When the TC-399 appeared in Sony’s Autumn 1978 catalogue, the sun was already setting on the domestic open reel tape recorder. Just two years earlier, the Akai 4000DS had surprised the world by selling in large quantities, offering excellent sound-per-pound from the (by then) already ailing open reel format. It was as if this was conceived to go in and take the Akai’s business, but by the time it launched it was just too late.
The handsome but compact ‘399 was an unashamedly simple machine – compared to most open reels which had a profusion of heads, motors, belts and gears. Basically a large MDF box with metal front plate, to which a very chunky AC motor was affixed, the TC-399 had all the basics needed for fine sound from four-track open reel, but nothing more. Its three Ferrite & Ferrite heads made ‘off-tape’ monitoring possible, something until very recently (back then) cassettes couldn’t do.
Being a mildly re-engineered Sony TC-377, it was only capable of running up to 7.5ips, which by the standards of cassette was still seriously impressive. It played high frequencies well above 20kHz at -3dB, which was something cassette never managed convincingly. It wasn’t able to take full-size NAB 10.5 inch reels, so you were confined to seven inchers, limiting the playing time at 7.5ips, of course…
The wee Sony was a nice machine to use – in a clunky sort of way, but all open reels without logic control were indeed clunky. A single rotary control took care of the main transport functions, and there were two record keys so the two stereo tracks could be used individually for mono recordings and editing. Three bias and EQ settings were offered, permitting use of Sony’s then new and expensive Ferrichrome (FeCr) tapes, which were claimed to offer the benefits of both Ferric and Chrome. Sony’s handsome VU meters were fitted, but they had slow ballistics and so had a tendency to under-read. Inside the ‘399 was a sturdy old bus, but not on the level of the pricier designs from Sony, such as TC766 of course. One large motor provided motive force via an array of pulleys, clutches and belts.
Sonically, the Sony is capable of surprisingly fine sound – especially if you’re used to cassette. It’s big, smooth and spacious with lovely sweet and atmospheric treble and a strong, warm bass. That’s if it’s working properly, of course – which is a big ‘if’. There are many ‘399s still surviving, but it’s likely that about ninety nine percent of them have either wandered outside calibration, or are cream-crackered, or both. So finding a deck to perform as it was originally capable of is a challenge.
The good news is that Sony’s excellent Ferrite heads rarely wear out, so if yours have then your deck has been absolutely trashed – avoid this sort of specimen. The electronics are pretty simple and reliable, although dry joints and dying capacitors will be an issue thirty five years after leaving the factory. Belts are still obtainable, and the deck itself is relatively easy to work on for someone who knows what they’re doing – trouble is, not many do!
Expect to pay between £50 and £250 depending on condition; if you possibly can then audition it before hearing and don’t trust sellers’ descriptions; the motor can get noisy, the channels fall out of balance and the whole deck feel sloppy and tired, but they are unlikely to say so. Condition is everything for a deck like this – but find a well preserved, ‘low mileage’ example and you’ll love Sony’s latest ever reel-to-reel tape recorder!