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Cassette tape, the other analog format

Was the cassette the MP3 of its era? Still alive and kicking, the cassette just celebrated its 50th anniversary!

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read
Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Cassettes, like LPs are enjoying something of a "comeback," but I can't say I was ever a big fan of the format. Sure, with a great Nakamichi or high-end Pioneer cassette deck the sound of recordings made from LPs could be pretty decent, but the prerecorded cassettes put out by record companies were always iffy. The main advantages cassette had over LPs and CDs was they were a little cheaper, and considerably more portable. They were the MP3s of the 1970s, '80s, and early '90s, and were as fragile as LPs. I mostly used the format to make "mix tapes" to turn my friends onto new music. I'd put three or four hours into making a 90 minute mix tape (each side of the tape was 45 minutes long), but it was a fun way to pass an evening. I had a Sony Walkman portable cassette player, but I never listened to cassettes at home, LPs were the only format for me, right up through the late 1980s, when I started buying CDs.

Philips introduced the Compact Cassette as it was originally called, in August, 1963 in Europe, and it took awhile to really take off, but the cassette eventually became the most successful audio tape format of all time. Used cassette decks are easy to find in yard sales and thrift shops, but let's face it, decades old machines aren't likely to be in the best working condition. Ancient cassette decks' motors and belts are prone to slip and cause unsteady sound, or the playback "heads" might be worn out, so before you buy an old player listen to it. Just turning it on and seeing the drive spindles turning is no guarantee it will sound good.

The Teac-W-890R-B cassette deck Teac

A decent new home player, like Teac's W-890R-B cassette deck, sells for less than $200; it sports one extra nice feature, "auto reverse," which means the W-890R-B will automatically play both "sides" of the cassette. Without auto-reverse when the first side of the cassette reaches the end of the tape the music stops; you have to walk over to the player, take the tape out, flip it over, and put it back in the player to hear the second side. It's like playing the second side of an LP. The auto-reverse mechanism keeps the music in play, and the W-890R-B's "double," twin-drive mechanism can copy tapes or play a second tape after the first one is finished.

Amazon sells new and used prerecorded tapes, and blank cassettes for folks who want to record their own tunes from LPs, CDs, MP3s, etc. A seven-pack of new 90 minute blank Maxell tapes run $6.99 on Amazon. Cassette sales are booming, according to a recent Time magazine article, the National Audio Co. in Springfield, MO is manufacturing 100,000 cassettes a day! Back-to-the-future adventurers can tape their LPs, and take pure analog sound on the road with an old Sony Walkman cassette player, or buy a brand new portable player. If you're up for it, go ahead and make mix tapes from LPs or CDs!

Maxell still makes new blank tapes Maxell

The cassette may be an all-analog format, but most of my audiophile pals aren't ready to go down memory lane, my friend Adam said, "May it rest in peace. Really. Please. No need to bring it back." I'd love to hear what Audiophiliac readers have to say about cassettes in the Comments section.

There's still time to write an article for the You can be the Audiophiliac for a day"contest." The deadline for entries is this Monday, August 12th. Later this month I'll turn over the reins of this blog to one lucky reader. It could be you.