Part 1: Cassette Decks: A Buying Guide
The cassette deck market has changed quite a bit in the last few years.
Single well decks are becoming rare and 3-head decks are now almost
non-existent. The other thing is that most of the decks available now are
crap. Like with many other types of audio and video equipment, the current
trend seems to be to pack on as many features as possible, but this comes
at the expense of the overall performance quality. Most of the cheaper
decks today are going to break down under the constant use of tape traders.
Here are my very biased suggestions on looking for a good cassette deck.
I would consider myself an audiophile and also have some experience in
professional recording. You can take that for whatever it is worth. For
the record I have an Onkyo TA-2056 and an Aiwa AD-F990. Both are 3-head
and date from 1985 or 1986 or so. I bought the Onkyo at dealer cost and
the Aiwa used from a friend. If I had the money I would have Nakamichis.
Why do I need a good cassette deck?
You may say all you care about is the music and you don't really care about
spending a lot of money on a good cassette deck. Well, for one thing you
might change and start to care about better sound. I strongly believe good
sound goes a very long way in the enhancement of the musical experience.
Also, the better your deck is the better dubs you can make, which makes you
more desirable in trading. Better quality decks will also get you in a
better position on a tape tree. A better built deck will last longer and
when it does develop problems will be worth fixing.
I lean toward 3-head decks because in most cases they perform better than
comparable quality 2-head decks. With an individual head dedicated to
playback and record they can each be optimized to best performance. Also,
the ability to monitor the playback while recording can be extremely useful
in use and calibration. Most features are of no real use and can sometimes
degrade the deck's performance. This is particularly true of auto reverse.
Since the heads have to move they become easily misaligned. The auto
rewind feature on many Onkyo decks is not really useful but is not
sonically degrading. A real time counter with time remaining can be
extremely useful. Since even the better decks are not really built that
well anymore, reliability is something that also needs to be considered.
New Cassette Decks
Below are the new decks I think worth looking into. Most of them are
3-head and all of them should have some sort of fine bias adjust and Dolby
B and C. All but the Nakamichis and the portables have Dolby HX. None of
them should have auto-reverse unless specified.
Nakamichi arguably makes the best sounding cassette decks you can buy new.
However, they are not made as well as they used to be. If you run a Nak
hard, like many tape traders will, it is going to be in the repair shop at
some point. Actually, most any deck run hard is going to need work done
after several years, but most people tend to expect more out of something
that costs as much as a Nak. Look into extended warranties. Most people
feel the older Naks sound better than the newer ones. (see below for a
list of used Naks) The DR-1($929 list) and DR-2($749) are both 3-head
decks. The main advantage of the DR-1 over the DR-2 is the user azimuth
adjust which helps to optimize playback of tapes made on other machines.
The DR-3($429) is a 2-head deck that will out perform just about every
other currently available 3-head deck.
The Nakamichi pro decks are worth a look. The MR-1 is a 3-head deck with
XLR in/out and 1/4" in and costs $995. The MR-2 is a 2-head deck, has 1/4"
and RCA in/out and runs $695. They do feature pitch control which is
difficult to find on quality decks these days. These decks sound great but
apparently suffer from some of the same reliability problems as the current
Nak consumer models, but probably not near as bad.
It should be noted that tapes made on Nakamichi decks will not sound their
best unless played back on a Nakamichi. The problem is not like it was
with older Naks, but it still exists to some degree. Keep this in mind
when tape trading.
[Sony has changed the models on it's ES series cassette decks. I will have
a new guide with more current information as soon as I can. -mb]
The Sony ES series is beginning to look like a good possible alternative to
the Nakamichis. The TC-RX606ES ($400 list) is just about the only decent
deck with mic inputs, but it is a 2-head model and unfortunately has auto
reverse. The 3-head models include the top of the line TC-K909ES($790)
which looks like a very nice deck. The TC-K717ES($560) does not spec as
well as the other 3-head decks mentioned in this article but seems to sound
good and is built solidly. I have not had the opportunity to listen to any
of the ES series cassette decks, but I have heard good things from reliable
sources. They are among the few decks with the new Dolby S. Another plus
to the Sony ES series is the three year warranty, and in general they
should be very reliable. I don't like the regular (non-ES) Sony line very
much at all and would avoid them.
The Aiwa AD-F850 ($400 list) is a 3-head dual capstan deck. I have heard
some complaints about transport problems in Aiwas. My F-990 is about 9
years old and has given me little trouble. Like Nakamichi, the Aiwa decks
are not built as well as they used to be. Consider an extended warranty.
There is also an Aiwa AD-F950 which includes Dolby S and should have a list
price of around $500. It was not listed in the Audio directory, possibly
because it is a new model. For many years the upper end Aiwa models have
proven to be very good sounding decks for the money. I've seen Aiwa decks
listed in J & R Music World and other mail order catalogues for
ridiculously low prices.
The Denon DRM-740 ($400 list) is a 3-head deck that is very reliable, but I
don't think it sounds quite as good as Aiwa. The DRM-540($250) is a good
2-head deck for those on a limited budget.
The Tascam 122 MkII is virtually the industry standard in studios and has
recently been replaced by the 122 MkIII. Many feel it does not sound quite
as good as the Nakamichi MR-1, but as far as reliability it is nearly
indestructible. There is a host of user accessible calibration adjustments
on the front, and other features that are very useful but mainly in a
studio setting. XLR, RCA and 1/4" jacks are supported and it costs around
$1000. The 112 MkII is essentially a 2-head version of the 122 with a few
less features, but it does have pitch control. It runs for around $650.
The 130 is a 3-head deck that does not have the studio oriented features of
the other decks and runs for around $450.
The Sony WM-D6C Pro Walkman might possibly still be available if you look
in the right places. The TC-D5 portable is no longer available. These
were the recorders of choice for Grateful Dead live tapers until DAT
machines took over. Both are 2-head, and both have pitch control.
Connections on the D6 are via stereo mini-plugs(ugh). Connections on the
D5 are 1/4 inch mic (D5M), XLR mic (D5ProII), and RCA out. There is a slim
chance that some mail order professional recording or broadcast suppliers
might have these decks in stock. They should be somewhat available on the
used market since many who used them are switching to DAT. The D6C costs
around $450 new, the D5 was around $650 to over $900 depending on the
configuration and accessories. Used D5s should be around $300-$400. Used
D6s should be around $200-$225.
The Marantz PMD430 costs around $500 and I believe was very popular in the
professional broadcast world and in field work. It has pitch control, 3
heads and quarter inch and RCA jacks but does not have Dolby C. It is
probably easier to find new than the Sony decks. Again look at places that
sell pro recording and broadcast equipment
All of the above prices are list price(or estimates of list) and should
really only be used for comparison purposes. Actual prices will vary
considerably from brand to brand and store to store. Most of the above
equipment will not be available at mass market stores such as Circuit City
and Best Buy. Regular prices at independent audio retail stores will
likely be fairly close to list, but in exchange you will get good one on
one service and a chance to listen to the equipment. Some of the more
upscale stores will have nice listening rooms and will often let you take
equipment home to try it out. Some independent retail stores will sell for
lower or have sales often. Things will be different in different parts of
The best prices are usually available with mail order where you can get in
the neighborhood of 10%-20% or more off of list price. Be careful with
mail order and know who you are dealing with. Using a credit card is a
good idea as the credit card company will back you up if you have problems.
Ask about warranties. You may not get a manufacturers warranty if the
mail order company is not an official dealer for the specific product line.
The rec.audio.marketplace newsgroup occasionally posts surveys of mail
order places. Our friend, Ken Hays, at Terrapin Tapes 1-800-677-8650 will
offer prices competitive with any other mail order outfit and he will treat
For the pro decks mentioned you will need to check with music stores or
other places that sell professional recording equipment.
If the above prices seem too high to you, I strongly recommend searching
out the used market(see below).
Extended warranties for as much as 5 years can be had for as little as $35
and are certainly worth looking into. Do not pay too much and do read the
fine print. It is best if the extended warranty is from the manufacturer.
If you do get an extended warranty, try to get one that will allow general
maintenance and use it for all it is worth. Take the deck in to have it
adjusted, aligned and internally cleaned about once a year. Even if you
don't get an extended warranty it is a good idea to have this done. New
decks costing less than about $250 are rarely worth an extended warranty or
even getting repaired, which is another reason for avoiding them. Also,
certain credit cards will double your warranty. If you are doing, or plan
on doing, some very heavy taping, your deck is likely going to need some
kind of service within 5 years.
Dual-Well Cassette Decks
I don't think too much of dual-well decks, but if your are on a very tight
budget it may be the only way to go. At this point my main recommendation
would go to the Sony TC-WR801ES ($430 list). The TC-WR901ES ($670) is
nicer, but at that price you are likely better off looking into separate
decks. The Denon DRW-840 ($400 list) is worth looking into. If you are
really broke consider the Denon DRW-660 ($300 list). Anything less than
this is not going to sound very good and is going to break under moderate
to heavy tape trading use.
Used Cassette Decks
In the past I have not thought it a good idea to buy a cassette deck used
since they have so many small moving parts. But given the sorry state of
the market today it now looks like one of the better ways to go. I
strongly believe cassette deck quality peaked between 1983 and 1987
roughly. They sound better, are built better, and don't have a lot of
Don't buy one from a Deadhead, they work cassette decks to death. Try to
get one from someone who did not use it too much. However, avoid anything
that has been sitting completely unused for more than a year or so. Check
all transport functions and make sure they all work smoothly. A good tape
to use to test the deck is something with acoustic piano on it. Listen for
wobble or flutter in the tone and a fuzziness on the attacks. See if the
dealer/owner will let you try the deck for a period of time. Avoid decks
with auto reverse and other unnecessary features. It will cost more to buy
a deck from a dealer but they hopefully will have refurbished the deck and
will also offer some sort of warranty.
Most any Nakamichi deck made since 1979 would be a good choice, just be
real certain the transport is in good condition. The earliest Naks are the
most durable. The older top end(3-head) Onkyos and Denons where very good
and rugged. Aiwa is worth looking into, but like the Naks beware of
transport problems on more recent models. Pro models from Tascam/Teac,
Fostex and Tandberg are sometimes worth a look but are generally not too
common on the used market. Always try to get a 3-head model, but Nak
2-head decks are generally fine. Some sort of fine bias adjust is also a
good idea but will not be very common on older models. The original box
and manual is a plus. Mainly look for decks from the middle 1980s
Used Cassette Deck Price Guide
%481 $200-250 (no monitoring)
581 $250-300 (no monitoring)
*681ZX $400-500 (no monitoring)
Cassette Deck 1 $450-550
Cassette Deck 1.5 $400-475
DR-1 $500-600 current
DR-2 $400-500 current
580 $150-200 (no metal)
Cassette Deck 2$200-250
DR-3 $250-300 current
MR-1 $475-550 3-head
MR-2 $350-425 2-head
350 portable $125-175 w/power pack $275-350 2-head
*550 portable $350-500 2-head
* = Classic Nakamichi, very desirable, highest recommendation
^ = Recommended
% = Good low cost alternative (under $250)
The BX and CR series will be worth the higher end of the scale if they have
had the gear modification done. If the mod has not been done it is highly
recommended that you get it done. The original transports in these units
turned out to be very weak and prone to breaking in as little as 2-3 years.
The gear mod can be done by any Nakamichi specialist and will fix the
Be aware that tapes made on the older Nakamichis are not going to sound as
good when played on non-Nak decks due to a difference in the head gap. If
you get one of these decks it will be in your best interest to only use it
when trading with other Nakamichi users. The CR and DR series should not
be very problematic. Tapes made on non-Nak decks may not play well on
certain Nak models but most of the better ones should play them fine.
Aiwa and Denon 3-head decks:
C. 1980-1984- $125-$175
C. 1984-1989- $150-$250
C. 1990-1994- $150-$200
Onkyo 3-head decks:
C. 1980-1984- $75-$125
C. 1984-1989- $125-$200
C. 1990-1994- $150-$175
Condition and specific models will effect the prices greatly. When new,
Aiwa, Denon and Onkyo 3-head models from the 80s ranged from $350-$700. I
think Aiwa has had some models in the $1000 range at some point and used
prices for those would be closer to $400.
The above are essentially dealer prices and should come with the option of
returning the deck and some sort of warranty(30-90 days is typical). You
should pay less if buying from an individual or if details on the deck are
sketchy and there is no option of returning the deck. Roughly 40%-50% of
the original price for models from the 80s and slightly more for more
recent decks is what you should be looking at. Some of the classic
Nakamichi decks have a very high demand and actually command prices
greater than 50% of the original price.
Even if you have to get some small repairs done, I think you will most
likely still be ahead on your money. If a cassette deck is going to have
some sort of catastrophic failure it is most likely to occur in the first
year or two. After that, most repairs concern replacing worn out parts
which is usually not too expensive.
Where to Find Used Cassette Decks
The best deals will usually be found in the classified ads. There are also
a variety of places on the internet including rec.audio.marketplace where
you can find used audio equipment. There are some stores that sell used
equipment and usually offer some sort of warranty, usually 90 days. Repair
shops also sometimes sell some used equipment. Hunt around for deals in
places that sell used electronics in general. Pawn shops are usually
overpriced and won't take stuff back. They will often take a lower than
marked price though.
Sonic Sense, P.O. Box 61141, Denver, CO 80206 (303) 698-1296, sell and
repair used Nakamichis and other recording equipment. They are very
helpful and knowledgeable.
Continued in Part 2