Sony TC-399 Review

The TC-399 came in Sony’s Autumn 1978 catalogue at a time when the domestic open reel tape recorder was already on its way out. Only two years prior, the Akai 4000DS had stunned the world by selling in significant numbers, delivering outstanding sound-per-pound from the (at the time) dormant open reel format. It was as though this was created with the intention of stealing the Akai’s company, but by the time it was released, it was too late.

Compared to most open reels, which featured a plethora of heads, motors, belts, and gears, the attractive but tiny ‘399 was an unabashedly simple machine. The TC-399 was just a huge MDF box with a metal front plate to which a massive AC motor was attached, containing all the essentials for great sound from four-track open reel, but nothing more. Its three Ferrite & Ferrite heads enabled ‘off-tape’ monitoring, which cassettes couldn’t perform until quite recently (back then).

It was only capable of running at 7.5ips due to being a minimally re-engineered Sony TC-377, which was still impressive for cassette standards. It could play high frequencies well above 20kHz at -3dB, which cassette couldn’t do convincingly. Because it couldn’t handle full-size NAB 10.5-inch reels, you were limited to seven-inch reels, limiting the playback time to 7.5ips…

The little Sony was a fun machine to play – in a cumbersome way, but then again, all open reels without logic control are clunky. The major transport functions were handled by a single rotary control, and there were two record buttons so that the two stereo tracks could be utilized separately for mono recording and editing. Three bias and EQ settings were available, allowing use of Sony’s then-new and pricey Ferrichrome (FeCr) tapes, which were touted to have both Ferric and Chrome advantages. Sony’s VU meters were installed, however due to their slow ballistics, they tended to under-read. The interior of the ‘399 was a robust old bus, but not quite up to the standard of Sony’s more expensive designs, such as the TC766. An array of pulleys, clutches, and belts produced motive force from a single big motor.

The Sony has surprisingly good sound quality, especially if you’re used to cassettes. It’s huge, smooth, and expansive, with a strong, warm bass and lovely sweet and evocative treble. Of course, that’s if it works properly, which is a big if. There are still a lot of ‘399s around, but it’s likely that 90% of them have drifted outside of calibration, or are cream-crackered, or both. Finding a deck that can perform as well as it did when it was first released is a difficult task.

The good news is that Sony’s superior Ferrite heads seldom fail, so if yours have, your deck is completely useless; avoid this type of instance. Although dry joints and fading capacitors will be an issue 35 years after leaving the factory, the electronics are quite simple and reliable. Belts are still available, and the deck is reasonably simple to put together for someone who knows what they’re doing – the problem is, not many people do!

Expect to pay between £50 and £250 depending on condition; if you can, audition it before hearing it, and don’t believe the seller’s description; the motor can get noisy, the channels go out of balance, and the entire deck feels sloppy and weary, but they are unlikely to say so. For a deck like this, condition is essential, but if you can discover a well-preserved, ‘low mileage’ copy, you’ll enjoy Sony’s latest reel-to-reel tape recorder!