Back to My Reel-to-Reel Roots, Part 30

Back to My Reel-to-Reel Roots, Part 30

Written by Ken Kessler

The Cassette is Back! Or is It? – An Investigation, Part One

As is the wont of half-informed mainstream newspaper and lifestyle journalists – primarily when dealing with specialist subjects – the torrent of articles about the return of the cassette (at least, in the UK) is as overblown, melodramatic and ill-advised as one might expect. So taken were such writers by the Vinyl Revival of the last decade or so and how the articles about it all but wrote themselves, e.g., enabling them to parrot sales figures in a gosh-wow voice, that they’re doing it again. But it ain’t the same thing – not even remotely. 

As much as I and a handful others have been praising the virtues of open-reel tape, and how it still inarguably annihilates all other formats, not one of us has suggested that it will return to commercial viability – not ever. It is a quasi-revival which, despite the availability of brand-new high-end hardware and tape offerings, is so small that even calling it a niche seems hyperbolic.

No apologies need be made, because it harms no one, while it is as esoteric as any hobby which I can imagine. The realities say it all. The only affordable way to indulge in open-reel is via the second-hand route, which has pitfalls already dealt with in this series, and many people prefer not to experience the risks inherent in the purchase of used tapes or decks. It requires a certain hardiness bordering on the masochistic.

That leaves us with the new. All-new reel-to-reel hardware available as of 2023 is so expensive that even those of us inured to the beyond-insane prices of audiophile cables or cartridges, let alone components like amps or speakers, suck in one’s breath when learning of, say, a playback-only/single-speed/half-track deck for $40,000-plus. (How’s that for a specification which kinda narrows down its usefulness and/or appeal?) Even revived machines are costly, with $5,000 – $10,000 not uncommon for a restored TEAC or Technics deck. And then there’s a company offering a refurbished deck for $100,000-plus. Yes, a hundred grand. And I don't mean some wildly coveted Studer or Ampex or Lyrec eight-track studio dream, but a domestic deck bathed in bling.

As for the tapes…f*ck me: $300 for a pre-recorded open-reel by someone of whom I have never heard? I don't think so. On the other hand, I know a couple of reel-to-reel converts with pockets deep enough to indulge in such questionable tapes. I just hope there are enough of these super-rich tape fans to keep these labels in business. And the cost of blank tapes? Don’t ask.

Aside from the proselytizing voices bellowing about unmatchable sound quality (e.g., me), most open-reel fanatics try to remain mature and realistic, admitting that reel-to-reel tape today is even less viable than film cameras or Edwardian-era cars, if not quite as hair shirt as typewriters. We are a cult so small that – blessedly – its existence has escaped the very hacks who are now celebrating the Second Coming of Cassettes. But disappointed they probably will be; here’s where this kvetching Cassandra enters.


A Technics RS-615 stereo cassette deck circa 1977, typical of the uncountable numbers of home decks made from the mid-1970s through the late 1990s. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Norbert Schnitzler.


First, a caveat: I am no Nostradamus, and still suffer embarrassment at declaring in an interview in 2007 or so that vinyl will forever remain a special-interest topic of no real market worthiness. I am delighted to have been proven utterly wrong, however self-abnegating and/or contradictory that might sound, because I am a lover of the vinyl LP. But equally I am a miserable, lifelong pessimist whose glass isn’t merely half-full, it’s cracked and leaking.

In direct opposition to what I am about to write concerning the so-called return of the cassette, I would start with this example from the UK’s Daily Mail, with its readership of two million in a country of 60 million, and generally rated as in the Top Five for circulation. We are not talking about a local rag. Last month, its Deputy Showbiz News Editor Emma Powell wrote an item headlined, “First A Vinyl Revival, Now A Cassette Comeback.”

As I noted above, there’s a distinct failure to understand that the two “comebacks” are not even remotely the same. Before looking at her remarks and those of another Millennial-ish writer for the influential and intellectual political magazine, The Spectator, I will try to explain why this headline is so far off the mark.

We’ve all accepted that open-reel has no more of a chance of a return than VHS tapes or bloodletting, but audiophiles and the plethora of DJs around the world exist to remind such pundits that the revival was possible because vinyl never went away. At no time since CD reached the world after its launch in Japan in 1982, there hasn’t been a single day when you couldn't buy turntables or LPs. Yes, the market had shrunk, cassettes having cut into it even before CDs arrived thanks to in-car and personal player (i.e., Walkman) usage, but LPs and the hardware on which to play them never disappeared.

Portable, yes. High fidelity? Ummm, well...a RadioShack CTR-119 cassette tape recorder, year unknown. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Evan-Amos.


Here it gets contentious, because some individuals in the audiophile community probably want to declare its role in the LP’s return as supreme, but I believe that the club DJ/house music sector was far more important in maintaining vinyl production, if not necessarily that of turntables, phono stages, cartridges, etc. Whatever the facts, audiophile labels including Mobile Fidelity and Analogue Productions never ceased LP production, nor did reissue labels such as Sundazed. That meant a steady flow of new records to feed one’s habit, though brand-new mainstream releases were sparse. 

As for hardware, I cannot recall a single period during vinyl’s “downtime” when VPI, SME, Rega, Clearaudio, Transrotor, Linn or a few dozen others weren’t just making new decks, they were also introducing new models and continuing to refine the technology. The elements of the record playback front end never stopped evolving.

Even more impressive are two elements of the LP revival which the cassette rebirth has yet to experience, and probably never will: the hunger for vinyl gave us a host of new turntables from companies formed long after CD arrived, most notably Pro-Ject on a massive scale, and brands such as TechDAS, Reed, Dohmann Audio, Continuum Audio Labs, OMA (Oswalds Mill Audio), E.A.T. (European Audio Team) and others in the high-end. New cartridges and tonearms followed, including DS Audio’s optical cartridges, Graham Engineering and Reed tonearms and too many more to list.

But back to the cassette – and I write this as the owner of four full-sized domestic decks, two Sony Walkman Pro models and a box full of dead personal players, as well as a library of over 1,200 pre- and home-recorded tapes. What those enamored of its hoped-for return are ignorant of are basic elements and facts.


A much better choice: a Denon DRM-550 deck. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Norbert Schnitzler.


Foremost is appreciating that the cassette’s ONLY virtues were the costs relative to the only other recordable media of the day, i.e., reel-to-reel tape, and the undeniable convenience. As for the first, the arrival of recordable CD and computer-based recording capability, as well as USB sticks and MP3 recorders/players, negated any of the benefits of cassettes as a recording system. As for the second – convenience – this, too, was demolished by CD.

Conversely, what the non-technical or merely ill-informed star-struck cassette evangelists ignore completely are the two worst, what-should-have-killed-it-at-birth aspects of the cassette. Dismissing the first is easy: they were cheap and nasty and therefore unreliable. Even those who understood tape and things like cleaning the heads and pinch-rollers, the need to demagnetize heads, and other maintenance chores, experienced the unspooling of tapes in their machines. Moreover, I cannot name a less-durable format for usage outside of the relative safety of the home, unless you want to be reminded of the horror that was 8-track tape.

But it’s the second failing of cassettes which I suspect matter more to audiophiles, Copper readers, musicians and grown-ups per se. In essence, this format, which was devised for recording interviews and reportage and not necessarily as a music format, was inherently mediocre-sounding. No, make that truly-sh*tty-sounding. Those of us old enough to remember the first machines know I am not exaggerating.

From the outset, when the music industry decided to champion the cassette as a pre-recorded playback format (but later regretting it and creating such campaigns as “Home Recording Is Killing Music”), the hardware manufacturers devoted tens of thousands of man- (or, rather, person-) hours coming up with fixes – not unlike what happened with CD.

Just as DACs, sampling rates, jitter reduction and other elements have evolved since 1983 to render digital tolerable, so did the cassette beg aftermarket improvements to turn a sow’s ear into a burlap, if never quite a silk purse. Stay tuned.


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