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Measurements of Nakamichi Dragon Cassette Deck

egellings

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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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As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

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It still might have Big Tone, though.
 

ronniebear

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Youtuber VWestlife has video reviews of the TEAC double cassette deck, the TASCAM double cassette deck, and the TASCAM combo CD player/cassette deck. For each of these decks, his reviews include his own technical measurements of wow-and-flutter, speed accuracy and frequency response. Based on Vwestlife's reviews, the performance level of each deck is somewhat better than the official TEAC specifications. Watch the three videos below: these decks aren't on the same quality level of higher-caliber decks from the '80s and '90s, but similar to lower-cost entry-level tape decks from the '80s (i.e. models originally sold for around US$150). Draw your own conclusions, these seem to be the best currently-available brand-new component cassette decks.
New TEAC W-1200 cassette deck - Detailed review
New TASCAM 202ᴍᴋVII cassette deck - Detailed review
New TASCAM CD-A580 CD/MP3/cassette deck review

 

Count Dacula

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Good to know - there are better decks in terms of performance and calibration options, but nearly all vintage cassette decks are three to four decades old and aren't all that easy to get correctly repaired.

I have a NiB SONY ES deck that I have no idea what to do with. PM me if anyone has any thoughts.
 

witwald

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...the difference in straight tape and using Dolby C is obvious and important. I don't know how the THD changes with and without Dolby C (I would think not much). But noise floors are much better with Dolby C and it usually improved the high end response on machines vs no Dolby C.
Below is a set of frequency response and noise measurements for a Nakamichi ZX-7 cassette deck when using Nakamichi ZX Type IV metal tape. This was published in the brochure for the ZX-7. As mentioned above, Dolby C improved the high-frequency response as compared to Dolby B, as well as significantly improving the signal-to-noise ratio over a wider frequency range.
1694415585761.png
 
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anmpr1

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Below is a set of frequency response and noise measurements for a Nakamichi ZX-7 cassette deck when using Nakamici ZX Type IV metal tape. This was published in the brochure for the ZX-7. As mentioned above, Dolby C improved the high-frequency response as compared to Dolby C, as well as significantly improving the signal-to-noise ratio over a wider frequency range.

From my admittedly long time ago experience, B Dolby was subjectively better than C, in spite of the latter's spec improvement. Why that was for me?, I can't say. I never used top tier decks, usually mid-range, so perhaps on a better machine it would have been better.

FWIW, the best sonic improvement to my ears were Type IV 'metal' tapes, that were vastly superior to what went before, even on moderately priced decks.

Toward the end of the cassette popularity run, Dolby S was reported to offer a significant sonic improvement, but I never heard an S deck.
 

sergeauckland

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From my admittedly long time ago experience, B Dolby was subjectively better than C, in spite of the latter's spec improvement. Why that was for me?, I can't say. I never used top tier decks, usually mid-range, so perhaps on a better machine it would have been better.

FWIW, the best sonic improvement to my ears were Type IV 'metal' tapes, that were vastly superior to what went before, even on moderately priced decks.

Toward the end of the cassette popularity run, Dolby S was reported to offer a significant sonic improvement, but I never heard an S deck.
The main reason why Dolby B was often better than C was that line-up for C was far more critical than for B. Dolby mistracking, i.e. the difference between the encoding and decoding was more audible with C as it covered a much wider bandwidth.

When I sold Nakamichis in the mid 1980s, I would line them up on sale to the customer's choice of tape. Factory line-up was done on Nakamichi's own brand tape, that was if I recall, manufactured by Maxell, but I may be wrong on that. If asked, I would recommend That's Tape, as at the time I thought they had the 'best' performance, and I encouraged customers to buy at least a box of tapes, ensuring they were from the same batch..

The difference between a properly aligned machine and one used straight from the factory on even good tapes like TDK or Maxell was considerable. Dolby B tracking was just about acceptable, Dolby C (mis) tracking was quite audible. I had a set of Nakamichi test tapes and BASF frequency response line-up tapes as well as an example of Nakamichi's own tapes. Factory line up using Nakamichi tape was pretty good, all spoilt when a user chose another brand of tape.

Tape in general was a fussy medium, we would line up our studio machines every morning, and there were marked differences between batches of nominally the same (usually Scotch 206) tape. That was running half-track stereo 15ips on Ampex professional machines. Cassettes had no chance with their much lower speed narrower track and tiny dimensioned tape transport if using tape different to the one they were lined up on. This didn't matter a lot on 'normal' domestic tape machines, especially the auto-reverse ones where there was no chance of azimuth being consistent, but on a Nakamichi, 'perfect' line-up made a very worthwhile difference.

S.
 

restorer-john

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From my admittedly long time ago experience, B Dolby was subjectively better than C, in spite of the latter's spec improvement. Why that was for me?, I can't say.

Probably poorly aligned or badly set up decks. Not your fault, but Dolby C was light years better than the best B type encoders. A good deck with Dolby C, switchable MPX and good Rec/PB alignment was incredibly good, even at 1 7/8" IPS.
 

MRC01

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Below is a set of frequency response and noise measurements for a Nakamichi ZX-7 cassette deck when using Nakamici ZX Type IV metal tape. This was published in the brochure for the ZX-7. As mentioned above, Dolby C improved the high-frequency response as compared to Dolby C [correction: B?], as well as significantly improving the signal-to-noise ratio over a wider frequency range.
...
What I find interesting about that graph is that it suggests the advantages of C were only at high recording levels, with B & C having the same frequency response at -10 dB and lower. Back in the era of cassette tape before the loudness wars, most of the music would be at these lower levels.

My experience too was that Dolby B sounded better than C. This could be due to its greater sensitivity to tape head alignment and perhaps also bias adjustment fine tuned to the particular tape.
 

anmpr1

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What I find interesting about that graph is that it suggests the advantages of C were only at high recording levels, with B & C having the same frequency response at -10 dB and lower. Back in the era of cassette tape before the loudness wars, most of the music would be at these lower levels.

My experience too was that Dolby B sounded better than C. This could be due to its greater sensitivity to tape head alignment and perhaps also bias adjustment fine tuned to the particular tape.

Top tier decks usually featured auto bias. I'm sure that that by itself would help any tape. For my use, mostly to make dubs for my car, it didn't matter, one way or the other. I never considered the medium really hi-fi, but it was sure convenient as hell. And given its physical limitations, was amazing that it sounded as good as it ever did.

Higher end Naks, ReVox, Tandberg et al. were always impressive machines. I remember when the Nakamichi 1000 came out. Few could really wrap their heads around the price, and sophistication. My limit was decks like the Pioneer CT 9191, Teac 450, and such. My last deck was a mid range Denon, that was nice, but after a few years the logic controls went haywire, making it unusable. By then CD had come out, and that was pretty much that. Even for cars.
 

MRC01

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Top tier decks usually featured auto bias. I'm sure that that by itself would help any tape. For my use, mostly to make dubs for my car, it didn't matter, one way or the other. I never considered the medium really hi-fi, but it was sure convenient as hell. And given its physical limitations, was amazing that it sounded as good as it ever did.

Higher end Naks, ReVox, Tandberg et al. were always impressive machines. I remember when the Nakamichi 1000 came out. Few could really wrap their heads around the price, and sophistication. My limit was decks like the Pioneer CT 9191, Teac 450, and such. My last deck was a mid range Denon, that was nice, but after a few years the logic controls went haywire, making it unusable. By then CD had come out, and that was pretty much that. Even for cars.
Denon made great tape decks. I bought one cheap on eBay and restored it myself, and it measured better than the Nakamichi Dragon that Amir meaured a while back.
 

dlaloum

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What I find interesting about that graph is that it suggests the advantages of C were only at high recording levels, with B & C having the same frequency response at -10 dB and lower. Back in the era of cassette tape before the loudness wars, most of the music would be at these lower levels.

My experience too was that Dolby B sounded better than C. This could be due to its greater sensitivity to tape head alignment and perhaps also bias adjustment fine tuned to the particular tape.
The noise was highly audible and much better ( reduced ) with Dolby C.

On an auto bias Revox, results with many tapes were excellent, I tended to prefer basf chrome.
 

musicforcities

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My father had a Nak 700ii it was beautiful to look at and use with a thick slab of brushed stainless and touch sensitive buttons. With all the fidget alignment buttons behind a door.

But I could never get decent sound out of it. No high frequency at all. Everything sounded like a cheap type I tape. I used all the right settings. And every top tape brand and type: TDK SA, SA-x, Maxwell, etc.

Unless you aligned the heads for each and every tape. Commercial tapes were a nightmare. Even those recorded on the machine often needed alignment the, for example from side a to side b. When perfectly aligned—and I mean perfect—it sounded very good.

Perhaps it was the sideways loading tape orientation and the door: gravity was working against consistent alignment in a way it doesn’t in top loading or the more common front loading.

Or maybe something was broken. But as far as anyone know it was in proper running order.

One of the oddest experiences I have ever had with a piece of hi if that supposedly was great, measured well if one was to believe the published specs and stereophile review. But jeez what a fiddly beautiful beast it was.

Also took up tones of space due to it vertical form factor. But it was sort of sculpture so who cares about that.



1694611160728.jpeg
 

musicforcities

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the pedigree of test tapes is unknown,
Even if the tapes were mint condition and stored decently many of the once “great” cassette tape formulations age relatively poorly due to degradation, oxidation, issues with the binder etc. storage in heat and humid conditions will cause faster aging of course.

Inside the machine belts freewheel bearing lube drys out, the lube and gearing for auto align mechanism also dry out or get dirty , tape heads get dirty and oxidize, etc etc.

But even a perfect Nak Dragon using type IV was limited by the tech spec of the cassette format…the SNAID was just never going to be great. I heard them back in the day and they sounded great until one played a well mastered CD or reel to reel or a vinyl record on good turntable.
 

witwald

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Top tier decks usually featured auto bias. I'm sure that that by itself would help any tape.
Quite a large number of higher-tier cassette decks provided adjustment controls for tape sensitivity, bias and tape-head azimuth. On the Nakamichi ZX-7 three-head cassette deck, these were manual controls, but the calibration process was quite straightforward to accomplish, and bias and sensitivity settings were individually retained for Type I, Type II, and Type IV cassette tapes.

Other three-head cassette decks, such as the AIWA AD-F770/AD-F990, enjoyed a fully automatic microcomputer system that adjusted bias, equalization and sensitivity.

Even some lower-tier cassette decks, such as the Harman Kardon CD391 two-head cassette deck, had manual record calibration and fine bias trim controls on the front panel that could be easily adjusted for the tape type being used.
 
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