IMHO the Dragon is by far your best bet for playing tapes that were pre-recorded or recorded by other machines. If you get a chance to listen to one you will be shocked at how good even a pre-recorded tape can sound. Yes, more money than some of the others but still less than what most people spend on a pre-amp or even a good cartridge!
Ditto 80stech's recommendation. The Dragon is the only cassette deck that automatically aligns the playback head to the azimuth of the tape being played - on the fly. Since 1/60 degree azimuth error is enough to deaden the treble response of a cassette tape, this makes all the difference.
I don't believe that any deck other then the Dragon had auto azimuth adjustment. Could I be wrong?
Manual azimuth is not that hard to use but I do think that the Dragon is the only Nak with auto, not sure of any others.
I still use my 680ZX. Very reliable after all these years.
The Dragon, and I think the 1000zxl or xzl or whatever it was called also had the auto azimuth adjustment for playback. I use a dragon myself for cassette transfers, but on occasion I've come across a tape that will have not enough in the treble range to allow the dragon to lock down the azimuth, so I keep a Cassette Deck One with manual adjustment for those rare occasions.
I have a 670ZX and it has Auto Azimuth Alignment, it says so right on the front. It's a very nice deck and unless you're a perfectionist it should do the job.
There are still a lot of old Naks around so you should be able to pick up a nice one pretty cheap. Shop around and get one that's in excellent operating and cosmetic condition.
There were 4 Nakamichi decks with playback azimuth adjustments; the Dragon which is automatic and the CR-7A, Cassette Deck One and DR-1 (I believe) that were manual. The 670ZX, 680ZX, 681ZX, 682ZX, 700ZXE, 700ZXL and 1000ZXL had auto azimuth alignment for recording only, not for playback. I believe that the 680, ZX-7 and ZX-9 had manual azimuth alignment for recording only. You can generally find Cassette Deck Ones on epay for reasonable prices (if they work)and they are nice decks, Ihave one in my secondary system
Dragons can be found pretty cheaply these days, but the electronics (as you suspected) can be a bit wonky. I have a Nak 680zx which does have azimuth adjustment, but it's set based on recording a tone on one head & checking with the read head, so it's a setup step before recording. I didn't know the Dragon has auto azimuth on playback.
On my Nak, the mechanicals are still great, but the Dolby C mis-tracks. Most of my tapes were recorded in the 70's & 80's and by now are suffering major loss of high frequencies, and print-through distortions from storage, where the inner layers of tape transfer some of their magnetic charges to the adjacent layers.
I was recording LPs to CD-R last night and thinking how much better this process is than what I used to be able to achieve with tape. So much can be done in the digital domain with phase-free filtering and click/pop removal, not to mention much quieter backgrounds and no tape hiss. You can certainly listen through that, but it's nice not to have to anymore.
By the way, if you want my Nak 680zx to play with, it's in a closet & I'll give/sell it to you for postage/packing cost at the UPS store. Be nice to see someone getting some use out of it!
My memory matches Ktrogers'.
The Dragon was unique in that one channel(left if I remember correctly) of the playback head fit two pole piece sub assemblies with independent coils and gaps into the space normally occupied by one pole piece. Since both sub assemblies read the same track on the cassette, it followed that the head azimuth was correct when the output of both sub assemblies was in phase. A tilted head would cause one sub assembly to read the track a few milliseconds ahead of the other, resulting in phase difference.
The Dragon used a phase detector and servo system to continuously adjust playback head azimuth to maintain zero phase error and thus near perfect azimuth alignment.
This also means that you get great results from Dolby B and C noise reduction, since they magnify treble loss resulting from azimuth misalignment. Also tape playback quality is the same in both tape directions - this is usually a problem for auto reversing decks.
The record azimuth alignment featured on other Nak decks simply allowed one to adjust record head azimuth to match the playback head azimuth. It assumed that the playback head azimuth was correct, and provided no help for tapes recorded on other machines.
Excellent info above! On a budget, Naks may not be the best choice. They are antiques. There are only a few shops that can work on them (ESS is probably the best), and you might be shocked what it can cost to repair a Nak, especially a Dragon (over $2000 for a full rebuild). Even if you find one in really good shape, you will still need to spend at least several hundred dollars to get it calibrated, and belts, idler wheel, and perhaps capacitors replaced. They all need work, after all this time.
Do you know how I could get a hold of ESS? Tried to google it with no luck.
Markpao, sorry, I meant Electronic Service Labs (ESL) www.eslabs.com/nakamichi.htm. Google "nakamichi repair" and they turn up.