by Carlos Guzman
With the new tape revival around the world, more and more audiophiles are getting into the exclusive, and sometimes expensive, hobby of open reel playback. Many companies have resurrected the old “pre-recorded” reel tapes market but this time with exclusive music and performers dubbed on high quality tape from ATR or RTM, running @ 15ips on a 1/2 Track format and with such a high sound quality that right now this is the best media to take you closer to the “real thing”. In the past, the pre-recorded tapes were duplicated on poor stock tape, 1/4 tk format and 3 3/4 speed. The hiss was always high, but even though I can recall a nice and acceptable sound from many of my older brother’s tapes he brought from Vietnam. Today this is a complete different story. The copies are duplicated in real-time, direct from the duplication masters and using the best recorders they could afford from Studer, Telefunken, Philips and Nagra. Having such a copy is like having a “piece” of the Master Tape itself and I’m not kidding.
Well, all this noise has been growing lately and it was inevitable that the cassette tape would take the opportunity to jump on the train as well. One of the main advantages the cassette has over the open reel is the prolific abundance of nice units still working around the world and for relatively good/affordable prices. On the other hand, audio cassette players are more complex machines than their bigger relatives and just a small number of capable techs are still dealing with these. To make things even more interesting, some brands require specific gadgets to be serviced, like Nakamichi for example, making the available techs list even more reduced. I know a lot of good technicians that can’t properly service a Nak simply because they don’t have the required aligning tools and tapes. Those who are adventurous enough to attempt a service without the Nak specific tools, tends to end in the same way: recommending a Nak tech to their customer after the damage is already done.
Other models require a lot of inventiveness and imagination on behalf of the service tech because many parts and replacements are no longer available. That’s why you have to be careful as to which deck you are going to buy and from whom. For example; I collected all Teac “Z Series” decks (only 3 models were produced). Later, I discovered the hard way that these specific decks are a pain in the ass to work with and only 3 or 4 techs are willing and capable to service it. The Z 7000, a beautiful, impressive and heavy machine, is highly complex and prone to problems. At the end, I got rid of all three since every time I needed a service, in shipping cost alone, I use to spend a fortune due to its weight! (over 50 lbs)!
Many unjustified criticisms have been made to the cassette media. Every time I read something in the press about the cassette revival I have noticed the writer’s prejudice against the cassette. They usually mention the hiss, low quality and bad sounding characteristics of the cassette tape. Sure! When you deal with a low quality, commercial duplicated tape on a crappy shell and playing it back on an even crappier machine which has not seen a Q Tip with alcohol on the heads since who knows when, then that’s not a fair accusation! That’s not the same cassette tape that I, and many other cassette lovers, know! Unfortunately, this handicap is like that of the vinyl. Why do you think the CD took the market like a storm? Simply because even with a “cheap” player you could obtain a fair sound quality (excellent quality for John Q Public) no matter where. With cassette and vinyl, you need to have the proper set-up to get the most out of it and that takes time, knowledge and money! The general consumer is always looking for ease of use, flexibility and bargains. No wonder why the CD took over, just to be displaced later by the stream and download services. Who wants to bother now with the old tape again? Only we, the remaining tape lovers who knows where the real quality and music enjoyment is.…
It has always amazed me the grade of quality and perfection the cassette tape evolved to, running at the very slow speed of 1 7/8 ips and using a 1/4 tk format in such small surface of tape! When was the last time you listened to a good recorded Chrome tape played in a high-quality deck? Many people have not had this opportunity and all they remember were those tapes from dad’s car, beaten by the sun and playing in a cheap Kraco unit! How many of you have experienced a custom recorded TDK metal tape playing back on a properly aligned Nakamichi Dragon? You’ll have to hold on to your pants and I’m deeply serious. The best cassette decks can have even surpassed the sound of a modest 1/4 tk open reel. Take a Tandberg 3014 A, any Nakamichi top-of-the-line model, Revox B 215 or even a NAD 6300 and compare it to a regular reel to reel deck. You’ll see what I’m talking about. I know of a former Creek engineer, Alex Nikitin, who takes a specific Tascam model cassette deck, modifies it to run at a faster speed with a handful additional mods and it’s been said that it supersedes in sound to most of the open reel decks out there, and that folks is something else.
Which one to buy? I wouldn’t fall into that trap because this an issue where the cassette hobbyists are never going to concur, but since I’m the author of this article, I’ll take the liberty to recommend my favorites, which are not necessarily the best by all means! Anyway, it all depends on your preferences. Are you a die-hard recording aficionado like me or are you just looking for a good playback machine? Do you want just a “deck” or are you looking for a serious machine? How much do you want to spend? You know, the usual questions to be considered in this and/or any other kind of hobby.
Let’s suppose that you are just interested to play those 300 pre-recorded cassettes you have been keeping in the closet since 1988. You’ll rarely use it for recording. You are just looking for a nice machine with nice playback capabilities and your budget is healthy. I’ll immediately refer you to a machine where the azimuth could be manually or automatically adjusted. Why? Because no matter where those tapes of yours were recorded, re-adjusting the playback head angle of your deck (azimuth) to the original’s recording head where the duplication took place, could guarantee a crispy and the best sound possible you could get out of any tape every time, unless your tape is such in a bad shape that it’s completely hopeless. The king of all auto-azimuth adjustment decks, and the only one with certain attributes in that department, is the Dragon. Period. You just have to insert the tape and hit the play button. She’ll gets the correct azimuth automatically and will also do the same on side B once she goes into the auto-reverse direction if you choose that option! Yes, auto-reverse too with one of the best transports ever designed and fully direct drive. One of the most successful models ever made and marketed with over 20,000 units sold, the Nakamichi Dragon is widely recognized among Hi End circles and even by those who are not related with the hobby. The cons are that she needs to be properly serviced and a fully refurbished unit will cost you over $1,000.00 easily. My advice: don’t fall for the so-called “working and fully functional” eBay description unless it was serviced by a real Nakamichi tech! Sellers think that if they change some belts, clean and lube some things here and there, the machine is “excellent”. Not with a Dragon. Not with a Nakamichi. So, just buy a cheap one and send it to Willy Hermann Services in California. Prepare to invest at least $600.00 on a full refurbish service and weeks later you’ll receive back a deck working like “new”. A nicely serviced one could cost you $1,500 anyway, so, I already gave you a hint. For Revox service I use Perry Esposito in Virginia, and you can still get new parts from Revox Germany. Just take into consideration that all these LCD’s has started to die and you’ll need to invest $300.00 on a new one…it happened to me!
For manual playback azimuth, Nakamichi offer other models as well and for a lower price tag: Cassette Deck 1 and DR 1. The best in this manual cal realm is the CR-7 but the price is up there with the Dragon, so, it’s up to you.
The NAD 6300 has a playtrim adjustment that what basically does is to increase the high frequencies of a tape. It’s like adding Treble to the sound. Unfortunately, if the azimuth is completely out of adjustment, no matter how much Treble you add, the sound could still be muffled. This deck is one of the best bang for the money in the second-hand market and you can find a good one for under $300.00 easily. The soundstage is it forte, but it is a little bit on the bright side for my taste. Still one of the best if you are on a restricted budget. There are many others from other brands as well, but this article is not a buying guide bible, so, let’s move on. By the way; for those of you who are more technical oriented, you can always adjust the azimuth of your cassette deck with a small screwdriver, as this adjustment screw is usually accessible from the front. This way your selection would be endless: Pioneer, Aiwa, Technics, Yamaha, JVC, Aiwa, Sony, you name it! How you do it? There are specific tapes recorded with a 10 khz tone for azimuth adjustment. You play the cassette and rotate the screw until you have the strongest signal on both channels. Another method is by ear and it’s very useful for these old tapes: play your recorded tape, preferably one with high energy cymbals and high frequencies, move the screw until you get the best possible “highs”, then, with the Stereo/Mono button of your receiver, go back and forth until you hear a similar sound quality on both modes. When you have multiple decks like me, for example, I always have one main recording unit, what I call the “Master Recorder”. I do a homemade azimuth tape with the Master deck and adjust all the others to this standard. This way I can play all my tapes on any of the decks I have with excellent results.
The rules for recording on cassettes are the same basic rules that applies when dealing with any kind of tape. You try to record as high as possible without getting the tape saturated (distortion) to obtain a better signal to noise ratio. Depending on the tape formulation, is the signal level you could get. Normal Bias tapes, as a rule, are best between the “0” and +2db. For Chrome tapes, you can go up to +4dB with occasional +6db and Metals up to +8db. This, of course, depends on your deck and to what kind of tape it was originally calibrated for. Many variables must be considered, but at least this is just a basic guidance. It’s best for the user to familiarize themselves with the deck and experiment with its capabilities and limitations. I always record at the highest possible level, but that’s me. Be sure that the heads and tape path are fully clean. It’s also recommended to de-magnetize all these from time to time. I’m not a fully believer of demag, so, it’s up to you.
What about filters? The famous and useful Dolby is included in every modern cassette deck. The original Dolby B, Dolby C and even the latest Dolby S works in a different way, but with a common purpose: to reduce hiss. The last one arrived kind of late into the hobby as to be a serious contender. Based on the studio standard, Dolby SR, the Dolby S supposed to be the most advanced, but not many decks have this option. DBX, Dolby competition, were also available in some decks but it never equaled Dolby’s popularity. Additional Dolby “enhancers” were developed to increase headroom, extend the high frequencies and reduced distortion.
Tandberg, Dyneq/ActiLinear and Bang & Olufsen HX PRO plays an important role in the high quality sound of the cassette decks. The Danish Bang & Olufsen improved the Dolby HX “head room extension” system for reliably reducing tape saturation effects at short wavelength (high frequencies) despite higher bias level. This advanced method was called Dolby HX Pro. HX Pro was adopted by many other high-end manufacturers, except Nakamichi because it really didn’t need it! Dyneq is an anti-saturation circuit, whereas ActiLinear is a headroom extension circuit, according to Tandberg technical staff. With HX PRO, the HF content is monitored & bias is adjusted dynamically in accordance and inversely related. When large level HF signals are present, less bias is needed since the HF signal acts as bias for the lf/mf signals. In ActiLinear, this process takes place in the previous amp stage. The transconductance amp driving the record head outputs a current to the head, as opposed to traditional record amps which output a voltage. The bias is mixed with the audio signal ahead of the record amp. In other words, the current drive to the record head which includes bias & signal, is optimized as HF’s content varies, extending headroom. Actilinear is the HX counterpart, whereas Dyneq simply limits the hf boost during record. Maybe I’m wrong but that’s how I understand it. Be sure to look for more information and corroborate it.
The problem with some of these filters is that if the deck is not working properly, Dolby mistracking can take place and the sound would be compromised. Some people opts for No Dolby at all and others prefer Dolby B or C. I have use it all and for me the most “forgiving” is the B because even without decoding you can still listen to the tape. Not so with the C or dbx. If you are not sure, go straight with no filters at all!
What decks for recording? Anyone you like and can afford. From the Nakamichi stable I like the ZX-7. Why? Because you can still grab a good one for $500.00 or less, it’s very similar in sound to the considerably more expensive and difficult to get ZX-9, has the famous Nakamichi classic transport, the recording parameters as well as the recording head azimuth are manually adjusted and the sound is just wonderful. If you are on the “cost no object” bracket, by all means, go to the big leagues of the ZX-9, CR-7 or Dragon.
If you are looking for a more exotic piece, then a Tandberg 3014A or a Revox B-215 could be your choice. Both are excellent machines, but the Revox is easier to find service and parts for, at least in the USA. A Tandberg in good condition could go as high as $2,000+. Personally, I wouldn’t go that high. I tend to use my B-215S for recording more often than any of my other TOL Nak’s.
What about the classic Naks? 1000 ZXL, 700 ZXL/ZXE, 682 ZX,etc… A 1000 ZXL is the holy grail for the Nakamichi collector. A complex machine, not easy to deal with and very expensive. Over $3,000 easily for a good unit. The golden Limited…forget it! I have seen this one over $8,000! Does it really worth it? Ah, eh, …it’s up to you if you really like the golden finish. I sold both many moons ago, the original and the limited, because it was expensive to maintain and my wife never liked the Golden color! One thing must be said: this is one of the best cassette decks ever made in the history of audio and the sound is simply exquisite. Want a taste of the 1000’s without breaking the bank? Go for the 700 ZXL or ZXE. Similar in sound, but still over $1,000 if you find a good one. I have (2) 700 ZXE because there’s something in the sound of these classic behemoths difficult to find in other models.
The NAD 6300 is the best bang for the money. Sings beautifully and records excellently. The price is good also. This model has the Sankyo transport, like the CR-7’s, so parts and techs are widely available. Other brands have specific models that are well accepted among the recording aficionados circle: Yamaha KX 1200, Aiwa ADF 800 (very affordable and surprisingly good), Sony, Technics, ADS, Teac, Akai, Tascam, etc.
First, if you are serious about audio cassette, forget about buying those new units available from Teac or Crosley. No good. If you want to get into this hobby you’ll have to get a good serviced, refurbished and nice cosmetic classic one, like those mentioned above. You’ll be tempted to go for the usual “nice condition, fully operational” ad of Ebay. Forget it. Ask the seller when was the last time the machine was serviced and by who. Those Naks serviced by Willy Hermann tends to cost higher. Sometimes too much. As I already mentioned, there’re other techs out there who offers a very nice service. It depends on where you are located, so try to find a nice-looking unit for less and send it for repairs. The more complex the machine, the most expensive to refurbish would be. What you must keep in mind is that we are talking about 30+ years old machines here and NONE could be perfectly working if service is not performed. ALL these machines need service, more sooner than later, and there’s not an alternative solution for this. You may find one that it’s still working…until it gets to your hands and start using it. Before the month ends the machine would stop working. When I buy a unit I like, I tell the seller to ship it directly to the repair shop. That way I’m sure I’m going to receive a “working like new” deck for years to come. It saves me time and money.
This article is not a buying guide, neither covers all needed information about cassette decks, but at least it’s from an owner’s point of view and someone who has been dealing with tape for over 35 years now. Almost every famous audio brand from the 80’s developed its own cassette deck versions but there’s no secret that only few of those excelled in this arena. Some people hates the Nakamichi cult due to personal preferences or simply because they could never afford one. The truth is that, besides Nakamichi, there has been other brands with excellent alternatives, BUT for me and for a thousand others Nakamichi is a kind of standard. They were over-priced and continues to be, that’s for sure, but nobody can deny the importance this brand has in the history of the audio cassette and all the innovations that came with it. Some original inventions were introduced by others, that’s true, but on many occasions, they were improved and exploited by Nakamichi in their own applications. What really amazes me from this brand is that even those 2 head modest models sounded better than many 3 head designs from other competitors. Nakamichi were the leader in cassette deck technology and perhaps that’s why every other brand used their comparative Marketing against one name and one name only: Nakamichi. Always. I never saw an ad from Pioneer comparing theirs to a Technics or Sony. The same still going on today. Take a look of a second-hand “for sale” ad of a Tandberg, Revox, Aiwa,etc. The heading usually goes like this: “Tandberg 3014: The Dragon Slayer” or “Revox B-215: better than a Nakamichi” and “Aiwa 9000: A Dragon killer” Have you seen it? I’m kidding not!
Nakamichi, Tandberg, Revox. For me these are the true heavyweights of the cassette deck hey era. I know it would bring many objections, but it is what it is. You also have the rare Eumig, BIC and ASC from Europe. Or the usual and more affordable Japanese alternatives from the most popular brands. Yeah! Even Harman Kardon and their famous CD 491 was a nice one too or the ADS C-4, Luxman, Technics RS M95…OK! But let’s be honest: none of these could get the general public acceptance as “the best” like the first 3 names mentioned. At least this is the truth in cassette deck technology.
Make your final decision. I’m sure that sooner or later one of the open reel tape producers would start looking into audio cassettes as well and when that time comes you better be ready. I already am. Are you?
About the Author
During one time or another I used to have over 85 pieces of audio at home with over 30 cassette decks and open reel recorders. From a Nakamichi 500 to a Studer A 80 1/2″ machine! My collection is smaller now, but still one of the biggest in Puerto Rico and perhaps the biggest of cassette decks anyway. At the moment, I’m concentrating in quality instead of quantity and I’m only looking for the best cassette decks ever made, specifically Nakamichi & Revox. I do have other brands, but these 2 are my long time favorites. I also own a Crown Open Reel Deck CX 822, Revox B 77, Revox PR 99 MKiii and a Otari MTR 12 with Dolby SR 361 and other toys.