Although the first mass-produced stereophonic LP—Audio Fidelity Records’ combo of railroad-train sound effects on one side and music by the Dukes of Dixieland on the other—wasn’t officially introduced until December 13, 1957, a select few audiophiles were already enjoying two-channel recordings in their homes via pre-recorded, quarter-inch, reel-to-reel magnetic tapes, played back on commercial tape decks with in-line or stacked heads. Most of the larger record companies had been releasing these prerecorded stereo tapes since 1954 (R2R monophonic tapes since 1949), and for the most part they sounded great. Indeed, when RCA, Columbia, etc. began reissuing many of these same titles on stereo discs in 1958, the audio press was sometimes disappointed by the LP sonics. What had been smooth, continuous, wideband, low-distortion high fidelity on reel-to-reel could be rough, left/right, limited-range lower fidelity on vinyl.
With R2R tapes, sonics were never the problem. The rub was their expense (a mono LP cost about $3.95 in 1954; stereo tapes, on the other hand, ranged from $12.95–$18.95 apiece); their relative fragility; and the steep price of the tape decks needed to play them back (not to mention the additional cost of doubling up on speakers and amps).
There were and are multiple reasons for R2R tape’s sonic superiority. For one thing, a tape is duplicated directly from a copy of a mastertape (or a copy of the edited work parts derived from same) via two synchronized recorders. The process is simple and straightforward. As most of you know, making a vinyl record is a far more lossy procedure, typically involving several generations of metal “fathers and mothers,” stampers, and vinyl pucks that must be engraved and flattened under pressure.
For another, outside of their transport mechanisms tapes recorders have no moving parts. Where a phono cartridge’s stylus wiggles up and down and side to side as it traces the modulations engraved in an LP’s grooves, sending those physical vibrations to magnets or coils (which also move) at the other end of a cantilever, the “heads” on RTR decks are fixed and stationary. They simply scan the magnetic signals pre-recorded on the tapes passing beneath them, converting them into electrical signals (via their built-in head amps) without having to compensate for the mass, inertia, and relative imprecision of moving parts.
For a third, tapes (or at least 15ips tapes) are inherently higher in fidelity than LPs. Not only are they much closer to the source, the greater width of their tracks (vis-à-vis a record’s grooves) also means more information is laid down and preserved in each channel, while the higher speed at which those tracks are scanned makes for smoother, more extended frequency response (particularly in the bass), a more naturally “continuous” (less step-like, more ramp-like) presentation of dynamic gradients, and (with tape’s richer and fuller bottom octaves and slight compression of the top treble) a distortion profile that is closer to that of the human ear—a warmth and sweetness that are very natural and musical.
For audiophiles who could afford them, reel-to-reel tapes were the ne plus ultra of high-fidelity playback right up until the end of the 1960s, when the greater convenience, lower cost, and readier availability of cassette tapes and audiophile-grade cassette players (particularly from Nakamichi) began to crowd them out of the playback market. After the digital bomb went off in 1982, the already waning medium of R2R playback virtually disappeared from the home-audio scene.