Still reeling: Ken Kessler discovers audiophile cassettes

You know that irksome feeling when you really want to hate something but you can’t help loving it? Worse still, have you ever waxed lyrical in the public domain about how terrible something is, and then found yourself being blown away by it? Then you’ll understand how poor Ken Kessler feels, as this self-confessed cassette loather is bowled over by a recent discovery of pre-recorded audiophile cassettes, copied directly from superb quality master tapes. Here’s Ken…

Still reeling from the shock of buying cassette decks – the format for which my hatred is only exceeded by my loathing of VHS tapes – I am now suffering from another revelation. Durability aside, the pre-recorded cassettes I’ve been playing from the new wave of audiophile tape labels are proving to be, well, nothing short of astounding.

First, let’s deal with that loaded remark, “durability aside.” There cannot be anyone on the planet with experience of cassettes who would argue in support of their longevity. The technical term for the cassette’s fundamental structure and ruggedness and long-term existence is ‘pure crap’. Possibly the only format-related construct or design of even lower integrity is the CD jewel box, which should have been drowned at birth.

As one who used or owned Nakamichis and numerous other great decks back in the day, who was always scrupulous about cleaning heads and the rest of the tape path and who always stored cassettes in their boxes, I believe the format to be so seriously flawed that it should never have been made available to the public in the form it was. It sucks so badly that I am staggered by its success. But if there really is/was a patron saint of audiophiles, he/she would have said from on high to Philips: “Wait for Elcaset if you really think the world needs a portable, self-contained tape system.”

Stuck with what we were offered, we saw the format swiftly evolve into a high-end format of sorts from the get-go, particularly after Dolby was applied and pioneering brands like Wollensak and Advent got in on the act. While Tandberg and ReVox produced what many would consider to be the ne plus ultra of cassette decks, the title always belonged to Nakamichi. It was the this company’s three-head cassette decks that gave the high-end crowd something to use when not playing tapes in the car.

That said, TEAC (and TASCAM), Sony, the aforementioned Tandberg and Revox, Akai, Technics, Marantz and too many others to list made superlative decks, so most of the industry was culpable in this act of sow’s-ear-to-silk-purse metamorphosis. As I primarily do not give a toss about cassettes, despite my recent epiphany, I am pleased not to be a hard-core fetishist and so do not lie awake at night dreaming about a mint Nakamichi Dragon or other fantasy acquisition.

Instead, my motley line-up of decks now consists of the Sony Walkman Pro WM-D6c portable and Harman Kardon TD4600 I’ve owned for years, and the three decks I bought last year at the Tonbridge AudioJumble: a JVC TD-X335 and a pair of twin decks, the Sony TC-WE525 and Pioneer’s CT-W803RS. These will ensure that my massive cassette library will remain playable throughout whatever years I have left on the planet, my preferred unit being the harman/kardon.

At present I am awaiting the procurement of a studio-grade tape switching unit so I can dub stuff for safety’s sake, especially from the hundreds of off-air recordings I made of historical live gigs and ‘rockumentaries’. These will be transferred to reel-to-reel if time ever allows. But my current re-awakening – I deign not to use the term ‘arousal’ – is due to the sheer beauty of the sounds coming from tapes produced by audiophile labels such as Chasing the Dragon.

These have been added to three Really Useful Boxes filled with commercial cassettes I’ve never played but accumulated over the decades, including a hundred or so used pre-recorded tapes purchased in the USA which I habitually bought for 50¢ or $1 every time I visited my parents, and the rental cars had cassette decks. I would pick up tapes from the J Geils Band, the Eagles, Tom Petty, the Bangles or anything else that would help me endure the two-hour jaunt on Route 295.

Hopefully we’ll be able to persuade Ken to pen a review of his newly-acquired audiophile cassettes at some point.

In the meantime, you can peruse Chasing the Dragon’s selection of real-time pre-recorded cassettes, copied straight from the master tapes and priced at £50 each, at


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.