Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Remembering Elcaset

Here’s to Elcaset, to further remind us that new doesn’t necessarily mean better.

By: Vanessa Uy

Since I’ve found a Sony EL5 model stereo Elcaset deck and a bunch of Elcaset blank tapes in a garage sale, it started my own “road to Damascus” experience. Upon seeing the goods (the EL5 deck plus 4 user-recorded tapes and 6 unused Elcaset tapes) almost giveaway price that’s equivalent to US$5.50 in our local currency, my lips just flapped “I want one.” Yep, that’s less than half the price of a Full-Priced CD and I know that the items in question are worth way more than that during the product’s heyday in 1976. Also, I’ve been longing to find out first hand the pros and cons about Elcaset which I’ve only read about in old hi-fi magazines.

The EL5 Elcaset deck is one over-engineered (the kind of engineering I like) monster. Out of curiosity, I weighed it on our kitchen scale with a 12kg capacity. It went off the scale. Maybe this deck weighs 13kg. Yes that’s over 12kilograms of brushed aluminum fascia that made it look like a prop from a Sean Connery - era Bond movie and the diecast tape transport with it’s jumbo ferrite tape heads. The sample I bought may had been tweaked and upgraded by the previous owner since the solid state electronics that comprise the input and output amplifiers had been replaced by 12AX7A vacuum tubes. After visually checking the “soundness” of the upgrades, I replaced the tubes that came with the Elcaset deck with the spares for my guitar amplifier for safety reasons and for the “old” tubes to be tested later for faults. My spare tubes are Sovtek 12AX7A with Cyrillic (Russian) markings reputed for their excellent sound quality and reliability. They’re also relatively inexpensive as vacuum tube prices go these days.

For those who are too young or too hateful to remember, Elcaset was designed at the beginning of the 1970’s by an engineering team working for Sony as a possible replacement for Philips compact cassette. Or maybe, just to cash in on the cassette’s popularity at the time. Back in 1963, Philips originally intended the compact cassette as a recording media for speech/dictation. The compact cassette was never intended as a high quality music recording media. But this didn’t stop anyone and their dogs from adapting cassettes for music use. But as time went on, Elcaset proved to be a marketing disaster. Not in the same league as the miserable failure of US President George W. Bush’s administration, but quite close. To me, all the recording media formats that failed commercially through the years show quite an alarming pattern. They have been brilliant, even excellent solutions to a technological problem, but are simply ill - conceived for commercial success. They are quite good but the buying public simply didn’t want them yet. The “yet” part was never been and is never was good for the consumer electronic business.

Not necessarily apparent but quite plausible is that the Japanese Home Base of Sony has a blindness born from insularity (Does this mean that living in an island is bad for you?). They overlook the rising global demand for prerecorded tapes. That was in the 1970’s by the way, the decade that bought us those extremely cool bands like Kiss, Cheap Trick, and The Sex Pistols to name just a few. How they overlooked this is beyond me. And by the way, audiophiles since time immemorial always wanted “reference” samples to find out how their do-it-yourself recordings compare to major label offerings thus the raison d’être of prerecorded tapes. Elcaset was offered only as a high- quality- recording medium. In comparison, an almost similar American tape-based medium that’s invented much earlier-the 8 track- managed to exist for much longer because of the availability of prerecorded 8 track tapes. This was also the obvious cause of Digital- Audio- Tape’s (DAT) ignominious demise at the start of the 21st Century despite being a de rigueur format for digital studio recording since 1983. The music industry was much powerful then and very fearful of the concepts of copyright infringement, home recording and music piracy. The music pirates got their revenge though by hijacking an infrastructure that was primarily the sole domain of American and European particle physicists in the 1980’s called “file sharing.” It didn’t take forever for the pirates to become tech savvy enough to utilize the MP3 file compression format that gave birth to “Napster” and other music file sharing sites that bought us the current internet music download culture that’s devoid of both copyright laws and sound quality.

Back in 1976, Elcaset’s specifications can only be described as incredible for a product intended for domestic use. Its tape was designed to run at 3 ¾ inches per second- twice that of cassette’s standard speed. Elcaset’s tape width is 6.3 mm which was the same width as a “standard quarter track open- reel tape” (the domestic kind). As the physics goes in the tape recording universe, running more (thicker) tape at a higher speed past the head gave Elcaset an unfair advantage over their cassette tape contemporaries. The magnetic strength of the signals recorded on an Elcasete is probably more than 10 times stronger than the same signals recorded on cassette. Recently, I’ve experimented on this by way of running my Technics cassette tape deck at twice its standard speed. I could record signals at +10dB on the VU meters without distortion compared to 0dB to +3dB while using the cassette’s standard speed. Therefore, the faster the tape moves- the more signal or louder you can record which was good if you want your music to be much louder than the tape “hiss” or noise. The only disadvantage of this “upgrade” is that cassette players that run twice its 1 7/8 inches per second standard speed are as common as hen’s teeth.

In my hands on experience, Elcasets are very user friendly with a smooth and quiet running. For a product marketed during the time where The Sex Pistols were still tied to their day jobs, the ergonomics (that’s Greek for the working switches and buttons) are excellent. This has always been Sony’s forté. As I evaluated the sound quality of my tube upgraded EL5, it avoided the dull and muddy sound of cassette decks marketed during the mid 1970’s. Connected to my sound system set-up optimized for a Linn Sondek turntable, I inserted one of the Elcaset tapes, which was recorded with songs probably from LP records by the previous owner. The first track on one of the tapes was “Lady D’Arbanville by Cat Sevens (He latter became a Muslim, goes by the name of Yusuf Islam and declared a fatwah on Salman “Satanic Verses” Rushdie). This late 1960’s recording is known for it’s deep and loose sounding bass. The EL5 displayed a trait that surprised this audio greenhorn. I didn’t know that HDCD like bass quality existed back then on a domestic gear no less. This is 1inch two track master tape kind of bass. And that hard to define imaging out of the speakers sound quality that made my quality DIY dynamic speakers sound like their electrostatic speakers that cost as much as a Honda Jazz. Compared to the 8 track I borrowed from an audiobuddy of mine, the EL5 Elcaset deck has a clearer tonally brighter sound with much better soundstage. Compared to the Sondek with a speed regulator, the Elcaset was less focused especially on flute recordings. Noting the lack of focus anomaly of the EL5 deck, I’ve replaced the belts/capstan or anything that might had worn out after all these years. The belts and capstans in use in the EL5 are still available in our local Sony Service Center because all of Sony’s cassette decks supposedly use the same parts. Compared to my Pioneer CD DVD Audio SACD player was slightly less focused when compared to CD even though it has this tonal warmth that’s very attractive. I have recently acquired a SACD copy of Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” album and I immediately fell in love with it even the tape hiss between the songs believe it or not. A note of warning though, the tape hiss on the SACD version of “Kind of Blue” is not the same as that found on standard 16 Bit CD even super bit mapped ones. I call the hiss found on the CD versions of “Kind of Blue” Ugly Betty. The same hiss that lives in Elcaset reminds me of the much gorgeous sounding tape hiss found on the open reel master tape of “Kind of Blue.” Is it insanity when one loves tape hiss? This is where an analog medium like Elcaset has better sound quality than the standard 16 Bit CD.

Maybe, it’s the tube upgrades, maybe it’s the Elcaset. Next time, I’ll borrow one of my audiobuddies two-channel tube based mike pre-amp and a pair of US$1,000 condenser microphones to record my own cello performances. I wonder how does Elcaset sound when recording live performances compared to my Ampex open-reel tape recorder. And by the way, the Sylvania 12AX7A that came with the EL5 deck are still functional after I tested them on an experimental circuit lay out. They just didn’t sound as good as the Sovtek ones.

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