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.

General Comments

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 ES

[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.

Tascam Pro

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.


Sony Pro

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 country.

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 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 you right.

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

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 unnecessary features.

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)
^581Z           $275-325
^582            $300-350
^670ZX          $300-400
*680ZX          $450-550
*681ZX          $400-500 (no monitoring)
*682ZX          $450-550
^LX-5           $350-450
*ZX-7           $550-650
*ZX-9           $750-900
 CR-3a          $325-425
 CR-4a          $425-525
 CR-5a          $500-600
*CR-7A          $750-850
*RX505          $650-750
*DRAGON         $800-1100
 BX-300         $375-425
 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)
 BX-1           $125-175
 BX-2           $125-175
%BX-100         $150-200
 BX-125         $150-225
%BX-150         $175-250
%480            $150-200
 CR-1a          $125-200
%CR-2a          $150-225
 LX-3           $250-350
 RX-202         $300-400
 Cassette Deck 2$200-250

DR-3        $250-300  current

Pro Models

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 problem.

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 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