Small Reels Redux: Why Cassettes are Cool Again

Whenever I'm in the Pacific Northwest, I like to stop by Vancouver's Innovative Audio and visit my friend Gordon Sauck, one of the true gurus of vintage audio gear. Last year when I visited the store, Sauck asked me to conduct some shootouts of vintage receivers, turntables, and speakers versus their modern counterparts. When I asked him what kind of shootout we could do this year, he didn't hesitate. "Cassette decks," he said. "Definitely cassette decks."

"Really?" I asked, remembering that I hadn't touched a cassette deck since maybe 1999. "Does anyone actually use cassette decks anymore?"

"They're cool again," Sauck replied. "Things seem to go in trends, and cassette and reel-to-reel decks are the things people are buying and having fun with. The prices reflect this and we're seeing a lot of vintage decks going for $400 now, where they were going for just $100 or $200 a couple of years ago."

While Sauck and some of his customers had done a listening test of cassette decks about a year ago, he felt that perhaps a more technical analysis was needed. So I packed up my Audio Precision System One audio analyzer and made my way up to Vancouver, where I tested five different decks owned by Sauck and some of the enthusiasts who frequent his store.

Although I've owned many cassette decks and often recorded and mixed music on cassette and reel-to-reel, I have to confess I've become spoiled by the perfection of digital recording. So to me, the results of the tests were downright fascinating. Still, I wanted to know more about this cassette renaissance - and how Sound+Vision readers can get in on it. So later on, I interviewed Sauck to get his insights.

BB: Why the resurgence of interest in cassette decks?

GS: Over last few years people have realized that playing with cassette is a hands-on experience, rather than the cut, click, and pasting of music on your iPod or computer; recording on tape gives you more of a "producer-type" feel, and when you listen to the results it just seems to sound better. They're having a lot of fun with it. When you're physically watching all the mechanics working together, and you hear the result, there's a huge feeling of accomplishment.

BB: I can understand why people like cassette, but why the recent rise in prices?

GS: What's happening in the market right now is that a lot of decks have fallen by the wayside, discarded by people who didn't know what they had, clearing out estates, or just switching over to computer-stored music. Since they're not making good quality cassette decks anymore, the ones that are out there are used, and parts for those units are becoming harder to source. So instead of the declining values you see when you own newer gear, we're seeing prices rise not just in collectable vintage decks but other ones as well.

BB: How much does a decent cassette deck cost?

GS: A good basic two-head deck can be found for $20 to maybe $200. Once you get into good three-head decks, they can start around $250 and go up from there.  I've seen one posted on Craigslist for $15,000. Obviously that's an extremely rare example and I have no idea if it even sold. But for a really good three-head deck, you're looking at $500 to $1,500 as an average ballpark. Just make sure that it has been properly serviced first.

BB: What are people doing with them? Are they recording with them?

GS: Oddly enough, people are using tape decks to record sources like satellite radio and CDs. Cassette tapes were huge in the '70s and '80s, and there was a massive amount of music on cassette that cannot be found on any other media. So some people are buying machines just to listen to old, obscure music. Once people have experimented with recording a few things, they just get the bug.

BB: Do they feel that the vintage sound of cassette complements that kind of music?

GS: Once you go from a digital source like satellite radio or CD to tape, there's always going to be a difference in the sound. We first heard those songs on either LP or tape when they originally hit the radio waves, and possibly that's enough to trigger those old memories. For me, it's a combination of the tape sound and watching the player when listening. Yeah, it's goofy, but it sure takes me back.

BB: How easy is it to get blank tape?

GS: Tapes are still being made. You can pick them up from places like WalMart and RadioShack. Of course there are professional outfits like Western Imperial Magnetics here in Vancouver that can custom make tapes for you, too. The degree of quality is a different story. You have to look really hard to find metal tapes; you'll probably have to pay through the nose for them on eBay. But CrO2 is easy to find.

BB: And how easy is it to find prerecorded tapes?

GS: Very easy. You can't get them at record stores any more, of course, but used prerecorded tapes are available everywhere: garage sales, flea markets, used record stores. As a matter of fact I'm staring at a customer right now who's buying a bunch of used tapes in our shop. [turns away from the phone] "Culture Club is on the top shelf, Rick."

BB: What are your basic recommendations for someone looking for a cassette deck?

GS: First, look for something that has been serviced and works well. Nothing is worse than paying out big bucks for a dud deck. Don't get into something overly complicated. It won't be fun. Get an entry-level deck that will have the rudimentary functions you need, but look for one with solid build quality. The GX series from Akai is a great example, because they used glass heads and glass heads last pretty much forever. Some of the early Sony three-head decks are good. TEAC made some good, affordable decks.

BB: What if they're looking for something fancier, like in the $500 to $1,000 range?

GS: I would look for a Sony ES deck. Not just because it won your shootout. They're out there, they're easy to find, and they have really good longevity. Or a good Pioneer CT-F1250 - even though you trashed it in your test, there's a reason those decks were considered the studio standard. A Tandberg would be a good choice at that price. Nakamichi, unfortunately, made a lot of gimmicky tape decks, but they made some really solid decks, too, like the 700, the 1000, and the 680zx.

BB: How about the Nakamichi Dragon? That's the one everyone remembers.

GS: How do I put this delicately? Dragons are a great deck, and they have a certain panache, but they're extremely finicky. They have a thing called NAAC [Nakamichi Automatic Azimuth Control], and when it works, it works very well, but when it doesn't it's a nightmare. I know this will draw some comments but the 680zx is as good as a Dragon for nowhere near as high a price.  

BB: If someone finds a nice cassette deck at a garage sale, how would you suggest they do a quick evaluation of it?

GS: If the deck is heavy, you're already on the right track. Weight generally indicates good build quality. What you really need to do is plug it in if you can. When you turn it on, all the lights should come on. Most cassette decks have a 1/4-inch headphone jack, so if you carry a pair of headphones with you that has a 1/4-inch plug or a 1/8-to-1/4-inch adapter, you can test it. Put a prerecorded tape in and hit play. All the wheels should turn and the tape should start playing. If you hear warbling or distortion, that indicates something not right in the deck that you'd have to have fixed. Hit fast forward and rewind to make sure they work normally.

One thing to note is that it's perfectly normal for a deck to need new belts, even if all its motors and the transport mechanism are working. That can be easy or hard depending on the deck.

BB: Thanks, Gordon. Sorry I trashed your tape deck.

GS: [silence]