NEW: David Denyer checks out the new Ballfinger M-063 reel-to-reel tape player at the Hamburg Hi-Fi Show 2017
As reel-to-reel tape continues to capture the attention of audiophiles and music lovers around the world, a number of companies have mooted the idea of re-instating production of tape players to meet the needs of this re-emerging market.
To date, however, no new machine has actually materialised and so those of us who crave the sweet sound of tape are still skulking around the internet in search of vintage models in various states of disrepair, and then doing deals with specialist engineers to get our old relics restored to something of their former glory. But all that could be about to change – fortunately, since there are only so many salvage-able vintage machines left to go around!
In early February, I (David Denyer, UK-based hi-fi PR and self-confessed reel-to-reel devotee) got wind that a brand new tape machine was about to be previewed at a hi-fi show in Hamburg, Germany (Norddeutsche HiFi-Tage: Hörtest 2017). So I did what any reasonably obsessive audiophile would do: hopped on a plane and went to investigate. (My thanks, by the way, to Dave Cawley of Timestep for the heads-up. Dave also happens to be the specialist engineer who sourced and restored my first Technics tape machine, for which I will be forever grateful).
The machine in question is the Ballfinger M-063, highlighted in an earlier Mono & Stereo news story.
I’ll admit it, I was impressed from the outset (for ‘impressed’ read ‘drooling’!). This is big machine (more ‘A820 / A80’ than ‘A807’) and it’s stunningly beautiful.
First impressions: the Ballfinger M-063 head-on
Devilishly good on detail
On further inspection, I noted that its beauty is much more than skin-deep. The design and engineering are absolutely top-flight. Everything looks seamless - the buttons fit perfectly into the precisely-machined front panel cutouts, and even the back panel is the very opposite of an eyesore. To be honest, I’m struggling to think of another audio product that looks quite this good from ALL angles.
Fit and finish are superb
The Ballfinger M-063 looks just as good from behind!
The man behind the machine
By this time I was itching to meet the man behind the machine and to find out more.
The man in question is Dusseldorf-based Roland Schneider, an industrial designer. His Ballfinger company was first launched in 2005 with the Ballfinger angle-poise lamp. In 2010, Schneider created a range of wrist-watches combining Swiss movements and excellent quality design, again under the Ballfinger brand. Then in around 2013 he began to work on a range of hi-fi products: the PS2 turntable, an amplifier (with integral phono stage) and the M-063 tape machine. He’s been painstakingly perfecting them since then and now they’re all about to come to market.
Ballfinger’s Roland Schneider with the M-063
I always enjoy watching a perfectionist at work and so observed, with barely-concealed delight, as Schneider showed a customer around the M-063’s controls - cueing either with a large shuttle wheel at the centre of the lower fascia or alternatively by hand, simply by revolving the left hand reel. Everything did what it should - tape tensioners moved as you’d expect, everything performed so smoothly and silently. Quite something to behold!
What, when, how much?
I deliberately didn’t quiz Schneider too hard about the details of the M-063’s inner workings, tempting though it was to grill him about everything from tape heads to audio circuits. The current specs are available but these may yet change. With an anticipated launch date of autumn 2017, there’s still plenty of time for some of the finer details to be refined and I’ve learnt from experience that any audio engineer worth their salt will do just that – keep testing and perfecting right up to the limit.
I did, however ask him about the anticipated price, which is €27,900 (including 19% German sales tax). Okay, so I was admittedly a tad disappointed that it’s not exactly within my current budget, but I certainly wasn’t shocked. Having seen the product, I would’ve guessed a figure of at least £20k and more likely over £25k. One or two people, however, have flinched at the price and commented that they could buy an old Telefunken or Studer and have it fully restored for a fraction of the cost.
Well yes, for sure. But for starters. there are only so many serviceable Telefunkens and Studers left and, as stocks continue to dwindle, ‘used’ prices will rise sharply.
But more to the point, we need to compare like for like. When the Telefunkens and Studers were brand new, their retail price was actually directly comparable to that quoted for the Ballfinger now - when you work it out in terms of today’s money. Why? Because you’re talking about a brand new piece of technology that has taken years of R&D to develop, and in which every high quality part has been sourced at current prices, featuring the latest advances in design and engineering. That’s quite different to buying a piece of kit conceived and built several decades ago, a ‘classic’ though it may be.
Consider too the price of any high-performance hi-fi component. It isn’t cheap and nor should it be. What you’re investing in, is quality. Quality of product and quality of experience. So if you consider the sound quality achievable in various audio formats compared to that offered by reel-to-reel tape, then suddenly the cost-value relationship takes on a whole new dynamic.
So, while I may not currently have €27,900 going spare, in my view this is an investment that’s worth every penny. Subject, of course, to hearing it.
Two more sneak previews: the Ballfinger turntable and amplifier
In the meantime, if you’re tempted by the Ballfinger brand but need something slightly more affordable, check out the PS 2 turntable which is due for release in a couple of months. It’s a direct drive design with a servo-controlled tangential tracking tonearm. Again, the design and engineering look truly superb, but the real test will of course be how it sounds. Projected retail price is €8,800 (again including 19% German sales tax).
The Ballfinger PS2 direct drive turntable with servo-controlled tonearm
The forthcoming amplifier (with built-in phono stage) is similarly stunning, with echoes of the minimalist charms of Braun’s 1956 SK 4 by Hans Gugelot, Dieter Rams and Herbert Lindinger.
The Ballfinger amplifier, with built-in phono stage
I couldn’t resist photographing the rear of both the ‘table and the amp since, like the M-063, the rear view reveals a great deal. They’re both totally clean, cleverly hiding all their connections underneath.
Clean as a whistle – the rear aspect of the Ballfinger amplifier and PS 2 turntable
All that remains now is the all-important listening test. Whenever and wherever happens, I sure hope to be there!