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No. 131 April 2015

PRAISE OF FORMAT
Part 1: Compact Cassette

was surprised with the information that I heard somewhere, perhaps in the Chronicle of Krakow Television, if I remember correctly. The point was that the Krakow Regional Public Library started the campaign: “Cassette players needed again”, which aimed at collecting old cassette players (more HERE). I was surprised because I found it impossible to find any place for the devices in question in my awareness of the times we are living in. After all, who needs cassette players in the second decade of the 21st century? Having examined the issue in more detail, it became evident to me that cassette players are an invaluable aid for blind and visually impaired people.

The library on Rajska Street in Krakow has over 5000 audiobooks in stock. These are books that were read by somebody aloud and recorded on tape cassettes. An audiobook is not associated with any medium – it may have the form of a CD, an Internet file, a vinyl disc, reel tape and a tape cassette. Apparently, the tape cassette has unique advantages that are not possessed by any other medium – when it is stopped, it remains where it is until it is played or rewound. It is an extremely important feature for people who use it. It is possible, of course, to imagine the process of rewinding a CD or a file, but for the majority of elderly people it is simply impossible to do. And “reading” books in this way is one of the most important sources of joy in the life of a huge number of visually-impaired or blind people.

Guardians of the Galaxy

The renaissance of the Compact Cassette format, i.e. the tape cassette and the cassette player, which we have been going through recently, originated somewhere else, though: in mass culture. As I wrote in the editorial in July 2014, entitled Praise of the 1970s, after the period of revaluation of culture or, more specifically, the culture of the 1960s, we are slowly entering the era of valorization of the 1970s, with all their attributes. The tape cassette can be found among the icons of those times. The process of rediscovering the 1970s is again driven by the cinema. After the Mad Man series (2007 – 2014, directed by Matthew Werner), which celebrated the 1960s, the time has come for the X-Men: Days of Future Past movie (directed by Bryan Singer, 2014), in which the 1970s are shown in their full glory, while the final strike has definitely been the movie Guardians of the Galaxy directed by James Gunn, 2014.

I am a fan of this type of movies, so it is easy to accuse me of being “biased” right from the start. However, I do think that, fairly objectively, it is simply a good movie, although it is dressed in the costume of a classic SF film. Additionally, its soundtrack has been promoted in a way that I have never seen before. Anyone who has watched the movie surely remembers a few scenes more clearly than other ones. One of them is definitely the opening scene in which Peter Quill vel. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) uses his Walkman (!) to play a cassette with a mix of songs that was once recorded by his mother and jumps into adventure. It is also hard to forget the view of a cassette deck which looks as if it had been taken from the dashboard of a large American car, but which is placed in the Star-Lord’s spaceship.

It all refers to the format which was most popular in the 1970s and 80s, although it had been created in the year 1963. The last tape cassettes were still produced by large corporations in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. The format, which was created to be used in Dictaphones and has never been considered to be suitable for audiophiles, has been in use for fifty years, which is worthy of our respect. It becomes even more evident since, in the 51st year of its existence, the soundtrack from the blockbuster movie Guardians of the Galaxy , is being released now on a tape cassette, which is considered to be the “right” format here, costing over 60 American dollars…;

Something personal

You can learn about the origins, development and technical details of the Compact Cassette from an article written by Maciej Tułodziecki from Warsaw University of Technology, entitled The chronicle of life of cassette players (Kronika życia magnetofonów kasetowych). It is no use repeating all the information, so I would like to offer a completely personal perspective, without any distance. It happens that vinyl records and tape cassettes were an integral part of my upbringing and I have a lot of childhood and youth memories connected with both of the formats.

One of my most remote memories is listening to fairy tales from a cassette player which was a “close relative” of the first Philips EL3300 cassette player. I do not remember my earlier encounters with fairy tales recorded on vinyl discs, because, as I have been told, they came to an end after I had ironed a disc with a tale entitled The dwarfs and orphan Mary (O krasnoludkach i o sierotce Marysi) (1972), released by Polskie Nagrania (Polish Records), featuring the most important Polish actors. I do not know why I did what I did, but perhaps I already had the idea of “flat frequency response” in my mind, or I wanted to warm the disc up before a listening session – who knows? Having changed the medium, my parents also changed the signal source and my first consciously “read” books were Tales from Moominvalley with unforgettable songs by Tadeusz Woźniak, The Adventures of Pinocchio and other audiobooks recorded on tape cassettes and listened to through small Tesla headphones.

Another memory connected with a cassette player is associated with discotheques organized by my classmate’s older brother. He had two Unitra ZRK M-532SD cassette players at that time, thanks to which he could mix tracks. He also had access to new albums (on cassettes), because his family would send them to him from abroad. I had been dreaming about such a cassette recorder for a long time, while playing music from archaic, as it seemed to me then, vinyl discs, when a miracle occurred. I was rushing home after a P.E. class and I suddenly ran into a schoolmate behind one of the corners. Thanks to a coincidence (yes, I know – I started talking about a miracle and now I am changing it into a coincidence, but the situation was really unusual), I hit my nose against his shoulder and, as a result, was taken to a hospital in an adjacent town – Gorlice with a broken nose.

Nothing happened to my schoolmate – but I was the winner. The financial compensation that I received some time later because of the accident was sufficient for me to buy a Unitra MSD 1402 cassette player in a local GS store. It was a horizontal construction with a noise correction system and a switch to choose one of three possible types of tape. I also used the headphone output. I quickly learnt how to place the cassette player diagonally – it had small openings in the bottom, to which I adapted a stand that I made myself. I bought my first top-class cassette player only when I was 20 years old – it was a three-head Sony TC-K679ES cassette player bought in a shop at the corner of the Market in Krakow. Automatic tape calibration, Dolby B and C HX Pro – that was IT! Soon after that I had the opportunity to use even better cassette players. Juliusz Słowacki Theater where I started working a year later was equipped with Tascam 122 MkII cassette players – really excellent machines.

Top ten

Independently of what cassette players I was using, I was always aware of the fact that they had nothing in common with the ones that were considered to be the “high end” of the cassette players’ world. The list of the best cassette players will surely differ, depending on who is asked to prepare it. For example, the Audiokarma forum includes the topic Top 10 holy grail cassette decks? in which we have the following list:

1. Akai GXC-570DII
2. A&D GX-Z9100EX
3. Sansui SC-5110
4. Technics RS-M95
5. Philips N5748
6. SAE C101
7. Denon DN-790R
8. Yamaha KX-950
9. Aurex PC-X88AD
10. Onkyo TA-6711
11. Sharp RT-7100

It can be instantly noticed that this is a very individual choice. How do I know? Well, there is no Nakamichi cassette player on the list. There is a much more realistic list prepared by a blog author and a collector HERE. We will find the following devices included in it:

Nakamichi CR-7
Nakamichi  DRAGON
Nakamichi  ZX-9   
ReVox B215
Tandberg 3014
Tandberg 3014 A
Pioneer CT-95
Aiwa XK-S9000
Alpine AL-85

The first three positions for Nakamichi cassette players are not a coincidence. The Dragon model, which is placed on the second position, is considered to be the icon of top high-end cassette players. Opinions concerning the first three cassette players may vary, because sometimes one of the Nakamichi models is chosen to be the winner, another time it is a Tandberg model, and then Pioneer or Aiwa. However, Dragon remains the same kind of a symbol as Ongaku amplifiers manufactured by the Kondo company (Japanese, too).

There is only one king

The Nakamichi Research Corporation Ltd. was established by Etsuro Nakamichi in 1948, in Tokyo, and specialized in manufacturing portable radio receivers, turntable arms and telecommunications devices. The company quickly became one of the most innovative manufacturers. It is said to have created the first three-head cassette player in the world. The first three-head models offered by the firm were 1000 and 700, presented in 1973, i.e. a decade after the format was born.
Ten years later, already in the Compact Disc era, the Nakamichi company launched a whole series of Dragon products. The series included the Dragon-CT turntable (“Computing Turntable”), which moved the plate dynamically to minimize the impact of eccentricity of discs, the Dragon CD player with a case for a few CDs and a special vibration damping system, as well as the company’s top cassette player which was simply called the Dragon.

The Dragon offered a really advanced signal calibration system at the time of recording. Looking at its front panel, we can see that the buttons and knobs connected with this system occupy most space there. However, it is not what Dragon is famous for. The calibration system has not brought it to the top. The Dragon became the king because of another system which used a microprocessor to automatically set the head azimuth (the angle between the read head slot and the tape). Only then it was possible to obtain the maximum bandwidth.

The system was called the Nakamichi Automatic Azimuth Correction (NAAC) and, in fact, although few people know that, it was created for another reason. When another novelty – i.e. auto-reverse modules, allowing for an automatic change of tape sides, started to be used in cassette players, Nakamichi engineers developed their own solution for the problem. Their first development that was implemented in the whole product series was UDAR - UniDirectional Auto Reverse. In the RX series models, the cassette was automatically reversed after reaching the end of one side, using a type of a “plate”. The system was fairly noisy and not very elegant, and that is why, after some time, a better one with a rotating head was developed. To make it precise, i.e. to obtain the same head azimuth each time, the head had to be set using a microprocessor chip which examined signals over 3 kHz and set the head in such a way that there were as many high frequencies as possible, which reflected the optimum azimuth.

NAAC was, of course, only one of many elements that made the Dragon a special cassette player. Namely, it was a three-head cassette player equipped with the “dual capstain” system controlled by a microprocessor, another system which pulled the felt pressure pad in the cassette, two “direct drive” engines with quartz control in a PLL loop and a Dolby B and Dolby C noise reduction system. What is interesting, it was not the most expensive cassette player offered by Nakamichi. Although the Dragon cost an awful lot of money (2499 USD) in the year 1982, the 1000ZXL model cost even more – its 1000ZXL Limited version with a gold-plated front panel is the most wanted cassette player in the world. A well-maintained basic version, if available, is priced at about 4500-5000 USD. In spite of this, it is the “Dragon” name that has become most recognizable and still makes the heart of any technology lover beat faster.

SOUND

Guided by my curiosity and also sentiment, I asked representatives of the Nomos company from Warsaw to help me organize listening sessions with this cassette player. For some time now, articles written by Ms Olga, a member of this team, have been published in “High Fidelity” (the latest one, concerning the choice of a “vintage” turntable, can be found HERE). Nomos sent me a Dragon in an ideal optical condition, adjusted, cleaned and brought to its normal state. Apparently, these people know what they are doing.

The aim of the listening session was to establish where the Compact Cassette technology was at its best. In other words, I wanted to compare sound from such a cassette player with the sound of LP disks and CDs. I prepared myself for the task as carefully as possible, i.e. a few months before I had started looking for tapes. Thanks to eBay and Allegro, I managed to obtain a nice collection, which suited me musically. Then, I took out several tapes that I had kept since the time when I recorded them myself.

Cassettes

It is probably self-evident, that original Dolby B Mute cassettes with Depeche Mode albums recorded on chrome tape were among “the chosen ones”, but there were also later ones, recorded on ordinary tape – ones from Violator’s times. Analogue “mother” tapes constituted the sound source for the former, whereas digital tapes served the same function for the latter. I also selected some Czesław Niemen’s recordings from a few periods of his career. Just like in the case of Depeche Mode, I compared them with LP disks and CDs. Finally, I also had a lot of individual miscellaneous cassettes, e.g. albums of The Chemical Brothers and Korn, or Krzysztof Krawczyk with his album Dobry stary rock from the year 1984. The two last cassettes that I have mentioned were originally packaged and had not been opened before.

Finally, I listened to some cassettes that I once recorded myself from CDs and LP disks, as well as I made some recordings. I used chrome Sony UX-S and metal Metal-XR tapes for that purpose. Oh, and I would have forgotten to tell you something nice. Marek Biliński has recently released a small box with four cassettes (!). The tapes themselves are not of the best quality, the Dolby noise reduction has not been used, but it is an excellent souvenir – each box bears a signature of the artist (you can find the Best of… album review HERE).

Sound

The time that I spent listening to the Dragon was amazing. I have no doubt that sentiment is the main force behind the “return of tape”. For somebody who used to do it at the time of his or her youth, listening to music in this way is something incredible. The Dragon demonstrates that it was not a whim or fad, but a really high-end sound source. A comparison of cassettes with equivalent LP disks and CDs demonstrated that tape sound is characterized by something that we also value turntables for: warmth, density and a lack of nervousness. From time to time, noise – the main enemy of this format – was the obvious problem. However, even Dolby B (not to mention Dolby C), in the case of tapes that had them, made me forget about this problem after a while. Moreover, if a given tape was sensibly recorded, like in the case of Biliński’s album, a lack of Dolby did not disqualified it, either. In such a case, I perceived noise as part of the “package” – something like crackles in the sound of LP disks, which also occur, but do not disturb anyone.

When it comes to analogue-recorded tapes, e.g. A broken Frame by Depeche Mode or the Krawczyk’s album, the Nakamichi cassette player’s sound was incredibly saturated and full. Tone differentiation, i.e. liveliness of transmission and its naturalness made a great impression on me. When it comes to digitally-recorded tapes, e.g. Dziwny jest ten świat… by Czesław Niemen released by Digiton, or to Komendarek, this effect was not so clearly audible, but it was still the same “sound school”. I could listen to this music for a long time and without getting tired, whereas the sound was naturally soft and friendly.

There were also problems, of course – either with the tapes themselves, of which some clearly demonstrated their age, or with the way they were copied, i.e. at a high speed, using multi-tape machines that could not have been precise and that came from questionable sources. However, in the best cases, the sound was simply enchanting. It was different from sound produced by high-quality CDs and LP disks due to lower dynamics of the tapes and limited bandwidth – it was clearly restricted at the bottom and top. The transmission was really coherent and it seemed it did not lack anything, until the same recordings were listened to from reference sources. The sound stage was also narrower.

Both these elements, i.e. lowering the dynamics (calming down) and rounding the edges were also audible when it came to the cassettes that I recorded myself. At the same time, I remembered everything that I knew at the time when a cassette player was one of the basic sound sources for me: a cassette recorder is a cassette recorder, but the thing that matters most is the quality of cassettes. If they were recorded in a controlled way, on a top-quality cassette recorder, they still sounded great. Even the ones from twenty years ago that I recorded on a worse-quality Sony cassette player, still had something in them, good tonal balance. A truth that I had anticipated was confirmed during the test – chrome tapes sound warmer and more “humane” than metal ones. The latter, in turn, ensured a possibility of recording a much higher signal level and lowering noise at the same time. However, in my opinion, chrome cassettes provide better sound overall.

A few thoughts

It is hard to say how cassette players would look today if, for the last thirty years, constant attempts had been made to improve their quality. When the CD era and, more generally, the digital recordings era begun, the analogue technology was abandoned, and only the audio companies that still believed in “the black disk” kept it alive. The Dragon shows that the top achievements of that period were somehow exceptional. It was not the same thing as a reel-to-reel tape recorder with a copy of the “mother” tape (we are talking about completely different dynamics and band extension here), but it was good enough.

I am sure that a lot of people driven by the 1970s’ fad and the associated sentiment will return to the tape cassette. Fine! The more music we listen to using different media, the better. Music is connected with emotions and the emotions that a lot of us attach to cassettes are really big. It is an incredible potential and the tape cassette is a very sensual format, almost as tangible as the LP disk.

It must be known, however, that we are talking about a whim here, so cassette players will soon again “belong” to hotheads only. However, there is potential in them that cannot be overestimated: it is the cheapest and, historically, the latest analogue format. If we assume that there will be companies that will record cassettes using analogue “mother” tapes or that we will have access to such tapes ourselves, then we will have a source of ultra-high quality sound at hand, having all the benefits of an analogue source and without the turntable defects, four times cheaper than reel tape. I assume that also copying LP disks, if they are created using analogue tapes, is sensible in this case. I do not know, however, what the reason for recording CDs in this way might be. OK, I understand the reason if this is just for fun and this is the assumption. However, from my (audiophile’s and collector’s) point of view, such an option is the least sensible. Naturally, I am not an oracle and anybody can do what they want, as we are living in an independent democratic country. This is just my opinion.

The king has died? Not definitely, perhaps…

There is one special memory among all the ones that I associate with the cassette player. It was the year 2001 or the very beginning of 2002, I do not remember exactly. I was working for the contemporary Nakamichi company distributor then. A man who was about 70 years old came into the salon and asked about the possibility of listening to the sound of the DR-10 cassette player. At that time that was the top Nakamichi cassette player and the company was still producing this type of sound sources. It was a three-head cassette player with Dolby B and C, a really nice machine. A few weeks before, the Regional Police Headquarters in Krakow had bought five or six DR-10s in our salon, to equip their laboratory.

After one hour, the gentleman left the room where he had been listening to music and asked me to pack the cassette player. I looked outside and did not see any car (the salon was located on the outskirts of Krakow). My client had come from a remote place in Poland and had had to travel by train all night. This was also how he came back home, but now with his cassette player packed in brown paper fastened with strings. I knew that it was one of the most beautiful days in the elderly man’s life.

As I have already said, it was in the year 2001 or 2002, so at the time when no other company was producing cassette players of this class and when few people knew that the tape cassette was still in use. The mp3 generation was being born then and soon afterwards the time came for the iPod and the iPhone. Several years later it can already be said that it was not a desperate attempt to stop time from passing, but a rational choice. A tape cassette, if of good quality and played using a good cassette player, can be a fantastic sound source. The cassette players themselves are mechanical wonders and using them brings you a lot of satisfaction. We literally “mix” with music and really co-exist with it. If we are only aware of the limitations of this technology, we can enjoy using it all our life.

Not exactly the end, but…

In the year 1998, the Nakamichi company was bought by Grande Holdings, a Chinese firm with a seat in Hong Kong. The firm had other Japanese companies in its catalogue – Akai and Sansui. In the same year, Niro Nakamichi left his company. He had been responsible for most of the construction designs in the previous years and now set up his own business – the Mechanical Research Corporation. The Nakamichi company went bankrupt and declared bankruptcy on 19th February 2002. This is how a certain stage in the history of art of mechanical sound recording ended. And we live in sounds, don’t we? Our coda could be an article from the Forbes magazine, which was published last year, under the meaningful title: Think The Cassette Tape Is Dead? Then Why Did Sony Just Squeeze 185TB Of Data Onto One?. It can be assumed on its basis that, perhaps, some completely new 21st century perspectives have just been created for the tape cassette and that it has not yet said its last word (Jason Evangelho, „Forbes”, 5/04/14, read HERE, dostęp: 24.02.2015).

Wojciech Pacuła

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Our reviewers regularly contribute to “Audio”“Enjoy the Music.com”, “Positive-Feedback.com”“HiFiStatement.net”  and “Hi-Fi Choice & Home Cinema. Edycja Polska” .

"High Fidelity" is a monthly magazine dedicated to high quality sound. It has been published since May 1st, 2004. Up until October 2008, the magazine was called "High Fidelity OnLine", but since November 2008 it has been registered under the new title.

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