“I always felt that cassettes were utter shite”: Ken Kessler treats us to a brief digression from the continuing saga of his reel-to-reel adventures

When an addiction takes hold, there’s no knowing where it might lead. Here, hi-fi journalist Ken Kessler’s love of all things tape takes a turn for the surprising…

My name is Ken Kessler and I’m an addict… and this disease – a new-found love of tape – manifested itself in a strange way at the Tonbridge AudioJumble in October. I can’t believe that I’m writing this, but I came home with not one, not two, but THREE cassette decks. Sick, huh? It’s not that I don’t already have a few domestic and portable cassette machines, including a Sony Walkman Pro, a cheapo playback-only Walkman and a nice Harman-Kardon unit, but I was motivated by the re-discovery of my cassette library.

Scene of the ‘crime’: the Tonbridge AudioJumble 2018

Safely ensconced in the cluttered spare room for 23 years are some 700 or 800 tapes, all sourced from FM onto a long-departed Nakamichi 581. I know that all were recorded before 1995 as I haven’t even touched the format since then. Adding to the Aladdin’s Cave element: I’d be surprised if I even own 50 commercial/pre-recorded cassettes because I always felt that cassettes were utter shite, and still do. Even through the best machines, optimised to perfection, the audible limitations were obvious. Indeed, I actually mourn the vastly superior Elcaset.

Consigned to memory lane – the good-old Nakamichi 581

Anyway, this treasure trove of recordings consists of never-to-be-repeated-nor-released-commercially sessions: rock, blues and soul histories, live concerts, interviews and others, from artists as diverse as Squeeze and Buddy Holly, the Beatles and Otis Redding. Many are copies of rare bootlegs, taken off vinyl. All were recorded onto top-quality tapes; I recall that I was partial to Maxell and TDK, and not the cheap formulae. Collectively, they form, for whatever artists I worshipped then (as now), a delightful little archive of music history covering the 1950s to the mid-1990s.

Given my utter lack of faith in cassettes, its physical form trumped only by CD jewel boxes for the title of “The Crappiest Audio Objects Of All Time,” it occurred to me that I was now in a position to transfer them to far safer reel-to-reel. (For some reason which escapes me, I couldn’t be bothered transferring them to recordable CDs.) With this thought gnawing at me, I arrived in Tonbridge looking for cassette decks, missing out on a killer professional Marantz player, but landing a JVC, a Sony and a Pioneer, the latter pair being cassette-to-cassette dubbing decks.

It’s not like I have much time left on this planet to waste on dubbing tapes, but I want to preserve these – though for whom, I don’t quite know. Word, however, has reached me that, sometime in the not too distant future, there may be a museum for hi-fi and recording. I have already donated my hi-fi magazine collection, cases filled with dead-tree press releases and catalogues, plus some rare, early phono cartridges and other items. My tape archive would certainly fit in with the overall concept.

The Rotel RN 560 Dolby processor

Next on the agenda is having the decks serviced, calibrated, etc. I’m taking this so seriously that I bought on eBay three – yes, that magic number – external Dolby units, two from TEAC and one from Rotel. I’ve been assured by numerous tape mavens that external Dolby units, properly tuned, will outperform any deck’s built-in Dolby processing. But that is to ignore the real – or reel – reason I bought the Dolby decoders. (Which, I might add, sell for less than a decent curry for two.)

It had nothing to do with cassettes. I was on the lookout for a Dolby unit before my interest in cassettes was revived because, to my surprise, one of the pre-recorded open reel tapes I recently acquired is Dolby B-encoded. Naturally, none of my open-reel decks are fitted with Dolby circuitry. OK, I hear you: it’s only one out of 50 or so pre-recorded tapes I’ve acquired this year, but it’s rare, in pristine condition and bound to sound amazing. Thus, regardless of what I do with my racks of cassettes, I needed Dolby decoding for this one tape.

As far as I can tell, precious few pre-recorded open-reel tapes were issued with Dolby encoding. Please, if you know of others, send a communiqué to this site, and Dave Denyer can compile a list of those which were released with Dolby. And my lone mystery tape will be on it (perhaps alongside these others if they still exist – the list below came with the above tape!).


After working as Assistant Editor for the short-lived Stereo – The Magazine, Ken Kessler joined Hi-Fi News & Record Review in 1983, where he still serves, latterly as Senior Contributor. In 2013, he was appointed Editor-at-Large of the watch magazine, Revolution. A collector of old hi-fi components with a passion for the history of audio, Ken is the author of Quad: The Closest Approach and McIntosh… For The Love Of Music, and co-author of Sound Bites and KEF: Innovators In Sound. He is currently working on another four audio histories.