…so I have been acquiring quite a stack of cassettes…I enjoy the sound.
Cassette decks. How good can it get?
I know some guys are going to just want to say a bunch of negative stuff about tape decks and tell me how bad they sound. There is a lot of music that comes out on tape only (you usually get download too) so I have been acquiring quite a stack of cassettes. I have a couple of Nakamichi decks BX100 and BX300. The 300 is not working and was thinking of trying to repair. I am wondering how good of sound you can get out of cassette? Has anyone taken the leap up to something like the much more expensive Nakamichis or other brands even. I enjoy the sound. Mainly it's the background noise more than anything but even that is somewhat tolerable.
Your BX 300 is no slouch when in top form however since you are going to spend cash on a repair/service I would recommend looking out for a serviced Nak 680zx
which is a notable step up in audio quality.
That said if you really have been bitten by the Nak bug then depending on your budget you might stretch to an CR7A or my favourite ZX9 if you are making your own recordings
It's a specialist area but during the 80's in particular musicians used to demo to cassette and rough alternate versions of many famous or unreleased tracks only exist on cassette. I was in A&R back then and have demo versions of song ranging from major artists (George Michael) to unreleased tracks of very niche bands (obscure but important ones such as The Raincoats) in my collection. The Pixies distributed a cassette of their original recordings to record companies when searching for a deal. I've seen it for sale for $1,000 plus!
I'm an electronic engineer that has worked in recording studios. I've worked on hundreds of professional reel-to-reel tape machines as well as digital audio recording systems - lining them up as well as repairing them. I also worked on hundreds of cassette decks (most studios had a couple of professional cassette decks and we also had rooms of domestic cassette decks for spinning out limited runs of duplicates).
If I was to setup a professional reel-to-reel deck I would expect it to record and playback accurately for months. This is not the case with cassettes. If you line up a deck accurately then take the same cassette out and play it again, the results will be different! This is because: a) the tape is too narrow; b) the cassette makes it almost impossible to reliably guide the tape evenly over the heads; c) the pinch roller is too small (but you can't fit a bigger one in the hole. The result is a great deal of speed variation, "wow and flutter".
Audio wise you can almost get a cassette to record and play OK, but only for a short while after setup. Audio wise: 1) the speed is too slow resulting in too much noise; 2) the tape is too narrow causing limitations in the bass (separation) 3) the top end is limited due to head and bias constraints; 4) single record/playback heads restrain the ability to check recordings; 5) split record/playback heads are very small and need to be manufactured with high precision (rarely achieved in practice). Also, of course each play results in oxide shed, so the tape quality declines with every play. Just about every domestic cassette player I've ever encountered leaves the factory with something wrong in it's alignment.
All of these limitations are immediately audible. I could record sound onto a studio-quality reel-to-reel and struggle to hear the difference between what comes out of the microphone and what's comes back off the tape. This is not the case with cassettes, the noise and dynamic range limitations are obvious as are the unreliable speed and limited frequency response (and that's on a perfectly lined-up device)
So, of all the popular domestic sources, cassette is the worst. And it's bad in so many ways.
My Aiwa AdF770 3 head cassette deck with Dolby B, C, Hx Pro, micro grain dual capstan, blah blah blah...makes copies that are nearly indistinguishable from the original source. No joke (as Biden would say).
Aiwa made some fantastic decks in the early 80's, ahead of their time. The one above mine, the f990, rivaled the best Nakamichi decks. I have owned mine since New in 1983. I use it often, I love it.
So, where does 8-track fit? 😊
I am a fan of the better 2 head single capstan machines like the MR2. The dual capstan models tapes sound great played back on the same machine, but not so good on others due to the inability to duplicate the alignment imposed by the Nak mechanics. I had an LX3 and its tapes could not be enjoyed on other decks. Never had that problem with the “lesser” models.
Cassette decks polarize people. There are many who find the format outdated in technology and sound quality, while others praise how far it has evolved technologically during its hey day and the sound quality it can produce.
The problem with the format is that it is delicate and fragile. It takes very little for a deck to go out of alignment. I would estimate that about 90% of cassette decks (full size components) owned by people are out of some sort of alignment within the first 5 years of use. And if that isn’t bad enough, the inter-comparability between different makers wasn’t always spot on. All this contributed to giving the format the reputation of being poor in sound quality. And in contrast, by the mid 1980s the format was at its peak in terms of sound quality and technology, fueled by the likes of names like Nakamichi, Revox, Aiwa, Teac, Tandberg and a handful of others.
For those of you who dismiss the format as poor sounding, you owe it to yourself to experience a fully restored TOTL model from the above listed makers. You would likely be floored. Yes, the format has limitations such as a higher noise floor and a more limited frequency response. Even the type of blank tapes used play a monumental role in a deck’s performance. However, the noise isn’t audible with most music unless the passages are very soft or you are in between songs. Frequency response of the better decks easily exceeds 20kHz if the tape is of good quality and if the user knows how to calibrate and record - this latter requirement is critical and in my experience too many users just don’t know how to execute this step properly, resulting in a less-than-ideal recording.
It is a fussy format for sure, but a huge amount of R&D has been invested in it, bringing its performance to an astonishing level. When I used to work in retail, Aiwa and Nakamichi were amongst the kings of decks. A user above mentioned the Aiwa F770 and F990. Those two models, if in excellent condition and fully restored can amaze you in just how incredibly good sounding they can be, coming within a hair of the State of the Art Nakamichi Dragon, ZX-9, 700ZXE and the all-mighty 1000ZXL, the king of all cassette recorders.
I got rid of most of my bootleg cassettes. Only kept a few thousand. So I also had to keep my Nak Dragon. While it’s true the quality is poor compared to other devices, it was difficult to get a reel to reel into a venue in your boot. with rock and blues, live is often best. It’s often about the performance more than audio quality.
I have 2 Aiwa AD-F780 (1988) 3-head dual capstan drive decks. I play cassettes regularly. Most are pre-recorded commercial tapes. I love the sound! I also have 2 Technics RM240X decks, with dbx, that I listen to. Still very good playback of 47 dbx tapes I made 1982-1984, Maxell UD XLII. Superb playback with no “pumping” as they used to call it. Most of the tapes I’ve digitized for long term storage. I also have an external dbx encoder/decoder, and 53 dbx discs that are truly phenomenal!
I won’t be giving up on cassettes any time soon.
Back in the day I had a cassette machine, kinda crappy really, but it looked nice and I would record songs from FM radio instead of buying the album. Then I got my first Teac rtr and that was the end of the cassette almost. Bought a dbx compander for the Teac and wow what an improvement. So I tried it on the cassette and it really made a huge difference. No, not enough so that it came close to the Teac, but good enough for casual playback.
That's about 10 times as many dbx discs as I had, gave them to a friend a while back. I remember one was "HEART" and another was DeBussy...yes they did sound phenomenal!
I still run my Nak Dragon in my system and it sounds great. Yes the negative reply will be plentiful but most of them are referencing back to their boom box days. They always want to compare to reel to reel and the speed of the tape. Recording an album through a good tape monitor loop like the Sansui 9090 had and using a quality metal oxide tape produced very good recordings. I also recorded many live concerts off radio stations and still listen to them. Is it the best source for critical listening no but it can still sound very good if you make it about just enjoying the music.
I bought my dbx discs in 1990. The base Exchange was closing out its entire stock of records. Dbx discs were $15.95 each. They reduced the entire stock to $1 each. I spent $125 in one day. 53 dbx discs. I bought every Nautilus disc and Telarc disc also. The next day I bought their last Denon DP45F deck for $25. I missed out on the 57, 59, 62 decks. My wife was not happy that I spent money on them. She is my ex-wife now…..
The last cassette deck I owned was a Nakamichi 700ZXE and it was just as enjoyable as my TT/CD decks (this was 20 years ago).
My wife had a lot of commercial tapes and I had a "some" tapes recorded from LP to a Nakamichi 600.
The majority of my old tapes were stolen from the back of my car when I was moving in with my fiancé (AKA my current wife) 32 years ago.
I used to do a lot of live band recordings (bands I played in) and also owned a 550?, plus a 250/350 (forget which) for playback in my car (mated with a 12V capable Advent 300).
I also used various VHS decks as well as a heavy/cumbersome Beta deck for recording.
The SQ of the Beta deck was really nice.
Oddly enough I also used an old inexpensive Akai cassette deck (not a clue as to the model) that was just as good as the 600, plus it was less fussy about tape.
In addition I owned/used an Aiwa double deck with synchronized SOS for mixing, but forget the model (think I bought it around 1980).
Love a good cassette deck.
Had the Nak 1000 and CR-5A, CR-5A was better. My CR-5A had been tweeked by our 2in R2R tech and biased to TDK MA-XG tapes. Was better than any 7 1/2 ips R2R I ever owned ( admittedly i've only owned 3, but have listened to many in and out of the studio. Supposedly this was the 2nd CR-5A in the USA, per our NAK rep. I truly enjoyed it 'till the day some scumbag stole it.😢
had an akai gx9 back in the day that was superb...that was hands down the best tape deck i've owned. never got my paws on a high end nak though. maybe someday.
right now i use an akai gxz9000 which i believe was a japanese-market-only 3-head deck, and then upstairs a nakamichi bx1 (their entry level 2 head from 83 iirc) that i picked up for super cheap. both awesome, reliable decks that sound excellent. all in all i've owned maybe a dozen decent ones, give or take. before these current two i had a suckface luxman, truly 'love it or hate it' lookswise, but for a 2 head deck just great sound. an old harman kardon 292 that was a workhorse for years. a whacked out jvc that looked like a coked out executive's idea of "futuristic tech"...a couple really nice sonys..etc etc
i'm not adding much here since the OP asked about TOTL stuff but i had to weigh in because i love the format and the gear.
pioneer came out at the last with a cassette deck [CT-W616DR] that employed a refined form of digital DNR and also "digital flex" [dynamic treble enhancement above 10kc], that reported nearly the same s/n ratio as [average quality 16 bit] digital equipment. reviews were mixed-
Nak 1000 and Nak Dragon are about the best. Adjustable azimuth heads help. We hooked up the 1000, I think, and A-B’d it with the vinyl back in the day.
Biggest difference was that the Nak added a hard-to-describe "hollow" sound to the playback. Other than that, it was identical (Audio Research/Magnepan system) using a Linn Sondek, as I remember. Can’t remember the cartridge--moving coil, I am sure, but we also tried it with moving magnet ones as well.
I think Tandberg had a good one as well...hard to remember that far back any more.
@richopp The Tandberg model you are referring to might be 3014/3014A. They're great at what they do with lowly cassette tape.
I love cassette decks. I would collect them all if I could. I think some people (like probably many posting on this thread) love using and tweaking them to listen to their favorite music. They provide a music experience. I've had a few like my Nak 600 console and I loved my Pioneer CT-F1000, I kick myself for selling it back in the 80's. I currently use and love my Nak DR-3. I have been listening to cassette tapes lately that I recorded in the early 80's of a radio show recorded on my 600. They still sound good, I used TDK SA and Maxell high end tapes of the day. I uploaded many to the U tubes.
I guess I'm the only one on this forum who had/has a Kyocera. I loved my D-811 (Dolby B, C and HX Pro), 3 motor, dual capstan, direct drive transport. Stereo Review lab measurements with TDK MA tape: S/N A wtd - 73.4; 25-20k +-3db. I'd like to get it refurbished, but can't find a competent tech to do it for less than an arm and two legs. I'll have to make do with my Nak CR-3a. https://www.hifi-classic.net/review/kyocera-d-811-482.html
I have a simple Nak deck, and love it for the times I use it (have quite a few cassettes from ‘back in the day’).
But really, I find it isn’t always so much the deck (I’m not underestimating it’s importance) but rather the quality of the tape. Or, if a retail production tape, when it was produced. And if the the tape is not damaged in a variety of ways. Personally I have found the ‘production’ record label offerings fro the mid/late 80’s into the 90’s most often are pretty darn good. I have very few retail tapes from the 70’s that sound anywhere near as good. In terms of blank tapes, I only used Maxwell and TDK ‘metal’ tapes, and if in good shape, still sound very good. But they cost a fortune today.
In todays world, (unlike in the past when you had to record vinyl to play in your car, as example), I’m not sure recording to cassette tapes is preferable to either vinyl or a good digital rig and streaming service. But, as I say, I have quite a few good record label tapes I still enjoy from the ‘golden era’ of tape production, and almost always prefer them to CD’s of the same period, but almost always less so than vinyl.
I’ve never had the really high-end cassette decks, but I’m very happy with a JVC KD-S201. It’s very cool-looking. I’ve made wonderful sounding tapes sourced from vinyl, CD, YouTube, etc. Pre-recoded tapes (the good ones - we know how bad tapes can get) sound great as well.
There is virtually no benefit to cassettes. They do nothing better than other formats, and in all but a few areas (they’re not worse than 8-tracks, for instance, and are easier to store) they do it worse.
Perhaps this is just generation-related, but I really love making mix-tapes. One could share a playlist on a streaming platform, one could burn a CD for someone, one could digitize analog-sourced music and then share that music via CD, all of these methods would yield better sounding music than cassettes.
For me, there’s something very fun about the cassette-dubbing process, and something fun about listening to them, something fun about sharing mix-tapes.
@livin_262002 Thanks for that reminder. That does bring back some brain cells from back then.
As an addendum, ALL the NAK decks broke pretty quickly after selling them. They fixed them for us, but it was a PIA for the customers who paid top dollar for quality decks. Once fixed, they seemed to be fine, but really? Over $1000 for a deck back then was pretty steep--1970's. I forget how much the Tandberg's were, but $795 comes to mind, or $895--in that range, I think. The three-head adjustable decks were, of course, the most expensive. Others made them as well, but I think these were the best ones. Open to correction, of course. LONG time ago...
@richopp Tandberg's were priced lower than TOTL Nakamihci decks IIRC around $1200. They were sold in lower numbers as well. Dragon was one of the best and longest selling Nakamihcis
I have two Nakamichi CR-7’s, one gear and one belt. Belt is better. But with my current vinyl setup, there is virtually no wear, and little reason to tape.
CR-7 is a 3 head machine with an auto setup feature, which is very convenient. Also an azimuth adjustment for playing tapes from lesser machines. It does not have the cast frame of the 1000 (and, I understand, the Dragon).
Even with metal tapes, there is a small loss of quality with cassette, but it’s not bothersome to me. Best of all are the ceramic body cassettes, but they are pretty much unobtainium now.
@terry9 I've got a stash of Sony metal ceramic body tapes, as well as Maxell XLII's. I had been wondering if there might be a market for them, but now that I've had my Nak refurbished, I think I'll hang on to them. Am I wrong, or is it pretty difficult to find quality tapes these days?
Yes, it is difficult to find quality tapes today. They are basically no longer produced, so you are stuck buying old ones, or if you can find them, NOS hi quality metal tapes. And both of those can be a crap shoot, as you don’t know how they were stored, and have been damaged. And expensive, typically, as there is now somewhat a cassette resurgence among some.
As I say, I really enjoy the ones I have, but doubtful I will expand my collection much. There are times I will buy a used record label production tape, if it was manufactured during the ‘golden years’.
@officerat So I understand. I looked for some time before I bought a big stash of good tapes, and that was many years ago.
EDIT: Depends on how deep your pockets are. Just looked on Ebay, and it seems you can get used ones for about $40, new for $200.
Just had my NAK serviced. Costly, but well worth it. An alternate analog to a TT. Have an abundance of blank high quality leading brand high bias type II and type IV cassettes awaiting. Glad because to have some fun at this time they sure do want more than an arm and a leg for them. Library here I come!
@terry9 Wow, insane prices, even from a legitimate vendor. But I won't even consider buying anything on Ebay after my one and only experience.
I never had the chance to play around with high-end Naks, but have had the BX300/150 as company for several decades now. My mentor told me that the cheaper Naks sound quite like the big ones, however the big ones can record much better. Also, while the lower-ends Naks can be maintained more easily, maintenance of the big ones is a giant challenge and money pit, and harder and harder to find someone who can maintain it. The Naks are a totally different league compared to Yamaha and other lower-end decks I had the chance to.... yet, what truly makes or breaks tape experience for you is the rest of the audio system.
They do not work well with modern mainstream systems, those make them sound like: unacceptable background noise, limited frequency extension, emphasis on wow and flutter, and make you cry for the safety and predictability of digital. Progress has not been kind to tapes. At all.
However, hook a BX150 to a high quality tube amp (without feedback), ultra-high efficiency loudspeakers, and prepare to be very much surprised. This type of systems approach does not place the noise in the foreground. You will notice that the concept of tape hiss becomes meaningless. Yes, it's there, just like a quiet fireplace is there on a winter night. Yet, apart from a sonically separate fireplace, the music itself has no noise component in it, and comes out very clear and fleshed out. I have a couple pre-recorded cassettes that just sound astonishing, even though they are normal bias, the noise is a non-issue, has not bothered me not a single time. This is hard to grasp as most systems turn the innocuous background noise into a poisonous gritty harsh foreground noise that is ground up with the music.... if you only heard that type of sound, then you have not heard tape yet... just a shadow.
I was a huge cassette buyer in the '80's and early '90's. My main deck was an Onkyo Integra TA-2070 which sounded quite good and recorded well. It was an expensive deck when new in '84. Bought a new 2 head Kenwood for $220 in 1989 (about all the money I had as a college kid) which still operates very well. Not a great deck as compared to all the others mentioned here, but has been a solid workhorse for mobile recording projects and general playback if needed these days.
Totally agree with @bkeske about the retail production tapes from the golden age of cassettes. Many of mine sounded very good.
I am a big car audio enthusiast as well and the cassette collection allowed playback at home and in the car. Remember when the HLTAC head on Alpines came out (vs. the previous SCC head)? I HAD to have a head unit with that tape head and spent $600 on an Alpine pre amp only pull out head unit in the mid '90's just to have increased SQ in the car...Getting off topic here (my apologies for bringing up car audio), but with A/D/S components and power, it was very high fidelity in the car.
Well they must be producing tapes because a lot of new music comes out on Tape only! That is what got me stated on this whole tape thing to begin with. I have aquired a number of new tapes that usually include a download with them, mostly from BoomKat. I wonder where they are getting blank tapes to record this stuff on. They are usually a special color or design even.