The 10 Best Cassette Recorders
We spent 45 hours on research, videography, and editing, to review the top choices for this wiki. Nowadays, when most people want to record something, they pull out their cell phones. But if you've got a taste for more vintage hardware, you might appreciate what the cassette recorders on our list have to offer. We've included some models that will simply record and play back on cassettes, as well as others with more modern features, like USB inputs and auxiliary jacks. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to support our work. Skip to the best cassette recorder on Amazon.
October 21, 2018:
Quality control issues knocked the Quantum FX J21U down a fair number of spots on this year's list. There was also a greater number of simpler, more effective models that earned high spots due to their reliable performance, which is integral when working with older technologies. The Panasonic RQ2102 is a great example of this reliability. Some of those options are on the expensive side, but their quality is undeniable.
A Truly Magnetic Personality
What does an aging shepherd from circa 2000-B.C.E. Greece have in common with the majority of 1980s pop music?
What does an aging shepherd from circa 2000-B.C.E. Greece have in common with the majority of 1980s pop music? Not a whole lot, but their legacies were both made possible thanks to the wonders of magnets. As legend would have it, the shepherd Magnes of Magnesia stumbled upon a black rock roughly 4,000 years ago, and to this rock clung the metal in his shoe nails and the tip of his staff. As he dug up lodestones full of magnetite ore, he possibly became the first human being ever to intentionally manipulate a magnet, and got an entire peninsula and archipelago in Eastern Greece named after himself.
Later on, about a half century before the musicassette blew up, Fritz Pfleumer was hard at work in Dresden. He was trying to convert a decades-old means of recording onto magnetic wire into something a little more useful. As any good inventor would, he had begun in a quest to supply an elegant, yet inexpensive golden-striped cigarette paper for the modern gentleman's enjoyment — a respectable endeavor, indeed. When he beheld the beauty of his smoking paper, however, he was immediately struck with the notion to turn his luxurious creation into a musical storage medium, because nothing goes with a good smoke quite like some pleasant tunes. So he put a layer of ferric oxide on some 16-millimeter-wide paper, and loaded it onto the reels of a one-of-a-kind tape machine. Three hundred meters later, he produced a 20-minute recording that sounded terrible yet laid the groundwork for future magnetic recording.
Many cutting-edge developments remained sequestered in Germany until after the Second World War. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, varying tape-based systems came and went, often designed for the suddenly ubiquitous automobile. Vinyl records still command the respect of music buffs today, even if their "warm tone" is actually just distortion. But you cannot put a turntable in a car, so the compact cassette took the reins for over 20 years as the medium of choice for popular music.
The Modern Musicassette
In 1979, as tape manufacturers were finally delivering respectable audio in comparison to vinyl, Sony essentially created the portable audio field with the release of the iconic Walkman, cementing the cassette's place in history. This new and popular standard was an entirely different beast from Fritz's creative, yet inefficient reel-to-reel system. It abandoned the tear-prone paper for durable and thin polyester film. On this film there are two tracks, in the case of monaural sound, and four in the case of stereo. Half of these tracks were oriented in one direction, and half in the other, which effectively doubled the unit's total capacity. It also necessitated an action familiar to vinyl fans of the previous decades: the flip. Just like an LP record, there's a break in the middle of every tape. Unlike records, however, tapes are easy to reverse mechanically.
The tape's recordable nature certainly contributed to its rise, as this gave it immensely more utility than vinyl.
Speaking of flipping, old cassettes are often flipped to the consumer at ridiculously affordable prices, notably at thrift stores and garage sales. Walk into nearly any one in the country and somewhere you'll see a shelf lined with rows of cassette releases. They're generally sold for the exorbitant price of approximately $1. And they're not just dirt cheap: it's not unheard of to score a hard-to-find album on those shelves for next to nothing, and in truth, Spotify and the iTunes store simply don't offer every single cassette release from the eighties.
The tape's recordable nature certainly contributed to its rise, as this gave it immensely more utility than vinyl. In fact, cassettes were originally developed exclusively for dictation machines, which makes sense when you consider the poor sound quality they produced at first. As it turns out, this initially lo-fidelity product was the perfect template for end-user music recording, once materials and construction improved. One particular dreadlocked and free-spirited community held this flexibility in high regard, as "tapers" recording the Grateful Dead inspired a tradition that many bands' fans carry on to this day.
How They Work
The most important part of a cassette is, well, the tape. Not the sticky kind, of course, but a thin and strong polyester film, coated with magnetically sensitive particles (usually iron oxide). As the head unit passes over this material, it doesn't actually move the particles, but leaves its mark in the form of magnetic charge. The individual oxide particles are as small as 0.5 micrometers each, which allows the tape to hold the four tracks required for two-sided, stereo playback.
As the head unit passes over this material, it doesn't actually move the particles, but leaves its mark in the form of magnetic charge.
They do have a few inherent drawbacks, however. Their recordings suffer catastrophic damage if exposed to even relatively small magnetic forces. And while the MP3 vs. vinyl debate rages on, you'll likely not find many proponents of vintage tapes, unless they're particularly fond of buzzing, hissing, and distortion (incidentally, many people do like such artifacts, and lo-fi tape loops continue to occupy an important artistic niche today). Finally, the lifespan of a cassette tape is finite, and shorter even than that of optical media. While a cassette can't scratch like a CD can, its all-important charge simply tends to dissipate over time.
In the 21st century, even 1900s-era technology gets a boost. Today's cassette components are of considerably higher quality than the originals, all the way from the microphone to the longevity of the cassette itself. You may notice that many different options are styled much like their 30-year-old counterparts, which is by design — similar to vinyl, nostalgia plays a role in cassettes' continued popularity. The modern versions are also quite a bit more reliable, and thankfully will almost never result in a rat's nest of tangled plastic, something older machines were notorious for. You'll also find reliable onboard editing options, like precise over-dub controls, multi-band equalizers and built-in MP3 conversion. Even though modern technology has mostly moved on from cassettes, it hasn't forgotten them; you can still dub your favorite mixtape straight from FM radio, if you so desire.
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