Innovative Audio Cassette Deck 'Shootout'
March 4, 2011
A quick introduction… It should be clearly noted with regards to this 'shoot-out' that certain factors were simply un-avoidable. The first being that each deck was used, had one or more owners / users before being in the possession with the current owners, and that the actual amount of hours on the heads are almost impossible to determine. In essence, absolute 'perfect' results would be impossible to produce but we certainly took the extra steps by insuring that each deck had been given attention to detail and was working to the best of its ability at the time of the shoot out. The only exception to this was the Aiwa, as it was believed that there may have been a mis-alignment during this event.
It should also be noted that we did not drag out oscilloscopes, sine wave generators, tape tension gauges or any of the other countless items to get 'precision data' with regards to this event as that was not the direction we wanted to go. This was simply done for fun, using the best tool we had to compare each unit, our own ears.
With that, we tried to emulate what we felt were ideal conditions with regards to buying and using a 'second hand' deck. Regardless if the thing was absolutely mint and bought and stored twenty years ago, it is still considered a 'used' deck.
Given these parameters, it was actually quite entertaining to see just what these decks were capable of. And having heard the results, one would have to imagine what the outcome would have been if each deck was still brand new from the factory and tested in the same conditions!
All in all, the absolute fact is that if you can still get this sort of performance with equipment 20 - 30+ years old, then you are getting a whole lot of fun for your money. I guess it could be said that regardless of what deck won whatever category, the fact that these things are still around today and can be pushed through 'shoot-outs' with stellar results can only attest to what we all firmly believe; things were just made better then.
We really did not set out to crown a 'king' but wanted to match deck against deck to determine value vs. performance. Back in the day all of these decks were selling for top dollar we dreamed about owning this stuff but the costs were simply too high (for the majority of us at least). Hey, having $5.00 in your pocket back then is like having a $100.00 now! So when we see these gems popping up in thrift stores and buy/sell ads nowadays for what seems like reasonable money we buy on emotion, and maybe some nostalgia, but are the items as good as we thought they were? This is what we really wanted to find out and have some fun doing it. The odd thing was, it felt really cool getting together with friends, playing tapes and listening to great music and for a really brief moment, it felt like I was a kid again doing the exact same thing all those years ago.
Nando takes it from here:
Although the weather was uncooperative with a typical west coast night of driving rain and wind outside, spirits were high for the first ever Innovative Audio Cassette Deck Shootout. Firstly, I would like to thank Gordon and Susan for their generosity in allowing us Tapeheads to hold this event at their store. As well, Gordon treated to pizza and refreshments later on in the evening. Edwin's invaluable experience helped, too, in ensuring we could pull off this Shootout, as it is comforting to have a medic in the field in case there was an injury... and as you'll discover later, his services did save the day.
I arrived at the store about ten minutes after Scott, while Rob had been there an hour earlier at 3:00 p.m. Rob took advantage of his free time to peruse through two carton boxes loaded with used reel tapes (7" and 10.5") which had been recently dropped off at the store. Both he and I found some beauts!
While I was settling up with Susan on picking up my repaired Pioneer Elite M-90 amplifier, Gordon, Rob, and Scott were already upstairs in the sound room. A table was set up for the six cassette decks being used for the Shootout, and after safely packing away my amplifier in the back of the wagon's cargo area, I joined the others with my Pioneer CT-F1250. Rob and Gordon had patched in a few of the decks into an Audio Authority switcher, and linked the switcher to the Carver 200 wpc receiver. All the decks' audio outputs were connected to the switcher and the pair of source cables from the Pioneer CD player were to be connected to each of the deck's R/L audio inputs, as we moved the input cables in successive order to each deck during the recording portion of the Shootout. For speakers, we were more than happy to be using the Martin Logan CL SII panels. The modded JBL L200s were not used, as the refinement of the Logans more than made up for its softer bass tone, and it was a good selection for the source material we were about to record. And how often are you going to lay claim to hearing $15K speakers?
The cassette decks were patched in now: Scott's Tandberg 3014A and Aiwa XK-S9000, Gordon's "Blue By You" Pioneer CT-F1000, my Pioneer CT-F1250, and the shop decks; the Nakamichi Dragon and Sony 730 ES. The only decks which needed a final demagnetization and tape path cleaning were the Tandberg and Aiwa; the other four decks had been previously done just before this event. We borrowed the shop's Akai near-field demagnetizer to demagnetize the heads and tape path. Once everyone was satisfied a thorough prep was complete, it was time to calibrate the decks. Scott unsealed a Sony UX-Pro 90 tape, and it was fast forwarded and rewound then fast forwarded to the mid point of the tape to begin calibrations. Before the recording session we decided to use each of the decks in a warm-up exercise and listen to a recording Edwin made on a BASF CR-MII 60. It was Diana Krall, and an excellent digital FLAC recording .There were some interesting results during the playback of this tape on all six decks.
We started with Scott's Tandberg and played the same Diana Krall tape recording on all of the decks, working from the left end of the table toward the right. By the end of this test we had some preliminary subjective opinions. With this particular jazz cut, we paid close attention to the brush strokes on the drums and Diana's vocals. On a few of the decks, the brush strokes came through clear and tight, on other decks the drum strokes were not as defined. With Diana's vocals we could place her position in the sound stage. On better decks her sultry voice placed her forward of the band; in other decks her voice faded toward the back, and the dimensionality was lost. Even her voice didn't have the life-like quality we enjoyed on the better sounding decks. Here it was, early on in this session, and we already had to listen to a few decks over again to discern what we thought sounded best. Both Scott's Tandberg 3014A and Gordon's Pioneer CT-F1000 were neck and neck, and, eventually, we decided the Tandberg edged out the Pioneer. The Nakamichi Dragon placed third, followed by my Pioneer CT-F1250, then the Sony 730ES, and Scott's Aiwa XK-S9000. Scott had realized his Aiwa's heads may have been out of alignment, and this testing confirmed his suspicion. So, for the next portion of the Shootout both the Sony ES and Aiwa decks would be sitting out the first part of the recording session.
Now, it was time for the recording element of the Shootout. With each of the four cassette decks we wanted to ensure we could keep the Shootout parameters equal. We would record the same CD tracks on each cassette deck, and it was decided that the recording input levels would be no more than 0dB peak level. This was necessary, because this is the Operating Manual's recommended recording input level for the Tandberg 3014A. If we allowed other decks to record at a higher input level it could skew our listening tests. Once again, we began with Scott's Tandberg. I handled all of the cueing of the CD tracks for the recording session, while Rob spent time on the couch, ideally situated between the Martin Logans, and about eight feet back from them. Scott set the recording input level, as I fed the CD track of Susan Boyle's "Wild Horses", and once we were sure we had the correct input level set, recording commenced on Side A of the Sony UX-Pro. We switched between the deck's "Source" and "Tape" function buttons to monitor the recording. Scott nailed the recording on the first pass, so we moved onto the second deck: Gordon's blue-cased Pioneer CT-F1000. There were no calibrations for this deck as I simply flipped two switches to correctly set the bias and equalization for chrome tape. I cued up the same track, and recording began. But, we were astonished to hear, when we toggled between "Source" and "Tape" on this deck, the "Tape" position yielded better sounding results. All agreed this was something we hadn't expected. Once the song was recorded, we were quite impressed with the result.
(It should be noted that at this point it was discussed that the 1000 may have been 'tweaked' or 'modded' as the results seemed a bit too good. Actually, I believe the term bantered about was 'super-tuned'. In order to alleviate any possible concerns we pulled another CT-F1000 off the shelf to compare - hence the following - Gord)
Now, Gordon, who is a good sport, spontaneously offered to use another Pioneer CT-F1000 on the sales rack to substitute for his deck. We took him up on his offer, as proof this wasn't an anomaly of some sort. And the second Pioneer CT-F1000 recorded with the same results. My, my! We rewound the Sony tape back to where Gordon's recording had finished, and I began recording with my Pioneer CT-F1250. Then, once my recording was completed we were ready to record with the Nakamichi Dragon. Unfortunately, although we were ready, the Dragon wasn't, as the tape now wouldn't play. We disconnected the deck, after it was apparent it would be better for Edwin to look at it on the service bench, downstairs. It didn't take long for Edwin to solve the problem, as it was a matter of cycling the tape transport to get it to work again. Whew, that was a relief, as this whole exercise of the Shootout was based on the discussion spawned from the Dragon's notable reputation. Once recording began on the Dragon, we heard hiss coming from both channels while monitoring the recording. After the recording was complete we played back the track on the Dragon, then on Scott's Tandberg to hear whether the hiss would either lessen, or disappear. No change.
For the second CD track selection we chose an Audiophile copy of Telarc's Carmina Burana. We decided to flip the cassette over and begin recording on Side B of the Sony UX-Pro tape. Again, we recorded with the Tandberg, first. Scott recalibrated his deck for Side B. Next was Scott's Aiwa XK-S9000, and this time Scott was successful in adjusting the record sensitivity to the proper level. An earlier attempt to calibrate on Side A didn't take on the Aiwa or on the Sony 730ES, but both decks were capable of being properly adjusted this time around. Now, we thought "Is there a tape issue to deal with?" Another observation by Scott, which led us to believe the tape was a little suspect, was that his first recording made on his Tandberg 3014A of Susan Boyle revealed a bit of high frequency loss, which didn't happen on recordings with this deck on Side B of the tape. He's made this same recording, with prior Sony UX-Pros using his Tandberg, without any high frequency drop-out before. Alas, we had too much time invested in recording on this tape to begin the whole process over, so we continued using the same cassette. Next up was my Pioneer CT-F1250, then, finally, the Nakamichi Dragon. We did replay the recorded tracks of this song on Scott's Tandberg to listen to variances between all the decks. While three of the decks did an admirable job in reproducing the dynamics of this classical piece, the Aiwa fell short and sounded compressed.
Time was winding down as we were more than 2 hours into the Shootout, so our third and last selection would be a pared down cut from Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." The CD track selected was "The Great Gig in the Sky" and we limited each recording to about 1˝ minutes. In successive order it was: Tandberg 3014A, Pioneer CT-F1000, Pioneer CT-F1250, and Nakamichi Dragon. It was becoming evident at this stage of the Shootout which decks excelled. By monitoring the recordings, we felt it wasn't necessary to replay the songs on each deck the tracks were recorded from, as that would have lengthened the time spent beyond our intended 8:00 p.m. cut-off.
With a good amount of deliberation, we decided on a winner. It was a close race for winner and runner-up, as the Tandberg took top spot, closely followed by the Pioneer CT-F1000. Third place went to the Nakamichi Dragon and 4th spot to the Pioneer CT-F1250.
Now, for some reflection of the whole event. What made the Tandberg 3014A exceptional, in comparison to the other cassette decks this evening, was its ability to recreate depth and 3-dimensionality to the music. It, also, had a slightly better reproduction of the bass line to its nearest competitor, the Pioneer CT-F1000. And while the Pioneer CT-F1000 came away with good marks for its capability to record in a well defined and crisp manner, the Nakamichi Dragon fell short because of the excessive hiss in its recording and playback. The hiss was abnormally high, about twice as loud as the other decks. The Dragon, also, appeared dull in its sound reproduction, as compared to the top two decks. And Scott's Aiwa XK-S9000 was at a disadvantage because he had purposely misaligned the playback head to compensate for tapes he had recorded on his Sony 909ES.
Is this Shootout representative of how these decks performed when brand new? Of course not - we are dealing with old decks, here. My Pioneer CT-F1250 exhibited a few moments when scratchiness came through on right channel playback. I suspect it may have been the Dolby IC, as I had previously had it serviced for the same issue, months prior. The Aiwa had a possible head misalignment and the Nakamichi had some hiss coming through on playback and recording, which is not normally a fault found on Dragons. But, Scott's Tandberg 3014A and Gordon's Pioneer CT-F1000 performed flawlessly. The dark horse in this race was the CT-F1000. As Gordon had stated, "Pioneer decks are simply plop and play and although the 'specs' might not rank with the 'big boys', I can honestly attest that they are incredible decks for the money. And here is the comment you have been waiting for: Dollar for dollar, a Pioneer 1000 or 1250 will blow away a Dragon,Tandberg, Tascam or Revox any day of the week."
For Scott's observations, check out this thread.
For Rob's comments, see what he had to say here.