the time and little more than a toy. Thanks to the simple rim-drive mechanism audio quality is quite poor and it would only have been capable of recording a few minutes worth of speech. The movie took some liberties with this, suggesting that the little machine was able to record for long periods. In the scene where it appears Bond returns to his hotel room and the reels are still turning, having earlier recorded the sounds made by an intruder in the room. It was a good choice, though and it certainly looks the part of a serious Spycorder. There’s a lot of shiny metalwork on show and it has a set of push-button controls, which was quite unusual for small, cheap machines of this period.
It has several other unusual features; these include the facility for remote pause (on record or playback) using a switch fitted to the microphone. There’s a variable speed playback control, and on the underside a small hinged foot lifts the front of the machine. This is probably a kludge, designed increase the volume from the built-in loudspeaker, mounted on the underside of the case; lying flat it is almost inaudible.
The rest of it is fairly conventional, though hats off to the designers for cramming so much into such a small space. The transport mechanism is slightly unusual in that it uses an idler wheel to ‘gear up’ and drive the supply spool in rewind mode. The motor is mounted on a simple pivot that moves the spindle between the rubber rim of the take-up reel and the idler wheel. It has a single head for record/replay functions and a separate open head, with a small electromagnet, for erasing the tape whilst in record mode. The amplifier is a simple 4-transitor design (see above) and this drives the small 63mm speaker set into the bottom of the case.
This one, like quite a few of my titchy tape recorders, came from a seller in the US, via ebay, in the early noughties. At the time neither I, or the seller, had made the James Bond connection, and although I can’t recall exactly how much I paid for it, it wouldn’t have been much more than £5, plus another £6 or £7 for postage (shipping costs for small parcels from the US were quite reasonable back then). It was probably sold as non-working but in good cosmetic condition, and all it would have taken to get it going was a good clean up, a few drops of oil and if there was no sound, swapping out all of the electrolytic capacitors. Japanese made electrolytics made in the sixties had an unfortunate tendency to fail after only 10 -15 years. It still runs quite nicely, though the volume isn’t up to much so it will probably need a seeing-to at some point,otherwise it’s a clean and still very good looking little machine.
What Happened To It?
I suspect that its fleeting appearance in Thunderball didn't have any influence on sales. Over the years I have only seen a small handful of them on ebay, which suggests that either relatively few were made, or sold, or they didn't last very long. Like so many of its contemporaries, miniature reel to reel tape recorders of the early sixties had a fairly short shelf life and were all but killed off by the Philips compact cassette, shortly after it was launched in 1963.
I am not sure if this has become a sought-after model, but I have a feeling that it might well appeal to collectors of Bond movie ephemera, though its few seconds of glory on the sliver screen means that few will be aware of its existence, let alone the make and model. Well, they are now, so if you see one going cheap, I suggest that you keep quiet and grab it quick!
First seen 1963
Original Price £?
Value Today £30 0514
Features: Rim drive transport mechanism, 2-track mono recording, variable speed replay, remote pause, 63mm (2.5-inch) reels, 55mm speaker, push button controls (Record, Rewind, Play, Stop), external microphone, earphone and remote pause 3.5mm jacks, permanent magnet erase, hinged stand
Power req. 2 x 1.5volt AA cells, 1 x 9volt PP3
Dimensions: 140 x 100 x 48mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Concord F20 Sound Camera Mission Impossible, 1965
The must-have video box set for fans of miniature reel-to-reel tape recorders, and there are at least five of us, is the original Mission Impossible TV series, broadcast between 1966 and 1973. Almost every episode began with Mr Phelps, played by Peter Graves, receiving his orders on a tiny tape recorder, with the legendary line ‘this tape will self destruct in five seconds’, followed by a puff of smoke. There was a different model almost every week but this one, the Concord F20 Sound Camera has the distinction of appearing several times, for no particular reason that I can see, other than it is small and very photogenic. It has definitely earned a place in the TV & Movie Spycorder Hall of Fame, which I must get around to setting up, one day.
To business, and the F20 is yet another compact rim-drive machine from the early to mid-60s. On the miniature tape recorder hierarchy it lies somewhere between a toy and a budget dictating machine, though a lot of them were probably bought for sending and receiving short ‘sound letters’. The 2.5-inch reels it used were small enough to send through the post and contained enough tape for around 20 to 30 minutes of chat. The basic rim-drive tape transport is not steady enough for music, and there is always the problem of tape speed variation when tapes are played back on different makes or models of tape recorder.
The Sound Camera name probably stems from the fact that it is really quick and easy to use, making it idea for taking audio snapshots, of bird song, steam trains, the crashing of waves, and yes, life really was that dull in the olden days. Aside from its small size it has few notable features; there’s a variable speed control, the microphone has a remote pause switch, it has a built-in loudspeaker and instead of the usual permanent magnet tape erase, this function is built into the record/playback head. In common with most other rim drive machines the tape transport options are limited to Play/Record and Rewind – there is no fast forward -- the record/playback amplifier circuit uses four germanium transistors and it is powered by four 1.5 volt AA cells, which live in a compartment on the back. It comes with a microphone, wrist strap and a carry case.
This is one of several F20’s I have acquired over the years, most of them from ebay, and at the time – early noughties – rarely cost more than £5 - £10. Most of them were sold as faulty or non-runners but this was almost always due to a combination of gunky grease seizing up the reels hubs and motor, and dud electrolytic capacitors in the amplifier circuit. Nine times out of ten a clean up, oil change and cap swap would have them running again, usually as good as new. Audio quality on this one is satisfactory for speech and the small speaker is surprisingly loud (and very tinny…).
What Happened To It?
It’s the same old story and small reel-to-reel tape recorders like this one were doomed from the day Philips introduced the Compact Cassette, back in 1963. By the late sixties they had virtually disappeared, beaten on just about every level by the cassette. In fact the only thing machines like this had going for them was cuteness and eye appeal, and the spinning reels are highly visual, perfect for TV and the movies, though even Mission Impossible used cassette machines in the later episodes…
I cannot be sure how long the Sound Camera was in production, I am guessing it was only around 3 or 4 years from 1965 or thereabouts. A fair number of them must have been made and they still turn up on ebay, though they are becoming less frequent as the years go by. A decent boxed machine with all of its accessories can go for £50, occasionally a lot more, especially if a couple of determined collectors or crazed Mission Impossible fans are after one.
DUSTY DATA (Manual)
First seen 1965
Original Price £8.00
Value Today £30 0514
Features Rim drive mechanism. 2-track recording, variable speed, volume, microphone/remote pause, earphone 3.5mm jack sockets, 55mm speaker, carry strap, carry case, max reel size: 63mm (2.5-in)
Power req. 4 x 1.5v AA cells
Dimensions: 165 x 115 x 58mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Credit for making the first electronic covert audio recording device almost certainly belongs to a German company called Protona, who in the early 1950s developed a tiny pocket size magnetic wire spycorder, aptly named the Minifon Mi51. The simple, robust mechanism, and its ability record for up to four hours was, allegedly, the inspiration for, and partly used in the construction of the first prototype aircraft ‘Black Box’ flight data recorder in 1957, devised by Australian Dr David Warren.
Looking at the Minifon Attaché, featured here, it is not difficult to understand what drew Dr Warren to Protona; the design, engineering, build quality and attention to detail of this cute little tape recorder is simply outstanding. It is hard to believe that it was conceived in the late 50s and is now well over half a century old, what’s more it uses a small, conveniently sized tape cassette that pre-dates the Philips Compact Cassette by several years. It also has several clever and innovative features that would not become widespread on tape recorders and electronic gadgets for another decade.
Realistically the Minifon Attaché is an item of office equipment, however it is incredibly small -- it fits easily into a coat pocket -- and like the Mi51 before it, probably did its fair share of surveillance recording. It could also be used to record telephone conversations, thanks to a pickup coil built in to one of the optional multi-purpose external speaker microphone modules, which sadly I do not have – mine is the standard model. The two-sided tape cassette has a number of similarities to the Philips Compact Cassette. It is only a little larger, and slightly thicker, mainly due to the fact that it uses 6mm (1/4-inch) wide tape, rather the 3.5mm (1/8th inch) wide tape in a standard cassette. Like Philips machines it uses a capstan drive tape mechanism, cassettes were available in different lengths (30 and 15 minutes per side). Who knows; it is not unreasonable to suppose that Philips engineers were aware of the Protona design and maybe, like Dr Warren, drew some inspiration from it?
Other features were well ahead of their time, like the all transistor circuitry. This put it at the cutting edge in the early 60s. Piano key controls were also quite novel, especially on a machine this small, and tape counters and moving coil recoding level/battery meters were comparatively rare on portable machines. Then there are some rather unusual extras, like fast erase. When pressed, a small lever at one end of he tape head cover brings a permanent magnet into contact with the tape and when the machine is in rewind mode it is possible to completely wipe both sides of a cassette in just a couple of minutes. Last but not least, it can be powered by a 12-volt nicad rechargeable battery, or a now obsolete disposable battery. Sixty years ago you could count the number of electronic devices that used rechargeable batteries on the fingers of one hand.
Construction is all metal, from the chassis to the case, and there’s a hefty cylindrical flywheel, to aid speed stability, yet it is surprisingly light. It looks and feels really tough, and the fact that after all these years this one still works perfectly, is a tribute to German precision engineering.
I cannot recall exactly when I acquired this particular Attaché, it is a fairly early example and one of several that have passed through my hands over the years, but it was probably more then ten years ago, and came from an early on-line auction when machines like these were cheap and plentiful. Then as now it is in full working order and showed only light signs of use. It came with its custom-made leather case and the purpose designed microphone/speaker, and I would be very surprised if I paid more than £10 for it.
What Happened To It?
As far as I am aware Protona never attempted to turn the Attaché into a mass-market product and its successor, the better specified Hi-Fi model was also aimed, and priced at high end and specialist applications. Needless to say not many were sold and it couldn’t compete with the Philips Compact Cassette, which by the mid 60s had become a world standard. In fact Protona had been struggling for years and it was bought out by Telefunken in 1962. Despite dwindling orders Protona continued to make Minifon models until 1967, when it was eventually closed down.
Protona Minifons are not widely known outside of the tape recorder collector and enthusiast markets but the few that come up on ebay are eagerly snapped up, sometimes for hundreds of pounds, depending on their condition and rarity. However, occasional fixer-uppers can still be found for £50 or less, and providing there is no serious damage or corrosion, they can be a good investment. They are fairly easy to work on, a lot of parts are still available and most faults can be fixed, but even dead ones still look great!
First seen 1959
Original Price £300?
Value Today £50 0414
Features Capstan drive, 2-track recording, ¼-inch tape, 6 transistors (3 x OC304, 2 x OC308 1 x OC307), tape counter, battery/recording level meter, auto stop, remote pause/record, piano-key controls, stop, rewind, play, record), volume, full tape erase
Power req. Mini Accu 12-volt nicad rechargeable battery/Petrix 27
Dimensions: 180 x 102 x 44mm
Made (assembled) in: Germany
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Channel Master 6546 Cartridge Tape Recorder, 1963
Audio tape recorders using fiddle-free cartridges and cassettes have been around for a lot longer than many people suppose and the earliest examples date back to the 1950s, but the 1960s was the golden age, with scores of different types and formats being developed. Only a handful lasted more than a couple of years in the consumer market, the notable exceptions being the Compact Cassette and the 8-track Cartridge. Several others came close to success, though, and for a while the Sanyo Micro Pack was a strong contender for the dictation/memo recorder market, with machines sold under a variety of brand names, including Channel Master, Lodestar (Tape Reporter) and Westinghouse.
Micro Pack cartridges are an elegantly simple design with two 60mm (2 3/8-inch) reels housed inside a clear plastic case. Unlike the familiar Compact cassette, where the reels are arranged side by side, the Micro Pack uses a ‘co-axial’ arrangement with the spools stacked on top on each other. The cartridge contains around 76 metres (250 feet) of 6.5mm (1/4-inch) wide tape, which passes diagonally from one reel to the other. It is incredibly easy to use, there is no need to worry about lacing the tape, just pop the cartridge into the recorder and it is ready for recording or playback on the first track and when it reaches the end either rewind and start again, or flip the cartridge over to use the second track on the other side. Recording/playback time would typically be between 20 and 30 minutes per side.
Showing here is the Channel Master 6546 made in Japan by Sanyo, who sold the same model under its own name as the M-35. When you pick one up for the first time the first things you notice are the small size, it fits easily into a coat pocket, how heavy it is – the case and chassis are all metal – and build quality and finish, which are comparable with decent cameras of the day. All in all it looks like a precision instrument, though in actuality it is fairly basic and only one small step removed from the multitude of cheap toy recorders sold throughout the early sixties. Basically it is let down by the tape transport system, which uses a simple rim-drive mechanism.
The spools are driven directly by the spindle of a small motor, which presses against the reel’s rubber-coated rims. The main problems with this method are slippage and the speed at which the tape passes the tape head, which varies as one reel empties and the other fills up. It doesn’t matter too much for speech, voice memos, audio letters and so on, but it pretty much rules it out for recording music. To be fair rim drive is more of a problem on open reel tape recorders and recordings will normally only play back at close to the correct speed on the machine the recording was made. The saving grace in this instance is the fact that Micro Pack cartridges can only be replayed on other Micro Pack machines, all of them made by Sanyo, so there are no serious compatibility issues. Nevertheless, Sanyo felt it necessary to give these machines a manual speed control, to compensate for the inevitable minor variations. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if the Micro Pack format been designed for a constant-speed capstan drive mechanism; the history of audio recording might have been rather different.
All of the controls are on the top panel. A chromium-plated switch handles transport functions with a flip up finger tab. This tilts the motor so that the spindle comes into contact with the take-up reel (Play and Record) or feed-reel (Rewind). Lifting the switch and twisting it past a detent selects record mode; there’s a simple pause function, controlled by a button to the left of the transport knob. The transport switch also engages a pin that fits into a hole on the side of the cartridge, which prevents its removal whilst the tape is moving. On the far left side of the top panel there’s a tiny moving coil meter, which shows battery condition and recording level and on the right side there are rotary controls for volume and speed. Jack sockets on the side are for the microphone (with a remote pause switch) and an earphone, and on the back of the case is a two-pin socket for an optional charger/DC supply. Power on the go is supplied by four 1.5-volt AA cells, which fit into two compartments behind an L-shaped cover on the right side of the case.
What Happened To It?
I haven’t managed to determine exactly when this machine and its various clones first appeared, and eventually disappeared, but my guess is that it was between 1963 and 1968, give or take a year either side, judging by the components used in the four-transistor amplifier. These machines appear to have been moderately successful and thanks to the sturdy all metal construction and build quality a fair few of them are still around today but their relatively short time on the market coincided with the rise, and eventual domination of the Philips Compact Cassette. This almost certainly killed off any hopes Sanyo may have had for the Micro Pack format. In any event it would probably only ever have had a short shelf life, thanks to the indifferent performance of the rim drive mechanism and the cartridge’s limited tape capacity.
Over the years several of these machines have passed through my hands. They were all acquired from American sellers on ebay and usually only cost a few pounds; this was back in the days when there was little or no interest in miniature tape recorders, and US postal charges were a fraction of what they are now. I still have a pair of Sanyo and Channel Master models. The latter is complete with its original leather carry case, remote control microphone and pouch. Both machines are in excellent cosmetic condition, good working order and still capable of recording, and playing back intelligible speech at a respectable volume levels. I was also lucky enough to snag a small collection of Micro Pack cartridges; three of them are unused, in mint condition and still in their original ‘audio letter’ mailing boxes.
You can still find Micro Pack recorders on ebay but the prices have risen somewhat and the last one I saw sold for more than £50, and it wasn’t even in working condition. Of course it is still worth keeping an eye out for them, and the occasional miss-spelt, or wrongly categorised example slips under the radar and sells for silly money but they are few and far between. Cartridges are even rarer but as always, if you don’t look you won’t find.
First seen 1963
Original Price £25?
Value Today £45 1213
Features 2-track mono recording, Sanyo Micro Pack co-axial reel cartridge (0.25-in tape) rim-drive mechanism, separate record & erase heads, variable speed control, 4 transistor amplifier, Play, Stop, Record & Rew transport modes, battery/level meter, 3.5mm Jack sockets for microphone, earphone, remote pause, 2-pin DC power/charger, leather carry case
Power req. 4 x 1.5v AA cell
Dimensions: 162 x 92 x 34mm (Micro Pack 35 cartridge 66 x 73 x 28mm)
Weight: 800g (cartridge 78.5g)
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Memo Call Pocket Dictating Machine, 1964
Of all the audio tape formats developed between the 1950s and late 1990s, and there were scores, if not hundreds of them, the Micro Magazine tape cartridge has to be one of the most obscure and short-lived. As far as I can make out – and as usual I am only too happy to be corrected – it was only ever used on one machine – the Memo Call – and the only references to it I have been able to find are between 1964 and 1965, after which it disappears without trace.
It is normally fairly obvious why a product or technology fails to succeed and generally involves a combination of factors, such as being rubbish at what it does, too expensive, poorly designed, unreliable, clumsily marketed and so on. Some of those clearly apply to the Memo Call, but it would be unfair to put it down to reliability, at least not in this case as it still works. That in itself is not unusual; 1960’s electronic gadgets were often quite well made. However, the real surprise is how on earth this particular Micro Magazine tape cartridge managed to survive for so long as it uses one of the most idiosyncratic tape mechanisms ever devised.
Instead of the customary twin spool arrangement this has only one reel containing a continuous loop of 3.5mm (1/8th inch) wide tape. It is drawn, or rather dragged, from the centre of the spool, it then passes out through a slot in the side of the cartridge, over a rubber idler wheel, then back into the case and wound back on to the outer edge of the reel. You would think that all of the twists, turns and stretching would quickly wear it out, but no, magnetic tape was obviously made of sterner stuff back then and it still records and plays back without any problems whatsoever. Whilst the system is technically quite clever and obviously good at defying the ravages of time it has one very serious limitation. There is only enough tape for around 4 minutes worth of recording. That, in a nutshell, is probably the single biggest reason for its short life; 4 minutes is not enough for it to qualify as a dictating machine, and only barely adequate for taking brief audio notes.
The Micro Magazine cartridge slips into a compartment in the front of the Memo Call, as it locks into place the tape comes into contact with the separate erase and record/replay heads and the belt driven capstan, sandwiching it against the rubber idler when, which pulls the tape through the cartridge. The capstan drive mechanism assures speed stability, and the simplicity of the design means that there is very little to go wrong. There are only two transport controls, a pair of buttons on the front of the case, mounted on a rocker that switch between record and replay mode. If you are wondering where there are no fast forward or rewind functions that’s because they’re hardly necessary. With only 4 minutes recording time you don’t have to wait very long to hear what you’ve just recorded. It also means that over-recording is a serious risk, if you’re not keeping tabs on the time… The only other control is a volume thumbwheel and there’s a jack socket on the side for an external microphone or earphone. The simple amplifier circuit is a conventional design and uses four germanium transistors (2SB117s). Normally I expect to have to change the self-destructive electrolytic capacitors on 60’s circuit boards but these are still in good condition so for the moment I’m leaving well alone.
I can’t remember exactly how I came by this machine but it was probably ebay and would have been more than ten years ago. In those days I rarely, if ever, spent more than £10.00 on a miniature tape recorder. It was a runner from the start and apart from an occasional health check and to keep the deck mechanism and electronics running smoothly, it has required virtually no attention. Aside from a few very minor marks it looks and sounds almost as good as the day it was made. Speaking of which, sound quality, whilst fairly crude by today’s standard is perfectly adequate for speech, and there’s plenty of volume.
What Happened To It?
The Memo Call was doomed from the moment it appeared. Even if you ignore the paltry recording time it arrived in the shops at around the same time as first Philips Compact Cassette machines, and would have struggled to compete in a market already well supplied with pocket dictating machines that ran for a good deal longer than 4 minutes. A pocket note taker may have had some novelty value, but the selling price of twelve pounds ten shillings (£12.50) was a fair amount back then, and the format’s lack of support from other manufacturers, and the weird cartridge design undoubtedly contributed to its swift demise.
Over the years I don’t think I have seen more than a couple of Memo Calls on ebay and I foolishly let both of them go for just a few pounds. By rights its comparative rarity should make it quite valuable but very few nut cases, like me, would know or care, and there are simply too few of them on the market to set a benchmark so basically it’s worth what anyone is prepared to pay for one, hence my fairly conservative estimate of £30.00, but one day, who knows?
First seen 1964
Original Price £12.10.0 (£12.50)
Value Today £30? 1013
Features Micro Magazine continuous loop tape cartridge (approx 4.5min duration), capstan drive, record & playback modes, volume control, internal 55mm speaker, external earphone/mic 3.5mm jack, 4 transistor amplifier ( 4 x 2SB117)
Power req. 4 x 1.5v AA cells, 1 x 9v PP3
Dimensions: 145 x 78 x 42mm, (Micro Magazine 64 x 64 x 10mm)
Weight: 400g (Micro Magazine 23.6g)
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Stuzzi 304B Memocorder, 1964
Although not specifically designed for secret agents and espionage the Austrian made Stuzzi 304B really looks the part. It is certainly small enough and over the years this model has made several fleeting guest appearances in spy movies (I’m fairly sure it featured in at least one Bond film) and TV series. Even the name conjures up images of cold war era state security agencies. The truth is a little more mundane and it is actually a pocket dictating machine, dating from the early sixties, though who is to say 304s haven’t been used for the odd spot of covert surveillance?
It is a clever design, with an impressive specification for such a small machine that is not much larger than a pack of cigarettes. The recording time is around one hour, which seems unlikely given that it uses tiny 42mm diameter reels. In fact the reels only hold enough tape for around 15 minutes recording time, but the record/replay and electromagnetic erase heads are mounted on a sliding pillar. This is coupled to a small lever on the side that lifts and locks the head into four preset vertical positions a couple of millimetres apart. This has the effect of dividing the tape into four parallel tracks. Moving the lever also engages the drive mechanism and reverses the direction of the tape and with some deft finger work a recording can be more or less continuous.
There is no tape counter, which is unusual as they are near standard fitments on dictating machines and vital for quickly finding a recording or passage. Stuzzi’s elegantly simple solution was to print a series of numbers on the tape, which can be viewed through a small window immediately above the track selection lever. There’s more space saving ingenuity and a small speaker on the back panel doubles up as a microphone. It has a speed control slider, to compensate for the somewhat variable stability of the rim-drive transport mechanism and there’s a clever locking arrangement on the record button, so it can make short on-the-hoof recordings, or left running continuously. A single 1.5-volt AA cell powers the motor and the three-transistor amplifier circuit uses a 9-volt PP3 battery, both of which fit in snugly into a compartment in the front panel. Normally the busy looking head mechanism remains out of sight, protected by a screw-fit cover. A small area around each reel is left visible so the user can see the reels turning and get timely warning of the tape running out.
What Happened To It?
Victor Stuzzi set up his radio repair business in Vienna in 1946 and produced the first of a long line of smart-looking portable reel-to-reel tape recorders in the early fifties. Compact voice ‘Memocorders’ followed towards then end of the decade and became one of the company’s main product lines until its closure in 1996, following the death of Stuzzi in a plane crash. As far as I am aware the 304 was the first and only Memocorder to use open reel tapes and the models that followed used a proprietary cassette that could be used in both hand-held recorders and desktop transcribers.
Up until the late 1960s there were dozens of different types of pocket dictating machines on the market then, in 1967 Philips bought out the PM85 Pocket Memo which was the first to use the ground breaking Minicassette tape cassette. That was pretty much the end of the line for all of the proprietary tape and cassette formats; one or two managed to survive into the seventies but by then the Minicassette had become a worldwide standard and it almost certainly contributed to the slow decline of manufacturers like Stuzzi.
Normally I can remember where and when I came by the more interesting tape recorders in my collection but I have had this one for a good few years. It almost certainly pre-dates ebay so it was probably an antique fair or flea market find. I can’t recall how much I paid for it either but back then I rarely spent more than £5.00 to £10.00, and the condition of this one isn’t that great. There are a few small cracks in the removable back panel, and where a label plate should be there’s some nasty looking glue marks. Otherwise it is complete, and it works, or at least, it records and plays back noises; it could definitely do with a little TLC. I haven’t seen any 304s on ebay for a while; the last one I spotted fetched an impressive £120, thanks to a couple of determined bidders but I feel £50 to £60 would be nearer the mark for a tidy one in good working order
First seen 1963
Original Price £?
Value Today £50 0813
Features 4-track recording system, magnetic erase head, built-in speaker/mic, 3-transistors (1 x OC72, 2 x OC75) 0.25-inch tape, 42mm reels, (4 x 15 min duration), external earphone & remote pause
Power req. 1 x 1.5v AA, 1 x 9v PP3
Dimensions: 117 x 80 x 45mm
Made in: Austria
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Juliette LT-44 Mini Tape Recorder, 1964?
Every so often, when examples of this little tape recorder turn up on ebay it is interesting to read the descriptions as they sometimes get the kind of write up normally reserved for high-end audio equipment. To the casual observer it certainly looks the part, with its compact shiny case and fancy control knob but in reality it is little more than a toy. Speed stability is non-existent, thanks to a crude rim-drive tape transport mechanism and it only records (mono half tracks) for between 5 and 10 minutes per side, but there’s no getting away from it, it looks like a serious piece of kit!
The Juiliette LT-44 was one of scores and possibly hundreds of little rim-drive machines coming out of Japan in the 1960s and they were mostly aimed at youngsters, so it’s not surprising the cosmetics often mirror more grown up tape recorders. This one went a little bit further and instead of the more common plastic housing, it has a tough, heavily chrome-plated, all-metal case, complete with hinged carry handle. It’s pretty much metal throughout, on the inside too, with the simple transport mechanism centred on a single control knob that pivots the centrally mounted motor. This is arranged so that the spindle comes into contact with one or the other rubber rimmed reel platters. The motor spindle is stepped so that the thinner tip only touches the narrow-rimmed take up reel whilst a thicker lower section presses against the wider feed reel, giving a faster rewind speed.
For the record the basic problem with all rim drive mechanisms is the lack of speed stability. In fact the speed at which the tape passes the tape head varies continuously as one reel empties and the other fills up. It’s not a huge issue for recording speech and hardly noticeable when playing recordings made on the same machine, but a tape is played on another machine the speed will be all over the place. The low quality, speed variation and limited capacity also means its not much use for recording music, but that didn’t matter. The point was, this and machines like it were proper tape recorders and it’s difficult now to describe how, back in the early 1960s, being able to record and play back your own voice was a near magical experience.
What Happened To It?
This was a fairly popular design and it appeared under at least three different names and model numbers but there’s no indication of who made it. They’re probably long gone, or were taken over by other companies decades ago but the instructions do mention the US Importers, Topp, who once traded from 49 West 23rd Street in New York, currently home to a dentist and Pilates studio. Cute little rim drive machines like this one were popular, and common throughout the sixties, though by around 1968 Compact Cassette recorders were rapidly coming down in price and starting to have a real impact across the market
I’ve had this particular one for around 10 years, bought on ebay, from a US seller, when they could still be had for a few pounds; often less than the cost of the shipping. It is complete, with the original box, packing, instruction sheet, warranty and the all-important crystal lapel microphone and earphone, both with their plastic carry cases. As I recall all it needed was a wipe-over. As you can see the casework is pristine, not a mark on it, inside or out, which suggests that it spent most of its life in its box, unused. Normally I replace the electrolytic capacitors on the circuit board but these were still okay. They will fail eventually but for the moment it has the rare distinction of being one hundred percent original, and in full working order. I doubt that there are very many mint examples out there but such is the build quality of this model that the ones that do end up on ebay are often in pretty good shape. If you are looking for a bargain you may need to be patient, though, especially if the seller is being overly ambitious with the specification…
DUSTY DATA (Manual)
First seen 1964
Original Price £5.00
Value Today £25 0413
Features Half track 75mm (3-inch) reel to reel, rim-drive mechanism, permanent magnet erase, built-in 58mm speaker, play, record, rewind & stop functions, rotary volume, mono microphone and ear 3.5mm jack sockets, carry handle, crystal lapel microphone, 5 minutes run time
Power req. 2 x 1.5 volt C cells, 1 x 9v PP3
Dimensions: 190 x 95 x 62mm
Made in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Nagra SN Minature Tape Recorder, 1973
It was designed for the US Secret Service in the early sixties and remained a closely guarded secret for several years. It travelled to the Moon and back, several times, eavesdropped on spies, villains and probably quite a few heads of state, helped to record countless movie and TV soundtracks and even made guest appearances in a fair number of them. That’s just a few of the highlights from the long and impressive CV of one of the world’s most iconic tape recorders. It’s the Nagra SN, smaller than a paperback book and built like a fine Swiss watch, which is not too surprising as the manufacturers, Nagra Kudelski are based in Switzerland.
Legend has it that the SN or Série Noire (Black Series) was commissioned by President Kennedy for use by the American Intelligence services and the CIA, though apparently it was popular with both sides during the Cold War years, and it is not hard to see why. It really is tiny, easily concealed, slipped into a pocket, worn under clothing or – as the movies would have us believe -- taped to a snitch’s body. Remember, this was before bugs or ‘wires’ (radio microphones) were small, light or reliable enough to be used for covert applications. It was perfect for the job, at the slowest tape speed it could record uninterrupted for almost an hour and a half, and a pair of AA cells would keep it running for more than 5 hours.
Throughout much of the 1960s its existence was largely unknown outside of the intelligence and law enforcement communities but then it came to the attention of the TV and movie industry. The same qualities that made it so useful to spies and cops made it ideal for location recording. The radio mikes of the day were cumbersome and unreliable, but the SN could be easily concealed in an actor’s clothing and models, like this one, had a pilot tone facility so a soundtrack recording can be synchronised to film during post production. Throughout the 1970s and early 80s several variants were produced, including stereo and special high performance models but they all shared the same basic layout and mechanical design.
What really sets the SN and later variants apart from all of the other miniature tape recorders of the 60s and 70s -- and there were quite a few of them -- was the outstanding performance and build quality. The chassis is milled from a solid block of lightweight alloy; each and every mechanical component is precision made from the finest, most hard wearing materials, the design of the electronic modules is second to none and recording quality, speed stability and reliability are legendary.
The small size is largely due to the use of 3.81 mm (1/8in) wide tape, the same as that used in Compact Cassettes. However, one of the main points of interest is an almost complete lack of controls; the small metal tab poking from the left side of the body is basically all there is. Push it in for playback (it goes into record mode when a microphone is connected); pulling it out disengages the reel brakes for rewind, except there is no powered rewind function. Instead there is a small pop up handle – mounted between the reels – connected by gears to the feed reel. It’s not as tedious as it sounds, and hand cranking a full reel of tape only takes a minute or so, and as an added bonus has no impact on battery life.
On the far right side of the body is one of the smallest recording and battery level meters you are ever likely to see -- it's smaller than a pound coin; the battery test button is on the side. Record/replay speed is set using a screwdriver (a recessed set-screw is mounted under the take-up reel) and there are two rows of sockets (a proprietary design) for microphone, audio input and output, pilot tone and remote control, or connection to one of a large range of accessory modules, plus there is a 3.5mm jack for headphones on the left side.
It’s the attention to detail and build-quality that grabs your attention; there are lots of small touches, like three transparent windows in the lid, so you can see how much tape is on the feed and take-up reels, and keep an eye on the level meter. The tape heads, capstan and tape guides are not hidden away but are meant to be accessible, to make tape threading easier and to allow for inspection, cleaning, adjustment and replacement. The aluminium lid is a snug fit, it’s tough too, designed to protect the machine. Inside and out everything is helpfully labelled, there’s even a detailed block diagram of the electronics on the inside of the battery compartment. In short it is a superb example of
miniaturisation and craftsmanship and anyone who has handled one will tell you is a delight to use, and a wonderfully tactile little device.
What Happened To It?
Back in 2001 when I acquired this SNS there was no shortage of these little machines on the market, selling for what now seems like giveaway prices. There were even stories, probably apocryphal, that perfectly good SNs were thrown out or ended up in skips. The point was they had effectively become redundant, thanks to major advances in radio microphones. High quality digital recording systems were also starting to take over in many areas of movie making and broadcasting and secret agents had long since switched to smaller and more discrete devices
I paid around £100 for this 1973 vintage model, which at the time I thought it was a hefty sum, and the most I had ever spent on a tape recorder but I’m kicking myself now. It was one of several on offer for the same or even less money, though this was easily the best of the bunch, and the only one that I was able to check was working. It also came with a microphone and half a dozen spare reels of tape, several of them still in their original packaging.
Today Nagra SNS, SSN and SNSTs (the latter is a stereo model) can be found selling on ebay for anything between £500 and £2500, depending on condition, and often a lot more if they come with high-end accessories and add-ons. That probably sounds like a lot to pay for what is after all just a cute, but effectively obsolete and rather basic audio recording device but if you appreciate precision engineering and electronics then I suspect that you might just change your mind if you get the chance to see, handle and listen to one, and if you ever come across one in good order costing substantially less than £500 grab it quick, or tell me!
First seen 1960
Original Price £?
Value Today £500 - £2500 (depending on model, condition and accessories) 0413
Features Mono half track recording, 3.81 mm (1/8in) tape, 9.5 and 4.75 cm/sec (3 3/4 and 1 7/8 in/sec) recording speeds, 3 heads (erase, record, replay), frequency response 50 Hz to 15 kHz ±2 dB, wow and flutter 0.05%, automatic level control, hand crank rewind, sync/pilot tone recoding, analogue moving coil level and battery meter, quartz controlled capstan motor
Power req. 2 x AA cell
Dimensions: 145 x 100 x 25mm
Made in: Switzerland
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Aiwa TP-60R Mini Tape Recorder, 1965
This has to be one of my all-time favourite mini reel-to-reel tape recorders from the 1960s and one of the few from a company that most people will recognise, though these days Aiwa no longer makes anything and Sony owns the brand.
The Aiwa TP-60R is a really solid little machine, all metal construction and superbly well made. It is unusual in having push-button controls and a proper electromagnetic erase head, rather than the more common permanent magnet type. There’s also a spring loaded tape head pressure plate that can be opened to remove tangles, clean the pressure pads, and maybe even used for rudimentary editing, making marking the tape much easier and more accurate. However, under the skin it is quite basic and uses a crude rim-drive mechanism. This involves a single motor directly driving the reels by pressing the motor spindle against the rubber rims of the supply and take-up reels. This technique has a number of disadvantages, notably a significant variation in the speed at which tape passes the head, as one reel empties and the other fills up. It doesn’t matter too much when the tape is played back on the machine the recording was made but the lack of any real speed stability means recording quality is not very good (and that's being kind...).
It’s difficult to say exactly who it was aimed at. It’s clearly not a toy, like many other miniature machines of this type. The instructions suggest that it is suitable for a ‘wide range of applications’, though in practice the only thing it can do passably well is record speech so it’s likely it was mainly used for dictation. That’s reinforced by the presence of a remote pause switch on the microphone, which would be essential as the tiny 62mm (2.5-inch) reels only hold enough tape for around 10 – 12 minutes of recording per side. In common with virtually all rim-drive machines it only has two transport modes, play/record and rewind, the only other control is a volume thumbwheel. There are three jack sockets, two for the mike (one of them is used by the pause switch) and an earphone. It has a built-in speaker and power comes from four 1.5-volt AA cells, which live in a compartment on the rear. The complete outfit included a snazzy leather carry case, strap and mike and all in all it looks and feels like a quality product.
What Happened To It?
In Japanese terms Aiwa is a relative newcomer. It was founded in the early fifties and although Sony had a discreet controlling interest in the company since the late 60s it was fiunally taken over by Sony in 2002. Aiwa made a number of mini reel-to-reel tape recorders throughout the 1960s; one of the earliest being the TP-32A and later the TP-61, which was basically a TP60 but with a plastic case. Larger and more competent reel-to-reel machines followed but it will be best remembered for its personal cassette players. From the early 70s Aiwa constantly vied with Sony to produce the smallest and most advanced models. Aiwa was also responsible for an extensive range of hi fi systems, budget VCRs and TVs. It was never really a high-end brand, nevertheless it was generally well respected and its products had a decent reputation for performance, reliability and value for money. However, by the late 1990s Aiwa was struggling and came close to bankruptcy in 2002 when it was bought up by Sony, one of its major shareholders.
Over the years I managed to acquire a number of TP-60s, mostly from ebay, and mainly from US sellers, as it appears that not many were ever sold in this country. This was before there was any real interest in these small machines, prices back then were very low and I doubt that I ever paid more £10 - £15 for one, and probably half as much for shipping. This one is a worker and cosmetically fairly average but I have a couple in near mint condition, still in their original boxes and complete with all of the accessories – those were the days…
They can still be found ebay every so often, almost always in the US, but UK sellers are not unknown. Occasionally one slips under the radar and sells at a bargain price but clean ones in good working order can easily fetch £50, sometimes a good deal more.
DUSTY DATA (Instructions)
First seen 1965
Original Price £10?
Value Today £20 - £70 0213
Features 62mm (2.5-inch) reels, 2-track mono recording, rim drive mechanism, push-button controls, electromagnetic erase, remote pause, microphone & earphone jacks, 55mm built-in speaker
Power req. 4 x AA cell
Dimensions: 140 x 85 x 50 mm
Made in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Uher 4000 RM Report Monitor, 1980
Not so long ago the Uher 4000 was the workhorse portable tape recorder for BBC radio. From the late seventies to mid nineties there must have been hundreds, if not thousands of them scattered throughout the Corporation, including this one, confirmed by a stamp on the back. Many old and non-serviceable machines were sold off by the BBC over the years, and a great many went walkabout, so how this one ended up at rural car boot sale near Bournemouth I cannot say. The seller wanted £10 for it and claimed know nothing about its origins, so we did the deed and left it at that…
This Uher 4000 is a little unusual for an ex-beeb machine because it has the full range of speed options. Many models were modified to only operate at 19cm/sec (7.5ips), often by removing the speed selector knob and blanking off the hole; using one standard recording was meant to simplify editing operations. It’s not hard to see why the BBC chose this machine; performance and build quality are both excellent, it’s solid, reliable, robust and relatively lightweight, and you don’t need a degree in audio engineering to use it.
Time for some specs. This is the baseline model in Uher’s 4000 series, a 2-track mono machine, using 13cm reels and standard quarter inch tape. Noteworthy features include three tape heads for real time monitoring. Unmodified 4000s have four recording speeds (2.4, 4.7, 9.5, 19 cm/sec); at the very slowest speed it is capable of making continuous recordings of more than 12 hours, albeit at a fairly low sound quality. It’s kitted out with professional XLR connectors for microphone and headphone, plus a set of oddly wired DIN sockets for various external inputs and outputs. It is powered by a 6-volt rechargeable battery pack, or 5 standard D cells. Basic operation is very straightforward with a set of piano keys for the transport functions. There’s an illuminated recording level and battery check meter on the front. On more up-range models, which share the same chassis, there’s a second meter but on this one the hole is occupied by an unnecessarily large recording level knob. It has a built-in speaker, three-digit tape counter and my boot sale bargain came with a slightly tatty custom carry case with pockets for the microphone spare battery and headphones.
Even if it had been a no-hope junker, it came with an empty metal Uher tape reel, which is worth more than the £10 I paid for it. As it turned out it wasn’t a runner -- that would have been too much to ask -- but the small handful of problems it had turned out to be relatively minor in nature. One of the drive belts had perished, until I get around to sourcing a replacement a small elastic band works very well indeed. The pause function works only intermittently and the rewind key doesn’t latch properly. Neither are serious and should be fairly easy to fix but look as though they will involve some fairly extensive disassembly, so it can wait. Cosmetically it is pretty fair shape, there some dinks and dents on the base plate and a few scratches and scuff marks but nothing that stops it working, and that’s where it really shows its stuff. Recording quality at the two highest speeds is outstanding, suggesting that it has been well maintained and quite probably kitted out with new heads on a fairly regular basis.
What Happened To It?
The Uher Report range of high-end and professional portable reel-to-reel tape recorders has a long and illustrious history. The first models appeared in the late sixties and the last ones rolled off the line in the early 1990s. Countless variations of the 4000 series were produced but eventually, as with many other things, audio recording made the inevitable transition from analogue to digital. The professional and broadcast end of the market led the way and it happened quickly in portable applications like radio reporting, where smaller, lighter machines with better stability and longer recoding times proved especially popular.
There is no shortage of Uher 4000s on the market and I have come across numerous reports of machines turning up in flea markets and car boot sales at silly prices; a fair few seem to have ended up in skips, for heaven’s sake… Nevertheless, if you want a decent one in good working order then you can expect to pay upwards of £100, perhaps two or three times more if it is an especially clean specimen with a full compliment of accessories and a nice leather carry case. Even so, that’s still not a lot to pay for such a high quality piece of equipment, and a fraction of what it would have cost you if you had wanted to buy one when they first appeared.
First seen 1980
Original Price £1500
Value Today £50 – £300, depending on condition 0113
Features 2-track mono, 3 permalloy heads, 2.4, 4.7, 9.5, 19 cm/sec (15/16, 1 7/8, 3 3/4, 7 1/2 ips) recording speeds, 12-hour recording mode, diecast chassis, 3 digit tape counter, illuminated battery/rec level meter, DIN, XLR & Jack connections, phantom power supply for microphone
Power req. 5 x D cells or ni-cad rechargeable battery pack
Dimensions: 288 x 95 x 230mm
Made in: Germany
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 4
HMV 2210 Tape Recorder, 1967
The 2210 was my first ‘proper’ reel-to-reel tape recorder, though to be strictly accurate it belonged to my father who unexpectedly bought it home one day. It was a real surprise, he wasn’t noticeably interested in what was then quite modern technology and my guess is he picked it up cheap somewhere or it was given to him or was in part payment of a bill for his small engineering business. As far as I can remember he never actually used it so it swiftly passed into my jurisdiction.
Back then HMV was one of a number of brands owned by Thorn, part of the British Radio Corporation, later to become Thorn EMI and this model, and several close variants*, appeared under a variety of names, including Ferguson, Marconiphone and Ultra, to name just a few. It was attractively priced and hugely popular; as far as I can tell the basic design ran from around 1963 to 1969. Key features include 4-track recording (that’s four mono tracks, two per side), and towards the end of its production life it must have been one of the last consumer tape recorders still using valves. There were three of them in the amplifier, plus a valve-type device called a ‘magic eye’ indicator. Part of it can be seen through the small rectangular window above the tone control knob on the left hand side. This is for a phosphor screen on the side of the valve. It displays two glowing green bands that expand and contract with the recorded sound. The idea is to set the optimum level by adjusting the volume control so that the bands just meet in the middle; it was simple and very effective.
The all-metal deck is a wonderful piece of engineering with large piano key controls for the transport mechanism. Tape speed is capstan controlled, switchable between, 1 7/8 and 3 3/4 inches per second and it can accommodate reels of up to 5 3/4 inches in diameter. Other useful features include a superimpose mode (record without erase) and amplifier function, which means it could be used as a simple PA system.
Thanks to all of the ironmongery, wooden case and valves it weighs in at a hefty 9.5kg. It comes complete with its own crystal microphone – with remote pause control – and when not in use this lives in a compartment on the back, with stowage space for the mains lead as well.
This one came from ebay, there’s always two or three on offer but this one caught my eye because the seller said it was in good cosmetic order and it seemed to be powering up with a hum from the speaker but the reels were not turning. This sounded like something that I could fix – a broken drive belt or sticky bearing etc.; I would have given it a very wide berth if there were any problems with the amplifier. I dislike tinkering with valves intensely, I almost always end up getting shocked and finding replacements is becoming increasingly difficult, and expensive. No one else seemed to be interested in it and it was secured with a £5.00 bid, plus £10.00 shipping.
I was right on both counts the main drive belt had perished and the grease on several bearings and linkages had dried up. A quick brush up and a few drops of 3-in-One got things moving again. I managed to find someone selling sets of drive belts for this model but I was put off by the price of almost twenty quid, for what are basically two elastic bands, one for the main drive and a smaller one for the tape counter. So that’s what I used, at nil cost as near exact size rubber bands are regularly deposited outside my front door by the postman. They're probably not as resiliant as the genuine article but they’ve lasted six months so far with no problems. Replacing the big elastic band, sorry, drive belt, the first time was a bit of a palaver. It looked impossible without taking the whole deck apart but eventually I figured it out and the new one has to be teased into place by removing a bearing cap from the flywheel and moving it into position with a piece of thin hooked wire. Now I‘ve got the hang it I reckon that the next time it shouldn’t take more than10 minutes or so.
For a tape recorder that’s getting on for half a century old it still sounds surprisingly good. New and old recordings have a flat and even response. The valve amp gives it a characteristic warm full-bodied sound, heard through a large elliptical speaker that has developed a smooth mellow quality over the years.
What Happened To It?
Reel to reel tape recorders were on a steady decline throughout most of the time this model and its stablemates were in production, thanks to the smaller, cheaper and more convenient Compact Cassette format, which first appeared in 1963. The use of valves also made it something of a dinosaur and even if cassettes hadn’t taken over I doubt that switching to transistor-based electronics would have been made any difference to its prospects.
I have no idea what happened to my original 2210, most likely it developed a fault and my futile attempts to fix it would probably resulted in it being dumped, after removing any interesting looking parts for tinkering and experiments.
Judging by the number of these machines appearing on ebay, and from my own experiences, it is obvious they were built to last and with a reliable supply of elastic bands there’s no reason why it shouldn’t continue for a good while yet. Prices vary enormously; I have seen pristine examples sell for as much as £100 one day and £25 the next. Fixer-uppers often go for just a few pounds; if you know your way around valve circuitry they are cheap enough to buy a couple for parts to put one together. It’s a very practical collectible and if you want one to play around with, and which looks good, you can definitely afford to be choosy.
* Other models with the same deck mechanism include:Ferguson, 3200, 3202, 3204, 3208, 3210, 3212, 3224
HMV 2204, 2206, 2210, 2212, 2220 2206
Marconiphone 4200, 4202, 4204, 4214, 4216
Ultra 6200, 6202, 6204, 6219, 6214, 6216
First seen 1967
Original Price £25.00?
Value Today £25.00 1112
Features 4-track reel to reel, capstan drive, 1 7/8 & 3 3/4 inches per second tape speeds, ‘magic eye’ level indicator, volume & tone controls, 5.75-inch max reel size, 3-valve amplifier (ECC83 ECL86 & EM87), remote pause on supplied microphone, superimpose/amplifier modes, tape counter, mechanical piano key controls
Power req. 240 VAC
Dimensions: 350 x 310 x 165mm
Made in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Panasonic RS-600US Cassette Deck, 1977
Looking back over the long history of the Compact Cassette relatively few models stand out as classics, not that there weren’t some outstanding machines over the years, but the turnover rate was incredible and few models remained in production for longer than a year or so. I spent a good chunk of my early career in magazine journalism traipsing around trade shows and exhibitions and attending press receptions, politely trying to look impressed, and working hard to find something to write about, as eager manufacturers proudly reeled out their shiny new model ranges every spring, and sometimes in the autumn as well.
Often the differences between one season’s offerings and the next were minimal; maybe some redesigned switches or displays. If we were very lucky there was a whizzy new feature, with a long acronym like AFRPS, or S-CRUD (I’m not even sure I made those up…). They were very popular with consumer electronics journos and you could spin out otherwise dull copy, filling sidebars or boxes with ‘teccy’ sounding explanations. Anyway, the point is most CE products of the 70s and 80s, and this is especially true of mainstream audio, were largely unmemorable. But there were exceptions, and the Panasonic RS-600US was one of them.
It lasted from 1977 to 1980, something of a record, but it was a real crowd pleaser, appealing to both geeky teenagers and more grown-up users. Just look at those big VU level meters and all the switches and sliders. The black top panel with the outlined sections, unnecessary labelling and chunky slider controls gave it the professional ‘mixer desk’ look. Never mind that the two sliders either side of the Right and Left channel level controls don’t actually do anything, and within a few months dust and fluff on the tracks of the working sliders made them noisy and almost unusable. It was a shame about the mockwood lower half too, but that was almost obligatory on any product sold in the US, and Panasonic probably couldn’t be bothered – at that time anyway – to re-hash the cosmetics for the smaller European market.
The headline features are an auto-stop tape deck mechanism, tape grade selector switch (ferric, chrome or normal), Noise Filter (this was pre-Dolby so it was a simple de-hisser), and a Limiter switch. This one is a bit of a mystery and seems only to work on the microphone channels, preventing the input from clipping at high level settings. There’s also a 3-digit mechanical tape counter and we can’t forget the dancing, light-up VU meters, helpfully calibrated in decibels; well they look great anyway… Two pairs of phono sockets on the back handle stereo inputs and output and there are two mono mike inputs and a headphone socket on the front, all standard ¼-inch jacks.
At first glance the spec appears fairly modest, but in those days Panasonic knew its markets well and it was precisely the right mix for the target audience who wanted it – in fairly equal measure -- for making compilation tapes in the bedroom, or impressing the neighbours and listening to Max Bygraves (look it up…).
I had all but forgotten about the RS-600, until I spotted this one under a trestle table at a Surrey car boot sale. Thirty seconds and a pound coin later it had a new owner. The seller told me it had been sitting in his garage for at least 10 years and had no idea whether it worked. Knowing Panasonic’s legendary build quality I reckoned it had a better than 50 percent chance of being repairable but as it turned out, all bets were off and it powered up and worked first time. All that was needed to get it back into presentable condition was some light dusting, a few squirts of contact cleaner and a wipe over with Mr Sheen. In spite of its age and the inevitable toll taken on the deck mechanism and head-wear, it still sounds suprisingly good and speed stability is spot on. Maybe it’s not as crisp sounding as later decks, and background noise is noticeable but it still manages to bring alive the distinctive analogue cassette sound, and a lot of fond memories.
What Happened To It?
Soon after the RS-600US appeared the Walkman craze began, and everyone’s attention, mine included, shifted to portable decks. Meanwhile, the trend in home audio was moving towards integrated, rather than stand-alone tape decks, slotted into music centres phoney ‘stack’ systems and hi-fi ‘separates’. It had a very good run, though, and being quite ruthless, Panasonic wouldn’t have kept it in production for so long if it weren’t selling well. Suprisingly few turn up on ebay, which suggests that owners didn’t feel the need to hang on to them once they’d bought their winky lights stack/separate hi-fi system. As always putting a value on something as outwardly ordinary as this is a problem, but I doubt that I would have paid more than £5.00 for one, working or not. On the other hand, if you had one, or remember it and want some cheap, fully functional technological nostalgia don’t be afraid to pay from £30 upwards for one in decent condition.
First seen 1977
Original Price £75
Value Today £30 0912
Features 2-head, 4-track stereo cassette, auto-stop deck mechanism, chrome/normal tape selection, 3-digit tape counter, illuminated VU level meters, stereo in/out (phono), 2 x mono microphone input (jack), headphone output (jack), peak limiter, noise filter
Power req. 240v AC
Dimensions: 355 x 98 x 235
Made in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Starlite Pocket Mate Mini Tape Recorder 1965?
This has to be one of my all-time favourite mini tape recorders from the 1960s. It looks like a proper piece of spy kit and although I’ve never seen it on TV or the movies, its exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to feature in Mission Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Danger Man or even a Bond movie. (In fact a Soviet era copy of a model closely related to this one has appeared in a Russian TV series).
The sad fact is it wouldn’t fare too well in the world of espionage. It uses a notoriously unsteady rim-drive tape mechanism and those tiny, super cute tape reels only hold enough tape for around 5 – 10 minutes worth of recording. Adverts and publicity material of the time suggest that it was sold as a dictating machine but in view of its limited capacity that’s rather ambitious. In truth it’s little more than a toy, albeit a very well made one.
It was probably made by a Japanese company called Tinico. It definitely shares quite a few features with other models from that company, including the deck mechanism and those 44mm tape reels. These are a custom design I have never seen them on any other machines. They are also quite fragile and unusual in that the tape is permanently attached to the reels, so flipping or changing tapes is quite a palaver.
Other features of note include a proper erase head. Most rim drive machines from this period have permanent magnet erase head, mounted on short arms that move the magnet into contact with the tape when the machine is in record mode. My guess is the electromagnetic head was used in this case due to a combination of lack of space for a swing-arm mechanism, and it just looks better. Another oddity is the variable tape speed control, these are fairly rare on tape recorders, but they can be quite useful on rim-drive machines, where the speed at which the tape passes the head changes as the reels fill up and empty. It’s not a problem on tapes recorded on this machine but tapes from another recorder will almost certainly have speed errors. Finally, there’s the push-button controls. This is another very classy touch, and fitting it into such a small space was quite a feat.
Power for the single motor is supplied by a pair of 1.5 volt AA cells and the two transistor amplifier runs from a 9-volt PP3 type battery; these life in a compartment on the underside. It really is beautifully made with heavily chrome-plated trim, all metal construction, including the case, and well-designed control mechanism.
What Happened To It?
Sadly, like most rim-drive machines, of any size, recording quality is very poor. It’s just about okay for speech but this one also suffered from very short recording times, so it lacked any real application. It would have had relatively short shelf-life as a dictating machine in any case as by 1967 Philips had begun marketing its revolutionary PM85 Minicassette pocket recorder, which was smaller, had much better sound quality and ran for significantly longer than this one, or any of its rivals.
This is one of several machines of this type in my collection, one of them is badged Electra 7700. I was lucky enough to snag them all several years ago on ebay, mostly from US sellers, when prices and shipping were a good deal lower than they are today. I can’t remember exactly how much I paid for it, but it probably wasn’t much more than £10.00. It is in full working order and good all round cosmetic condition, though I’m reluctant to power it up any more as the battery holder for one of the AA cells has developed a small crack and with this type of plastic it’s only going to get worse.
They still come up for sale from time to time but the prices have sky-rocketed and the last one I saw sold for well over £200, though it was a very fine specimen, complete with original carry case, microphone and box. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, if you ever see one of these, and it’s a sensible price, grab it quick!
First seen: 1965?
Original Price £25
Value Today? £50 0812
Features Rim drive tape mechanism, variable speed, 44mm/1.75 inch reels, built-in speaker, Play/Record/Rewind push-button controls, microphone jack, rotary volume control
Power req. 2 x AA, 1 x PP3
Dimensions: 205 x 65 x 40mm
Made in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Philips EL3586 Portable Tape Recorder, 1964
Philips secured a well-earned place in the history of consumer electronics with a number of notable firsts, including the video cassette recorder and Compact Disc, but it will probably be best remembered for the compact cassette, introduced in 1963. It revolutionised the music industry and home recording and left a lasting cultural legacy. One way or another compact cassette was responsible for the personal stereo, compilation tapes, music piracy, bootlegging and the list goes on. However, whilst it was a huge success, it took several years before it killed off traditional reel-to-reel tape recorders – portable models at any rate – and even Philips seemed to be hedging their bets with machines like this one, which continued in production until the late 1960s.
The EL3586 was first seen a year after the launch of compact cassette, though the basic design concept of a portable tape recorder using 3-inch reels and top-mounted deck mechanism, had actually been around since the late 50s. Despite appearances it is quite a lump, weighing in at over 3kg, and that’s without the kilogram or so of six D-cells, which helps explain the heavy-duty carry handle. A fair chunk of that weight is down to the tough all-metal deck mechanism. It’s a capstan drive system, ensuring a fairly steady tape speed of 4.74 cm/sec (1 7/8 inches per second). This was certainly good enough for speech and fair to middling music replay. Faster tape speed would have yielded even better audio performance but it would have been impractical; as it was a 3-inch reel full of tape only lasted around 12–15 minutes.
Other features worth mentioning include a 7-transistor audio amplifier. Remember, back then transistors were the new kids on the block and valves still ruled the roost in audio but they simply couldn’t compete in applications like this, where portability, weight and power consumption were critical factors. It comes with a microphone, which fits into a recess on the left side. This detaches, and there’s a compartment behind for the cable and plug, which fits into a DIN socket on the right side. On the front panel there’s a neat little battery/audio level meter and below that two thumbwheels for volume and tone. The tape transport controls consist of three push buttons (rewind, play & fast forward); record mode is engaged by pressing a large red-topped chrome button to the right of the tape head cover. The keys are quite stiff, and it takes a while to get used to them; we’re used interlocked keys, where pressing one, releases another but on this machine you have to gently pull the depressed key towards you to unlock the function. The top covers for the tape head and capstan wheel are removable, presumably to make it easier to untangle tape. The whole thing is topped off by transparent dust cover, with slots for access to the transport buttons.
I found this one, looking grubby and unloved at one of Brighton’s flea markets and being a wet and windy Sunday the stallholder was happy to accept £4.00 for it. I had checked the battery compartment for corrosion; it looked clean so there was a very fair chance it was salvageable. As it turned out, all it needed was mucking out and a few drops of oil and it was running, with impressive volume from the 15cm speaker. Even the recording function worked first time. This was remarkable considering that it probably hadn’t been used for at least 20 years. I based this on the amount of dust and dirt inside, the caked condition of the grease on the moving parts, and the design of the six EverReady batteries still inside, which I am reasonably sure haven’t been made for the best part of two decades.
What Happened To It?
Philips decision not to abandon portable reel-to-reel tape recorders after the launch of compact cassette suggests that it wasn’t entirely confident that the new format would take off. It’s hard to think of any other reasons why machines like this remained in production for so long as it had little or nothing going for it. It was bigger and heavier than rival cassette recorders, it suffered from shorter running times, the quality was relatively poor and I suspect it cost more to produce, if not buy. There was obviously a small legacy market and a number of die-hards who refused to accept the change, but my guess is that by the mid 1960s sales of machines like this one had reduced to a trickle and Philips finally pulled the plug. I don’t have the numbers but I suspect tens of thousands of them were made, but judging by how often they appear on ebay, relatively few remain, and being made of an particularly brittle plastic, I doubt that many are as in good a condition as this one, which has no cracks or blemishes. Price-wise, my £4.00 was definitely well spent, though I admit I was very lucky. In it’s present very clean working condition I wouldn’t be surprised if it sold for ten times as much on ebay, possibly more if it came with an instruction manual and one of the rare mains power supply modules. Good quality or unusual reel-to-reel tape recorders remain very collectable and there are clearly still bargains to be had so keep your eyes peeled!
First seen: 1964
Original Price £25.00?
Value Today? £40.00 0712
Features 2-track mono reel-to-reel tape recorder, 3-inch/7.5cm reels, capstan drive, 4.74 cm per sec/1 7/8 inches per second, play/record/fast forward/rewind modes, recording level/battery meter, volume & tone thumbwheels, detachable microphone, 7-trasnistor amplifier, 15cm internal speaker, microphone & external power (DIN) sockets, detachable carry handle
Power req. 6 x 1.5 bolt D cell
Dimensions: 265 x 200mm x 95
Made in: Holland
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Sony Walkman TPS-L2 Personal Stereo, 1979
It’s a regular contender for the most important, most influential, most iconic etc. etc. gadget of all time and deservedly so because the Sony TPS-L2 is where personal music on the move all began. This is the first and original Walkman, launched in 1979 though to be strictly accurate in its first few months it was also known as the Stowaway, Freestyle and Soundabout, depending where you were in the world. Sony quickly sorted that one out and Walkman became the generic name that it, and a multitude of copycat products became known.
Whilst we’re on the subject of accuracy, credit for the first personal stereo cassette player actually goes to a chap called Andreas Pavel. He filed a patent for the idea, called Stereobelt, in 1972, but he had to wait until 1986, following a long drawn out legal battle, before Sony begrudgingly coughed up some royalties, and he didn’t get a full and final settlement until 2003.
There is no dispute over Sony’s brilliance at marketing the device, its incredible popularity and the huge impact it has had on generations of music lovers, not to mention youth culture, the leisure and consumer electronics industries. It’s also worth pointing out the huge risk Sony took, selling a cassette tape recorder that couldn’t record for the thick end of £150. It was actually a really big deal back then, a lot of reviewers and commentators thought Sony were absolutely mad and predicted that it would be a flop.
As far as the design and operation is concerned it hardly needs any explanation, though there are a few points of interest that were unique to this model. For a start it had a mostly metal case, and was typically – for Sony -- over-engineered, and built like a brick outhouse. The orange button on the top is the Hotline feature, this mutes the sound coming from the tape and pipes sound from a front mounted microphone, so you can hear what someone is saying without having to drop the volume or take off your headphones. It has two volume sliders, rather than a separate balance control, and there are two headphone jacks, so you can share your music with a close friend (who needs their own headphones, incidentally, as only one is supplied). While we’re on the subject of headphones, the Walkman came with a pair of Sony’s revolutionary MDR3s, and there’s more on those here.
Some of those features were slavishly copied by the many rivals that appeared in the following months but none of them came close to matching the sound and build quality, not to mention the Kudos of owning this machine.
My one is a pre-launch review model sent to one of the magazines I was working on at the time. Like so many products at that time it was an instant hit in the office and a real showstopper, with me and several of my fellow journalists desperately trying to blag more review samples from Sony (I don’t think we had much luck as they were in very short supply). The box and manual was branded Stowaway, rather than Walkman and I curse my stupidity for not keeping it, but I still have the original blue leatherette carry case and headphones and the satisfaction of a machine with a serial number in the very low thousands, making it one of the first off the line.
What Happened To It?
Throughout the 80s and 90s Sony kept up the pressure and produced a succession of outstanding cassette machines bearing the Walkman badge but competition was fierce. There were plenty of rival machines from the likes of Aiwa, Panasonic and Toshiba with similar or even better performance, more features, smaller cases and so on, but the Sony Walkman was always the one to beat, and the one to be seen with, but time was running out for the Compact Cassette.
By the late 1990s other technologies were starting to have an impact on the personal stereo market. CD and MiniDisc (another Sony development), were capable of noticeably better sound quality, though it would take a while before they could match cassette players for price and mechanical stability. But the writing was on the wall for all forms of magnetic and optical media and towards the end of the 1990s the first stirrings of solid-state memory based devices, data compression and the ubiquitous MP3 spelt the end for small boxes full of whirring motors, gears and pulleys. It didn’t happen overnight, though and the demise of the cassette Walkman marque has been a long drawn out affair. By 2003 the market was essentially dead but cheapie Walkman cassette players were still being manufactured for Sony in China up until 2010, though they were only sold in limited numbers to specialist markets.
I have no idea how many of the original first generation TPS-L2s were made but it probably wasn’t that many. Within a few months of the launch they were being branded as Walkmans, so if you are after a collectible early model look for one without a name badge on the cassette cover. There are always a few on ebay and prices vary wildly, I have seen mint boxed examples go for several hundred pounds, even fairly ordinary ones can make £100 on a good day, but the occasional bargain slips through so the trick is to be patient.
First seen: 1979
Original Price £125
Value Today? £100? 0712
Features: stereo cassette player, capstan drive, Play/Rew/FF, volume, headphones, 3V DC in, carry case, 'Hot Line' talk through, twin headphone sockets, 2-mode tone switch
Power req. 2 x AA cell
Dimensions: 135 x 90 x 30mm
Made in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Much has been written about Sony’s first and iconic Walkman, the TPS-L2 -- including our own modest contribution -- but the models that followed immediately afterwards have been largely forgotten. To be honest most of them were fairly unmemorable but one does stand out, and that’s the WM-R2, which appeared in 1982.
Its main claim to fame was that it had a recording facility. This was a rather odd development; back in the early 80s consumer electronics manufacturers were desperately trying to catch up and cash in on the Walkman’s success, churning out vast numbers of ever smaller cassette players with no recording function, so this was seen, by some, as a strange backwards step. As it turned out it wasn’t a great success, and this may in part have been due to the somewhat optimistic cosmetics, which gave it the appearance of a professional recording device. The pair of stereo mikes on the top look as though they should be detachable, or at least moveable, but they are just dummies and an integral part of the case. The Normal/Metal tape switch on the side suggests the possibility of recording on high-performance tape, when in fact this was a playback only function. The list goes on, there’s no manual recording level control or display, or any form of noise reduction and it uses a simple magnetic erase head. In short it was little more than a fancy dictating machine. But let’s not be too critical, it was definitely a notch up and novel twist on the standard Walkman and for a while it was the one to be seen with.
Under the bonnet there was the usual Sony build quality and the mostly metal case is packed to the rafters with electronics and a precision-engineered deck mechanism with light(ish) touch push-button controls. It had several interesting features, including twin headphone jacks, a mechanical tape counter and external microphone input. It also had the Hot Line function that first appeared on the TPS-L2 and allowed whatever was coming through the microphones to be heard on the headphones. Sony billed this as ‘lockable’ – it was operated by a push button on the TPS-L2 – however, the rumour was that this was only because there was no space for a button, so they used a slide switch instead. There may also have been some crafty spin on the Punch-In record function. Basically this meant you could go directly into Record Mode during playback, just by pressing the Record button (on non-protected tapes). On just about every other cassette recorder ever made there’s an interlock, to prevent