Remember vintage reel-to-reel tape recorders?

Reel-to-reel vintage tape recorders

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.


Reel-to-reel tape recorders hit the commercial market in the 1940s — and their evolution was boosted by the financial support of none other than Bing Crosby, who saw great potential in the technology.

Here’s a look back at how the industry really got going, plus see some of the top vintage reel-to-reel tape recorders available from the ’50s through the ’70s.

Vintage RCA Victor reel tapes to play music (1968)

Magnetic tape recorder born 25 years ago (from 1969)

The tape recorder resisted practical application until the development of electronic circuitry in the 1930s.

During World War II, German firms advanced the concept, and introduced a number of engineering models employing plastic tapes coated with oxide particles. These early devices, called Magnetopohons, were used by the German government for wartime propaganda broadcasts.

Just after [WWII], several Magnetophons were brought to the United States by returning military personnel and exhibited to gatherings of engineers. At such a meeting in 1946, Alexander Poniatoff saw the Magnetophon for the first time.

Photo by Friedrich Engel (CC BY-SA 3.0) Wikipedia Commons
Vintage German AEG Magnetophon K4 from 1939 / Photo by Friedrich Engel (CC BY-SA 3.0) Wikipedia Commons

While others in the industry scoffed at this relatively primitive magnetic recorder as an impractical novelty, Poniatoff saw in it a potential product worthy of his technical team. Ampex set about improving the concept exemplified by the Magnetophon, and in 1947, produced a recorder that demonstrated the practicality of magnetic recording.

The Ampex Model 200 was the first professional-quality magnetic recorder to be offered commercially. It was immediately adopted by the radio broadcasting industry as a basic tool for producton and time-delay of network broadcasts in 1948 and by the music business for mastering high fidelity records.

A key figure in launching the Model 200 was Bing Crosby. At the peak of his radio popularity in 1947, Bing wished to record his weekly network shows, which the pressure of live broadcasting inhibited.

Bing Crosby and his early Ampex tape recorders

He turned first to electrical transcriptions, but the sound quality was noticeably impaired by this process, and the problems of editing and producing the show using discs were formidable.

Hearing of the magnetophon, Bing arranged to test it in the production of a show. The results were so encouraging that he sought to make tape recording his standard means of production.

This led him to Ampex, from which he purchased not only the first Model 200, but the first 20. From this point, the Crosby show was taped at a relaxed pace, easily edited down to a half-hour format and broadcast with sound quality indistinguishable from a live program.

For several years, Bing Crosby Enterprises was the exclusive distributor for Ampex products, selling hundreds of recorders to radio stations and master recording studios.

MORE: Audio cassette tapes first rocked our socks in the 1970s! And these easy tips kept us grooving

In the years since the historic Model 200 appeared, magnetic recording has taken its place alongside the printed page as a basic means by which man captures, stores, organizes and retrieves information about himself and his environment.

Vintage Wollensak tape recorder deck ad from 1964

For those under 30, a world without magnetic recording is difficult to visualize, so basic has it become in modern life. Descendants of the Model 200 play vital roles in man’s exploration of space, in data processing and record keeping, in research, education, communications and the enjoyment of our leisure time.

In 1969, total sales of magnetic recording equipment and tape and other recording media throughout the non-communist world will be well over $3,000,000,000, according to William E. Roberts, Ampex president and chief executive officer.

Today, the firm does a multimillion-dollar business in computer tape transports, audio recorder reproducers for broadcasting, magnetic tape, video broadcast and closed-circuit videotape recorders, receivers and systems instrumentation recorders and systems for laboratory and mobile use, and video file information systems.

Retro reel-to-reel tape deck and recorder
Retro reel-to-reel tape deck and recorder picture via Deposit Photos

Andy Thomas finds 8 daily uses for his new RCA Victor Tape Recorder (1957)

“It’s great!” says Andy Thomas, referring to his new RCA Victor Congressional tape recorder.

“Frankly, I bought it just for office use. But soon I was taking it home — to parties — everywhere. Push-buttons make it a cinch to operate. And thanks to “Golden Throat” tone, the playbacks really sound professional.

You also get two speeds: one is best for voice-one for music. But don’t take my word. Today, ask your RCA Victor dealer to show you the Congressional (model 7TR2) in tan simulated leather. If you prefer Hi-Fi, there are 2 beautiful models from $199.95.

1957 RCA Victor tape recorder

Vintage Wollensak Stereophonic reel-to-reel tape recorders (1964)

Wollensak means precision in sound! Just touch a button, sit back, relax.

Let the magnificent Wollensak Stereophonic bathe you in sound, rich, and full-bodied as only stereo tape can bring it to you. Listen to the sound of the world’s greatest voices, triumphal orchestras captured precisely by the exclusive Wollensak “Balanced-Tone.”

Vintage Wollensak Tape Recorder 1964

DON’T MISS: See 20 Walkmans & other portable tape players that made headphones the ultimate fashion accessory

General Electric family reel-to-reel tape recorders (1965)

It’s a new idea. It’s a portable tape recorder designed by General Electric for the whole family to use. Use it to record baby’s first words. Birthday and party time fun. Dad can test out a speech. record a lecture. Teenagers can tape jazz. Mother can tape a voice-letter to send to her son in the Service.

It’s easy to operate. Just press the button to record, rewind, play back or stop. It’s rugged. Plays back words and music with a clear, true sound on 1/2-hour reels.

(General Electric is first to design Ultra-Balance into an inexpensive tape recorder. This engineering breakthrough installs a precision-balanced flywheel into the recorder’s capstan drive to give you the constant tape speed so important for faithful fidelity.)

It’s portable. Goes anywhere. Works on 4 standard flashlight batteries. Operates in any position. Special Safety Brake prevents tape from ever spilling off reels. (That’s G-E engineering again.)

The price is family-budget size. under $40. See it at your dealer’s. Try it. If you have a family camera. you should also have a new General Electric Family Tape Recorder.

MORE: V is for Victrola record players: The history of the famous gramophones that entertained millions

General Electric family reel-to-reel tape recorders (1965)

Ampex 2070 stereo tape recorder from 1965

Ampex 2070 stereo tape recorder from 1965

Concord 4-track tape players (1960s)

Concord 4-track tape players - 60s

Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorders/tape players (1966)

More style, more features than any other recorder in its price class. The construction is typically Wollensak: rugged, reliable, absolutely top quality in both design and materials.

Never before has a budget priced tape recorder contained such a luxurious array of features, plus the superb new Control Central that contains a sound studio of highly versatile advantages in a hand span. Price: $149.95*

ALSO SEE: Creedence Clearwater Revival was the richest, most successful pop-rock group in the world in 1971

5150 ADVANCED FEATURES: Four speeds • Solid-state circuitry • Vertical and horizontal operation • Power activated push buttons • Self-contained reel locks • VU meter • External circuit breaker • Instant pause control • Four digit tape counter • Automatic shut-off • Self-adjusting braking system • Automatic tape lifters • Automatic head demagnetization • Monitor facility • Complete with protective cover lid, one microphone, one 7″ reel of blank tape, one self-threading take-up reel.

Wollensak tape players - tape recorders 1966

RCA Victor solid state reel-to-reel vintage tape recorders (1965)

Now RCA, the company that makes tape recorders for Gemini, offers 9 tape recorders you can buy

RCA Victor solid state reel-to-reel vintage tape recorders (1965)

Woolensak Twin-Wing stereo tape recorder (1966)

Wollensak 5750 Twin-Wing Stereo Tape Recorder. Speakers swing out for play, fold when not in use. Easily detachable for strategic placement on wall, or table, in bookcase. Vertical or horizontal operation. Attractively woven speaker facings.

The Wall Stereo Model 5800. The new Compact Stereo Model 5730. The new cordless Cartridge Portable Model 4100. 3M Co.

Woolensak Twin-Wing stereo tape recorder (1966)

MORE: How to choose a turntable: Old-school tips for the best record players

Sony solid-state stereo reel-to-reel tape recorders (1967)

Now, from World-famous Sony, the perfect playmate for your record player — the new Sony model 250A solid-state stereo tape recorder.

With a simple, instant connection to your record player, you add the amazing versatility of four-track stereo recording and playback to complete your home entertainment center.

Create your own tapes from AM, PM or FM Stereo receivers, or live from microphones-up to 6-1/4 hours of listening pleasure on one tape!

This beautiful instrument is handsomely mounted in a low-profile walnut cabinet, complete with built-in stereo recording amplifiers and playback pre-amps, dual V.U. meters, automatic sentinel switch and all the other superb features you can always expect with a Sony. All the best from Sony for less than $149.50.

Sony model 250A solid-state stereo tape recorder

Vintage Sony reel-to-reel tape recorders (1970)

No matter how elaborate your home stereo sound system is, it’s incomplete without a tape deck. And Sony/Superscope brings you the most complete line of stereo tape decks in the world.

Decks that fit all pocketbooks. that suit particular systems. that meet specific needs. And every Sony/Superscope deck — regardless of price — is the finest money can buy.

Each instrument is flawlessly crafted. with rigorous testing at every step of construction. Then each instrument undergoes a complete series of quality-assurance tests — performed by skilled technicians at one of the most modern and sophisticated tape-recorder test facilities in the world.

So you may be sure that the Sony/Superscope product you purchase will give you years of trouble-free service.
The Sony/Superscope deck that’s exactly right for you is at your dealer’s now.

ALSO SEE: Remember those mail-order record clubs that offered vinyl albums & tapes for a penny?

Sony reel to reel tape recorders 1970

Retro Pioneer reel-to-reel tape deck (1977)

Retro Pioneer reel-to-reel tape deck (1977)

NOW SEE THIS: Vintage portable radios from the ’50s to the ’80s

PS: If you liked this article, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest. Thanks for visiting and for supporting a small business! 🤩 


You might also like...

The fun never ends:

Comments on this story

5 Responses

  1. The story is interestingly unfinished, there’s so much story left to be told. I myself didn’t become hip to the amazing sound of Stereo reel to reel recordings and play back until the late 70’s when a family member bought one back for a PX on a military base. The first time I heard it I was hooked. I got my hands on an old AMPEX in the mid 80’s not all that long after the introduction of CD players, it was an antique even then,but the sound and what it offered that tape cassettes didn’t even as old as it was, was hard to ignore, something “god knows what ” happened to stop it from playing back I tried everything, Radio Shack was still ubiquitous everywhere here in the N.Y. metro area so I was able to find a demagnatizer(still available on Ebay) as well as blank tapes and electronic contact cleaners but it seemed after a lot of cash I couldn’t find the problem lastly I found a AMPEX parts dealer and ordered new heads at a price unheard of in today’s market and I couldn’t get it to work but I kept it for sentimental reasons until my now ex let someone mess with it and made my unhappiness worse then some time after moving into my own place it was somehow finished off and I tossed it out but not without at least a tear or two. I am now in the market for a high end vintage unit. I have had a chance to buy a few very good models and now being an experienced audiophile I know exactly what I want, but getting one is like choosing which Mercedes Benz to buy ,so many to choose from but so damn expensive. I know that I don’t have a lot of time or money to spend on it because they have become such a hot commodity that bidding on my most sought after models can get astronomically expensive and
    time consuming that I noticed myself laying in bed doing the math in my head trying to figure out how I can do it and still stay financially stable, so Ive let some great brands and models slip through my fingers to my dismay. In the end I have to leave it to faith, that my income will grow and I will again reach my full income potential and it will not be a problem no matter what the price, but for now I should focus on what is important and keep it in mind.

    1. Try the Pioneer RT909 (also the 901 and 701) – “Vintage” being circa. 1979 or 1980 and requires external amplification. The article leaves a great deal of info out to the detriment of the story. Thankfully there are many great sources of information on the subject available if you know where to look. Good luck!

  2. I have a 1970? Craig Solid State Stereo reel to reel player/recorder I’m looking to sell. I need to know a reasonable price to ask for it. Can you help me with this? Thank you very much.

  3. Great article.

    I’m on the search for a magazine advert in an American magazine in the early 1950’s for a reel to reel tape machine called the Magnetic Recorders Company ‘reporter’ (also the Boozey and Hawkes ‘reporter’ in the uk).

    If anybody knows the magazine please drop me an email. Ferrariparts123@gmail.Com

  4. When I was in elementary school in the early 70s, every classroom had one of those 1964 Wollensak machines. However, only one teacher knew how (or felt confident enough) to use it. He had all these tapes of folk and traditional music from around the world and would play them for us. Later, in college, I bought a small reel-to-reel at a yard sale. At the time I was taking an audio class, so it came in handy for making tape splices and loops.

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.