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Basic Repertoire

Playing Cassettes

Before playing a pre-recorded cassette it is necessary to ascertain two important settings: noise reduction and playback equalization.

  1. Select the correct Noise reduction setting: OFF, Dolby B, Dolby C or Dolby S. This information will be found on the spine, front or on the cassette itself. Note if you don’t have Dolby S use Dolby B for playback as Dolby S is supposed to be compatible with Dolby B and in my experience it is.
  2. Select the correct playback equalization 70μS  or 120μS*. Metal and most Chromium Dioxide tapes use 70μS. Standard tape uses 120μS. Some Chromium Dioxide pre-recorded tapes use 120μS EQ instead of 70μS for compatibility with portable walkmans. When loading a pre-recorded Chromium Dioxide tape look for the words 70μS or 120μS. Playing a cassette with the wrong settings can either make it sound too dull or too bright.

* Some Cassette decks will do step 2 automatically for you as they have an auto-circuit that detects if a tape uses 70μS EQ by sensing for the larger notch in the top of the Cassette shell. If the larger notch is absent the deck will select 120μS EQ, if the larger notch is there the deck will select 70μS EQ.

Also make sure your playback head is aligned for excellent high frequency response. Unlike Reel to Reel even a slightly out of adjustment deck can cause mild to extreme high frequency losses. Obtain the service manual for your deck to locate the Playback Head Azimuth Alignment set screw. If you can get a test tape use it, if not use any cassette you have with excellent high frequency response and adjust it to sound the brightest or use recorded tape hiss and adjust it for the most hiss.  After setting playback azimuth use something to set the screw to keep it from coming out of adjustment again such as Loctite.  I went cheap and used clear nail polish and my azimuth is holding well.

The number one reason listeners are unhappy with the Cassette format is playback head misalignment. Now you are ready to enjoy your Cassettes at their sonic best.

Clean your tape heads and tape path often with a professional tape cleaner or 91% Isopropyl alcohol. To clean the pinch roller use a cleaner stated "safe on pinch rollers". Do not use alcohol, as it will dry out the rubber. Every couple of weeks demagnetize the heads either with a hand held demagnetizer or a demagnetizing tape.

Audiophile Cassettes

The first audiophile cassettes were from Advent, their Process CR/70 cassettes duplicated (4:1) on chromium dioxide tape from master tapes of Connoisseur Society, Unicorn and programs they recorded themselves. They were priced from $6.95 - $9.95 for double play cassettes.

Next came In Sync Labs recorded on Nakamichi 582 Cassette Decks using TDK SA-X Cassettes in Real Time (1:1) and they sold for $10.98 direct. Releases included their sister company Connoisseur Society, EMI Pathe Marconi and Vox.

Then Mobile Fidelity's MFSL High Fidelity cassettes duplicated on JVC decks in Real Time (1:1) on BASF Chrome tape. They released over 100 titles including many famous Rock and Jazz classics plus excellent classical titles from Decca, EMI and Columbia. Their spin-off label Cafe also offered many excellent titles. And MFSL duplicated cassettes for Aesthetic Audio's series of Merlin Fidelity + recordings.

Then Nautilus SuperCassettes also duplicated Real Time (1:1) on MAXELL UD-XLII tape.

Followed by other Real Time duplicated cassettes from Sound Ideas, Direct-To-Tape, Audible Images, Crystal and others. By 1985 Audiophile cassettes pretty much died up, Audiophile cassettes except for MFSL are extremely hard to find even on eBay.

10 Recommended Audiophile Cassettes
All recommended Cassettes use 70μS equalization.

JOHN WILLIAMS: Star Wars & Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Zubin Mehta, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Real Time duplication (1:1) on BASF Chromium Dioxide tape, Dolby B
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL C-008

BUDDY RICH & HIS BAND: Mr. Drums Live On King Street
Real Time duplication (1:1) on BASF Chromium Dioxide tape, Dolby B
Cafe C-732

RESPIGHI: Feste Romana, Pina di Roma
Lorin Maazel / Cleveland Symphony Orchestra
Real Time duplication (1:1) on BASF Chromium Dioxide tape, Dolby B
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL C-507

4. THE STRAYAWAY CHILD - Jerry Reed Smith and Tom Fellenbaum
Real Time duplication (1:1) on TDK SA tape, Dolby B
Song of the Wood Music 7811-CA

THE BEATLES: Magical Mystery Tour
Real Time duplication (1:1) on BASF Chromium Dioxide tape, Dolby B
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL C-047
Note: From the German Master Tapes thus all songs are in real stereo unlike the UK and USA Masters with three songs in Electronically processed Stereo. The Mobile Fidelity LP version is from the UK masters thus making the cassette version the one to get.

Lincoln Mayorga and Distinguished Colleagues
Real Time duplication (1:1) on TDK Metal tape, Dolby B
Nakamichi Reference Recording / Sheffield Lab RA-4S10

VIVALDI: Flute Concerti
Christopher Taylor (Flute) Carl Pini, Philomusica of London
Real Time duplication (1:1) on BASF Chromium Dioxide tape, Dolby B
Aesthetic Audio / Merlin Fidelity + Direct to Stereo MFC-781

CAT STEVENS - Tea for the Tillerman
Real Time duplication (1:1) on BASF Chromium Dioxide tape, Dolby B
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL C-035

EARL KLUGH: Finger Paintings
Real Time duplication (1:1) on BASF Chromium Dioxide tape, Dolby B
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL C-025

THE MOODY BLUES: Days of Future Passed
Real Time duplication (1:1) on BASF Chromium Dioxide tape, Dolby B
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL C-042

Commercial Cassettes

It was the first high-speed duplicated mass market cassettes are what gave Cassettes a bad standing with audiophiles. Cassettes began as a dictation medium because of the ultra slow 1 7/8 IPS tape speed that had extremely limited frequency response.

Dolby introduced their noise reduction system and pre-recorded cassettes were born. The first pre-recorded cassettes sounded rather poor: very little high frequency response, limited dynamic range and hissy even with Dolby B. To this date there are some people who feel this is how cassettes still sound!

Dupont invented Chromium Dioxide tape which uses 70μS EQ instead of the standard 120μS thus new decks were invented to record and playback this tape. This is what made Cassette a high fidelity medium as Chrome tape has more magnetic particles and thus could hold more musical information. Advent released their Process CR/70 pre-recorded Chrome cassettes to demonstrate the sonics Cassette was capable of.

Also Standard Normal bias ferric oxide tape was being improved for wider frequency response and lower noise using more tightly packed magnetic particles to where the better standard tapes now come close to the best Chrome. Shortly after Metal tape was invented which offers the highest fidelity of all.

It was a while before high-speed duplicators adopted these improvements. In the mid 1980’s mass market cassettes began to sound more realistic by using chromium dioxide and better grade regular tape, improvement to high-speed duplicators to minimize tape hiss and high frequency loses and increase dynamic range. Mass market cassettes excellent midrange and low frequency response, large and realistic soundstage have a lot to do with the overall impression of listening to real music.  Buying mass market Cassettes is a gamble, so I recommend paying as little as possible.

10 Recommended Commercial Cassettes
All recommended Cassettes use 120μS equalization.

1. CHRIS ISAAC: Heart Shaped World
Dolby B HX Pro
Reprise 25837-4

2. TEN YEARS AFTER: A Space In Time
XRD (Extended Dynamic Range) - Dolby B HX Pro
Chrysalis XDR F4 21001

3. DOUG KERSHAW: Cajan Way
NO noise reduction
Warner Bros. M5 1820

4. BONNIE RAITT: Luck of the Draw
XRD (Extended Dynamic Range) - Dolby B HX Pro
Capitol Records C4-96111 

5. COWBOY SUPER HITS - Various Artists
NO noise reduction
Columbia CT 67738

6. BRUCE COCKBURN: Dancing In The Dragon's Jaws
Dolby B
Sony Music BT 34083

BASF tape, DSD Master - NO noise reduction
Capitol Records XDR C4-96111 

8. JOICE WALTON: Downsville Girl
Digalog on Premium Cobalt tape - NO noise reduction
Pinnacle Records PR0012

Dolby B
Arista ACB6-8290

10. THE SONS OF THE PIONEERS: Legendary Songs of America's Golden West
Dolby B
RCA Special Products DMK1-0856

Buying used Cassettes

  1. Look at the cassette label or surface for discolorations and stains as this could indicate liquid spills that may have damaged the tape.
  2. Look at the pad to make sure it is clean, straight and not discolored, as this is what holds the tape tightly against the heads.
  3. Make sure the tape is smooth and not creased.
  4. Do not worry about the plastic Norelco box it comes in as these can be replaced cheaply on the Internet.

Good luck hunting! There are many sonically and musically wonderful pre-recorded cassettes out there.  If you have pre-recorded cassettes that you are pleased with and want to share please send in your reviews.