There is lots of information on hifi and audio forums about the performance of one tape machine versus another, the one thing that never gets a mention is how and when the machines being compared are set up; a mediocre machine, with good heads, carefully set up and used with good quality tape, can sound very nice. A top of the range machine with poor mechanical alignment, or incorrect bias, or EQ, or incorrect record/play levels can sound awful.
Most machines can easily be set up to meet the factory specification in terms of basic frequency response, as the manufacturers (Japanese in particular) of domestic machines were very good at writing specifications that looked but are actually largely meaningless. For example, measuring the frequency response with very low signal levels is a particular favourite, knowing that the average customer would not understand the significance of the issue.
As with many things in life tape recorder design and indeed set up is all about a series of compromises, manufacturers worked with the limitations of tape media to come up with products they could claim as being ’hifi’ whilst keeping cost of manufacturing low enough so they would actually be able to sell them at a profit.