Ken Kessler’s surprising support of cassettes (and no-one’s as surprised as Ken himself!)

Hoist on my own petard, I closed a previous column (back in the early days of COVID-19!) with the words, “Next Month: The Surprising Sounds of A Crap Format”. Well, COVID-19 and back problems delayed the column in question, but here’s the essence of it: my own, odd, support of cassettes.

Let’s not mince words. While nowhere near being as purely vile as 8-track in mechanical terms (yes, there are those who swear 8-track tapes can sound amazing), the humble cassette was a severely flawed product that the market not only rescued from prosaic, dictation-only duties, it transformed this convenience-based format into a commercial success. And I am as amazed as you that it is undergoing a major revival, with new pre-recorded cassettes following vinyl as the current hip alternative to streaming for artists so-inclined as to exploit retro.

To recap, “Musicassettes” or “Compact Cassettes”, to give them their full names, dominated in-car sound for a decade-and-a-half, as well as boom box usage. The format gave lovelorn teens “mix tapes” and, as any venerable audiophile can tell you, cassettes could sound amazing if everything was “just so” for both the type of tape and the choice of machine. While we might rail at the format’s slow speed and thin tape (and wish that Elcaset had succeeded because it really could offer audiophile sound), cassettes had undeniable appeal for arguably billions of consumers.

Size, ease of use, massive support from the music industry for pre-recorded material, cheap prices for blanks, dirt-cheap decks, the arrival of the Walkman – the only surprise is that it died so quickly in the wake of CD. The downside was the fragility, and no cassette user was unfamiliar with unspooled tapes ruining one’s day and inspiring a new use for pencils as a “manual rewinding device”. But that’s the mainstream, and this site, by virtue of its niche subject matter, is not concerned with what Joe Bloggs used in the Alpine head unit in his Escort.

Rather, and I am as surprised as you to be writing this, the cassette is also enjoying a revival in high-end circles. All are aware of the cassette’s return among “the kids” who got a kick out of Guardians of the Galaxy and its creating of such a hip mythos for the format that its sound track was released on cassette and the rest followed. OK, so that’s the province of advertising art directors – who have exploited the turntable and vinyl to the point of embarrassment – but cassettes remain far less expensive than reissued LPs, and the youth market warms to them.

Nakamichi 581

Here, though, I’m referring not to fashion, but to the reassessment of the format in high-end terms, as evinced by the values of second-decks, monitored on eBay. What I certainly am not prepared to say is that the cassette rebirth in our community was enabled or kick-started by the reel-to-reel revival, though it may be a peripheral phenomenon. Moreover, I doubt that the sort of enthusiast shopping for mint Nakamichi 581s was moved by Guardians of the Galaxy, nor was mere nostalgia for mix tapes enough to inspire someone to drop £3,500-£5,000 on a Nakamichi 1000ZXL or Dragon, or £1,800 on a TASCAM 122.

Instead, it’s the admission or perhaps a case of recalling that cassettes could sound not merely acceptable in a high-end system, but actually worthy of it. Jumping ahead to another phenomenon – the arrival of real-time, true audiophile cassettes from Chasing the Dragon and others – top-grade tapes on well-maintained decks can sound, well, incredible.

The Advent 201

Funnily enough, my earliest memories of audibly-acceptable cassettes predate all of the exotic tape formulae and the arrival of high-end decks from the aforementioned Nakamichi, as well as those from Revox, Tandberg, Sony, TEAC and numerous others. It was early in the life of the cassette, some 50 years ago – 1971 I think – when Advent released their Dolby-equipped version of the Wollensak (Rambler’s note – Greg Weaver wrote an interesting article for Positive News on this). I was in the local hi-fi shop in Portland, Maine, and the deck was causing quite a stir among the hobbyists. Within a couple of years, Nakamichi would introduce three-head machines, and the floodgates were opened.

Oddly, I don’t recall any anti-cassette crusades or politicking or other nastiness, but then the core of malcontent audiophiles didn’t turn into toxic, whining assholes until the mid-to-late 1970s. Everyone – no matter how high-end the system – had a cassette deck. The reasons were myriad, e.g. making tapes for the car, or convenience at home instead of getting up to flip over an LP or open-reel tape.

The Kessler collection / listening room

My own affair with cassettes resulted in a legacy of probably 1,000 tapes, of which hardly any were pre-recorded. Instead, I was addicted to capturing live gigs off FM, as well as “rockumentaries” such as the stories of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Elvis or Dylan, and live sets from Squeeze or the Kinks – all were perfect fodder for whatever machines I owned. I wasn’t overly concerned with absolute sound quality, in that I never owned anything more grand than a Nakamichi 580, but I often did have passing, lustful thoughts about Revox and Tandberg decks.

As it happened, after cassettes faded into memory, I kept two machines solely for occasions when I might want to access that huge library of mine. I held onto a Sony Walkman Pro – the good one – and a late Harman Kardon model with all the Dolby choices. But something came over me last year at the Audiojumbles in Tonbridge.

No, I am not prescient. No, I did not anticipate a revival for the cassette. But I couldn’t resist picking up three machines – two of which are twin-cassette models – “just in case” and because I didn’t pay more than £30 for any one of them. That, however, may change, so look at this column as a cautionary note. At the time of writing, eBay is so full of wonderful cassette decks at embarrassingly low prices, many even with their boxes, that it would be a shame not to buy one “just in case.”

That excludes, of course, the very best machines from Luxman, Pioneer, Nakamichi, Revox, Tandberg, Sony, TEAC, et al. But do monitor eBay, Gumtree and others. I suspect it won’t be long before prices creep up, and that £50 Aiwa or Yamaha is suddenly gonna set you back £300.

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.