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How Cassettes Are Making a Comeback in 2024: Best Portable Players Compared

Look out, vinyl, here comes the newest analog challenger. You can even buy Taylor Swift tapes.

Ty Pendlebury Editor
Ty Pendlebury has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.
Expertise Ty has worked for radio, print, and online publications, and has been writing about home entertainment since 2004. He is an avid record collector and streaming music enthusiast. Credentials
  • Ty was nominated for Best New Journalist at the Australian IT Journalism awards, but he has only ever won one thing. As a youth, he was awarded a free session for the photography studio at a local supermarket.
Ty Pendlebury
7 min read
Lori Grunin/CNET

For children of the '70s or '80s, cassettes had a large place in their lives. But those tapes, which have spent years languishing in a dusty crawlspace, may have a second lease on life. Cassettes are on the comeback trail, as evidenced by the number of new portable players coming onto the market in the past year.

At CES 2024, manufacturer FiiO -- best known for its headphones and digital audio players -- seemingly made a leap to the dark side with its first portable cassette player, the CP13. Yet FiiO wasn't acting alone -- in 2023, We Are Rewind released its own version of the Walkman, which even boasts Bluetooth support. In addition, both record companies and artists are producing cassette tapes again, including a certain superstar you might have heard of.

Given the ongoing success of vinyl, could this be the start of another analog format boom? I compared the two cassette players and looked over the array of tapes that you can buy right now. The whole thing sounds very promising, and yet there's one very big caveat you should know. 

Best portable cassette players compared

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At about 80% of the size of the WE-001, the Fiio is definitely more pocketable, though it has fewer features than its rival. The Fiio includes an onboard battery and… a volume control. What more do you need?

Sound quality is lean, with a boost in the mid frequencies compared to the WE-001. This does mean that with some headphones it can sound thin, whereas the other two I tried did sound more balanced across the spectrum. Noise, as with the We Are Rewind, is definitely an issue.

Lori Grunin/CNET

The We Are Rewind is modeled after the original TPS-L2 Walkman, which debuted in the late '70s. As a result, the We Are Rewind is not the slimline Walkman of the '90s but a large, metal box -- seemingly bigger than the first Sony -- and comes with a decent amount of heft. The player includes large, friendly buttons and an easily accessible volume rocker and Bluetooth switch. There are no automatic features like auto-reverse or stop on rewind (though there is an auto-stop on playback).

The WE-001's sound quality tends to the warmer end of the spectrum, but as there's no noise reduction, the treble is reasonably extended. The tradeoff is that noise and hum are audible in everything but the loudest parts.

Why cassettes?


Both cassette players and commercial tapes are available for sale again

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When CDs were introduced in the '80s, they were marketed as "indestructible." Of course, in the years since, the format's proven to be anything but. For example, CD rot is real, and it could be coming for your collection. But you know what is hard to destroy? The hard plastic case of the compact cassette. These things are really difficult to break, and I've even used cassettes melted in the sun, which have still played great.

Indeed, it's that thin magnetic tape that is the weak point, as anyone who has had a tape "eaten" by a machine will attest. Cassettes also unspool very easily -- but We Are Rewind honors the time-honored "pencil winding fix" by including one of the writing implements in the box.

Debuting as the Philips Compact Cassette in 1963, the humble tape became the most popular format for both the '70s and the '80s. Predictions differ, but the quantity of cassettes still in the world probably numbers in the billions. This makes tapes a great way to discover new (old) music. One of the best places to look? The bottom drawer. When I was 13, I found a copy of Queen's "A Night at the Opera" in my grandmother's junk drawer, and the album blew my mind.

Where can you even buy cassettes these days?

First answer: Amazon. You can find titles, new and old, with a huge range, including recordings by Taylor Swift. Second answer: Bandcamp (most of my cassettes purchased in the past year have been from there). The fact that the site throws in the high-quality digital version with your purchase makes it a great value -- not even Amazon does that anymore. The third answer is record stores -- especially ones that deal in second-hand records. For instance, two of my local New York City stores -- Limited to One and Academy Records -- stock dozens of cassettes with genres extending to include indie, dance and hardcore. If you like hunting through markets or thrift stores, there is a treasure trove of tapes to be found -- and usually for a couple of dollars each at most. 

Likewise, cassette players -- both hi-fi and portable -- are available on auction sites like eBay with prices starting at around $40. Of course, there's no warranty, and a lot of these players have seen decades of use, so the quality is likely to vary widely. That said, I was fortunate enough to find a second-hand Luxman cassette deck, which plays great, for $80. The bonus is that all of these players were made when Dolby B and C playback was a given.

What does a cassette player look like in 2024?


We Are Rewind We-001, FiiO CP13 and the Gracioso Player Recorder

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

With the proliferation of mobile phones and Bluetooth headphones, it was inevitable that a brand new cassette player would incorporate some of the latest mod cons. The biggest change over retro players is the inclusion of USB power and/or a rechargeable ion battery. (No more trawling through the junk drawer to find AA batteries!)

In terms of features, the cheapest player I looked at has a ridonculous amount of them -- the $40 Gracioso has an onboard speaker, Bluetooth, USB power, an AM/FM radio and recording. As befits its ultracheap pricing there is one notable compromise -- it's only a mono device. As most of the face is taken up by the (decently loud) speaker, you can't see the tape moving, and this can make things a little trickier.

The step-up from this, the $109 FiiO CP13 cuts back on the features but does include a rechargeable battery. The case is one of the most compact of current models, with a usable set of playback buttons and a large rotary volume dial, as opposed to the thumbwheel you might be used to. It's worth mentioning that this player was the hardest to open, with only a small thumbnail notch on one side.

The We Are Rewind adds one notable feature on the FiiO -- Bluetooth playback -- and it incorporates a dedicated Bluetooth connection button as well, for added ease of use. This player is huge and relatively heavy, thanks to its all-metal housing. 

(Our testing of the Gracioso model is ongoing, but we will add that to this article once our conclusions are complete.)

Cassette players compared

Gracioso Portable Cassette Player RecorderFiio CP13We Are Rewind We-001
Price $40$109$159
Weight 0.5 pound0.7 pound0.9 pound
Signal-to-noise ratio Not specified55dB50dB
Bluetooth YesNoYes
Internal speaker YesNoNo
AM/FM Radio YesNoNo
Rechargeable battery No (USB power)YesYes
Dimensions 6.5 x 4.1 x 2.1 inches4.7 x 3.5 x 1.3 inches5.5 x 3.5 x 1.3 inches

Sound quality

When it comes to audio quality, cassettes are typically cast behind the sound of "pristine" CDs and "warm" LPs. Yet, with Dolby noise reduction enabled, cassettes can sound pretty good -- if lacking in treble extension. Without noise reduction, though, you'll hear a lot of, well, noise, especially during quieter parts. Both the FiiO and the We Are Rewind are seemingly pitched at the discerning listener, so you would expect some noise reduction. Sadly, this is where the current crop falls down, as neither of them offers Dolby. Why? According to Fiio's FAQ page, the chipsets that enable Dolby Digital noise reduction are no longer made. This is disappointing as the Dolby B standard can make a big difference to the perceived amount of noise, and it has been around since 1970, while Dolby C debuted in 1980.

As an addendum to the lack of noise reduction, cassettes that include Dolby Digital encoding are usually marked on the cassette -- and none of my recent purchases have included this. With both players rated at a signal-to-noise ratio of around 50 dB compared to CD's 100 dB, you would need to really crank the volume louder to hear equivalent noise on a digital version.

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

I listened to a bunch of different tapes from multiple sources, including radio recordings, '80s commercial cassettes and new releases. The sound quality of each unit was also determined by the headphones used, especially on the warm-sounding Gracioso and We Are Rewind cassette players. With a bass-prominent set of phones like the Sony MDR-V6, the W.A.R. and Gracioso were a little boomy, and were better suited to a more balanced set like the MDR-A1.

In comparison, the Fiio CP13 had a leaner balance and could be called more detail-oriented with a midrange-forwardness. If you're expecting an audiophile experience from a Walkman-style player, you're in the wrong place: when listened to side-by-side, a digital version has none of the "wow" or drop-outs of cassettes and sounds a lot cleaner. However, listening to the FiiO on the train was a very enjoyable experience

Are cassettes back for round 2?

If you enjoy the tactile experience of physical media, then cassettes can be just as fun as CDs and vinyl. The problem with the latest crop of players and media is the lack of noise reduction -- it's a real mood killer. If the lack of noise is important to you, then you will need to take your chances on the secondhand market or try and dig out that old player from the attic.

In terms of new players, though, it's easy to discount the cheapest portable cassette player here, so it's a reasonable toss-up between the FiiO and the We Are Rewind. The Fiio has portability and price on its side, while the We Are Rewind has better features, a warmer sound and enhanced usability. Of all three -- the one I would happily buy for myself is the FiiO. It cuts down on the features of the Gracioso while enhancing portability over the We Are Rewind while also cutting $50 from the price. If you don't want to risk buying an older unit and want a new portable cassette player, the FiiO CP13 is the one to get. 

It's unlikely that we'll see a vinyl-like boom for cassette players, but this doesn't mean that the format isn't worthwhile. If you have a decent selection of tapes -- whether bought commercially or taped off the radio -- buying a cassette player is a relatively affordable way to enjoy this oft-maligned yet richly rewarding format.