Rediscovering Compact Cassettes

This year has been a long decade, and seeking little pleasures has been of the utmost importance. Working from home has left me with the opportunity to listen to music more often as I work. I tend not to work in the room with my turntable, so this has largely been a matter of listening from my phone. This is fine, but I know I tend to have very different listening patterns when I’m listening on my phone vs. on vinyl; particularly, I get rather caught up flipping between the same handful of tracks that are currently on my mind instead of selecting an album and listening through. While this is not always the case, it’s certainly a pattern I’ve fallen into more during this curséd year.

To this end, I’ve decided to revisit the audio format of my youth, Compact Cassettes. At the risk of sounding like an excellent Techmoan video, they sound… better than I’ve been led to remember. It feels like CD came around, and while vinyl made a nice resurgence, the Compact Cassette was banished to memories of terrible sound and mangled tape. I acquired two portable decks – an old Sanyo M5550 which still needs some work to get in ideal operating order, and a far newer Sony WM-EX633. I’ve acquired a few tapes, being far stricter with my only-buy-things-I’ll-listen-to-all-the-way-through policy that started with vinyl; I don’t plan to acquire more than the 20 or so that will fit in a yet-to-be-purchased case. Both decks sound good as far as the cassette head and circuitry, though the Sanyo is essentially unlistenable at the moment due to some speed issues. So I’ve been listening exclusively on the Sony, and it’s been a very pleasing experience. They’re both very different devices than those I owned in my youth, however, and seem worth briefly discussing.

The Sony WM-EX633

This thing is tiny, basically the size of a cassette case. One side has the door, the other has four buttons arranged in a square: play above stop; fast-forward above rewind. It’s not the easiest layout (for me, at least) to memorize; fortunately there is a guide bump on the play button. The player is servo-driven and auto reverses. While playing, the play button is also used to reverse direction manually, and holding it switches to side-repeat mode. I expected this would be track-repeat mode, as the deck does detect silence for automatic search (accessed by pressing fast-forward or rewind during play), but this oddly does not seem to be the case. Along the edges are the door release; switches for volume limiting, cassette repeat, bass boost1, and Dolby B; and of course the requisite volume knob and headphone jack (with an awkward remote port attached for good measure). A feature it lacks which I would really appreciate is an indicator of which direction the tape is being played.

Dead center of the buttons is a battery indicator which is always on, as I’m using NiMh cells in lieu of the original NiCads. The battery itself is an interesting creature – the 7/5 F6 flat “gumstick” cell. Seemingly used by nothing nowadays, yet oddly not proprietary to Sony, this slim rectangle definitely helps to keep the size of the Walkman down with a capacity somewhere between that of a AA and AAA cell. Several companies still make them, and spring-loaded adjustable smart chargers (like the Klarus K1 I’m using) will charge them fine. Additionally, a black plastic bulge can be attached to the bottom of the Walkman to allow for the use of a AA cell, but this really spoils the whole aesthetic. I honestly wish these flat cells had stuck around a bit longer, though as a general rule, I wish more stuff still used standard cells and the market had pushed harder to NiMH usage. Having to charge everything’s inbuilt LiIon cell is one of the worse bits of the modern era.

The Sanyo M5550

This is a larger deck, but smaller than its predecessor, the M4440. Yet, for 1981, it is quite small. Unlike the Sony, the Sanyo has a mechanical tape transport. While they get a bad rap for being primitive in comparison to servo-based units, but I always assumed they were much more reliable. Yet, aside from its speed issues, the transport on my Sanyo is also not in perfect order, often failing to fast forward or rewind unless the deck is playing. The machine is sturdy and heavy for its size, and having opened it up, its circuitry is packed about as tightly as I’ve ever seen. I should probably recap it at some point, but that is a terrifying prospect.

It lacks auto reverse, which I’m fine with. Like the Sony, it does have track skipping. It also has a couple of interesting features that the Sony lacks. Though handy, the most boring is a second headphone jack. Following this is a pair of user-accessible speed controls – one prominently placed on the outside for on-the-fly adjustment, the other a small pot tucked away in the battery compartment. Calibrating with a wow and flutter meter was incredibly easy thanks to this accessible pot. But the most interesting feature is the microphone – that has no ‘record’ feature to go with it. The deck has two settings that mix the feed with the tape audio. One does this exclusively for the sake of hearing the world around you as you pipe music into your ears – foretelling the ambient listening modes of modern noise cancelling earphones2. The other feature additionally subtracts the left and right channels from one another, cancelling the ‘center’ where vocals tend to be set in the mix. It is, so to speak, a personal karaoke deck.

To wrap up…

Both of these decks are pleasing objects with clever designs. I should point out that neither deck has a balance control, nor a feature that I find rather useful – a counter. I hope to get the Sanyo up to tip-top shape at some point, though I only paid a song for it so if I fail to do this it won’t be the end of the world. I am quite content with listening on the Sony, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend getting back into the compact cassette world to anyone who wanted a compact, analog full-album listening experience.

  1. Bass boost is a feature I ignore on pretty much every piece of audio equipment I use, but it does help fill in thinness on some cassette masters. The regular ‘Megabass’ mode does this well; the ‘Groove’ mode is unlistenable. ↩︎
  2. This felt so modern to me, in fact, that I was hesitant to believe that it was the intended purpose of the function. Shout out to my friend Alex for locating an article from the time that described it in just that way. ↩︎