Get a used Nakamichi. I have had several and still own a 480, 2 550s, and a 680.
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My older Panasonic VHS recorder had an input level adjustment knob. It made great recordings even at the lower SLP setting. (No longer have the Panasonic.) But I have a really nice older very high-end Sony that my parents used many yrs. On Wed. (my next day off) I'll see how well it records an FM broadcast.
Cassette decks are fairly complex devices. I would stay away from used, older decks due to maintenance issues. Even the best built ones require a good deal of TLC. A decent quality new Tascam or Denon deck will cost around $400. You could get lucky on an older deck, but you could get unlucky just as easily.
In a different direction, any sub-$200 USB A/D attached to a computer with recording software (usually bundled free with the A/D) will allow equal to if not better than cassette quality recordings, plus editing.
Last night, I was listening to a Bela Fleck cassette on my Dragon. I sometimes forget the extrordinary fidelity and naturalness of sound that this Nak produces. Even my least expensive Nak (CR-1A) is capable of outstanding playback of well-recorded tapes. The ZX-9 still makes excellent copies and also has outstanding playback. Connect it with a good quality IC even though youll read that, with cassettes, ICs don't make a difference. Bull-ca-ca!
Granted, they do need a lot of TLC and a periodic trip to the doctor, but they are worth it if you have a large library of pre-recorded tapes. If you are used to fussing with your vinyl, then cassette ownership is no more painful. I do not recommend double-wells decks except to use as rewinders.
Periodically browse at your local Salvation Army store. Youd be surprised how many good and hardly-used cassette decks get put for sale. My CR-1 was a SA rescue and it cost me $20.00. The heads were practically new.
Over the years I owned H-K, Aiwa, Nak, Tandberg, Onkyo, Yamaha, and Pioneer. The only two I had trouble with were the H-K and Tandberg. I would say the best performance per dollar came from the Aiwa and Pioneer. Although it is seldom used, I still have the Pioneer which I kept because it was my favorite for quality recordings and features. It was their top of the line nest to the Elite, mostly the same specs but about half the price (but no wood side panels - 8^) ).
As I posted elsewhere, I never found prerecorded tapes offered much quality (high speed dupes) but recently a friend played a couple of prerecorded jazz cassettes for me that sounded very good. Perhaps it is worth trying a few.
My experience recording interviews and certain news clips from FM have put the weak spot on my antenna, not the cassette deck.
I prefer a Pioneer 707 reel to reel for this purpose, but a friend of mine uses a TASCAM SS-R1 Solid State Flash Recorder and loves it.
(His was in house before one could be found in the states...but they are now available so I am told.)
If you were sourcing serious vinyl, I would not suggest this, but with FM as a source, the reproductions he has sent me are STELLAR!
He sets it on the lossless setting and edits like butter on the PC, burning the CD from there. All the fading and editing is done on the PC in about a tenth the time, with none of the down-line losses from mix-downs.
If I was doing more radio archiving, I would own one of these in a heartbeat. While the old cassette brings back fond memories, after hearing the product of this unit, there is no comparison...since you will pay this much for a really good reliable cassette deck anyway.
I know these are available, if you shop around, for just over 500.00. There may even be the same device by other manufacturers out there with similar results.
If you choose to investigate this further, please share your findings, I may end up putting one of these on my christmas list and the more I know the better :>)
Just about any cassette machine that's 15-20 years old will require a little bit of service - the rubber parts simply dry up with age. So the simplicity of a machine counts for quite a bit when it comes to its performance these days . . . the number of technicians who can sucessfully swap a capstan belt and pinch roller are far greater than those who can make a Dragon work to its potential, and chances are that a good used deck will require service, or has been serviced already.
For reliability . . . Tandbergs and earlier Naks are pretty bad. When Nak switched to gear-drive hubs rather than idler-drive, reliability jumped up to a huge degree, and this was in the mid-to-late '80s, about halfway through the "CR-" series. There are some "BX-" series decks out there that have also had gear-drive idlers that were added later, making these excellent.
Most of the generic Japanese decks (Yamaha, Sony, etc.) are variable . . . some have decent mechanisms with really crappy electronics (no separate internal adjustments for each tape type). Pioneer was always complex, idiosyncratic, and kind of unreliable IMO.
I'd recommend a mid-1980s or later Nakamichi two-head deck, like a CR-1A, CR-2A, BX-100, BX-150, etc. Also B&O decks from the same era . . . they used simple, easily serviced Japanese mechanisms combined with excellent electronics. Just quirky operation and connectors, but even their ALC is good. Any of these can sound great, bought cheap, and can be easily serviced by an average electronics technician.
Doesn't sound like you are looking for the ultimate in fidelity, but if you are, try to find a Nak 1000 ZXL or 700 ZXL. Each listed for over $3,000 twenty-five years ago. They represent the pinnacle of cassette deck design. Good shops such as Analogique in Manhattan can really tweak these machines. With a metal tape and proper adjustment, the fidelity is remarkable.