You'll find tons of 8 Track machines on eBay in varying condition. The seller will generally
pop in a tape, run it for a few minutes and conclude that the machine "works great". And
it may be perfectly true that the tape indeed played music, the track change button did
its job and the seller was not lying. But you should ALWAYS expect a machine to need
some kind of repair very soon, and it will likely start acting up the moment you first plug
it in and start using it. About 75% of all the jobs I get are from disgruntled eBay buyers
who thought they were getting fully functioning machines, but it's unrealistic to expect
a 30 year old machine to give acceptable performance without a little professional care.
You'll find a few sellers who do their own work on the machines before listing them. A
common practice is to replace the belt, tweak the adjustments a bit, clean the controls
and call it "serviced". These machines are slightly less risky to purchase, but you
should look for some kind of guarantee or return policy before plunking down a large
chunk of cash for these units. And remember, most sellers will make you pay the
return shipping charges - which are sometimes more than you paid for the machine!
NEW IN BOX, OR N.O.S. (New Old Stock)
These are machines left over from the 60's and 70's that were never sold, and are still
in their original, sealed factory packages. You may think you're getting a machine that
will operate perfectly and sound great right out of the box. Think again!
Unless you are extremely lucky, these machines will have the following problems:
1. The belt has been in the same position for 30 years, and may have even melted
from sitting in a garage or warehouse. "Belt Melt" is one of the most common 8 track
problems by the way, and they sometimes seep into the motor, creating a gooey mess
that takes hours to fully remove. Even if the belt hasn't melted, it is now permanently
reformed, with a small radius at the motor pulley and a large radius at the capstan. It
will likely stay in one place while the motor helplessly spins trying to turn it. At the
very least, it will sound "jerky" as the smaller radius repeatedly runs past the pulley.
2. The factory lubricant has not had a chance to spread throughout the mechanism,
and is also dried up from age. The track change mechanism depends heavily on this
lubricant for smooth performance, and you will likely have problems with track change.
3. The electrolytic capacitors in the unit have sat for years with no current going
through them, and could easily fail from the sudden current surge when you first
operate the machine. In extreme cases, they will even explode and spray ACID
all through the inside of your machine. This, incidentally, will not harm the machine
but you won't get any sound if they do fail.
4. Transistors, after sitting for years without being used, are prone to becoming
very noisy. They will sometimes produce a loud static, so loud that it drowns out
the music. I have purchased only two "new in box" units, and both had this problem.
Tracking down a noisy transistor falls under the "major repair" category and could
be expensive to fix, not to mention recapping the entire unit.
Bottom line: Buy a "new in box" unit because you want flawless external appearance,
but do expect to have it repaired very soon - it will surely need attention.
The straight dope on brands and models - good and bad
AKAI - Once the best machines ever made, they are now the greatest financial risk. The
heads in all except the CR-83(D) have a strong tendency to fail and are no longer available.
Additionally, the motors in high-end Akai units lose most of their torque - and again, are
no longer available. We can install our special, adjustable speed motor - but there is
nothing that can be done when the head loses a side or develops random static. Most
high-end Akais tend to run just a bit slow and have a sound that feels "overproduced".
PIONEER - Another great brand, but usually not quite worth the money they sometimes
fetch. Fine-sounding decks with cheap but adjustable DC motors, solid mechanisms
and usually many cool features like fast-forward and end-of-tape auto-stop.
The H-R99 and H-R100 are the most popular. The H-R100 has Dolby which is useless.
WOLLENSAK - These decks sound fantastic, but expect to replace the motor very soon.
Common to all Wollensaks is that they shoot the tape out like a cannon when ejected.
This disturbing problem is addressed and repaired in our shop.
SOUNDESIGN - Very sharp-looking products with really cheap electronics inside.
Some of the Soundesign machines have great treble response, making them ideal for 8
track playback. But the motors and mechanisms tend to be pretty wimpy, and won't
always pull a stubborn tape through smoothly. Cheaply built, but decent machines.
REALISTIC - Despite Radio Shack's bad rep, Realistics are actually very well-built and
designed products, sometimes manufactured by Shure and other fine companies,
and some models use the same chassis found in Toshiba units. Bad rep, good stuff!
PANASONIC - Very good machines all around, usually found at good prices. Panasonic
means solid construction, good enough sound and great reliability.
SEARS, JC PENNEY, MONTGOMERY WARD - Very good quality equipment all around,
manufactured by other companies and labeled with the store name.
ELECTROPHONIC - The only one worth buying is the small component player with the
front panel head adjustment - VERY HANDY FEATURE, and I haven't seen it on many
other machine. Unfortunately, Electrophonic is very poor quality using small
diameter capstans and flywheels along with a cheap motor. The speed consistency
on most Electrophinics is horrible, and they are not very reliable either.
LEAR JET - The inventor of the 8 track format. Lear Jet machines are the oldest of course,
and the few I've been inside were pretty scary fire hazards. Long, bare component
leads almost touching the chassis, the power transformer basically right up against
the wooden cabinet, parts tack-soldered seemingly as an afterthought (or a quick rig to get
it working and out the door). On the whole, a bad investment in my opinion.
NOTE: THIS DOES NOT APPLY TO OTHER BRANDS BEARING THE LABEL "LICENSED BY
LEAR JET INDUSTRIES" This only means that the manufacturer was required to purchase
a license to build or utilize a significant portion of then-current 8 track technology, and
applies only to the design of the tape transport and track changing mechanism.
MOST OTHER BRANDS - Anyone with enough money could purchase a license from Lear Jet
to build their transports, slap an audio board in there and make a fast buck. Most of these
machines are just fine, even if you never heard of the brand.
My personal all-around favorite is the Akai GXR-82D, with the CR-81D a very close second.
In general, brands which tout a name like "Super Sound", etc. are usually junk behind
a persuasive name, while the better brands tend to proudly state the name of the
designer or manufacturer. Just about any brand can be made to sound good and
perform well, but the brands at the top of the list will deliver solid and satisfactory
performance for years to come, and are worth the extra investment. Happy Tracking!
|Getting the Most For Your 8 Track Player Buck
|4783 N. Glenrosa Circle
Prescott Valley, AZ 86314
|I am often asked which machines are the best, but the real question nowadays is "Which machines are the safest
investments?" . Unfortunately, the unique high end parts that made possible the finest and best sounding machines of
the 60's and 70's are now the parts that can only be found in a similar model. And since common sense dictates that
we don't replace a used part with a high failure rate with another used part with a high failure rate, the wiser course of
action is to stick with a machine for which new parts can still be found (or at least fabricated if it's a mechanical part).
To start off this discussion, you might wonder which machine Barry purchases when he needs one:
For a Quad recording deck, my choice is the Technics RS-858US. This model is all-transistor, some of which may not
always be available but can at least be substituted using newer types. There were no esoteric, early design integrated
circuit chips, their motors are strong and robust DC motors which are easy to replace - but most importantly, their
heads are not prone to failure or the development of random or continuous static noise like, for instance, Akai heads.
Other desirable traits of the RS-858 series include the Pana-Ject function which is simpler and less prone to failure
than other Eject designs. Their audio boards are easy to get to for troubleshooting, their trimmer potentiometers are
well constructed for easy and reliable calibration, and their headphone jacks are the non-switching type, meaning
you won't completely lose audio from the line outputs due to a dirty or worn headphone jack.
The selection between 2 channel and 4 channel operation is completely manual, and not automatically selected by
the type of cartridge you're listening to or recording onto. While this of course adds a step that the user must keep
track of, it's also one of the characteristics of professional gear on which very few functions are automatic. This also
means you can record and playback in Quad mode on a standard stereo cartridge. Quad tapes recorded in this
manner will not play in a Quad deck which has only automatic switching, but this is a small sacrifice to make.
The only design flaw I've found on the RS-858 series is an idler roller in the tape counter mechanism, over which
passes a small belt that is traveling in one direction at the bottom and the opposite direction at the top. This causes
the idler roller to start and stop as it tries to decide which direction to turn. Since this can cause a barely perceptible
increase in the machine's wow and flutter, I simply remove this roller as the mechanism works just fine without it.
Incidentally, the tape counter in this model is one of very few in which the worm gear is not prone to cracking, and
another nice bonus is that the counter reads in actual minutes and seconds which can helpful in tape programming.
"What About Akai and Wollensak - Aren't These Great Machines Too?"
Yes, when they were new - but nowadays they are a risky investment for the following reasons:
Wollensak - Quad and Stereo Machines
The special motors used in Wollensak machines are now suffering from an extremely high failure rate. While this is
easily gotten around by the installation of my special adjustable speed motor, their audio boards are so difficult to
access and time-consuming to service, I don't even offer it and only perform motor replacement and basic mechanical
service on Wollensaks. Besides the need to unsolder tones of wires in order to get make these boards accessible
(which means they cannot remain connected to the machine while replacing parts to quickly check repair progress),
the trimmer potentiometers used for calibration are very flimsy and likely to fall apart when trying to adjust them.
Other problematic traits on Wollensaks include a rocker arm type tape retention roller which, while being somewhat
adjustable, force you to choose between holding the tape in tightly enough OR having proper pressure of the tape's
roller against the capstan. Once this system becomes worn from heavy use, it may not play all tapes acceptably as
it becomes impossible to reach the delicate balance between these two parameters - especially on old and worn tapes.
To Wollensak's credit, these machines do have the brightest and clearest sound as long as the heads are not too worn.
But all things considered, I would opt for a less trouble-prone machine and use an equalizer to boost its treble instead.
Akai - Quad and Stereo Machines
The CR-83D is a fine machine, albeit lighter and cheaper in construction than the CR-80, CR-81 and CR-80D-SS. The
CR-83D has very reliable electronics, and is one of very few machines for which I stock the exact OEM motor and
don't need to retrofit my special adjustable speed motor. As I currently have roughly 200 of this particular motor, it's
unlikely I will ever run out of them as the CR83D is only moderately popular as a repair item. They do have a tendency
to stop changing tracks due to a gummed-up mechanism that requires almost complete machine disassembly to fix -
literally, I have to remove the bottom panel and everything mounted to it, then take apart and service the track change
mechanism with everything held together by wires - then fully reassemble the machine before I can even test it. But
at least it can be done, and does not require replacement of any parts that are no longer available.
On all other Akai machines, the special heads used can develop a loud and random or continuous static noise at any
time. This is due to the heads' delicate construction which results in the internal coils and connections to start falling
apart after a few decades, a condition that cannot be repaired. My educated guess is that storing these machines in
a very cold environment causes these delicate assemblies to contract, never again to restore reliable and solid contact.
Another major problem with the higher end Akai machines is the use of very specialized, early design integrated
circuits (also called "chips") on their audio boards. These strange devices don't even remotely resemble what we're
used to seeing as far as chips go - and once they fail, that's it for the machine unless you have a parts unit around.
All Akais except the CR-83D have a VERY LOUD track change function - and I mean loud enough to SCARE you !
"Which is a Good Stereo Model to Purchase?"
For long term reliability after routine service and maintenance, I have found the Pioneer H-R99 and H-R100 to be
remarkable in consistency from one machine to the next. Their motors are adjustable speed, the circuitry does not
use any "weird" parts, and their ability to hold their electronic calibration is nothing short of amazing. Published
wow and flutter spec is an outstanding 0.15 percent, and their low end frequency response rolls off around 30 Hz
which reduces some of the annoying rumble and bass boom found in many of the older and more worn tapes.
The most common problems with the Pioneers include a high pitched whistle during playback, and its tendency to
stop changing tracks due to a gummed-up track change mechanism. These problems are both easily repaired by
a competent technician, and the Pioneers can be expected to deliver years of excellent performance afterwards.
"Can You Recommend Just a Small, Cheap No-frills Playback Deck?"
Yes, the Realistic TR-169 is one of the simplest and most reliable decks available. Other then a new belt, most
of the TR-169's don't require anything else besides occasional head cleaning. This model is in fact so reliable and
trouble-free that Radio Shack continued to carry this model until 1990, long after the 8 track craze had subsided.
For transferring your 8 track collection to a computer from which to make MP3 files, it is essential that the deck has
an output level control as the output from most 8 track decks is a bit "hotter" than most computer sound cards are
designed to handle. This can result in distortion. Some decks have a rear mounted level control, while many of the
recording decks allow the recording level controls to also adjust the playback level. Check for this before purchase.
Below are some additional buying tips I published years ago and decided to leave in place due to time constraints: