Ask any enthusiast when the compact cassette heyday was and you’ll get a different answer. Some say the ‘70s – when decks had mechanics to rival industrial machinery, limited noise reduction, big analogue level metres and flakey heads. Some say the ‘80s – when soft-touch mechanical transport controls became all the rage before full-logic electronic controls took over, when dolby C, DBX and the HX Pro headroom extension became commonplace, and when feature counts governed popularity.
Some say the ‘90s – when Dolby S brought further improvements in noise reduction expected in an era where the compact disc had taken hold, but when the big manufacturers were making their last great decks before mechanics were cheapened and electronics simplified in a bid to minimise costs and maximise every last penny of profit from a waning format..
Nobody, however, would tell you that cassette peaked at the turn of the millennium. The 2000s gave us the cheapest mechanisms yet, blighted by wobbly plastic flywheels, lousy motors and average electro-magnetic heads. Cassettes had largely been relegated to the car and the living room hi-fi was now an integrated mini, micro or midi system with an inbuilt cassette deck or two. CD was king and minidisc was the format of choice for many who wanted to record their own media, until recordable CDs became affordable and knocked the minidisc from its short-lived perch.
By the mid 2000s the choice of hi-fi component cassette decks on the market could be counted on one hand. There were a couple of models from Teac, some pro audio units from Tascam, a Yamaha or two, possibly an Aiwa and a three-strong lineup from Sony. None approached the quality or technical innovation that any of these companies once produced, but they weren’t designed to. They were designed simply to provide a means for people with cassette collections to play them back in reasonable quality, and to record tapes for the few vehicles that still came with a cassette deck as standard equipment.
The TC-WE675 reviewed herein was Sony’s last flagship cassette deck. It was available from 2001 to 2011, and was part of a three-strong lineup. The basic model who’s model escapes me had mechanical controls and little else in the way of features. The TC-WE475 brought full-logic soft-touch controls to the table, along with digital tape counters, automatic recording level, memory and timer functions, a pitch control (+/-30%) and a myriad of other gimmicks. Broadly speaking it is the same as the flagship TC-WE675. The 675 gives you the ability to record on both decks (the 475 records on deck B only) and a couple of small electronic upgrades, but otherwise there is little to distinguish the two.
I owned a TC-WE475 from new. I had a full Sony stack at the time including a TA-FE370, ST-SE370 and CDP-XE370, a system that I would one day like to reassemble. I wasn’t a discerning listener back then yet I have fond memories of how that system sounded, particularly the amp. The amp was based on an STK output amplifier module and had an excellent low-noise preamp stage, with plenty of inputs. When I saw a TC-WE675 for an unusually reasonable price I couldn’t help but wonder how it would sound all these years later, connected to the system I have now.
Despite agreeing not to, the seller shipped the deck with Hermes. Wrapped only in a sheet of cardboard with no internal packaging what-so-ever, the fact that this deck survived its journey to me is nothing short of a miracle. In truth these aren’t especially well constructed. The front panel is a single-piece plastic moulding, and the top case is so flimsy that it can be shifted a few millimetres side-to-side when it’s sitting on a shelf.
My TC-WE475 was much the same – though perhaps as an indication of how unpopular cassette decks were at the time, and how little thought was put into their manufacture, the amp, tuner and CD player were constructed to a much higher standard despite being virtually identical in design. Perhaps I’m being a little over-critical of the Sony; the plastic used is of decent quality, and there are plenty of great decks built with a lot of plastic in their design – Denon’s highly rated DRM-740 being one of them.
Both the 475 and 675 are loaded with features. You get a pair of full-logic decks, in the case of the 675 each capable of recording and supporting types I, II and IV with automatic tape type selection. Deck A has a switchable pitch control and both decks support autoreverse playback, playback in relay formation and high-speed dubbing from tape to tape. The TC-WE675 also supports relay recording where a recording starts on a tape in deck A and finishes on a tape in deck B, and simultaneous recording of the same source onto tapes in both decks.
Both decks A and B have digital tape counters with a memory reset function and music scan to detect tracks on a tape providing there is at least 4 seconds of silence between them. This feature works quite well though it can be tricked by quiet passages within songs. It can skip 30 tracks in a single pass.
Deck A has a programming mode whereby up to 28 tracks (14 per side) can be programmed in any desired order. Few cassette decks had this feature though it is quite common on CD players especially of the time. Though it’s really a gimmick, it does have its uses with cassettes where the album tracks were reordered to fit the length of the tape. Many early albums were produced in this way, and using the programming features it is possible to reassemble the tracks in the correct order providing you don’t mind the gaps between them, not to mention the wear on the mechanisms and the whirring and clunking while the deck winds the tape and flips the heads as necessary.
None of these features are particularly unusual in a cassette deck from the mid ‘80s and beyond. Neither are Dolby noise reduction (B and C) with the HX Pro headroom extension. Dolby S. Had been largely abandoned by this point, though production of the TC-WE475 did overlap with the Yamaha KX-580SE which was dolby S-equipped, and possibly late models from Aiwa too.
The Dolby implementation is quite aggressive, especially where Dolby B is concerned and I’d tend not to use it. Though in truth I have never cared much for Dolby and leave it off. There are few if any pre-recorded tapes encoded with Dolby C, and any tape encoded with Dolby B can be played without any Dolby at all with the only side effect being a brighter top end. Only the 675 can record with Dolby, though the 475 does support both Dolby modes in playback. The 675 also has a switchable MPX filter to avoid the carrier frequency when recording FM radio broadcasts.
Unlike the 475 which has no adjustments for bias or equalisation besides its automatic tape-type selection, the 675 has an automatic calibration procedure to set the bias current and equalisation characteristics for any tape. I was surprised to see this feature and even more surprised to find that it works surprisingly well. So too does the automatic record level adjustment, which sets the recording level based on the peak level of the playback source before recording. Unlike other automatic level systems the level can be fixed and left unaltered as the recording progresses, so there are no sudden changes in level and no variance in noise on the tape. It can also be left in fully automatic operation whereby the level is continuously adjusted during recording, and is not too aggressive when used in this manner. Alternatively the system can be defeated and the level adjusted manually.
There is a headphone jack for monitoring the incoming source and listening to the deck in playback, but there is no volume control and its output is deafening. I’m not sure why they bothered implementing one at all. As this is a two-head deck you don’t get realtime monitoring of the actual signal recorded to the tape, only what is being received through the deck’s inputs.
Rear jacks can interface with other Sony equipment of the time. Normally used with a CD player or minidisc player, the remote jacks provide synchronised recording functions much like you’d find on an integrated system. The control protocol implemented on the 475 and 675 and Sony’s catalogue of components from 2000 onwards differed from the standard of previous designs and the two are incompatible. The manual makes reference to improved functionality being introduced in future components, but as the general consumer interest in hi-fi dwindled neither those components nor features ever materialised that I know of.
The specs aren’t remarkable. 0.1% RMS Wow and Flutter (NAV), 1.8% total harmonic distortion, 73dB signal to noise ratio and a 30Hz – 19kHz +/-3dB frequency response at -4dB with metal tape. Unweighted signal to noise ratio at peak level is 55, 57 and 58dB with type I, II and IV cassettes respectively. Output level is 0.5V at 47KΩ. Fast winding time is 100 seconds for a C60 cassette.
Internally the build quality is ‘meh’, though not unexpected for a ‘last gasp’ model. There’s an EI transformer of a decent size, simple power supply circuitry and electronics mostly integrated into a few integrated circuits. There isn’t a single screw holding the mainboard in place besides that of the RCA connectors and the bracket clamping the three voltage regulators against the back panel. Instead there are plastic locking pegs which leave me wondering exactly how tight the costs were on these machines.
The mechanisms have a lot of plastic in them albeit decent plastic, though important parts such as the retainers for the door springs are metal. The flywheels are plastic with little weight to them. If you install the wrong belts the added tension can cause the flywheels to move off axis causing a cam-like effect that doesn’t help speed stability. Used with an appropriate belt however the mechanisms will exceed their quoted specifications and provide perfectly acceptable performance.
The mechanisms are driven by a solenoid and a few plastic gears, metal arms and metal and plastic linkages. It’s a basic design and one that has stood the test of time. Its simplicity does mean it should prove reliable in the long run even if that does mean compromises have to be made in performance.
Changing the belts is relatively simple. There are two in each mechanism, one driving the capstan flywheels from the motor and another driving the reels from the primary flywheel. Belt kits are readily available online.
I purchased a kit from DeckTech which arrived quickly and worked as advertised. They are based in the UK so there are no import fees, their belts are well priced and unlike other kit suppliers they are knowledgeable about the product they are selling, and happy to discuss specifications. It says a lot that they are the only company to mention wow and flutter in their listings. Poorly manufactured and cheap belts, such as those supplied in large bulk packs from China, are almost guaranteed to cause excessive wow & flutter. A good quality belt of the correct dimensions is essential if you’re repairing any cassette mechanism. A cheap mechanism with a good belt will stand a better chance than a good mechanism with a rubbish belt.
The original belts in my unit were badly stretched and the replacements noticeably improved torque especially in winding operations. Any cassette deck that has been sitting idle or has seen little use in its life is almost guaranteed ot need fresh belts to ensure stable speed and consistent performance. In later decks including this one, a failed capstan belt can prevent some parts of the mechanism from operating and can cause tapes to become jammed. If you encounter one of these machines or later machines from Teac et al (the Teac V-615 is a common culprit) and the doors won’t open, don’t force the eject button. Simply spin the flywheels by hand until the mechanism releases.
Swapping the belts is done by removing the mechanism from the front panel, and removing the door and its spring. You can then access two screws mounting the motor, allowing the belts to be removed. The reel belt is installed first, linking the forward flywheel with the take-up pulley. Then it’s a matter of threading the new belt around the forward flywheel and over top of the reverse flywheel, hooking it over the convenient pin next to the motor, hooking the motor pulley onto the belt and lowering the motor into place.
This is one of the simplest mechanisms to service. I didn’t take any pictures of the disassembly and a complete how-to guide is beyond the scope of this piece, but it’s self explanatory once you get the top cover removed and the full service manual is available online for free. It’s a job that anyone can do with a couple of Philips screwdrivers and a little care and patience.
Setting the speed is accomplished via a pair of trimers on the main board for each deck, lined up neatly next to the flat flex cables. The pots are marked for high and normal speeds though by nature of the circuit both have an effect in normal speed. You put the deck in service mode by holding down the deck A forward play button and the deck B record mute button simultaneously whilst turning on the power. This allows you to set either deck to high-speed mode by pressing the dubbing button during playback.
Using a frequency counter (or the free WFGUI app) and a 3kHz calibration tape, you adjust both decks to read 5980Hz (+/-80Hz). You then switch to a normal playback speed and adjust each deck’s respective normal speed trimmer to give a 3000Hz (+/-80Hz) reading. Deck A has an additional trimmer for the pitch adjustment. When switched on and the pitch control centred, this should be adjusted to 3000Hz when in the normal playback speed
Sony’s tolerance for inaccuracy is telling. Most good decks of decades past would call for a tolerance of +/-30Hz or less in their service literature, but here 80Hz is considered sufficient. I suppose in reality most people wouldn’t hear the difference, but if you have perfect pitch you certainly will. With new belts and careful adjustment it is possible to get the speed to within 15Hz which is excellent for any deck. There is slight wow and flutter present in sustained piano, but the plastic flywheels and cheap mechanism are to credit for that.
Next I set the azimuth. You can do this with an oscilloscope and the appropriate tapes. Or you can do it by playing a known good tape with a lot of treble content, summing the output to mono and adjusting for the brightest treble response. Azimuth is adjusted via torx screws either side of the heads, and access is easy with the tape doors removed. The manual doesn’t give any indication that these doors will come off and they are stiff and easy to break if you aren’t careful.
With all the work done I popped in a head cleaner and demagnetiser before sitting down to listen. The heads in this example were mint as if they had never been used. The sound is crisp and clean with a lot of top-end sparkle. My repair of this deck coincided with the sad loss of Meatloaf so I played Bat Out Of Hell II which was the only album of his I had on cassette. The Sony lapped up the driving rhythms in ‘Out Of The Frying Pan’ and ‘Good Girls Go To Heaven’, but was no less apt at portraying the emotion in ‘Objects In The Rear View Mirror’ and ‘Lost Boys And Golden Girls’.
Deck A is the better sounding of the two. The screened cable running from its head is shorter and its signal path on the PCB is also shorter. Whether this was a major contributing factor I’m not sure. In the case of both decks the background noise was low. It isn’t the quietest tape deck on the planet, nor does it drown the music in hiss.
I suppose if I had to some up its sound I would describe it as pleasant. Maybe a bit soft in the bass, but sparkly in the highs with a slightly forward lower midband and recessed upper midband. Its sound is slightly warm in tonal colour, Highly forgiving of poor recordings or worn tapes but good enough to make a great recording very enjoyable and easy to listen to.
You could say this was a sad and sorry way to bid farewell to the cassette’s 40-year coexistence along-side vinyl, CD, Minidisc, DAT and even the digital compact cassette. In some ways I’d have to agree. This was far from Sony’s finest cassette deck. In fact, Sony peaked before other manufacturers, as their focus was clearly on their newer tech rather than optimising an ageing format.
This is not a cassette deck that would shame the best of cassette’s heyday which, if you ask me, was definitely the ‘90s. The 675 is very much a product of its time. And really it’s better than it has any right to be.
This was a deck that would do an admirable job of playing back collections of cassettes built up over decades. It’s a no-fuss tape deck with plenty of frills should you wish to use them, and great performance even if you don’t. There’s no pretence here; it’s just a very decent ‘2000s tape deck.
The good news is that they sold quite a few of them and they’re still abundantly available and affordable. Cassette is making a comeback and most of the best decks have been snapped up or are being flipped for silly money, but there are still a few bargains to be had. This is one of them. Providing it has seen at least semi-regular use, its age means that it should work out of the box without any complicated or costly repairs. If yours doesn’t work, it probably just needs a few belts which isn’t a difficult undertaking for anyone with even basic mechanical aptitude. If you can change a plug, you can put belts in this deck.
If all you want to do is play or record some tapes, you can’t go wrong with a TC-WE475 or a TC-WE675. Whether Sony will follow Teac’s example and bring a new cassette deck to market, only time will tell. Whether cassette will see the same resurgence as vinyl, only time will tell. But while there are still plenty of these in the wild, it’s a fine deck for the money.