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Measurements of Nakamichi Dragon Cassette Deck

sergeauckland

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It is well known that in magnetic tape recording the distortion (and compression and saturation) are caused by the combination of recording head and tape, and to a lesser extent by the recording amplifier if of incompetent design (which happened a lot).

Proving by measurement that the replay side of things does not introduce distortion is a bit tough, as it would require me to disconnect the heads and inject signal straight into the replay amplifier at levels comparable to what a head produces, which is very feeble. This is very hard to do without picking up noise and hum, or sending the replay amp into oscillation. Moreover, the stimulus would have to be equalised prior to injection, at least when multiple frequencies are used.

So: no. I do not have measurements for that.

But I do have other measurements for tens of decks and hundreds of tapes. I also happen to have a lot of alignment tapes, the genuine stuff from ABEX, TEAC, and BASF, costing a small fortune. Such tapes were typically made for one or two specific purposes (i.e. playback level, replay azimuth, speed + wow&flutter, replay head height, ...) but a tape for replay distortion simply did/does not exist. No specific attention was spent on distortion during the recording of alignment tapes: distortion only had to be adequate so as not to endanger the tape's primary function. In fact, some of these tapes were not even produced on a recorder, but on machinery imprinting specific magnetic patterns.

When I play a cassette recorded on deck A on deck B, I see the distortion spectrum of A. When I play a cassette recorded on deck B on deck A, I see the spectrum of B.

Something like a Sony Metal ES on a Nak CR-4 has less than 0.3% third harmonic at 400Hz at 218 nWb/m (DIN), and happily takes peaks 10dB over that for 3%. Total A-weighted dynamic range is 68dB without Dolby! That is today. With tape and deck 30+ years old.


As an aside: all measurements should be referenced to a specific magnetic flux. '0VU' is meaningless without stating the flux level the deck was calibrated for.
My first job after University was partly designing electronics for high-speed tape duplication. As part of that, I did a fair amount of work on record and replay amplifiers, and can confirm that replay amplification is very benign, similar in many respects to the more familiar RIAA replay amplifiers for LP playback. By far the greatest amount of noise and distortion comes from the record process, mostly the tape itself rather than the electronics.

I also entirely agree that terms like 0VU is meaningless without reference to the flux level. Noise and distortion are trade-offs, and I remember some specs that played this, using different flux levels for noise (a high flux level) and distortion (substantially lower). Frequency response also is very much flux related, on domestic machines it was generally measured at -20dB relative to whatever 0VU was, the better Pro machines used -10dB. I don't know of any machine that could support a frequency response at 0VU, unless that 0VU was deliberately done at low flux, relying on Dolby Noise Reduction to keep noise half-sensible. The only possible exception was the Ampex ATR100, but I left Ampex just as that machine was being introduced, so didn't spend much time with one.

S.
 

lhimelfarb

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This is a detail measurements of the iconic, Nakamichi Dragon Vintage cassette deck. It was kindly brought to me at a meet at our local audio store (Gig Harbor audio).

For those of you too young to know :), the Nakamichi Dragon has the reputation of being the best cassette deck available at the end of the cycle for the format. It came out in 1982 and retailed for USD $2,499. That would be $6,500 today's dollar so quite a lot of money. I was too poor to afford one at the time so it was a pleasure to get my hands on one finally for this test.

We were testing it in a dark room and this is just with the light of a phone so please forgive the poor lighting:


Unlike digital products and amplifiers, we are at the mercy of calibration tapes for testing such products. The owner had a few of them and that is what I used for testing.

I unfortunately did not capture the results of 1 kHz tone but here are some other frequencies.

315 Hz:
View attachment 18585

Oh boy. :) We are so used to SINAD (signal over distortion and noise) of 90+ that numbers like 41 dB seem so, so low!

Likewise distortion components are just 40 to 50 dB down from our main tone as opposed to 90+ in digital.

Let's jump up to 3 kHz:
View attachment 18586

Channels are mismatched in both phase and amplitude. The Dragon is supposed to auto-calibrate the phase but clearly it is not able to do so.

Increase in frequency has also increased our distortion.

Widening of the 3 kHz tone at the bottom shows random jitter/tape speed variations.

Lastly here is 12.5 kHz response:
View attachment 18587

Granted, the levels are low but 4.5% distortion??? Phase and amplitude errors followed us here too.

Conclusions
Even though this is not a thorough test and the pedigree of test tapes is unknown, these results are more than depressing for those of us who cherished this marquee audio product. Worst of the worst digital products have performance that is hundreds of times better. Oh, well. :)

-------------
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Hello Amir,
I don't think I have ever commented here for a variety of reasons but I felt compelled to write to you regarding your evaluation of the Nakamichi Dragon. Yes... it was the last great cassette deck but it was not in the same category as the earlier Nakamichi 700 or 1000. I have stopped using cassettes long ago because of their inability to reach the music capabilities of the better DACs. But... the Nakamichi 1000s easily surpassed a dynamic range of 70db. They surpassed some of the best vinyl equipment. The example of the Dragon you had was obviously not in good condition and had not been aligned correctly in what must have been decades. I was a factory authorized servicer in South Florida for Nakamichi (and over sixty other brands) and was the go-to-guy for the personal tape decks (Revox, Tandberg, B&O, and of course, Nakamichi) of many famous musicians... besides taking in the tough units from the biggest recording studios. Were Reel-to-Reel decks better? Absolutely... but the average listener could not hear the difference after being aligned correctly. Tape decks and turntables, unlike most other audio products, are a specialty.
 

Bsmooth

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I'd bet its the tape itself. Are cassette tapes even made anymore ? The magnetic tape particles actually separate from the backing. I was a Nak owner, I think it was the 700 or something similar. I also used a reel to reel as well and the sound was very similar, although I think the Reel to reel had more headroom and dynamic range.
But after about ten years the tapes all degraded, even the reel to reel tape.
 

anmpr1

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The example of the Dragon you had was obviously not in good condition and had not been aligned correctly in what must have been decades.

It is silly to waste time with a product like a 40 year old cassette deck. When I first read the post I asked myself, "What is trying to be shown, here? What exactly is the point ASR is attempting to make? Is it that a 40 year old cassette tape deck is no longer up to spec? Or is it that a cassette deck has poor measurements, compared to what is the usual digital thing, today?" Seriously, did anyone not know, or at least suspect and expect that that would be the case? I really couldn't figure that one out. BTW, I am not being a crank. I just didn't understand what it was supposed to be about.

If you want to know how those decks performed, when they were new, you have to uncover the pages of Audio, Stereo Review, and some of the others, from that period. Those are the best source, and really the only source, of important information about them. And unlike this outlier, you can judge factory-fresh performance relative to other period gear.

I'd bet its the tape itself. Are cassette tapes even made anymore ? The magnetic tape particles actually separate from the backing. I was a Nak owner, I think it was the 700 or something similar. I also used a reel to reel as well and the sound was very similar, although I think the Reel to reel had more headroom and dynamic range.

I think you can buy standard LN cassettes. I've seen those in the 'battery section' of grocery stores. That said, it makes no 'audiophile' sense (IMO) to refurb a top tier cassette deck, and then have to relay on drug store kiosk LN cassette tape. But what can you do? You might slum the used marketplace for NOS, and pay god knows what kind of prices for High Bias and Metal tape. I guess that's an option, for the die hard.

As far as open reel? My experience was that a mid-range quarter track deck (Pioneer, Teac, Akai, et al) at 7ips sounded more open and pleasant than any high end cassette deck. But that's all from memory. YMMV (your memory may vary) :)

However it was, it is really amazing how much goodness the engineers at Nakamichi were able to coax out of something like the unlikely cassette format... for a price, of course. Nak never gave it away.
 

lhimelfarb

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It is silly to waste time with a product like a 40 year old cassette deck. When I first read the post I asked myself, "What is trying to be shown, here? What exactly is the point ASR is attempting to make? Is it that a 40 year old cassette tape deck is no longer up to spec? Or is it that a cassette deck has poor measurements, compared to what is the usual digital thing, today?" Seriously, did anyone not know, or at least suspect and expect that that would be the case? I really couldn't figure that one out. BTW, I am not being a crank. I just didn't understand what it was supposed to be about.

If you want to know how those decks performed, when they were new, you have to uncover the pages of Audio, Stereo Review, and some of the others, from that period. Those are the best source, and really the only source, of important information about them. And unlike this outlier, you can judge factory-fresh performance relative to other period gear.



I think you can buy standard LN cassettes. I've seen those in the 'battery section' of grocery stores. That said, it makes no 'audiophile' sense (IMO) to refurb a top tier cassette deck, and then have to relay on drug store kiosk LN cassette tape. But what can you do? You might slum the used marketplace for NOS, and pay god knows what kind of prices for High Bias and Metal tape. I guess that's an option, for the die hard.

As far as open reel? My experience was that a mid-range quarter track deck (Pioneer, Teac, Akai, et al) at 7ips sounded more open and pleasant than any high end cassette deck. But that's all from memory. YMMV (your memory may vary) :)

However it was, it is really amazing how much goodness the engineers at Nakamichi were able to coax out of something like the unlikely cassette format... for a price, of course. Nak never gave it away.
Yes... they did give their technology away! But it was before they decided to market it themselves. Advent and Harmon Kardon were the two audiophile brands that licensed it for a very small fee. There were other brands (Montgomery Ward!) that made much cheaper units. Nakamichi stopped licensing when they started building and labeling their own products. Before the tape machines... they sold microphones.
 

MakeMineVinyl

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Recording The Masters makes current production cassettes. These are not the advanced chrome type cassettes of the days when cassettes were the current thing, but they are high quality.

In my opinion, of all the old technologies which should have died off decades ago and never come back, cassettes would be it. Maybe if we try hard enough, we can get hipsters to migrate to 78 RPM discs and forget about this whole trendy cassette thing.
 

Robin L

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Recording The Masters makes current production cassettes. These are not the advanced chrome type cassettes of the days when cassettes were the current thing, but they are high quality.

In my opinion, of all the old technologies which should have died off decades ago and never come back, cassettes would be it. Maybe if we try hard enough, we can get hipsters to migrate to 78 RPM discs and forget about this whole trendy cassette thing.
I remember, back in the 1990s, getting custom lengths of TDK SA for cassette duplication of concerts I recorded. I think I could get TDK SA in lengths up to 50 minutes or so a side. I think tape costs were around $1.75 a pop when bought in bulk. I duplicated in real time on daisy chained cassette decks, something like 6 at a time, so coming up with 100 cassettes might take a little time. Sound wasn't SOTA, but was better [and cheaper] than the usual high-speed duplication of commercial issues. Had plenty of head cleaner on hand, all the time.

Cassettes at their very best---Connoisseur Society real time duplicated cassettes recorded to Nak decks---were competitive with Japanese pressings on vinyl. Compared to run of the mill digital circa 2022, not even in the running.
 

MakeMineVinyl

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I remember, back in the 1990s, getting custom lengths of TDK SA for cassette duplication of concerts I recorded. I think I could get TDK SA in lengths up to 50 minutes or so a side. I think tape costs were around $1.75 a pop when bought in bulk. I duplicated in real time on daisy chained cassette decks, something like 6 at a time, so coming up with 100 cassettes might take a little time. Sound wasn't SOTA, but was better [and cheaper] than the usual high-speed duplication of commercial issues. Had plenty of head cleaner on hand, all the time.

Cassettes at their very best---Connoisseur Society real time duplicated cassettes recorded to Nak decks---were competitive with Japanese pressings on vinyl. Compared to run of the mill digital circa 2022, not even in the running.
Strangely, from my experience, mainstream pre-recorded open reel tapes of the period which were my main purchases never sounded as good as the best real time duplicated cassettes of the day. A lot of this was due to these tapes being duplicated at 60 ips on run-of-the-mill tape. Many of these tapes had (have) obvious high frequency saturation and outright distortion, probably a byproduct of the high speed duplication process. A lot of R&D was put into making cassettes better, but relatively less for open reel tape, at least commercial pre-recorded ones. Open reel always had an advantage otherwise because of the brute force nature of it's higher speeds and wider tracks. Some pretty advanced tape formulations were also available from Maxell, TDK and others.

Me, I thought I was being a wiseguy and I used Ampex 456 for all my home recording needs. HA! I got royally screwed when sticky shed reared it's head. Basically every open reel tape I have which used this tape is totally unplayable now. Baking has helped with some but I don't have the stamina to bake every single one of them, never mind the hassle of removing the tape from plastic reels to do so.

Tape no longer has the sticky shed problem, but digital has made the whole question irrelevant.
 

lhimelfarb

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Strangely, from my experience, mainstream pre-recorded open reel tapes of the period which were my main purchases never sounded as good as the best real time duplicated cassettes of the day. A lot of this was due to these tapes being duplicated at 60 ips on run-of-the-mill tape. Many of these tapes had (have) obvious high frequency saturation and outright distortion, probably a byproduct of the high speed duplication process. A lot of R&D was put into making cassettes better, but relatively less for open reel tape, at least commercial pre-recorded ones. Open reel always had an advantage otherwise because of the brute force nature of it's higher speeds and wider tracks. Some pretty advanced tape formulations were also available from Maxell, TDK and others.

Me, I thought I was being a wiseguy and I used Ampex 456 for all my home recording needs. HA! I got royally screwed when sticky shed reared it's head. Basically every open reel tape I have which used this tape is totally unplayable now. Baking has helped with some but I don't have the stamina to bake every single one of them, never mind the hassle of removing the tape from plastic reels to do so.

Tape no longer has the sticky shed problem, but digital has made the whole question irrelevant.
Oh my! 456! It was a horrible, but inexpensive, tape. I guess you know AMPEX never made tape. These older technologies are now hobbies... and it can be lots of fun. I had a discussion with a 20-something as they were looking through the LP/Vinyl rack last year at an Urban Outfitters. You know, the high-end clothingphile store. Well... he said that the vinyl sounds amazing... compared to his other system! That is an example of what's happening. Eventually, they will figure out that some better digital equipment might sound better than a poorly set-up $700 turntable sourced system. I know someone who still plays his Edison cylinders for his party guests; not because they sound good, but because they sound 115 years old.
 
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amirm

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I'd bet its the tape itself.
That's what I am thinking as well. The owner of that deck had multiple measurement tapes and I grabbed one to use. In hindsight, I should have recorded something on a blank tape and see what that did.
 

lhimelfarb

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That's what I am thinking as well. The owner of that deck had multiple measurement tapes and I grabbed one to use. In hindsight, I should have recorded something on a blank tape and see what that did.
Doing that you might end up with better results simply related to it being at the same mis-alignment azimuth during recording and playback, but maximum gap height is very important. It results in significantly higher saturation without over-saturation when the other adjustments are done properly. If you record just music the results could be acceptable without alignment, but then that tape would probably sound terrible on any other deck.
 

MakeMineVinyl

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Oh my! 456! It was a horrible, but inexpensive, tape. I guess you know AMPEX never made tape. These older technologies are now hobbies... and it can be lots of fun. I had a discussion with a 20-something as they were looking through the LP/Vinyl rack last year at an Urban Outfitters. You know, the high-end clothingphile store. Well... he said that the vinyl sounds amazing... compared to his other system! That is an example of what's happening. Eventually, they will figure out that some better digital equipment might sound better than a poorly set-up $700 turntable sourced system. I know someone who still plays his Edison cylinders for his party guests; not because they sound good, but because they sound 115 years old.
What's scary is that Ampex 456 was one of the main professional mastering tapes of the 70s and used in many studios including ones I worked at. All those tapes went stick-shed. Astonishing that there wasn't more blow back and lawsuits.
 

Robin L

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What's scary is that Ampex 456 was one of the main professional mastering tapes of the 70s and used in many studios including ones I worked at. All those tapes went stick-shed. Astonishing that there wasn't more blow back and lawsuits.
I only had reason to use the Tascam 32 half-track Reel-to-Reel deck for production of Music from the Hearts of Space and some KPFA programming. Sucked big-time, in all directions even at 15 ips. Used Ampex 456, of course. Had to throw those tapes away thirty years later, no one had a use for them. I'll bet somebody took off the metal reels for salvage.
 

MakeMineVinyl

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I'll bet somebody took off the metal reels for salvage.
That's what I do. I buy new tape on hubs and wind them on the old reels.
 

rdenney

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I remember, back in the 1990s, getting custom lengths of TDK SA for cassette duplication of concerts I recorded. I think I could get TDK SA in lengths up to 50 minutes or so a side. I think tape costs were around $1.75 a pop when bought in bulk. I duplicated in real time on daisy chained cassette decks, something like 6 at a time, so coming up with 100 cassettes might take a little time. Sound wasn't SOTA, but was better [and cheaper] than the usual high-speed duplication of commercial issues. Had plenty of head cleaner on hand, all the time.

Cassettes at their very best---Connoisseur Society real time duplicated cassettes recorded to Nak decks---were competitive with Japanese pressings on vinyl. Compared to run of the mill digital circa 2022, not even in the running.
Yeah, the only reason I sustain a cassette capability (using a Nak BX300) is because I have a bunch of old cassettes of field-recorded concerts that don't exist any other way.

Rick "deck needs one more full service and then I'll ride it to the grave" Denney
 

Robin L

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Yeah, the only reason I sustain a cassette capability (using a Nak BX300) is because I have a bunch of old cassettes of field-recorded concerts that don't exist any other way.

Rick "deck needs one more full service and then I'll ride it to the grave" Denney
I've got a cheapie dual deck stashed in an outdoors closet along with about 100 cassettes I don't intend to listen to again. I think the deck was something like $10 ten years ago from an AMVETS. My high-end Yamaha deck died, alas. Three-head, dual capstan, same transport as a NAK, didn't have the wonky NAK EQ.
 

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When I recently repaired and serviced a three head Sony TC-K611S cassette deck I kept a few measurements.

L/R Phase is set by adjusting head azimuth. This is what the manual says is in spec (btw the Rigol MSO5000 scope does fuzzy XY). If the azimuth is out then L and R will not be in phase. I used a prerecorded test tape and this is the best I could achieve.

As three head I could record and monitor playback simultaneously. So after servicing and calibrating bias, this is the best frequency response and spectrum I could extract. All using a new chrome tape with Dolby S engaged.

Pretty ugly in today’s world.
 
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L5730

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View attachment 188234View attachment 188235View attachment 188232When I recently repaired and serviced a three head Sony TC-K611S cassette deck I kept a few measurements.

L/R Phase is set by adjusting head azimuth. This is what the manual says is in spec (btw the Rigol MSO5000 scope does fuzzy XY). If the azimuth is out then L and R will not be in phase. I used a prerecorded test tape and this is the best I could achieve.

As three head I could record and monitor playback simultaneously. So after servicing and calibrating bias, this is the best frequency response and spectrum I could extract. All using a new chrome tape with Dolby S engaged.

Pretty ugly in today’s world.

Yikes!
And to think that my parents preferred the sound of CDs recorded to Maxell Metal cassettes on this machine to their digital counterpart played natively. I guess they liked the extra distortions.
Was a nice machine when it worked, proper time counter working in real seconds, a door that was power assisted, a generally overall nice look. Sadly it tended to start shredding tape in the end, so we ditched it.
 

MakeMineVinyl

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View attachment 188234View attachment 188235View attachment 188232When I recently repaired and serviced a three head Sony TC-K611S cassette deck I kept a few measurements.

L/R Phase is set by adjusting head azimuth. This is what the manual says is in spec (btw the Rigol MSO5000 scope does fuzzy XY). If the azimuth is out then L and R will not be in phase. I used a prerecorded test tape and this is the best I could achieve.

As three head I could record and monitor playback simultaneously. So after servicing and calibrating bias, this is the best frequency response and spectrum I could extract. All using a new chrome tape with Dolby S engaged.

Pretty ugly in today’s world.
Was that frequency response taken at -20dB? If not, that could account for the premature rolloff due to saturation.
 

Robin L

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Was that frequency response taken at -20dB? If not, that could account for the premature rolloff due to saturation.
While it's true that there could be saturation effects, that FR chart corresponds to my [horribly extensive] experience with cassette decks. I suspect some people preferred the cassette dubs of CDs because of the "smooth" treble roll-off. The FR chart reminds me of my Shure 97xe cartridge but more extreme [I see Walmart online offering one for nearly $900, crazy]. I suspect that a Metal cassette would have better high frequency response at these recorded levels.

shure-m97xe-phono-cartridge-fig-13.jpg
 
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