It’s kind of remarkable how much home electronics change in such a short period of time. Devices go from being in high demand to thrift store relics seemingly overnight. Items that we once gladly spent princely sums of money on now sell for pennies on the dollar, if they sell at all. Take a trip to your local Goodwill or Salvation Army and you’re sure to find VCRs, DVD players, and obsolete iPod docks by the dozen, and all for a cost of little to nothing.
Cassette decks are also a good example of this. What used to be an important part of everyone’s home stereo system is now a technological dinosaur, relegated to the thrift store shelf, hoping to be rescued by middle aged guys like me who may still have a use for them. Even good quality, three head units can be found for a couple of bucks, not to mention a million old audio cassettes to play on them. Still, even with all of this in mind, I never expected to find one of the holy grails of old school analog audio waiting for me at the Salvation Army.
For those who are old enough to remember, the name Nakamichi is synonymous with the best cassette decks ever made. Their Dragon deck was a marvel of 80s engineering, and is still considered by some to be the best cassette deck ever produced. What set the Dragon apart from its contemporaries was its auto-reverse mechanism. When you came to the end of your cassette tape, the Dragon would not only automatically reverse the direction and play the other side, it would also adjust the playback head to maintain the correct angle, and give you the best fidelity possible. While this sounds simple, it was quite the engineering feat.
The RX-505, which came a long a little later, solved the problem a little differently. Rather than reversing the direction of the tape, the 505 would actually flip the tape over for you. This eliminated the need for a moving playback head all together, and allowed for the same quality of audio playback at a much lower price. keep in mind that the phrase ‘lower price’ is a relative thing. The Dragon deck retailed for around $4000, while the RX-505 could be picked up for a paltry $1500. Even today, when the cassette tape is as obsolete as the bi-plane and the steel wheeled roller skate, these decks will set you back about a grand on eBay.
Needless to say, I never expected to find a Nakamichi RX-505 at the Salvation Army, let alone one in mint condition, complete with manual, sales brochure, a cut out review from Audiophile Magazine, and a tape head demagnetizer. Hell, the thing even had the original green Nakamichi dust cloth still in its cellophane wrapper! their asking price:
Folks, I may be a lot of things, but dumb enough to pass up a deck like this for $10 is not one of them. After doing a quick test to make sure it powered up, I grabbed that sucker and high tailed it out of that store before they came to their senses.
That was a couple of months ago, and the deck has performed flawlessly since then. It’s been a lot of fun rediscovering my thirty year old cassettes (which still play just fine, by the way), and trying to remember what I was thinking when I put together some of those god awful mixed tapes. I haven’t tried to record anything with it yet, but I just bought a case of blank cassettes still sealed in their original cellophane wrappers for $2 (thank you, Goodwill!), so I’d guess it will be happening. Who knows, maybe my friends will be getting mixed tapes for Christmas?
The technology may be dead, but the dinosaur lives on.