Film and audio tape makers tried to set their products apart from competitors’ with slight changes in size, length and reel styles. Now, all these years later, these variations can make it difficult for families to determine what formats they actually have when it comes time to try to enjoy them again or transfer them to modern, digital formats. We’ve put this article together to remove the confusion with some foolproof tips on how to tell the difference between an audio reel and a film reel, and understand the more common varieties of each.

Lots of your family memories are stored on reels. But do you know how to tell the difference between an audio reel and a film reel? EverPresent works with both types every day, and we can help you tell them apart.

Four Tips for Telling Your Audio and Film Reels Apart

1. Check the packaging on your film reels
and audio reels before opening.

IMPORTANT: If your mystery format seems unopened or sealed with adhesive tape, we recommend leaving it sealed as it might be unused or unprocessed home movie film. Taking these items out can expose them to light and ruin them.

Unfortunately, if your film looks unopened, the only sure-fire way to tell if it’s been used is to get it processed. Click here to find out where you can still develop film – just make sure that the place you pick handles movie film reels, not just the more standard 35mm print negatives!

Assuming the reel is OK to open, the safest way to tell an audio reel and a film reel apart is to check the packaging for brand names, product descriptions and even handwritten labels for clues. Thankfully, there is very little overlap.

Common Reel Terms and Brand Names


  • Kodak
  • Agfa
  • Fuji
  • Ilford
  • Pathex
  • Cine
  • 8mm
  • Standard 8
  • Single 8
  • Double 8
  • Super 8<//li>
  • 16mm

  • Sony
  • Ampex
  • ATR
  • Memorex
  • Scotch
  • TDK
  • BASF
  • Maxell
  • Sound Recording Tape
  • Magnetic Tape
  • ¼ inch
  • ½ inch
  • 1 inch
  • 2 inch

2. Look for Visual Information
on Your Reels

gloved hands holding film reel and audio reel side by side

Recording family videos with an old movie camera means capturing a series of still photos that you can play back quickly to create the illusion of movement. You can actually see them with the naked eye. So if you can see these images in square or rectangular frames that are side-by-side along the media, you’re holding a .

Audio reels, though, have the same magnetic tape that’s used in audio cassettes. You won’t see any images captured on this media.

3. Check your audio reel or
film reel for perforations

If you’re nervous about unspooling your film to check for images because you’re worried about damaging it (which is a real risk with old, brittle film), you can look at the outside of the reel to see if your mystery format has tiny square-shaped holes along one or both edges. These holes are called perforations – film has them and magnetic audio tape does not.
film vector with perforations
Film cameras and projectors have sprockets, which are round components with teeth. The teeth fit inside of film’s perforations to move the film through your device during recording and playback. The magnetic tape in an audio reel does not have these perforations and instead gets pulled through machines by friction.

4. Measure your reels!

gloved hands with film reel and audio reel side by side

If all else fails and you still don’t know how to tell the difference between an audio reel and a film reel, you can measure the width of the reel and use the chart below to determine whether it’s audio or film, and which format category it fits into.

While magnetic tape is used for audio AND video reels, it’s very unlikely that you have a video tape reel at home. This table does not list every format, but it does cover over 90% of what we see week-to-week at EverPresent:

Width Format Go Digital!
16mm Film CLICK HERE
¼-inch Audio CLICK HERE
9.5mm Film CLICK HERE
35mm Film We don’t digitize these formats in-house, but we have partners who do. Contact us for more info!
½-inch Audio
1-inch Audio
2-inch Audio

Are you holding an old home movie reel that you want to learn more about? Check out our post on how to measure your reels and find out how much footage they hold!

Whether or Not You Can Tell the Difference, Here’s What to Do Next

EverPresent technician digitizing home movie film

Reel-to-reel audio tape and motion picture film have too many quirky variations to fully cover here. If you’re still not sure whether your reels store film or audio, give us a call – we’ll help you figure it out, or you can send us an email with a picture of the format to [email protected].

Once you know what you’re holding, think about transferring your aging film to digital and audio reels to digital, or hitting eBay to find an affordable old projector or player to enjoy the old memories before deciding how to best share them.

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