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Antiquities: the second life of the cassette portable.

Antiquities: the second life of the cassette portable.

2003 year. I make a voyage to a small-scale wholesale electronics store in Moscow, known to many, shelling out cash for a CD / MP3 player. I take a portable cassette player with me: do not go to the subway in silence. Without leaving the store, I open the box, insert a self-written CD – ten hours of music – and on the way back enjoy digital sound, without noise, vibration, distortion, chewed tape, perfect!

I put the old player in the far box, and put the bag with cassettes in



the same place. My personal era of cassette tapes is ending, but 2018 is the year of a renaissance. Why why?

First of all, because of nostalgia for bygone times, but also in order to study outdated technologies, in more detail than was possible in the nineties.

The portable cassette player in my life was the first device with which I myself decided what music to listen to. In combination with a home recording tape recorder, it was also a kind of self-expression – through the creation of collections of your favorite music, recording from the radio and microphone. The computer, which finally liberated my creativity, came later. Now it is probably difficult to understand this: just think, listen to the music you want … Take your smartphone and listen!

But in the early nineties, when there was only one music radio in my province, it was a revolution..

The sacrifice of the revolution was sound quality. Alas, even if now you try to make a compact audio cassette player, you will have to make compromises: in this technique, size matters, and by reducing the diameter of taps, gears and rollers, cutting off the power of the amplifier, you will inevitably lose sound quality. Therefore, unlike my first publication, where we listened to music well, today we will listen to it rather badly. This post is about outdated technologies that have been growing since pre-computer times, warm tube sound and pleasant memories of youth, diluted with objective measurements and graphs. I keep a diary of a collector of old pieces of iron in Telegram.

The channel contains digitized recordings from all five players, if you are interested in comparing.

Other related articles:

The birth of personal audio.

Unlike reel-to-reel tape recorders and turntables, cassette technology has been moderately compact almost from the start. Already in the late sixties, at the very start of the format, portable recorders, known as shoeboxes, appeared for the perfect match in size with a medium-sized shoebox..

It was portable, but not personal, and geared more toward recording voice than listening to music. Cassette players became truly personal in the late seventies. Last year celebrated the 40th anniversary of Sony’s first portable Walkman, the 1979 TPS-L2, which gained additional popularity following the release of Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014..

The player could hardly fit into a big pocket, and its creators still did not fully understand what they had created and tried to build some kind of socialization. Two headphone outputs for two-person listening. The remnants of the recording scheme from the neighboring model were adapted for listening to what is happening outside, or, as they wrote in Billboard magazine, for negotiations between listeners without turning off the music (why?).

Over the next 10 years, the technology for the production of compact cassette players settled down: they learned to make them with dimensions no larger than a cassette, and in one case they even managed to make the device smaller than the carrier. All the most legendary portable players were released back then. The problem is that I skipped them successfully: progress was getting to my village with a big delay..

So large that the first cassette device appeared in our family in 1987, and before that, vinyl and reels ruled the show. And it was not at all portable, but a hefty multi-kilogram conditionally portable radio tape recorder Riga-110. This review is also devoted to “mediocre” devices, such a feast of beggarly. I will write about the “treadmill” separately.

The first attempt to equip me with a personal audio player was made by my parents in 1990, with the help of the International player, in fact – a typical representative of the Chinese no-name.

Picture from the Internet, my copy has not survived. I will share my belated advice: the larger the word “Stereo” is printed on the body, the higher the probability that the player is monophonic. It was the simplest apparatus that could play cassettes or rewind them forward.

There was no rewind – turn the cassette over or use the environment-friendly way to rewind with a ballpoint pen.

The biggest problem was the lack of infrastructure, namely the availability of only Soviet AA salt batteries, from which the device worked for ten minutes. And another half hour at half speed. I don’t care, I was ready to listen to him even so, it was so cool. Even before the advent of the personal computer, it was the first device with which I myself could decide what content to use.

Complete with a home recorder, I could create my own recordings, and no longer depended on households who wanted to listen to something else, or on a DJ on the radio..

The most interesting thing is that this primitive set of parts turned out to be the most tenacious. Truly cool portable players are a thing of the past, but such a basic one lives on, even now buy with delivery from China. Even if you want to do something of a higher quality, it will not work, since there is only one mechanism for creating a cassette tape recorder.

With minor modifications, it goes into both desktop devices and portable devices. The “renaissance” of the portable was widely discussed last year, when someone raised money on Kickstarter and released a portable cassette player with a Bluetooth module for connecting modern headphones. Don’t be fooled, this device is incredibly dull in its characteristics.

Like my “international” 30 years ago, it is monophonic. Except that the batteries have become much better and more affordable over the past time. Such is the vicious circle of technical imperfection.

The first figure. Sony WM-FX153.

I’ll start my review of my devices with a slightly higher quality Sony cassette player, very similar to my first “normal” player, purchased in late 1994. Before that, I suffered, carrying on my belt a huge Chinese cassette player with a radio and a speaker, weighing under a kilogram. Sony WM-FX153 is a slightly more modern 1996 model (hereinafter the dates are approximate, taken from service manuals). It has almost everything a teenager from the nineties needs to immerse himself in personal musical nirvana.

Relatively compact size: fits in a jacket pocket. Built-in radio: when you get tired of listening to a limited set of cassettes, or if the batteries run out, the radio works for another 2-3 hours on the remaining charge. Bass Boost: Compensate for the poor performance of the bundled headphones.

My original player also had auto-reverse: no need to turn the cassette manually.

Autoreverse is also structurally incorporated in the FX153: pay attention to the two shafts connected to the motor by a drive belt. The player is assembled without the use of nails, screws, the halves of the case are fastened with plastic clips, disassembling it is a whole story. Inside, everything is very simple: a dial, a set of gears, plastic rods from the buttons, exposing the gears to the desired position for playback and rewinding. The simplest hitchhiking mechanism … and that’s it. I disassembled the player to find out why sometimes there is no sound in the left earpiece, but it turned out that this is not a bug, but the norm.

The plastic mechanism, which seems to be loosened from the factory, requires “pressing” the play button, and then everything works correctly.

Most of the adjustments on the board are responsible for tuning the radio receiver, for a cassette there is only one trimming resistor: playback speed. In the mid-nineties, a big advantage of a similar player was the presence in the kit of two nickel-cadmium batteries and an external charger. The player with batteries honestly served me for almost four years, until the mechanism failed from almost daily use.

In the modern collection, the WM-FX153 is one of two players that did not require any maintenance at all. It was presented by a colleague, the player was obviously used a lot, judging by the scars on the case, but he is still alive and does not plan to give up. Its main drawback is the ringing from the motor, which penetrates into the headphones and is clearly audible at a low volume level..

An important advantage of such players was the presence of a built-in clip for wearing on a belt. Alas, these plastic things broke down very quickly: I tore it off on my Walkman, it seems, on the third day of use. I tried to put it on glue, restore the flimsy mount with a soldering iron, but in vain. My grandfather solved the problem, in 1997, at my request, he erected a steel clothespin.

The clip was riveted to the body, and they promised me that it would outlive the player itself – and so it happened.

The second figure. Sony WM-FX491.

Moving on to the most advanced player in the collection, the 2000 Sony WM-FX491. I bought this copy new, in a box and with stickers on the case. This player looks much more fashionable than the FX153, but don’t let the looks fool you.

By design, it differs little from an older device – it is still a budget model..

The main difference was the electronic control of the playback and radio receiver. The case is still held in place by snaps, but reinforced with two screws. The cassette mechanism has become a little more complex: in the FX153 you bring the reading head and roller to the tape by pressing the play button, here the swinging gear is responsible for this. Depending on the direction of rotation of the motor, we either activate the playback mode, or switch the operating modes.

This player has an auto-reverse, which means that you need to switch between pairs of reading heads, depending on which direction the tape is rewound. A mechanical switch on the board is responsible for this, and auto-stop and reverse are activated using an optical sensor: it monitors the rotation of one of the rollers. If the rotation stops (the tape in the cassette has run out or it has jammed), you need to stop playback or switch to the other side, depending on the settings.

There are no switches on the case: all settings are set by buttons on the front panel, the current modes are displayed on the screen. The frequency of the radio receiver is also displayed there, it is possible to memorize several radio stations and tune in to them a little faster. Almost 20 years of storage did not benefit the thin drive belt: it had to be changed, otherwise the detonation during playback went off scale. After servicing, the parameters turned out to be worse than those of the older WM-FX153.

In a cassette portable, it often happens that the more primitive the design, the better the player works. But there is no noise from the motor during playback.

Figure three. Aiwa PX447.

This 1995 player is the most serviceable in my collection. Everything works, there was only one fault and it was brought in by the previous owners – they tightened a long screw into the case, which did not allow the cover to be closed. One of only two in my collection of true slim players, a nineties teenage dream.

How did you provide compact dimensions, a little more than a cassette? First of all, they refused to bring the head to the player.

The design is fixed, in turn, only the pressure rollers are pressed against the troughs to change the direction of movement. The assembly of the head and rollers is tightly screwed to the lid and opens together with it: insert the cassette, close it and two microscopic trowels fall into place. This is a simple but extremely handy player that can easily fit even into a jeans pocket. Its only drawback is the use of AAA batteries.

Most Useless Feature: Mechanical preset EQ switch, which in any position except Flat reduces sound quality from acceptable to disgusting.

Figure four. Panasonic RQ-SX33.

More than 25 years ago, I dreamed of such a player. Alas, I saw this only in one lucky classmate at school, but I myself did not own it. Functionally, it is the top cassette portable.

Touch control, auto reverse, wired remote control, so that you do not need to get the device itself out of your pocket. Metal body, chic appearance.

Another previously unknown feature was discovered in Panasonic: the cover folds when opened and thus provides the most convenient cassette hit into the player.

In 2020, these are all dubious benefits. The maximum compactness here was provided by the transition to flat batteries of the gumstick type (NH-14WM). You can buy them, but you will also need specialized charging. The main thing: the operating voltage of the player is not three volts, but one and a half, more precisely – rechargeable 1.2V. The motor runs from one battery, the tape rotates, the signal is amplified, the headphone amplifier works.

In general, you need to prioritize and not always put high-quality sound in the first place..

Add to this a terrible detonation, noticeable to the naked eye with the ear, despite the outwardly excellent condition of the player, it was clearly not used much. Disassembling the player to replace the drive belt was a whole story. This is definitely the most sophisticated mechanism of all the players in my collection. Here, there are both the optical sensor familiar to me from the FX491, and the solenoid that switches the player’s operating modes, there are sensors for automatic tape type selection. Another way to reduce the thickness of the mechanism is to solder the motor and sensors to the board.

To replace the strap, you need to unsolder these contacts and carefully remove the board without damaging the thin ribbon from the playback head. When assembling, you need to check the position of the reverse switch, otherwise it can easily be broken..

This is a reliable and serviceable design: no plastic fasteners, everything is assembled with screws, as tight as possible and without backlash. Replacing the belt reduced knocking in half, but still the most fashionable player showed the worst result. Perhaps this is due to the state of the pressure rollers, but most likely this is just a consequence of miniaturization where it is harmful. As a result, the SX33 remains a museum piece: it works, but not happy.

I can’t even really use the remote control, since regular headphones are tightly screwed to it, and you can’t connect your own ones (you can directly to the player). This is a great 1995 cassette portable, but in 2020 I have different priorities. I prefer to use the largest player. With this:

The last figure. Sony WM-DD22.

Best player in the collection and also the oldest: 1988. One of the cheapest players in the DD series – which is sometimes incorrectly deciphered as Direct Drive. This is actually a Disc Drive, and here’s why:

The player’s motor is located perpendicular to the projection and is pressed against it through a rubber ring. Thus, the motor is connected without the use of belts: the drive belt transfers torque here only for winding the tape. It has gotten a little tired in 32 years, but it’s enough to rewind and play.

The custom mechanics, pioneered by Sony in the early eighties, are a triumph of minimalism. A pair of plastic rods, one contact for turning on the motor, one gear for rewinding the tape in one of two directions.

The disadvantage is understandable: large sizes. But in this case it is rather an advantage: the pressure roller is not microscopic here, but almost corresponding to the dimensions in stationary equipment. The large tonnage ensures the uniformity of the tape drive, and the detonation coefficient worthy of any cassette technique.

There are three switches on the case: tape type, bass boost, never-used volume limiting system. Alas, the headphone output power is the same as in more compact devices. In the more expensive models of the WM-DD series, a more complex scheme was used, and the quality there is higher.

But here, too, it’s even worse..

Unscientific measurement of parameters.

How can you compare a cassette portable with each other, not by ear, but somehow more precisely? Using a reference cassette, I determined the knock coefficient for each device, measured the deviation from the “correct” speed. I had low requirements for portable equipment in both parameters: detonation within 0.15% is difficult to notice by ear, just as it is difficult to recognize a slight discrepancy in the playback speed. To measure the playback parameters, I used the RMAA program, and probably did it the last time. There are standard procedures for measuring sound quality for magnetic recording that are not followed by the RMAA.

But enough for a rough comparison. Here’s what happened:

I chose three parameters for comparison: the uniformity of the amplitude-frequency characteristic (we reproduce a sinusoidal signal of the same level, but we change the frequency from 20 to 20,000 hertz, we measure the signal level at the output), the coefficient of nonlinear distortion (we reproduce a signal with a frequency of 1 kHz of the maximum level, we measure the level signal components absent in the original recording) and the noise level (we do not reproduce anything, we measure the noise of the tape and the device itself). The RMAA test signal was recorded on the second type of tape on a stationary, more or less well-tuned cassette deck – this is probably the highest quality medium for a portable.

Here’s what happened. I roughly measured the frequency range that each device is capable of reproducing, within ± 3dB, the table shows the lower and upper limits, added the results of measurements of the coefficient of detonation, THD and noise level. You can compare the results between different players, and also between them and a stationary device of obviously higher quality.

The table is available here. In general, the players showed approximately the same average quality result. It became clear that in WM-FX153 it is desirable to adjust the position of the playback head, and the preferred WM-DD22 generates a lot of distortion.

All players were measured at maximum volume, which is not entirely fair: at a typical average volume level, the noise will be much higher. Panasonic RQ-SX33 showed the smoothest frequency response, but in reality its sound is still not happy due to high detonation.

On real sound material, everyone performed “satisfactorily” except for the WM-FX153, and then most likely it “gobbled up” all the high frequencies due to the wrong azimuth.

Great and terrible MegaBass.

One way or another, bass enhancement is present in all players, except for the WM-DD22. In the nineties, this was an important feature that made the sound of both rather dull technology and headphones with modest characteristics a little more fun. Now that musical purism is in vogue, Mega Bass seems redundant even in retro technology.

Indeed, modern headphones are head and shoulders above everything that was available for a small budget a quarter of a century ago. But the point is not only to “rock”. Let’s take a look at the measurements of the Sony WM-FX153:

White graph – no uluchshayzers, there is almost complete absence of high frequencies Green graph – measurements with Mega Bass at maximum volume. Blue – 50% volume. It is important to measure in this way, because the gain in the low frequency range depends on the volume – the quieter the more bass, and vice versa.

At normal volume levels, the range from about 50 to 170 Hz is “boosted” by 5 decibels. But there is also an increase in the high-frequency range, and it turns out that with the Mega Bass the Sony player shows a much smoother frequency response than without it. That is, the developers of the cassette portable in this way compensated for poorly recorded tapes, and partly for the effect of an incorrectly installed read head. Indeed, with the “megabass” this player sounds more powerful and not at all dull, in contrast to the “correct” playback mode.

True, at medium volume, the noise of the motor and the simple amplification circuit is clearly noticeable. Take a look at the noise level measurements below: in the pauses between tracks in your headphones, all the disadvantages of this cheap device will be clearly visible. Disgusting!

The most vivid “cassette” recollection I have somewhere in 1996, when in the winter, at a terrible early, I had to meet a relative at the station. Winter, nineties outside, a crowd of people at a public transport stop, illuminated only by the headlights of cars and the moon. A trolleybus stuffed with its wheels polishes the ice strips on the road, inside the ghostly heat from the breath of people and a thick layer of ice on the windows, with round holes, observe the situation outside: almost a spaceship in open space.

It would be a rather dark memory, but I settled myself comfortably on someone’s back, turned on the tape recorder and created a small island of warmth for myself in the midst of personal and social chaos..

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