Tips for buying a cassette deck, in 2013, in Chicago?
December 17, 2013 1:24 PM   Subscribe

I'm putting together a stereo system that only needs to be able to play cassette tapes and vinyl records, because yes I am that much of a hipster. I have my speakers and turntable, and I just picked up a 1970s receiver with integrated cassette deck...which stopped working almost immediately. How do you go about buying something with many breakable, moving parts that stopped being manufactured with any quality in the 1980s? Should I replace my receiver with just a receiver and get a standalone tape deck? Where do you even buy a standalone tape deck?

-I'm fine with ordering online if the product is new, but I don't have the time or the money to buy 16 different cassette decks off eBay until I find one that works.

-I have $75 credit to Decibel Audio in Wicker Park, because I have to trade in this stupid dumbface receiver with the broken cassette deck. That will easily be eaten up by getting a new receiver, though.

-I am so dumb about all of this. Like, I am paying an ex to set all of this up for me by cutting his hair. I don't even know how to cut hair, but I know more about it than I know about audio equipment.

-I've heard pretty bad things about Auto-Reverse models (where you don't have to flip the tape) having issues over time. Are they bad enough to totally rule out auto-reverse models?

-Is anyone even *making* new standalone analog cassette decks that you plug into a stereo (as opposed to just everything-included boomboxes that include a cassette deck)?

-Is it a bad idea for me to buy another receiver+tape deck combo? Like, am I screwed once the Repair/Trade-In time period runs out and the deck craps out but the receiver still works fine?

-No one is recording to cassette for the crispest, clearest, high fidelity sound possible. I'm going to be listening to a bunch of garage punk and lo-fi local bands who recorded in a basement. My tape deck does not need to cost $2,588. And it can't, because I am already broke buying the rest of the components for my stereo.
posted by Juliet Banana to Technology (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried Goodwill? We've found some amazingly good obsolete technology there, for WAY cheap.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:31 PM on December 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

TEAC still makes a line of quality component cassette players: This model is $200ish new on Amazon. They should be relatively plentiful in pawn shops though, I'd look there. Technics decks also seem to hold up well over time.
posted by Oktober at 1:35 PM on December 17, 2013

I think if you don't care too much about the quality of the sound, you could easily find a cassette deck, even a walkman, at a goodwill or garage sale for a couple bucks, which would plug easily into a receiver, though may not be aesthetically appealing.

They definitely still make stand alone tape decks, however. Here's a nice Tascam dual deck with auto-reverse for $330.

Ebay and the like will get you everything in between.

Generally with audio equipment, the less frills the less likely it is to break. It's just less stuff to break, at the end of the day. But tape decks were never famous for their longevity to begin with - so I don't really know if the auto-reverse matters all that much in terms of the thing breaking down.

If it were me doing this, I would buy all the components separately - the receiver, the tape deck the record player. What's your record player running into? Can't you just run the tape deck through that? That would be your typical 80s set up. More separate components usually also means its easier to replace things and switch them out, plus high quality receivers tend to be stand alone type things.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:37 PM on December 17, 2013

Yeah, Goodwill. Or Your Charity Shop Of Choice. Go in with sense of what's decent and what's crap, ask the staff if you can have a listen first, to make sure that it ain't broken. You may not find a pristine Nakamichi, but you'll find cassette deck separates. I'd be wary of decks stacked with 80s innovations (extended play, auto-reverse) and go with something with that 70s brushed metal vibe.
posted by holgate at 1:38 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hell, I bet if you sent a nice email to all of your friends' parents you wouldn't have too much trouble finding someone with one sitting in their garage they want to get rid of, frankly. I imagine you could listen to cassettes until you die without having to spend more than $5 on a deck.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:40 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a 25-ish year old Technics dual deck that still works, so I would recommend one of those. (Lots on eBay or Amazon marketplace for under $100, it looks like. Usual eBay caveats of course apply.) The main advantage of dual decks is if you want to duplicate a tape for a friend, super easy.

I never had any problem with Auto-Reverse, but I never used the thing all that intensively; maybe someone who plays only cassettes every day would wear out the mechanism (I would think it would be more of a problem for putting stress on old cassettes). In its prime my stereo setup was a Yamaho receiver, the Technics dual cassette deck, a Sony single disc (!) CD player, big 3-ft tall Yamaha speakers, and a Dual direct drive turntable. And RCA cables coming off the back of my Sony TV (pre surround sound) to the amp. Sigh.
posted by aught at 1:40 PM on December 17, 2013

posted by windykites at 1:40 PM on December 17, 2013

I recommend you buy separate components. When one thing breaks (or you want to upgrade it) you can just repurchase that one thing, instead of replacing all items in the combo. This isn't a hard and fast rule, but usually separate components sound better and are more reliable too.

As for the tape deck, I would absolutely buy used. TEAC, Technics, Nakamichi and Tascam all made top-of-the-line decks back in the day that cost thousands. You can likely snag a used one now for well under $100. That said, you should be good with anything from a reputable brand name. Look for Sony, Pioneer, RCA, etc. I expect you should find one of those second hand for $20 or less.

You can likely find dozens of good units in your price range on ebay or craigslist, but since you live in a major metro area, you will have better luck at brick + mortar stores. An afternoon cruising through pawn shops, thrift shops, flea markets, antique stores, used audio stores, etc. should net you a ton of options.

One more option: The hipster record stores in my city (Indianapolis) occasionally have used turntables and cassette decks for sale. Could you try one of those?
posted by teriyaki_tornado at 1:51 PM on December 17, 2013

If you want to get it repaired, take it to Deltronics on N. Halsted. They specialize in fixing old electronics for a fair price. Ask for Jon. Tell him Nate from Germany sent you.
posted by chillmost at 1:53 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cassette decks wear out. They are mechanical devices. A used one will always be a gamble and will always be less good than a new one. A pawnshop one is likely to suck. And new ones that do a quite competent job can be had for $100-200. Problem solved. TASCAM studio grade stuff if you want to go high quality.

The most important part of a cassette deck is the tape you put into it. If you care about taking care of your tape, especially, buy a new deck.
posted by spitbull at 2:17 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you DO want to go high end, I can personally recommend the TASCAM-TEAC America 202 MKV Dual Well Cassette Deck. It's like $300-350, but it is a standard piece of studio gear and our digitizing lab is built like a tank with a lot of features.
posted by spitbull at 2:20 PM on December 17, 2013

I bought mine at an indie record store for $50, it's worth calling and asking around at those places. I know Logan Hardware has a few shelves of old audio equipment, they might have a tape deck there? Decibel Audio will also sell some decent ones (but expect them to be $200+).
posted by naju at 2:25 PM on December 17, 2013

Response by poster: And new ones that do a quite competent job can be had for $100-200. Problem solved.

Can you recommend a specific model at the low end of that range?
posted by Juliet Banana at 2:59 PM on December 17, 2013

I built a similar setup and found the components on Craigslist. The biggest problem is that any old deck is likely to be at least 20 years old, and the various rubber belts and tension wheels have often become brittle and cracked or decomposed into sticky goo. These parts are cheap, but the labor cost of fixing a tape deck will almost always exceed the cash value of the deck.

I wanted to relive the experience of making mixtapes from LPs, and it was worth it to me to pay a technician to get the deck up and running, but this is something you should be aware of before you go down this road. It's just part of the entry costs for having a sweet 1970s silver-face tape deck. Auto-reverse decks are looked down on because the auto-reverse head is just one more moving part that will inevitably break or go out of compliance and harm sound quality. Don't buy a reciever with a built-in tape deck.

Others have mentioned Nakamichi, Pioneer, TEAC, and Tascam, which are all good brands. Tascam in particular sold a lot of well-made decks for professional use (recording studios, radio stations) but they often suffer from wear and tear that comes with such use. My suggestion is to browse craigslist, note the models that look good in your price range, then google the make/model along with the terms "tapeheads" or "audiokarma" to get some informed opinion about whether it's worth adopting them.

I like the old Pioneer CT-Fxxxx models, like this or this (and yes that second one is pricey, but it's a great deck).

This Sony looks super cool, and the price on this Sankyo is right. (Sankyo made a lot of parts used by other brand names).

If you come into some cash over the holidays, you could blow it all on this gorgeous Marantz setup.
posted by Mendl at 4:08 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, don't be embarrassed about making lowball offers for vintage tape decks on Craigslist. The technology is totally obsolete and aside from a small handful of former top-of-the-line models with collector value like the Pioneer CT-F1250, most decks are basically scrap metal, even if they look cool and still turn on and/or play tapes. You're basically paying the seller to remove his or her garbage and should consider the restoration cost as part of the sale price.
posted by Mendl at 4:18 PM on December 17, 2013

Look, I just sold my 20yo Technics stereo on Craigslist, which I had really cherished for a long time, and had stored well in the event that I would *eventually* sell it. I sold all three components (not the turntable or speakers) for $75. And yeah, I would've taken less, with the idea that at least someone would be putting it to good use. So I agree, don't be afraid to lowball.
posted by vignettist at 6:09 PM on December 17, 2013

If you would like to go down the vintage equipment road, one of the best sources I've found for vintage audio equipment that's actually been cared for and gets shipped properly is the Barter Town section of the Audiokarma forums - you do have to pay to access that section ($25/year), but it's a serious goldmine. I scored a Yamaha KX-800U tape deck there in fantastic condition for $30, which is a steal for that particular deck.
posted by jason_steakums at 8:46 PM on December 17, 2013

The biggest problem is that any old deck is likely to be at least 20 years old, and the various rubber belts and tension wheels have often become brittle and cracked or decomposed into sticky goo.

The other thing with electronics in the 20-30 year old range is that they're at the iffy end of the lifespan for the capacitors on the boards - having to recap old gear is increasingly common. I'd say the vast majority of the time the caps are still good, but it's only a matter of time, so it's worth knowing going into it.
posted by jason_steakums at 8:50 PM on December 17, 2013

Seconding the TASCAM 202mkV. It's the SM-58 of tape decks: Bulletproof, and everybody uses it because it always works. Pitch control is nice for worn out tapes. It's very chunky sounding when starting/stopping, but that's because it's built like a tank.
posted by xedrik at 11:29 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This thread was extremely helpful to me because it helped me figure out a budget and a correct mode of action. I'm a little less bummed that there's issues with the built-in tape deck on the reciever I bought; it seems pretty par-for-course for something that old. Decibel Audio covers parts+labor for the first six months, so I'm going to give them a chance to replace all the belts/drives/whatever, because it's starting to sound like $75 is a deal for reciever + (tape deck + refurbishing).

If that works, I still have a 6 month option to trade it in, during which time I can troll Craiglist and thrift stores and whatever. I have a better idea of what to look for now.

If they're unable to fix it, I can use the credit toward a standalone reciever, and Logan Hardware has a tape deck for $60 with a three month return window (thanks, naju).
posted by Juliet Banana at 6:57 AM on December 18, 2013

Out of the Past sold these (at least five years ago), though they were, like everything else there, in a giant pile that you would have to pick through in order to get one. But while we were there, there was a dude testing them at the front desk.
posted by klangklangston at 11:30 AM on December 18, 2013

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