THROWBACK: NAKAMICHI, ONE MAN’S JOURNEY THROUGH THE WORLD OF CASSETTES
Why is this such an evocative name?... especially amongst those old enough to remember and have used the humble cassette deck as a serious source component in their hi-fi system… not just something to make tapes for the car player!
I think this is because the name “Nakamichi” became synonymous with the pinnacle of cassette based music reproduction, and I don’t know many that would contest that statement.
Episode One: In the beginning
For Nakamichi ‘the brand’ it all started in 1973 when they turned the audio world on its head by taking what was decidedly a mid-fi format at best, and produced a cassette machine that was capable of rivalling the performance of the very best of the semi-pro Reel to Reels. (Nakamichi had been around a while before that, making RTR’s and other bits and bobs for other company’s, and also in the late 50s for themselves under the Fidela brand name, rarely encountered though outside of Japan.. but I would refer you to the various Wiki’s for that history rather than regurgitate it here.)
That monumental event of course was the introduction of the 1000 and with it a number of firsts in the world of the cassette recorder: a dual capstan transport, three heads (enabled head gap optimisation), user adjustable record azimuth, record level calibration, 20Hz-20kHz performance and the start of the legend. It was an impressive machine, not only in terms of performance, but also bulk and weight as well if you have ever had the pleasure of lugging one around.
The 1000 was shortly followed by the 700, a slightly stripped down and ‘tarted up’ version of the 1000, aimed straight at the serious domestic market.
1974 saw the introduction of Nakamichi’s first affordable deck, the 500, a single capstan deck with many of the features of its more expensive brothers… if you knew where to look…(*behind the serial number plate* :). and offered 17K at the top end with both tape types when it’s peers were struggling to better 12K with normal and 14k with chrome tape.
The 600 single capstan deck appeared in 1975, and as an Einstein once said, fitted in neatly in between the 500 and 700!. The 600 is probably the best recognised deck out of the all the early Nakamichi’s due to its sloped shape, and also being the greatest seller. ‘Rack’ handles also added to that ‘professional’ impression.
The 600 was also a milestone in many ways, though still a two head machine, top end performance had increased to 18K. It had both user adjustable bias and record levels, and also an adjustable and switchable facility to reduce intermodulation distortion – the IM suppressor circuit. This latter capability was really getting a bit too technical for even the above average home user, and was a short lived feature being dropped with the introduction of the 600II.
The introduction of 600 also accompanied Nakamichi’s first foray into other componentry, with the identically styled 600 series: 610 preamp, 620 power amp and 630 tuner-pre-amp, which altogether made up their “System One”, but I digress.
1977-78 saw the dropping of the 500, introduction of the Mark II models for the 600, 700 and 1000, which increased performance still further, the 600II was now good for 20K also. There were minor cosmetic changes and improvements in user friendliness by moving the record level adjustment from the back panel to the front for the 700 and 1000.
1978-79 was the next milestone in the Nakamichi time line – the introduction of the ground breaking diffused resonance asymmetric dual capstan transport. Nakamichi Engineers had been thinking, but that is the start of their ‘middle years’ and is for another blog. it’s nearly past my bed time.
But, before turning in, what made these early decks so special??
The performance on offer was head and shoulders above that on offer from anyone else at that time, especially in terms of high frequency performance, was really the key.
All these decks have a signature sound. Yes, they are coloured, but in a nice way. What I like about them all is that they have a warm beguiling sound, all very analogue and musical, like your favourite MC cartridge. The excellent HF performance and superb heads gave them plenty of ‘air, making the competition sound woolly by comparison!.
Today, even the humble 500 is still capable of giving many other main stream cassette decks 20 years its younger a good walloping.
My personal favourite of the bunch is the 600II, a lush sound, great looks, and useful tape calibration facilities, in an easily accommodated package; the 700 and 1000 are shelf hogs.
Episode Two: The Classic Years
This is without a doubt the most interesting chapter in the history of Nakamichi, and broadly speaking can be broken down to two main periods, 1978-80 and 1981-84. These two periods also chart the rapid technical development in the performance of the humble cassette deck to its’ zenith in 1985.
The 78-80 period marks the ascendancy of Nakamichi as the ‘tour de force’ of all cassette decks, and built their reputation as the brand to own, if you could.
1978 saw the most ground breaking of Nakamichi’s technological developments: the modular, diffused resonance, asymmetric dual capstan transport. A little later this, coupled with the pressure pad lifter, saw a quantum leap in performance, and was to be Nakamichi’s stalwart transport used in the majority of models until 1984.
As far as I am aware, the first deck to hit the market so equipped was the 580. Why the 580 – a deck which on paper and transport aside, offered no significant advantage over the 600II it replaced? I can only assume that it was a test mule, and as such was a short lived model seeing a number of evolutionary changes during it’s production life.
The very first 580’s used the RP53 head as per the 600II and do not appear to have had the pad lifter fitted. Decks in the mid run of production definitely had the pad lifter, and the later units received a head change to the RP8L, which appears to be unique to this model.
1979 heralded the introduction of ‘metal’ tape and the blossoming of the Nakamichi range. The 580M replaced the 580, and the 581 and 582 models hit the market. The 582 in particular was a good soldier for Nakamichi: rugged, reliable and offered a high level of performance for its price, and many survive to this day.
A short time later the three-model 480 series joined the fray at the more affordable end (the 480/481/482).
And the 4 model 680 series appeared at the top end for the serious user with the 680 and 660ZX/670ZX/680ZX models.
The 680 and ZX’s pushed the +/-3dB HF performance to 22Khz, but possibly more importantly, LF went down to a low 10Hz. These models have the lowest usable LF response of all the Nakamichi’s, though I find them a bit ‘bloomy’ with certain recordings.
There are a number of curiosities with this the range: firstly the ‘1‘ series decks and the 660ZX; three headers, but without off tape monitoring. It saved one set of Dolby chips and licenses, but were really a bit pointless, unneeded complexity with no real advantage, probably because the two-headers were so superb in their own right!.
Then there were the two speed 680 and 680ZX’s, not 2x speed, as others were to flirt with, but half speed – 15/16ips… a snails pace, but which offered a +/-3dB of 10 to 15KHz, and still better than much of the opposition at normal speed. But, like the ‘1’s really an exercise in futility as there was no cross deck compatibility, and in all my years haven’t come across anyone who has used it other than as a curiosity, soon abandoned.
It also infringed the Philips code book on the compact cassette and Philips apparently got a bit crinkly about it, which was probably as much behind the dropping of that feature, as was the practical uselessness of it with the 680/ZX replacement in 1981.
Also I’m not sure of the 680, but the 680ZX used the P9 head set, the only model to do so, (the P8 set being used across the board on all other three head models), and though no one has ever been able to explain why, my guess is that these heads had slightly different gaps or were specially selected out to accommodate the half speed function.
Lastly, there was the introduction of the add on High-Com and then High Com II NR units, using Telefunken’s proprietary compander system. Whilst, technically much better than Dolby B, offering 25dB NR, it suffered from lack of market acceptance and so withered on the vine.
1980 saw the range continue as above, but also marked the unleashing of the mother of all cassette decks, the computing 1000ZXL. To this day the 1000ZXL is probably the highest performing cassette deck ever released (pictured below, with add on NR-200 unit for Dolby C).
The 1000ZXL continued the 1000 tradition, and brought with it an imposing mass, some 20Kg of shelf hog, a beautifully finished rosewood cabinet, ABLE: computer controlled 4 frequency point Azimuth, Bias, Level and Equalization setting, and a 20-20Khz +/- 0.25dB performance!. The 3dB performance range was 18-25kHz at which point filters apparently kick in.
The 1000ZXL still used Nakamichi’s classic transport and P8 head sets, though the latter were specially selected out. Thirty years on the four-bit ‘computing’ seems quaint, and there were later transports with better technical specs, but there is no denying the capability and sound of this machine if in fine trim.
1981 was the year of Dolby C, and so a rejig of cassette deck features almost across the entire cassette deck universe. Cheapies soldered on with B only, for a while, and the early mainstream implementations of Dolby C weren’t so flash and gave this noise reduction an undeserved reputation for woolly or dull sound, at least early on.
For Nakamichi, the Dolby C enabled decks gained a ‘Z’ and 50dB range 16 segment LED metering replaced the 47dB needle meters. The 580M was dropped, followed by the 481Z and 581Z shortly after, and the latter are a rare encounter today.. I have only ever seen them in catalogues. The 582Z lasted a little bit longer, but was gone by 1982 and is similarly a rare beast. (582 top, 582Z bottom)
The 681ZX and 682ZX replaced the former 680 range, with the half speed feature dropped, different metering, added auto level as part of the auto azimuth adjustments, and reintroduced user adjustable bias. 22kHz HF performance remained, but LF was back up to 20Hz.
The 700ZXL and 700ZXE joined to continue the 700 tradition. The 700ZXL was a slightly dumbed down version of the 1000ZXL, but given some fancy clothes. The ZXE version used the same fancy clothes but a more simple 3 frequency point calibration system and a further reduction in overall frequency response. Curiously, none of the ZXLs ever gained Dolby C on board, Probably reflective of the low sales volumes meaning retooling was uneconomic. Dolby C functionality was added via the NR-100 external unit.
1981 also saw the appearance of two new concepts in performance and functionality to quote the blurb… the ZX-7 and the two LX decks. The ZX-7 had enough knobs and tuneability to satisfy all but the most hardened tape fanatic and certainly looked like an escapee from a tech lab. All good for impressing people, and a 2nd hand market favourite to this day.
The LX’s were rather more subdued and were the result of Niro Nakamichi’s styling influence, offering very clean lines and more likely to blend in as part of the furniture. They have a good WAF factor with the techy bits hidden behind a drop down panel. The LX3 and LX5 are comparable to the 480Z and 482Z, offering similar functionality and performance, but in a nice suit.
One other point of note during 1981 was the 1000ZXL limited, a very ‘Las Vegas’ gold plated, slightly tickled version of the stock 1000ZXL, made to order only. The P8 heads were specially selected from 1000ZXL stocks, and identified by their gold appearance. The capstan flywheels were brass, and the componentry also specially selected, but in reality there was little to chose between the two. The gold plating was very soft and thin and these decks do not wear well, and look decidedly tacky IMHO. The absolute production figure is unknown, but best estimates place the number produced at 112. Apparently one did make it to NZ.
As an aside the NR200 stand alone Dolby B/C unit appeared, and the TX-1000 turntable arrived.
1982 saw some range changing and a portent of things to come. The 480Z and 482Z were dropped, to be replaced by the BX-1 and BX-2. Similarly the 681ZX, 682ZX , and 700ZXL/ZXE’s disappeared. The ZX-9 joined the ZX-7, and finally, enter the Dragon.
The rest of the range remained unchanged.
The ZX-9 saw the introduction of the first ‘new’ transport from Nakamichi in 4 years, using a direct drive motor for the capstan drive. This reduced wow and flutter further, to the point of spec chasing rather than for any audible benefit. Electronics were similar to the ZX-7, but again, selected componentry, and of course, gold print on the front panel!
The BX-1 and BX-2 were an omen. The first Nakamichi to use an off the peg transport: a single capstan Sankyo mechanism, as Nakamichi attempted to go down market and pick up some volume sales. The BX-1 was Dolby B NR only. Not the best styling either, both looked a bit messy for my taste, but performance wasn’t bad though.
The Dragon almost deserves a story of it’s own, but it is not a deck I am fond of. It was Nakamichi’s first ‘auto reverse’ deck and geared more for playback with the introduction of NAAC ( Nakamichi Auto Azimuth Correction) and used a very complex playback head. The Dragon used two DD motors and the ‘Auto reverse’ was accomplished by operating the capstans backwards on the second cycle. The Dragon is only capable of recording in one direction only though, again indicative of the playback bent.
NAAC was technically a very clever, perhaps too clever for the time, and to me the Dragon is unnecessarily complicated, and reliability suffers. However, the yuppies loved it and the Dragon soon gained the undeserved reputation as the best cassette deck on the planet, a myth many fleabayers (eBay sellers) are keen to perpetrate to this day!
Further reading: Reel to Reel / Cassette Discussion Forum
Originally published at AudioEnz, 5th August, 2011 as Nakamichi, One Man's Journey Through the World of Cassettes
Reproduced under license from our New Zealand publication. Some specifications or pricing may be changed to represent currency or regional variations.