The analog, retro-audio revolution has brought a revival for vinyl audio to the fore, but tape-based media hasn’t enjoyed quite the same popularity. Which is a pity, because there are still many reasons to own a tape recorder and playback system.
For one thing, there are millions of tape-based recordings in organizations and private collections that are one-of-a-kind; recordings that still need to be digitized and preserved. There are also good reasons to choose a tape recorder to make new recordings. They’re easy to use, still cost less than comparable quality digital recorders, and the media isn’t expensive.
When it comes to music and other mass-produced content, there are many albums and other audio productions that exist in collections that aren’t on vinyl or CD. Vinyl and audio cassette formats each have their own durability perks, so there will be cassettes that have survived where certain vinyl records haven’t, and vice versa.
Whatever your reason for being in the market for a tape recorder, we’ve collected what we think are the best contemporary examples of this technology – some benefiting from modern enhancements, others sticking to the classic designs.
Panasonic RQ2102 Cassette Player
The Panasonic looks like a prop straight out of a 1980s film, touting the classic design seen in schools and colleges for decades. The price may seem a little eye-watering, but this includes a built-in high-quality condenser microphone. Not only that, it has a nice full-range 3” speaker, so you can immediately listen to your recordings.
I wouldn’t recommend this for any sort of professional sound recording, but if you want a simple system to record voice notes or musical ideas, the Panny is a good choice. It runs off batteries or the included AC adapter, so you really can use it everywhere.
Sony TCM150 Tape Voice Recorder
There probably isn’t a name more legendary in the history of personal cassette players than Sony. This is, after all, the company that invented the Walkman – a major technological leap.
The TCM 150 definitely has a strong genetic resemblance to the Walkman line but is, of course, primarily a voice recorder. The styling is 100% 80s nostalgia and the whole device is barely larger than an actual cassette. That being said,the speaker is sizable and clear. Recording is a one-button process and you’ll get 25 hours of recording time from a single set of AA batteries. All backed by that legendary Sony engineering and quality. If you’re looking for a handheld, tape-based voice recording solution, this is the one to go for.
Marantz Professional PMD-300CP Dual-Cassette Recorder
Every audiophile knows the name “Marantz”. The company has been around since the 1950s and has always held a reputation for good quality audio technology. However, the Marantz of today is known specifically as the creator of boutique, high-end audio equipment.
The PMD-300CP is designed to be used in a rack-mounted system, but, of course, if you just want to use it as a standalone unit, that’s fine too. It’s a two-deck system, which means you can use it to dub cassettes quickly and easily; this can either be real-time or high speed. So it’s a good way to make analog copies of cassettes.
The headline feature is, however, the USB audio interface. This turns the Marantz into a high-quality digital preservation device. You can take the cassettes in your collection and convert them to digital files and never have to wear out the cassettes any further.
Sadly, there are plenty of negative user reviews when it comes to the build-quality of the system, which is a bit off for something bearing the Marantz name. However, users have backed up thousands of tapes to digital format with (by all accounts) great quality. This is quite probably a re-badged unit sold at a lower price, but from a performance perspective it’s actually a pretty great deal.
Jaras JJ-2618 Portable Boombox
It’s a little sad that the age of the Boombox is well and truly in the rear-view mirror, but if you really feel the need to take your phat beats to the local park, you can still pick up something like this Jaras JJ-2618.
Yes, yes. It’s not stereo and it’s from a brand you’ve probably never heard of. Yet, it’s very cheap, can do voice recordings to tape, and has a radio built in for even more value. For the price, the Jaras does what it promises to do, but don’t expect too much from it.
Sony M-450 Microcassette Recorder
The M450 from Sony uses MC60 microcassettes rather than full-size cassettes; this means you can’t use it to listen to existing tapes. No, this is a machine dedicated to recording, but at least you get your first microcassette in the box.
Like Sony’s other handheld voice recorders, the M-450 uses a one-touch recording system, making it easy to capture your thoughts and ideas as they happen. The microphone is of exceptional quality, as you might expect from the company, and battery life is around 30 hours off two alkaline AA batteries.
The M450 is out of production, so what you’ll receive is a used unit in good condition, according to the sellers. Many people swear by the speed, simplicity, and tactile nature of a recorder like this over a digital recorder. If that sounds like you, it’s a fantastic choice.
Hamilton Buhl Classroom Cassette Player
The Hamilton Buhl recorder is a wonder mix of classic and modern technology. It’s an affordable, classroom-style tape recorder. It has a condenser microphone and two headphone jacks so that one unit can be shared between two students. It also has a USB port and can play back MP3 files from digital storage. That makes it a perfect device for schools and institutions that are transitioning between analog and digital.
The system can run on batteries and AC, but, sadly, the power cord is apparently not detachable. At this price, mediocre playback and build quality aren’t surprising, but as an institutional solution the Hamilton Buhl looks like a good deal. The only thing I wish they would add is the ability to record onto USB from cassette.
Jaras Personal Handheld Tape Player
Here we have another cassette player from Jaras, but instead of a boombox we have this tiny cassette player, recorder, and radio. It’s amazing that for such a tiny price you can buy a gadget that does so much. Sure, a smartphone could probably also do most of this, but the Jaras has the distinct advantage of playing cassette content and a much, much longer battery life.
The Jaras has a built-in microphone so you can record voice notes, but it also has a mic jack. This means you can record audio from any source with an auxiliary output. There are quite a few reports of dead-on-arrival units, but getting a replacement is easy enough and it’s backed by a 3-year warranty. Again, at this price one must manage expectations, but you are getting a heck of a lot for so little. This recorder is perfect for students who can’t take smartphones to school or who are worried that such a device might be a target for theft.
Crosley CT100B-SI Portable Cassette Player
Crosley is well-known for making decent, affordable modern turntables. Clearly, as we can see, they make more than that. This “retro” cassette player is, quite frankly, one of the coolest things I’ve seen. The styling really is spot-on, and, if nothing else, this is one tape deck that will turn heads.
Apart from its absolutely awesome looks, the CT100B-SI does have some nice features under the hood. It has a Bluetooth receiver, so you can stream music from, for example, your smartphone. Not only that, it has SD card and USB drive ports as well. The radio can pick up stations on four different bands and both battery power and AC. There’s a built-in mic to record, well, whatever you want. Finally, crucially, this is a tape deck, which means that you can pop in your mix tape and jam out like it’s 1985. Radical!
Rewinding to the Past
Despite what their audio virtues may or may not have been, cassettes still have plenty of practical uses – even in a world dominated by digital. Finding tape decks is getting harder by the day, but there are still a few good ones left. So the time to scoop them up is now, or never!