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TNT-Audio Editor's corner - February 2003

Is there life left in the humble compact cassette?

Author: Julian Ashbourn

One continues to see media comment denouncing the cassette as a medium of the past and not suitable for listening to music in our increasingly digital age. Is this really the case, or are we sidelining a technology which may still have some uses? Let's take a slightly provocative look at the situation.


Back in the fifties and early sixties when being a hi-fi enthusiast involved more than simply parting with copius amounts of cash in order to up the ante, the warm glow of valves and shadows cast by speakers the size of small wardrobes were often complemented by the gentle whirring of an open reel tape recorder. Ferrographs, Revoxs and even the humble Elizabethan, all found their way into the enthusiasts collection of tools. They used them to make compliations of some of their favourite records, to record radio programs and to play pre-recorded tapes.
Yes, pre-recorded open reel tapes were readily available and often of very good quality, as was the replay standard of these machines. Anyone who has not heard a half track Ferrograph or Revox running at 15 ips with good quality program material may not readily understand the sound quality these open reel machines were capable of. Bear in mind that the masters for many vinyl records were created from such source tapes.

Of course, running these machines required a certain amount of understanding as well as a certain amount of physical space if you wanted to create a library of 10.5 inch tapes. The introduction of the compact cassette sparked the imagination of many in this respect. While not originally conceived as a hi-fi medium, it was not long before we saw enthusiast targeted cassette "decks" offering the functionality they desired (recording and playing back their chosen material) with a new level of operational convenience and compact physical size. Of course, the sound quality was nowhere near as good.
Hardly surprising considering the miniscule amount of tape passing over the heads, compared with a half track quarter incher running at 15 or even 7.5 ips. Steady development improved matters however and, with the introduction of the Dolby B noise reduction system, the cassette deck suddenly assumed hi-fi credentials and ousted the open reel (which was much more expensive to produce and buy) from all but the die hard enthusiast's kit. Improvements in cassette tape stock quality, coupled with advanced head design and better transports, put the last nails in the coffin of the domestic open reel machine.

The Present Time

Now we are witnessing a not dissimilar situation as digital recorders assume increasing popularity and threaten the existence of the cassette deck. All of a sudden, we find the cassette format abandoned by several manufacturers with a vastly reduced choice of available machines.
Even blank cassette tapes are not as readily available as they once were and you will be hard pushed to find a mainstream record store selling pre-recorded cassettes. Does this mean the end for the cassette? I hope not, as there are still advantages associated with this medium.

The Old Analogue / Digital Debate

With analogue vinyl records, we pushed the technology a long way, steadily increasing replay sound quality, in spite of the perceived limitations of the methodology. Different drive techniques, tonearms and pick up cartridges offered a wealth of possibilities to the enthusiast prepared to fine tune his or her set up in order to get that last drop of sound.
Philips and Sony told us we were all wrong and that the CD rendered all this obsolete with "perfect" sound in an indestructable format. Most believed the propaganda rather than their own ears and CD's started to dominate in sales of both players and recorded music. Eventually, the enthusiasts got wise and realised that the manufacturers had spoken with forked tongues, at least with regard to the perfect reproduction claims. In fact, they had compromised the technical standard for reasons of commercial expediency, especially with regard to sampling frequency (now they admit to the great lie with the introduction of SACD, HDCD and DVDA).
The enthusiasts fought back, determined to keep alive their beloved vinyl and the associated pleasure of tweaking, ensuring in the process a healthy market for those manufacturers who did not abandon the analogue record player.

Where does that leave us as far as recording is concerned? Many enthusiasts have both analogue and digital sources. Many more rely mainly on digital but still have a valuable library of analogue records from which they would like to record tracks for posterity or day to day listening without having to use a turntable. They could buy a CD or even DVD recorder.
They could alternatively go for a Minidisk deck. But these formats do not offer quite the same flexibility or user experience as tape. Furthermore, being digital, they exhibit the same characteristics that disappointed many enthusiasts in the first place, If you are only recording from digital sources, you might not mind this so much, but, if you are recording from your analogue library, you may want to preserve the analogue characteristics of these recordings. To do this, you need an analogue recorder such as, er, a cassette deck.

The Quality Issue

Ah, you say, but cassettes can't approach the quality of digital recorders. Well, yes and no. Granted, they cannot match the paper specifications for speed stability and signal to noise ratio as offered by digital recorders. But there are other aspects to sound quality and associated listening pleasure. For those brave and wise enough to believe their own ears rather than the mainstream propaganda, a good cassette deck, properly aligned, with a high quality blank tape, can still offer surprisingly good sound quality. When recording from analogue sources particularly, a quality cassette deck can often sound noticeably better than it's digital equivalents.
With good quality tapes and contemporary noise reduction circuits, cassette playback can sound a whole lot better than the specifications might suggest. To do this of course, the cassette deck must be properly aligned and set up for the tape in question and the user must pay attention to regular head cleaning and de-magnetisation.
There are down sides too. Complex electro-mechanical devices such as cassette mechanisms are prone to wear, as are the tapes themselves. However, good quality components will return a useful life. Certainly, the author has some cassette tapes which are more than 20 years old and still sound good. He also has an old favourite Kenwood three head cassette deck which is 17 years old and, while starting to show signs of mechanical wear, still sounds very good indeed.

Where To Next?

So, if you wish to record in the analogue domain or simply wish to continue to play favourite or irreplaceable cassettes, what choices do you have? Well, you could go digital and copy your analogue sources to digital media. There are reasons why you may wish to do this. Preserving them against wear and deterioration being one of them. Alternatively, you may decide that you wish to enjoy the analogue sound and user experience of cassette recording for a little longer. If that is the case, then you had better look sharp, as the availability of good quality cassette decks is diminishing rapidly.
Sony still have a couple of relatively high end models available and slightly lesser, but still serviceable models are available from Teac, Yamaha and Denon. However, you will find increasingly fewer dealers who stock these, as most seem to consider the cassette a dead medium and simply keep a few double transport low cost players on the shelves for those who ask. You may be able to pick up one of the classic model Nakamichis or even some of the older high end Akais or Teacs on the second-hand market. But watch out for wear and tear or evidence of abuse.
Naturally, some hi-fi afficianados will shun all of this as low-tech and not relevant to true hi-fi, but then of course, they are the ones who don't understand musical enjoyment. Which reminds me, I must write a piece on relative historic performance and quality of source material....

© 2003 Copyright Julian Ashbourn - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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