Reel to Real

Reel to Real

Written by Jay Jay French

“Hey Jay Jay,  how about an audio column for a change?”


Several years ago, a mutual friend introduced me to Ken Kessler. I’d been reading Ken’s reviews and musings in Hi-Fi News & Record Review for many years, and really enjoyed his writing style. He is a native American but went to the UK in the early seventies, met his future wife, and, in effect, never left.

We hit it off immediately, due to our similar ages, and shared loves of the Beatles, wine, watches, and, of course, hi-fi. Those have all led to many great conversations.

Over the last three years, I’ve spent several days with Ken—and I will say that our overriding passion is analog. Neither of us is anti-digital, but we both wallow in the warmer presentation of analog. I am also fascinated by turntables, and always have been. Same with Ken.

At this point in our analog evolution, my player is a VPI Avenger Reference with a Dynavector XV-1S cartridge. Ken’s main player is an SME 30/12.

But here is where a reviewer has an edge: as Ken reviews the best products he is able to hear, in real time, the advances in the evolution of  sound reproduction brought by those products.

While I was on my one month vacation in the UK and Europe, Ken had me over and I got a chance to hear two stunning analog presentations. The first one was playing vinyl through the DS Audio Master 1 optical cartridge, and the second was Ken’s latest fixation: reel to reel tape recordings.

This is not an advertisement for any product nor an endorsement. However, my observations result from nearly 50 years of following high- end audio’s march to “the absolute sound” .

I wrote in an earlier piece that, in reality, the closest any consumer will ever get to a recorded event is what the sound engineer and producer are hearing during playback of a final mixed song/performance at the console. After that, the product goes through many different steps before it gets into the hands of the consumer. Each step imparts layers (no matter how small) of conversion distortions that get in the way of that “mixing desk” experience.

To that end, over the last 100 years  many companies have spent millions of dollars closing the gap between what is finally printed on the cylinder/ tape/hard drive and what you, the consumer, can buy.

Ken recently did a full review of the DS Audio Master 1 optical cartridge. Don’t confuse the terminology with the Finial Laser turntable that has come, gone and come and gone over the last 20 years. That player was about reading the groove with a laser beam. The DS  cartridge, however, has a conventional stylus tip. What is optical, however, is how the stylus movement gets to the output pins on the rear of the cartridge. The technology replaces the internal magnets & coils with optical sensors, which greatly reduces the weight of the cartridge. Without all that grunt work done by the magnets & coils to convert the moving stylus into energy, the signal travels much faster and with less “haze”. The DS optical cartridge has to be used with a proprietary preamp, which is part of the package. [Optical cartridges have been around a while: Philco’s “Beam of Light” pickup used a photosensor to translate stylus/cantilever movement into an electrical signal, way back in 1941! The “optical cartridges from the 1970s”  DS referred to in their literature were made by Toshiba, and tended to be troublesome. One final nerd-note: standard magnetic cartridges are velocity-sensing; optical cartridges and strain-gauge cartridges are both  amplitude- or displacement-sensing, and (at least in theory) their output won’t saturate upon major groove movement, as magnetic cartridges can.—Ed.]

To my ears, this transference was breathtaking in its presentation. I was brought yet again, one step closer to the event.

Drawbacks?  Cost, for one. The DS Master One lists in the UK for a cool 20,000 pounds, although a much less expensive version is coming-about $5k in the US.

And…you’d better have a very clean record to begin with as everything is brought closer, including dust and vinyl imperfections.

The soundstage is also not as expansive as I would have liked, as I hear at home in my system— but because I was not able to A-B this directly, this observation is not as authoritative as I would like.

Let’s just say that the experience was very different, and the non- recorded grooves of the vinyl were eerily silent, like a CD. To me it seemed as though the dynamic range of the playback was greatly increased. The whole time I felt like I was listening to as close to a master tape as vinyl could get me.

Jay Jay’s home rig.

My current analog set up (VPI Avenger Reference, Dynavector XV-1S, Moon 810 Phono stage, PS Audio BHK preamp, Pass x250 power amp,Wilson Sabrinas) ain’t no slouch, and I know its benefits and shortcomings well.
We listened to the newly remixed for stereo 50th anniversary Beatles Sgt. Pepper. We both love the Beatles and we both love the new remixed version (more on this later).

Ken’s system consisted of the SME ‘table, Audio Research Preamp Ref 6 and Audio Research Power Amp Ref 75SE, played through Wilson Yvettes —and the sound was spectacular.
It felt like we were in the mastering room!

Ken Kessler’s modest (cough) home system.

The truth about listening to vinyl is that regardless of whether your turntable cost $199.00 or $150,000,00, the record that you are playing is the same 99 cent piece of vinyl with all the inherent limitations of said vinyl :clicks, pops, inner groove distortions, wavelength shortening and adjusted frequency curves. Yes, the better the vinyl playback system, the less these problems get in the way but if you ever get a chance to directly compare the best vinyl to a tape copy of the exact item, you would be in shock.

That brings me to Ken’s latest love….reel to reel tapes and the machines to play them on. Ken has been acquiring, at an ever increasing pace, pre-recorded reel to reel tapes and great tape machines.

I used to own a Revox A77 mk3 back in the early ’70s, and would regularly buy factory reel to reel tapes. I still have some Beatles, Quicksilver, Steve Miller &  Santana official record company  7’’ tape copies. I wish I had kept them all.

Ken played tape after tape of familiar music ranging from an original 7 ½ ips stereo copy of Sgt. Pepper to Motown legends The Temptations to a master copy of Tea for the Tillerman as well as newly recorded product that can be purchased from  a well known catalog at a cost of $450.00 each.

This, my friends, is the nichiest of all analog pursuits.

When set up properly, a tape trounces the best analog for all the reasons that I mentioned earlier. Is there tape hiss? We did not use Dolby, but we couldn’t hear any hiss to distract us. Instead we heard the most natural presentations, played back with an ease that just felt right.

A few of Ken’s Beatles tapes.

The original Sgt.Pepper on reel to reel was so good that we started to rethink the love of the new remix. Tea For The Tillerman finally reached a level of reproduction that removed the last bits of compression, speed variability and audible gain riding, all of which are present on even the best 45rpm vinyl.

Ken’s tape machines are: Technics RS1500 reel-to-reel, completely overhauled by Audiophiles Clinic in the UK  with mystery tweaking, joined by a Revox G36 AND a Tandberg 20A SE half-track!!!

No, I’m not going out to buy a tape machine and get into this world. I just do not have the space and time But…there is something about how we listen, and the levels of resolution that we have ascended to, that allows us to hear what tape can do that vinyl just can’t and will never (at least in the here and now) do.

Mat Weisfeld, who now runs VPI, told me today that they  bring a tape machine to hi-fi shows and play the same album on both vinyl and tape to show how close their VPI  ‘tables can get to tape. That is pretty ballsy. Yes, they get real close—so close that I’m cool with sticking to my vinyl set up.

The reel to reel game, if you have the money and the time to search for long ago discontinued product and very expensive new product, will without a doubt  get you even closer to “being there”.

Jay Jay and Ken, with the tweaked Technics deck in the back, a Revox G36 in the front.

Thank you Ken, especially for talking Beatles. As much as I have read, know and own of their records, Ken has over 300 bootlegs! This is some serious shit.

Thank you Ken for the day and the amazing Chinese food at lunch, and especially, all the gear!

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