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This page gives some history of the Wollensak 5000 reel to reel tape recorder series as fine and designer audio equipment of the time. Links to sources and images are provided within the text. These links will open in a separate window or tab, keeping this page available for further reading. As of December 2007, all the links were functional.

The Wollensak 5000 reel to reel tape recorder series is difficult to research (as is Wollensak itself.) The author scoured vintage audio equipment Web sites and found a only a few references. Much of the information comes from reading vintage audio equipment catalogs (which were very popular in the 1960's), advertisements and specifications about this line of reel to reel tape recorders. This page is not meant as a research document as much as a documentation of what is currently available (2007) via the Internet. However, if anyone has additional information, we'd love to hear from you. Please use our contact form to share what you know.

 

3M and the Wollensak Division

One of the "players" in the reel to reel tape recorder market was Wollensak, a division of the 3M Company. 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) are the makers of "Scotch®" brand tape products. They also produced magnetic recording tape on reels and cassettes. The company had a reputation for producing a solid performing product at a reasonable price.

It is not unusual to find that 3M was also selling reel to reel tape recorders under the "Wollensak" name. What makes it a bit confusing is that "Wollensak" is also the name for a line of very high quality cameras and camera equipment, not audio equipment. In fact even today, Wollensak is better known for optical lenses and filters, etc.

According to research I found at a site called: AudioTools.com, in the 1950's the Revere Camera Company took over the Wollensak Optical Company (which has supplied the Revere company with lenses and shutters). Wollensak was an OEM company but did produce some high end still cameras. In the 1950's the Revere company also started producing reel to reel tape recorders. They were considered very good quality machines in the US market. In 1960, 3M purchased the Revere Camera Company and initially sold tape recorders under the Revere name. However, Wollensak had a better brand name, so in the mid 1960's, 3M began producing tape recorders only under the Wollensak name. The Wollensak tape recorders were focused on the higher end of the home tape recorder market, going up against Ampex. In 1972 however, 3M closed the Wollensak division. (source: Audiotools.com - however, they claim their information may be dubious!)

Did 3M or their Wollensak division actually make the reel to reel tape recorders they sold?  It is common for some manufacturers to produce machines for other companies, changing cosmetics while keeping the mechanics and electronics basically unchanged.

Some battery operated reel to reel tape recorders sold under the RCA name were made by AIWA of Japan, and competed with them in the marketplace. One could often find a machine made by AIWA, and next to it, a machine of the same size and shape, but with a different color, having the RCA name! Internally they were identical because they were made by the same manufacturer, in this case AIWA.

This comes to mind because the Wollensak 5000 series had such an unusual design that did not appear under other brand names (in the US anyway).

Yet, according to some Web sites, some of the Wollensak reel to reel tape recorders may have been made by Sanyo of Japan.

Other sites report that some machines (educational use cassette recorders) were made by Advent. The design of some Wollensak AV cassette recorders does appear in some cassette recorders sold under the Advent name, but it is a bit of a question of "the chicken and the egg". Did Advent make the cassette recorder and sell cosmetically altered models to 3M to market under the Wollensak name, or was it the other way around?

One Wollensak home cassette recorder is clearly a duplicate of the original Norelco (Philips) design. It is more than likely that they made the cassette recorders for 3M and the Wollensak division with color and cosmetic changes for differentiation. The Philips Norelco machine had a black case, the Wollensak had a tan case, but the control functions and layout were identical, even down to the use of "DIN" sockets. "DIN" is very popular in Europe, and Norelco (Philips) was based in Holland.

 

Wollensak T-1500

The most popular and well known 3M Wollensak reel to reel tape recorder was the model T-1500 series. Click here for a picture from retrothing.com. The machine had a reputation of being a workhorse. It was solidly built, had a powerful amplifier and good (for the time) sound quality. It was made almost entirely of metal, and weighed quite a lot, yet was marketed as a "portable tape recorder". In this case, the word "portable" meant, moving from one room to another and then catching your breath! These machines can still be found on E-Bay as collector's items in the vintage audio equipment category as well as the reel to reel tape recorder category. They were extremely popular in home and business, and judging by the number available on the Internet, very durable. The quality was beyond question, which is why they were so popular.

 

Wollensak 5000 Series

In 1965, it appears that the Wollensak line introduced a "designer" reel to reel tape recorder – the 5000 series. This was a radical change in thinking and target marketing. A look at one of the ads of the time clearly shows the designer target market.

The machines all had the same basic mechanical transport design and basic audio performance specifications. The line seems to have lasted from about 1965 to 1968.

Based on information found on the Internet – mostly from vintage audio equipment catalogs – it seems that the Wollensak 5000 series was a design line numbering from 5200 through the 5800 top-of-the-line reel to reel tape recorder which had a matching tuner module and two-way speaker systems. It has two appeals. For the audiophile, it was genuine and serious audio equipment. And for the decorator and interior designer, it was a furniture statement. According to the ads, a fully equipped 5800 "set-up" would span more than 6 feet across!

There were several models of the 5000 series, all of which had similar specifications. What made this design unique was horizontal aspect ratio of the cabinet and the "in-line" layout of the machine. It featured a central console of controls flanked by the tape reels. It is similar in visual effect to to wide screen plasma TV compared to the cathode ray tube TV "set".

A company called: Phantom Productions has generously provided an on-line resource of vintage electronics catalogs from the 1900's onwards, and they include advertisements. Many thanks to Phantom Productions for this valuable historical resource. This page relies on their information for illustrations from their section called: Vintage R2R, located in their navigation sidebar.

It appears that the Wollensak 5000 design seems to have started in 1965 as the 5200. This was a "simplified" version of the 5000 design, most notably the plain face plate which was later replaced with a plate that featured a plastic and gold metal extrusion running along the bottom. This machine had four tape speeds, one of which (15/16ths ips) was later dropped.

In 1966, this same "simpler" face design machine appeared in a vintage audio equipment Allied Radio catalog as the 5300 selling for $279.95. One can easily see the wide horizontal aspect ratio of the design. It is very similar in appearance to the 5750.

The top end model, the 5800, was featured in an ad clearly meant to place it as a "designer" high end machine.

This ad is interesting as it boasts many unusual features for the time. The "Control Central", which placed all the controls of the machine in a center block, surrounded by the tape reels, "power activated push buttons", the four digit tape counter (most machines only had three digits), four speed operation - most machines had two speeds. It also featured a truly massive capstan flywheel, essential for smooth tape transport and better fidelity (low wow and flutter). Of course, "solid state" transistor circuitry was a benefit because it was replacing heavier tubes, and stereo performance. At the time, mono was still much in use, and stereo was considered "high end". The specifications and features target it as serious audio equipment for the audiophile.

Sociologically, the ad presents an interesting view of the roles of men and women at the time. The male in the ad, who looks very much like a smug "intellectual" (today we would call him a "nerd") is seated on a designer chair and behind him is standing a very beautiful woman with a wistful look on her face as if she is considering making a decision.

The idea seems to be that she would appreciate the machine for its intrinsic beauty as furniture for the home, while the male, obviously a savvy audiophile, would appreciate it for its functions and features. The expressions seem to indicate that while she is still undecided, he is determined and knows "a good thing when he hears it."

Such an ad is laughable today, but in the 1960's this was how people viewed the genders. The ad, of course, is meant to be sleek and sophisticated, with "sex" appeal, something unusual in advertising a reel to reel tape recorder.

If you look closely at the machine mounted on the wall, the face plate is plain and simple with no plastic and gold extrusion. By the next year, this had been changed.

A vintage audio equipment tape recorder directory from 1966 shows the different Wollensak models available, including a picture of the 5750. By now the machine only had three speeds. The slowest speed found on earlier models (15/16 ips) was dropped, possibly because it was not compatible with many other machines of the time. In the home market, this very low speed was used by very small battery powered tape recorders to get maximum use from the small (as small as 1-1/2" diameter) reels of tape.

In 1967 the series had a new high profile designer ad for the 5800. This ad had changed its focus to increase the female role.

The ad copy is more balanced between the genders, offering equal benefits for male and female. Yet it is obvious from the photo that the female now dominates, indicating the goal of the ad was to appeal to women, as if they would appreciate the machine more for its beauty and would have to somehow "educate" the men who could only accept its technological value. The role of the female has gone from wistful and undecided in the earlier ad to confident and assured, and the male has clearly become more subordinate. Whereas in the earlier ad he was smug and self assured, in this ad, he seems almost to be cowering, bowing to the woman's will. It is of course possible that he is listening intently to the machine's performance, but then why is the woman not impressed?

Also note that the face plate on the machine now has the plastic and gold trim extrusions at the bottom, meant to improve the designer appeal of the machine. It is possible that due to competition in the market (Ampex tape recorders, which electronically and sonically were superior to Wollensak machines, were only $20 more than the top-of-the-line Wollensak 5800)

It appears that Wollensak chose to appeal to women. At the time, women's roles in America were changing, and Wollensak may have been a pioneer in recognizing this fact and sought to tap this rich market.

A tape recorder directory from the time shows the 5000 series centered around the 5700 models. The high end 5800 continued to be sold as top of the line audio equipment because it had the option of adding a matching tuner (apparently sold separately), making it more than just a reel to reel tape recorder.

In 1968, the 5000 model line can be seen in an ad for "Scotch®" brand recording tape. This is a clever "cross sell". They could have displayed any of the Wollensak models, but they chose to feature the 5000 series. Placing it in an ad for recording tape could give it an added boost in the mind of consumers. Also it is interesting to note that the focus of the ad is on artistry (the conductor, the singer, the musician, the "audiophile"), and utility and fun – the children - all potential users of recording tape. We do not see it as being part of a proud display of audio equipment, but rather as a stand alone (perhaps, stand apart) machine that delivers sonic satisfaction.

In 1968, the 5000 series was still being sold through vintage audio equipment catalogs.

By 1969 the model appears to have been discontinued. A tape recorder directory no longer lists the series, but lists a new model machine, the 6000 series.

It appears from the vintage audio equipment catalog and directory collections that the Wollensak "designer series" (5200 through 5800) had a life span of about four years. Obviously, with inventory and back lots, the tape recorders were still available long after 1968, but they probably were no longer being heavily advertised or mentioned in audio equipment catalogs. Who knows, somewhere today there may be a warehouse filled with unopened boxes containing these machines!

Although Wollensak continued to make reel to reel tape recorders, it seems they changed the design by 1969 and were no longer promoting this type of "designer machine" or advertising approach. The fact that Wollensak did not continue to push the wide horizontal design in subsequent machines, nor did they try to push their machines as designer products, seems to indicate that this was not a good target market for the reel to reel tape recorder buyer.

Functionality, reproduction, dependability and power as audio equipment were the features that seemed to most appeal to buyers. Products from Ampex and SONY had a much better reputation for audio excellence at competing and even lower prices. And at the time, the compact cassette was increasing in popularity, threatening to replace the reel to reel tape recorder altogether.

Nevertheless, for sheer beauty and originality of design, the Wollensak 5000 series "takes the cake". There simply was nothing like it, before or since.

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