When I mentioned at the weekend that I was going to return to something I’d mentioned in passing, I doubt many people will have guessed that it would be the subject of cassettes. Yet here we are.
The desire to rediscover this much-maligned music format has been growing for ages and I’ve been close many times to shelling out for some variety of cassette player – either vintage or new – before skittering away in a fit of commonsense. Perhaps there has been the feeling that some things belong in the past and can’t fail to disappoint if pursued in a more sophisticated phase of life, but even that hasn’t stopped the itch for long.
When I went out browsing the vintage/second-hand stores a few weekends ago, I was definitely looking for some kind of cassette player and I was so disappointed not to find one. I did pick up some cassettes, though: Bruce Springsteen and Joan Baez for music, Trevor Eve reading Jamaica Inn, some serious history from the BBC. The Jamaica Inn audio book particularly amused the seller for some reason, and I spent quite some time chatting with him and his friend who had been to the actual Jamaica Inn in Cornwall. In fact, the seller claimed he didn’t think the cassette was part of his stock until he saw it had his sticker on it. I’m not surprised by this, as the pile of cassettes was in a dark corner covered in cobwebs.
Turning to the cassette player…. or recorder….. or boombox, call it what you choose, I can reveal that I’ve gone for an older, second-hand model. I’d read a lot about the ones you can buy brand new and the criticism seems to be that they all have very basic mechanisms sourced from one manufacturer and which don’t allow use of some of the advanced tape types that came along in the heyday of the cassette. On a more personal level, I don’t like the fact they also incorporate CD players which makes them slightly chunkier than I wanted and which I don’t need because I have plenty of ways to play CDs. I noticed some modern units don’t even have a record function which I definitely wanted, so everything pointed me to the second-hand/pre-loved market.
This past weekend I found myself taking a semi-serious trawl through the “vintage” sellers on Etsy and I earmarked a few likely candidates, of which this Sony was, if not exactly my favourite, then definitely the one I was most likely to buy. The following morning I received a discount code for 10% off and, bish-bash-bosh, the decision was made. It was apparent through my browsing that some sellers were more knowledgeable about their stock than others and I was shocked by the number of units, especially those also incorporating CD players, which were being sold with the cassette not working and that many were being marketed as “props” for Instagram photos rather than to play music. I was impressed, therefore, that this particular seller seemed to know what he was talking about as far as his stock went. Now I have it in my hands, I am even more impressed than I expected to be. This is so clean and functions perfectly – you can tell that it’s been treated with respect by the shop owner, though it helps that it probably had fairly light use over the years. This particular model dates, I believe, from the 1990s which does suggest it was just on the cusp of cassettes becoming obsolete. I think when buying “vintage” it’s often good to look for things which are manufactured just before a trend goes off the boil.
Which is all well and good, but the most important things are how does it sound and how does it make me feel? Is it a diamond or a pile of rust? It sounds like a cassette player does and should. Through the speakers, the sound is okay, but it improves massively when you plug in headphones and, thinking back, I used to listen through headphones an awful lot back in the day. People who presumably know what they are talking about will comment on “warmer” sounds compared to the digital medium of the CD or streaming service, but I’m not sure how I’d describe it myself. Anyway, the quality of sound will always be as hard to define as the relative colours of inks and boils down to what you personally happen to like. This isn’t hi-fi and I don’t want it to be. Which leads on neatly to how it makes me feel and I have to say the feeling is happiness. Is that nothing more than nostalgia? Does it matter? It feels nice to hear a few songs then have to stop and turn the cassette over, more purposeful listening than the endless stream. And knowing that I can browse the unwanted cassettes in charity shops to my heart’s content adds another layer of fun to the process.
But then there’s that satisfying whirr and clunk as the cassette ends and turns itself off. There’s nothing else quite the same.