What? A cassette deck review in 2017? A little anachronistic, surely? A few weeks ago, I mentioned to AA’s own Ashley that I’d been getting a bit nostalgic for the defunct format, especially after seeing Andy Hall’s extensive collection of Beatles cassettes on his great YouTube channel. Search him, and you’ll see what I mean. I mentioned to Ashley that my favourite cassette deck had been my Yamaha KX-580 SE which I’d owned from new since 1999, and which I’d sadly sold for the price of a plate of beans on toast a few years later. I’d also thrown away a lot of tapes that I’d kept in the loft, when I made a necessary downsize in accommodation. I couldn’t quite kick the cassette habit though, and shortly after I bought a NAD 613 deck. But after a lot of my remaining tapes (mainly pre-recorded albums or “musicassettes”) had shown severe signs of wear – including playing at uneven speed, I ditched the player and tapes for good. Or so I thought…. Ashley sent me details of a non-SE branded Yamaha KX-580 for sale on eBay, which I snapped up for the princely sum of £41. I nipped to Oxfam for a couple of tapes (30p each) and I was all set.
Ergonomics and Ease of Use
Let’s get the Yamaha KX-580’s irritating foibles out of the way first, shall we? The cassette door is placed over to the left, along with the power on/off and the eject button. Although the outer door of the cassette window can be removed, it’s very difficult to reach in and clean the heads and capstan/pinch wheel assembly. Given the sorry state of a lot of older cassettes, this cleaning becomes far more necessary than a routine every 50 sides or so. The best way therefore, is to buy a special cassette for the job. The best of these cassettes are of the Allsop 3 variety, which consist of a number of pads. You apply a few drops of the (normally supplied) cleaning fluid – Isopropyl Alcohol – play the cassette for a few seconds and the job is done. Of course, it may only take one or two cleans before the pads themselves become dirty and need replacing… So, Yamaha, how difficult would it have been for you to engineer a cassette door that easily facilitates cleaning via a cotton bud?
The poor ergonomic design doesn’t stop there, however. The eight transport buttons are placed over to the right of the level meter window, arranged in an array of four rows of two. The first two buttons on the top row are Play and Stop – nice and convenient – well done Yamaha!! But why, for Rick Astley’s sake, are the Intro Scan buttons in the next row? These Intro Scan buttons, which search for gaps between tracks, are about the only concessions Yamaha make to convenience, but surely it would make sense for these to be placed underneath the more oft-used fast forward and rewind buttons? It’s quite easy to muddle the two functions.
A hinged plastic flap conceals the KX-580’s lesser-used functions. Not only are the labels tiny and difficult to read, but the buttons and knobs are tiny and difficult to access. This is especially true of the recording level knob – it’s so small that making fine adjustments is quite difficult. I also don’t like the fact that the headphones socket and its dedicated volume control are behind this flap. I envisage the flap being broken easily since it is necessarily open for a protracted length of time.
Finally, although there are only two sets of sockets on the back (input and output, for connecting up to an amplifier), these are labelled using black protruded plastic against a black cassette deck body. Impossible to read, especially for those with failing eyesight. My amp (a Rega Elex-R) has inputs and outputs, labelled as such. So Yamaha has to buck the trend by calling their sockets Play and Record. Easy enough to work out, but when flat on one’s back, trying to manipulate plugs into tight spaces, the difference in labelling convention doesn’t make the job any easier.
The Yamaha KX-580 is a single cassette, 2 head, single capstan cassette machine. It features Dolby B, C and S noise reduction, Dolby HXPro, Auto Tape Tuning and Automatic Tape Type recognition. It also features manual tape bias tuning and um, that’s about it. That’s the way I like it, since mechanical features such as twin decks, continuous play and auto reverse tended to be engineered down to a price and often don’t work as well as they should 20 or 30 years later.
Not that Yamaha are blameless when making space for a button or knob that they don’t know what to do with. Take the aforementioned manual bias tuning, for instance. The KX-580 will recognise automatically whether you are recording on normal, chrome or metal tapes, and set the bias accordingly, with no user input required. Not only this, but the user can easily trigger the Auto Tape Tuning function. In the manual, Yamaha explain this feature in pigeon English, illustrated by an incomprehensible graph, but let me tell you that, simply put, this function not only tells the deck that a chrome tape is about to be recorded onto, but it also detects differences in formulations between different brands of chrome tape (TDK, BASF etc…) and sets itself up accordingly. Therefore (and Yamaha admit this) the manual bias tuning is totally superfluous. I’d much rather a knob that made the coffee.
However, Yamaha make the process of recording onto a blank cassette easy in a number of important ways. Firstly, unlike the NAD deck I used to possess, which eschewed auto tape type recognition for manual bias tuning only (not even a button labelled Type I, II or IV – how Flat Earth is that?!), the KX-580 will display the tape type in the level meter window, under the point, beyond which, distortion will occur. Thus, the Type I light is under the 0dB point, indicating that if you set the levels to creep above this point too often, you’ll end up with a distorted recording. Type II (Chrome) tapes will become distorted at just over 3dB and Type IV (Metal) cassettes will distort if you record over 6dB. Given the KX-580 meter’s tendency to over-react to peak levels, indicating a level slightly higher than is actually being recorded to tape, it virtually guarantees distortion-free recordings every time.
The first cassette I played on the KX-580 was a pre-recorded album, Madonna’s True Blue, from 1986. It was one of the bargains I picked up for 30p. It thrilled from the moment I put it on. Yes, I had to turn the volume up slightly louder than I would the vinyl (which I also own) in order to get a satisfactory sound, but Papa Don’t Preach pumped along nicely, with smooth but detailed treble (with Dolby B switched in) and luscious mid-range. It was slightly less convincing in the bass, but I wonder if that’s because pre-recorded albums in the 80’s were deliberately mastered to cater for those with machines that simply couldn’t do bass properly anyway. However, I’ve made a number of recordings with this machine, and I conclude that although the KX-580 can produce the notes, they’re not delivered with the same authority as my Rega RP8 turntable, from whence the recordings were made. Wow and flutter, with a good, non-deteriorated cassette (count out most EMI recordings, sadly), is negligible, even with solo piano music, courtesy of the Brahms Hungarian Dances on Decca. Stereo separation was good, but again, just slightly veiled, so that the finer detail that places the performer right there in front of you was absent. Never mind. Performances sound natural, detailed and involving. I’ve had to stop typing this article numerous times, because I’ve found myself tapping my hands along with the music delivered by this fine machine. It sounds far more engaging and natural than any download or iDevice that I’ve heard. Its qualities remind me of my old Goldring-Lenco GL75/1042 vintage turntable/cartridge set-up. Praise indeed.
Mark Pearce, March 2017