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Get the Goods:

How to Choose the Cassette Deck that Will Bring You the Most Pleasure


John Henshell work sample: marketing communications, Web content


the y2k cassette deck market

Cassettes have retained popularity well into the affordable digital era because the format is still the most inexpensive way for most people to record music. People with large collections of pre-recorded and self-recorded tapes are continuing to buy and use cassette decks. Prices of CD recorders have dropped in half since consumer models were introduced, but still cost two or three times as much as cassette decks. Computer CD burners and MiniDisc™ recorders are also much more expensive than cassette decks. Even portable MP3 players cost more than cassette decks.

While large numbers of consumers (and record companies) are still embracing the cassette format, audio equipment manufacturers are focusing their attention on digital recording and playback technologies. Few new decks are being introduced, and much of the focus is on the price-point-only market sector. Fortunately, is still able to offer a selection of good cassette decks. Unfortunately, you must choose between quality and convenience. For example, you don’t have to turn over a tape to play (or record on some decks) side B on a deck with auto-reverse, but the sound quality in the reverse direction will be considerably poorer than it is in the forward direction. Extra mechanical capabilities also degrade reliability. We’ll explore those trade-offs to help you make an informed decision.

As you step into the middle of the price range, you generally get the same sound quality with more convenience features. In the upper price range, you get better sound quality, and sometimes fewer convenience features. At the point where cassette decks and CD recorders converge in price, a cassette deck is still a valid purchase if you have an investment in blank or pre-recorded cassettes. Most people prefer the sound of homemade CDs to that of homemade tapes. This is especially true when CDs are the source of the homemade recording. You also want to consider where you will listen to your recordings; if you have a car cassette player and a cassette boombox or Walkman®, you may want to stick with the format for a while.

If you prefer to avoid learning the jargon of cassette decks, click here to use the to cassette decks [not a link here], which will let you make choices, then select from a short list of compatible products.


the y2k cassette deck market




Noise Reduction


Performance Control Features



Your first decision will be whether to buy a single-well or dual-well (also called “dubbing”) cassette deck. sells mostly dual-well decks because that’s what most people want. Generally, single-well decks sound better and are more reliable. Generally, dual-well decks cost less (improving sound quality costs more to manufacture than adding inexpensive hardware) and offer all these convenience features:

high speed dubbing

This feature lets you copy a tape from one well to the other at double speed. It is one of those cool time-saving conveniences that degrades sound quality (especially higher frequency sounds). You can’t expect fast food to be as good as gourmet cooking.

relay play/record

Set your deck to play or record the second tape as soon as the first tape reaches its end. Most auto-reverse dubbing decks will play or record all four tape sides in sequence.

simultaneous recording

You can make two tapes from the same external source simultaneously. Note that some dual-well decks only record in one well.

synchronized dubbing

Prepare both tapes and press one button to begin tape-to-tape dubbing.



Two-head decks employ one play/record head and one erase head. Three-head decks employ separate play and record heads. Three-head decks provide better frequency response and let you compare the recording to the source and make level adjustments in real time (your ears will be more reliable than meters). Each head can be optimized for its sole function.


As with heads, three motors are better than one or two. A single motor, as you’ll find in a boombox, moves the tape in two directions (play and fast-forward in one, rewind in the other) at two speeds (slow for play, fast for fast-forward and rewind). Two- and three-motor systems use fewer belts and are dedicated to a task, which produces smoother tape movement for better sound quality. As the extra motor(s) have fewer functions, they have a longer lifespan. If the deck uses motors to move tape hubs directly, it doesn’t need belts, which degrade sound quality as they wear, and eventually become disengaged or break.

Better decks also have two capstans for better speed accuracy, which helps to prevent wow and flutter. The capstan is the rotating spindle that guides the tape and regulates its speed.

Noise Reduction

As the recoding process induces noise, especially at higher frequencies, some form of noise reduction technology is necessary to make tapes listenable. Dolby Laboratories licenses all the noise reduction (NR) systems currently used on cassette decks. Three systems encode the signal during recording and decode it in playback. Dolby S® is the most effective system. Dolby C® is superior to Dolby B®. Most pre-recorded tapes are Dolby B®-encoded. Tapes recorded with Dolby S® or Dolby B® can sound OK when played back on a car unit or portable player without a decoder, but you’ll lose the benefits.

Dolby S® offers an additional benefit: Dolby Laboratories requires high standards for tape transport quality in any decks that use Dolby S® circuitry.

Dolby HX Pro® is a distinct technology that works in tandem with one of the three NR systems. It improves signal-to-noise ratio and extends dynamic headroom. It requires no decoding, and the tapes will sound better when played back on any player.


Some aspects of performance are measurable, and specifications can give you some idea of a cassette deck’s performance.

signal-to-noise ratio

Signal refers to the desired audio content (usually music or speech), while noise refers to the unwanted content played along with it. Higher numbers are better.

frequency response

This refers to the frequencies a deck can audibly reproduce. The maximum range of human hearing is 20-20,000 Hz. Few decks can reproduce the top octaves; all will do better with better tape types.

wow and flutter

Variations in the speed of a tape deck are called “wow” and “flutter.” Smaller percentages indicate more accurate performance.

Performance Control Features

full-logic tape transport

Microprocessor, as opposed to mechanical, control of tape movement functions results in faster, smoother operation when you press a button (e.g. play or fast-forward) and lets you switch from one function to another without pressing “stop” in between. Full-Logic (also called "soft-touch") mechanisms are more reliable than mechanical ones, and less damaging to tapes.

bias controls

Bias is an inaudible high-frequency signal recorded onto tapes that reduces distortion and increases frequency response. Different tape tapes require different bias levels. Some decks automatically, but inexactly, adjust bias. Manual bias adjustment allows more control for better recordings than basic automatic bias adjustment. Decks with sophisticated automatic bias adjustments will record test tones, determine and adjust the bias setting, then rewind the tape to its previous position. This feature is also called “auto record calibration.”


Record-level meters show the approximate level being recorded, and help you prevent recording distortion. More LED segments allow greater control.

MPX (multiplex) filter

This filter will prevent the deck from recording the high-frequency pilot tone broadcast by FM radio stations.

microphone inputs

Microphone inputs are now a rare feature. If you have a deck without them, you will need an outboard mixer to record speech or live music.

pitch control

This dial adjusts tape speed during playback. The feature is very useful for playing tapes recorded on other decks, as few decks maintain perfect speed.


remote controls

Some inexpensive decks do not come with remote controls. Text and buttons on an illuminated or backlit remote control can be read in the dark. Some remote controls have track programming features.

auto reverse

See the y2k cassette deck market section for an explanation of this feature.

CD synchronization

This feature allows one-touch synchronized recording and other communication between products, if you have a CD player from the same manufacturer.

real-time tape counter

A real-time counter shows elapsed tape time, current recording time, and remaining tape time. This is as opposed to a simple three-digit counter.

music search

A deck with basic music search capability will find the next track on the tape and the beginning of the current track. Some decks will find any track in either direction (the deck looks for several seconds of blank tape).

track programming

You can listen to tracks in any order you want (however, this can damage a tape), skip tracks, and repeat tracks.

auto play/memory rewind

These features let you rewind a tape and start play from the beginning of the tape or another designated point on the tape. You only have to engage the rewind button.


If you want the best sound-quality, buy a single-well deck with three heads, at least two motors, and Dolby S® NR. Expect a deck with that hardware to have a full complement of performance enhancing features.

If a low price is an important consideration, buy a dual-well deck that has only the features you really want. Avoid features that can compromise reliability.

If you want convenience, versatility, and flexibility, buy a dual-well deck with all of the described features that you might use. Remember that more heads and motors and fewer belts and mechanical functions will result in greater reliability.

Whether you’re recording tapes to listen to in the car, making back-up copies of priceless LPs, just playing pre-recorded tapes, or making a tape of love songs to play at your sister’s wedding, your new cassette deck will lead to many hours of listening pleasure. We hope you enjoy it so much that you will return to for your next electronics purchase.




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