The 8 best tape decks for home listening

By in Features, Turntables & Tech

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With news that tapes are in fact not dead, Jason Kennedy rounds up the best cassette players for home listening and advises on what to look out for when buying vintage.

Tape decks or recorders are becoming increasingly popular as an alternative form of analogue source following the rather unexpected cassette comeback. The format is particularly popular in the experimental electronic field but also chart-topping releases are finding their way on to tape again.

Today very few tape decks are still being made, in fact in our search we couldn’t find any non portable types on the market. However, as cassette was a massively popular format up until the late nineties there are plenty available second hand and often for giveaway prices.

Inevitably the most popular market place is eBay but there are quite a few on Gumtree and Preloved as well where the prices are a little better. A few used hi-fi retailers stock tape decks too, prices will be higher but should come with some guarantee which is useful which older models.

When buying a used tape deck it’s worth bearing in mind that they are complex mechanical devices and that the older they are the more likely they are to have problems. While there is a lot to be said for buying newer models, that is those that are from the late Eighties onwards, many of the earlier or vintage models can be good if they have been looked after. If you can listen to a tape deck before you buy it do so, and if you can’t make sure there is the option to return it if there’s a problem. Some may recall the mangled mess that a faulty tape deck can make out of a cassette, that’s obviously something to avoid.

On the whole cassette decks were made in Japan where the standard of engineering is very high, this is why so many vintage models are still in use, and if the price is right it can be worth getting a tape deck repaired. I visited a hi-fi show in Warsaw recently and discovered that they still use tape recorders from the seventies and had a beautiful wall of the things on display. If you can find a good servicing company most models can be kept running. Below are a few of the better models that are available second hand, happy hunting.


1

Akai DX-57

Price: £112 – £170

Now primarily associated with electronic instruments Akai was once a tape specialist with a large range of models including reel to reels. The DX-57 is an early nineties model with three heads, full size headphone jack and the option to adjust bias for different tape types. It also has the distinction of beating the highly regarded Sony WM-DC6 Walkman Pro in a What Hi-Fi test back in the day


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Denon DR-M24HX

Price: £130

Denon is still a player in the audio business, with a range of stereo and surround amplifiers that are generally good quality. The DR-M24HX was made between 1988 and 87 and is highly regarded among tape ‘heads’. It has three heads, a full manual calibration feature and a stable drive mechanism. It offers both Dolby B and C for hiss free recordings and you can buy new drive belts should they be necessary.


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Denon DRS-810

Price: £25 – £150

One of Denon’s later models the DRS-810 mimicked the look of CD players to make it appeal to digital happy punters. A drawer loading mechanism meant that tape lies flat rather being exposed behind a door. It has the luxury of remote control although these aren’t always available as they controlled other Denon components. It offers Dolby B, C and HX Pro with bias adjust although the latter is ergonomically challenged, see fiddly.


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JVC TD-V662

Price: £60 – £70

A well regarded deck from 1993 the JVC TD-V662 doesn’t need fancy chrome or metal tapes to make great recordings, it sounds sweet with basic ferric tapes which is good news if you want to play prerecorded cassettes. It looks great with its central tape bay and has all the bells and whistles including a CD direct input for recording purposes, Dolby B, C and HX Pro and like most of its ilk a quarter inch headphone socket. JVC was once a major player in the audio visual world and continues to make headphones, camcorders and boomboxes. This tape deck has the potential to sound better than most of those.


pioneer

Pioneer CT-S740S

Price: £200 – £300

Pioneer Japan have a legendary reputation for build quality and occasionally they turned out products that sounded great too, such was the CT-S740S. Built in the mid nineties its reputation suggests that it competed with well regarded models from Nakamichi, the brand to beat in cassette decks. Features include Dolby S, that company’s last bid to rid tape of noise and one of its most successful. As a result of its cult status this Pioneer doesn’t come up so often but it’s worth looking out for.


2

Sony TC-K611S

Price: £175

Not all of Sony’s full size cassette decks have a great reputation but the TC-K611S from 1994 was one of the stand outs. It needs higher quality chrome or metal tape for best results and that might make it less of a good buy if you just plan to play pre-recorded tapes, but for home recorders it’s a solid three head deck with Dolby S and the potential for remote operation if you have the handset.


3

Yamaha KX-300

Price: £70

An eighties deck from a brand that continues to produce decent separates albeit at a price. Made in Japan the KX-300 has an amorphous tape head that’s reputed to give excellent sound quality. Its vintage means that a drive belt or two may need replacing but these are still available at reasonable prices. A relatively simple two head design with the usual noise reduction systems and a remote control, this Yamaha has an auto tape tuning system to make the best of different tape types when recording.


4

Nakamichi BX-125E

Price: £140

Nakamichi has a serious reputation when it comes to tape decks, they built arguably the best sounding models ever made, and many lamented the day that CD killed them off. The BX-125E was one of the more modest examples but has a good reputation for sound quality. The styling is pretty cool too, check out the level sliders on the right. Feature wise this is on a par with other decks at the price but what you can’t see is that most cassette decks sound fairly humdrum, Nakamichis sound inspiring.

Comments (21)

  1. britishcomposers 8 months ago

    A fine analogue format that could sound supreme but sadly was always beset with two handicaps, and now a third one with age. The two issues were the slight variations with the tape running speed specifications between brands, (should be 4.75cm per second, but some were different enough to annoy a musician with good pitch when playing tapes that were made on other machines), and the other issue was tape machine playback head alignment variation, meaning if you put a tape that was either pre-recorded or made on a machine that wasn’t your own, you’d likely find that the treble was dulled because of your machine not lining true to the recording on the tape. The age issue being that many Dolby circuits seem to suppress too much treble on playback with age. Some expensive decks did have pitch controls or access to azimuth adjustment, but not both on the same machine.

    • Spankous 8 months ago

      Yes it`s not the best HiFi but i am thankful i didn`t have any of the problems you mention cause back then i didn`t even understand what a Dolby filter does. In this case i will say that “ignorance is bliss”. I feel lucky that i didn`t encounter the problems you mention since back then …. i couldn`t care less. But nowadays that i pay more attention, a lot of focus and attention goes to sound quality and doesn`t always allow me to relax and actually listen to the music. There are many moments where i miss the days where i just listened to music without thinking. Btw i have never in my life used Dolby. Even as a kid i always liked the Hiss and fake high end of the spectrum and found any Dolby filter like a lid put on the music.

      • britishcomposers 8 months ago

        You’re absolutely right about Dolby. A friend who has himself never used Dolby has always said, “My brain is more accurate than Dolby!” meaning he can filter-out the constants of background noise while enjoying uncapped recording quality. I now have two older cassette decks (B&O Beocord 5000 from late 80’s and a Ferguson 3280 from late 70’s that play the tapes I’d made on the same models of machines at those periods of time, plus an old ADC Sound Shaper 12-band equaliser to re-balance the reduced high-frequency content back to the ‘ideal’ – and it all makes my tapes sound great again.

      • britishcomposers 8 months ago

        What Dolby does is pre-emphasise (or ‘boost’) the treble above normal EQ levels on quiet passages of music or speech while recording, and then when playing back said recording, the Dolby circuit de-emphasises (or ‘reduces’) the treble in a way that ‘limits’ the noise content (hiss) while leaving you with a cleaner recorded sound, – or improved signal-to-noise ratio: (nominally a 10dB improvement to around 64dB) than if used without Dolby on record and playback. Many always judged it on just playback alone without ever trying it on then off whilst recording; citing it as just blanketing the treble, – but Dolby ‘B’ was a crude ‘domestic’ solution as compared with it’s studio counterpart, Dolby type ‘A’, that was used successfully on professional high-speed open reel recording machines running at 15 or 30 inches per second on half-inch or one-inch tape.

    • Malcolm Jackson 8 months ago

      Speed can be adjusted internally on most models, I found..

  2. PlatesRecords 8 months ago

    Anyone know of any decent cassette DJing units?

  3. Whome? 8 months ago

    Yamaha K-1020 is incredible. Known as the Dragon (Nakamichi) Killer. Uses a Sankyo transport and will likely need new belts and idler tire (available on eBay). Easy to do. My K-1020 was free on Craigslist.

    Also have a Nakamichi BX-300. Uses the same Sankyo transport as the Yamaha. Replaced belts and tire. $15 at a Goodwill.

    • John Trevor Dobson 7 months ago

      I’d compare the Nakimichi BX-300 with the Yamaha K-1020, not a Dragon nor any of the other top of the range Nak decks. Yes you will definitely need to replace the idler wheel, can make or break the playback of Sankyo equipped decks. The Yamaha has impressive specs, but specs don’t make for good listening. When the Dragon has been correctly set up there are very few decks that can match it, While I own a Dragon, I’d be the first to say it can be bettered by a handful of other Nakimichi models, some Tandbergs, very late Akai Master References, and a very few others; Tandberg, but Yamaha doesn’t get a look in. Back in the day, a number of wannabes were described as Dragon slayers, but put side by side with a Dragon there was never any doubt they produced sound, while the Nakimichis produced music.

  4. Doublecee 8 months ago

    Nice article.

    However, thats a KX-380 not a 300. I think the WM-D6C sony Walkman Pro should also be mentioned.

    Anyone thinking about getting back into tape should jump over to tapeheads.net and stereo2go.org where you will find a very big community of experienced and novice tape users, and a lot of useful info

  5. Will Wright 8 months ago

    Great article – however never mention dbx nor the Digital NR ( which unlike dbx -was compatible w/ all other recorders) use by Pioneer w/ double decks like the CT-606DR and Elite versions.

  6. Don Priola 8 months ago

    If you can find one for cheap, the Denon DRM-550 is a good deck. I still have mine from that time (1995) and while not fancy, it continues to work just fine.

  7. Peter Jeremy Halson Follett 4 months ago

    I’m struggling to find someone to service my Yamaha KX-480. I think it needs a new drive belt, as it’s running a bit slow. Any suggestions as to who I could contact, based on previous experiences?

    • Alex Baker 3 months ago

      Yes, I would recommend signing yourself up to tapeheads.com and visiting their forum. The members on there are very knowledgeable and will recommend someone to service your deck.

      I did the same and found a nice chap who serviced my Namakamichi for a very reasonable price. Good luck!

      • cj smith 2 months ago

        tapeheads.net?

  8. Sam IÆm 3 months ago

    Tascam absent from this list.

  9. Chasis 2 months ago

    Vinyl is one thing but why anyone would want to revert back to the misery of cassettes is baffling. Once idiots start paying top dollar on eBay & Discogs for old tapes I’ll be happy to sell off the collection I have boxed away in the closet.

    • Tape time 2 months ago

      Maybe so people can listen to the collections they have boxed away in the closet?

    • Darksaga 2 months ago

      Cassettes sound amazing, maybe you should stop listening to them on your insignia walkman… Aside from the player a low grade tape will indeed sound shitty as well.

      • deekbee 1 month ago

        Pre-recorded cassettes don’t sound amazing – they can sound okay, but thats about it.

        Even on my old walkman they never sounded great – and that was the WM-D6C …. but home recordings from my Linn, onto a decent tape, via the WM-D6C – they could sound unnervingly close to the original.

    • Tomas Gradin 4 weeks ago
  10. Edwin Sianturi 3 weeks ago

    Hearing is believing. For those who are bashing the cassettes over CDs, try listening to cassette recordings on a Nakamichi cassette decks. I once did a setup on a B&W 803s loudpseakers, with Nakamichi cassette deck (forgot the model) and a Marantz SACD as inputs. The amplifier is one of Marantz Gold series (forgot the model, but it’s audiophile grade). I was skeptical about the cassette recordings, so I tried it at the last moment. And boy… the Nakamichi cassette deck beat the SACD by a *large* margin. Maybe in terms of S/N ratio, the SACD beats the cassette for sure. But something is missing in the digital recording. With Nakamichi, I can feel the “it’s there” sensation… It’s like the singer sang in the same room. Hearing is believing.

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