Cassette players make a comeback in 2024

A love for all things retro (Pixabay)
A love for all things retro (Pixabay)

Summary

Riding on nostalgia and a love for all things analog, cassette tapes and players are back in fashion among some audiophiles

Cassette players have lived in obscurity for the better part of the last two decades. Recently though, at least in the UK and US, they’ve been making a comeback, riding on nostalgia and a fascination among Gen Z for all things analog and retro.

While vintage shops have been running out of older models, companies like Fiio and Sony are making new ones – and they have found a niche market. According to research by The British Phonographic Industry, sales of cassette tapes have risen for 10 consecutive years, touching a 20-year peak in 2022 with annual sales of 195,000 units.

Despite the far superior audio quality today’s streaming apps and smartphones offer, cassette tapes and players are making a comeback perhaps because of their audio quality. Those of you who have used cassette players during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, will remember that the sound is quite distinctive. The physical condition of the tapes creating a variation in the sound is being considered unique and beautiful. Brands like Fiio, Sony, and We Are Rewind are now manufacturing portable cassette players betting on the fact that some users like a dedicated device for listening to music – something that’s not connected to the internet. And though it is still a very niche market, especially in India, interest in the technology is growing – much like instant cameras like Instax.

Chinese electronic company Fiio came to CES in January 2024 with the CP13 – a portable cassette player with a sleek design and a few retro touches. James Chunge, CEO of Fiio, said he wanted to pay homage to the original Sony Walkman that came out in 1979.

FIIO portable cassette players
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FIIO portable cassette players

Personal portable music players: a short history

Battery-operated reel-to-reel tape recorders were introduced in the 1950s and produced by Uher and Nagara. In the 1960s, Phillips introduced a compact cassette recorder, mainly for recording speech. Cassette tapes entered the scene in 1963. They were invented by Dutch engineer Lou Ottens, the head of new product development at Philips. Ottens was trying to find a way to shrink reel-to-reel tapes to a size accessible to the common man. The two-spool cassette tape debuted at the Berlin Radio Show. But it remained an expensive and specialised gadget till the late 1970s, when everything changed.

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Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka wanted to be able to hear music on long flights. Specifically, he asked for a way to listen to opera. Sony designer Norio Ohga built a prototype from Sony’s Pressman cassette recorder, which Ibuka took on his next flight. That paved the way for the first-ever Sony Walkman model, the TPS-L2, released on July 1st, 1979 for $150. Here’s a fun fact for your next dinner table party – the Sony Walkman was not Sony’s first-ever product. That honour goes to the electric rice cooker!

Despite the first month seeing sluggish sales, the Walkman became one of Sony’s most successful brands of all time. From cassettes, it went into CDs, Mini-Disc, MP3 and then streaming music. Out of the over 400 million Walkman portable music players sold, 200 million were cassette players. Sony may have retired the Walkman line of classic cassette tape players in 2010, but they seem to have bounced back.

 

The Sony WM-FX290 Stereo Cassette Player
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The Sony WM-FX290 Stereo Cassette Player

The original Walkman was made from aluminium, while later models were made from plastic. The original Walkman had two features that, sadly, never made it through to the latter years. The Walkman inventor thought that the idea of sharing music was something that would catch on. There were not one, but two headphones (at that time, it was all over-ear headphones and not earphones) jacks, on the original player. Secondly, the TPS-L2 had a hotline button. This activated a built-in microphone and muted the music. One could talk without having to take their headphones off. Walking around with headphones may have been termed antisocial at first, but it soon caught on and became accepted in society.

Fiio CP13: A new-age cassette player

The Fiio CP13 has come a long way from those days. Fiio is a brand known for affordable yet high-tech hardware. It has a selection of over-ear headphones, hi-res DACs (digital-to-analogue converter), a hi-res audio keyboard and an all-in-one desktop Hi-Fi streaming player and amplifier.

The Fiio CP13 feels familiar in more ways than one. The case is made of metal, with a solid build, while the front of the unit is made from plastic. There’s the classic transparent peephole, so you can witness the tapes doing their thing. You know it’s a 2024 product when it has a rechargeable battery (via a USB-C connection) powering it. The Fiio CP13 is good for 15 hours of playtime. There are the four classic play, stop, rewind and fast forward buttons that you’d instantly recall if you’ve ever used a cassette player. There’s also a volume dial and the 3.5mm headphone jack (which, in my opinion, is the most important part of this device).

Why cassettes and not CDs, you may ask? Originally, we all thought CDs were “indestructible". But CD rot is real. And every scratch/drop contributed to a deterioration in audio quality that annoyed the listener in more ways than one. The hard plastic case of a cassette is hard to destroy. Someone once told me, many eons ago, that even a cassette that was left out in the sun and “melted" played great afterwards.

We Are Rewind: A throwback to the original Walkman

Portable BT Cassette Player from We Are Rewind
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Portable BT Cassette Player from We Are Rewind

Fiio is not alone in reviving the cassette player. We Are Rewind has worked on the audio cassette player to give it a fresh look brimmed with fresh technology. Designers from We Are Rewind worked with French engineers (who had created analog players back in the 1970s) and sound equipment studio ORA. The high-end model - Portable BT Cassette Player - gives a whiff of nostalgia. It’s made of aluminium, instead of plastic, so it can be more durable and lasts longer. It’s got your classic buttons and a headphone jack, along with an audio output (for making your mixtapes). The modern technology comes in the form of a Bluetooth connection for the wireless earbuds lying around in your house. There’s a rechargeable battery that offers 12 hours of playback. The Portable BT Cassette Player is only slightly larger and bulkier than the original Sony Walkman.

Pure nostalgia

For me, listening to cassettes brings back a lot of memories from the late 90s. Whenever I’m cleaning up parts of my house, I’ll find a cassette here and there but nothing to play it on. It’s an expensive hobby, but that’s not to downplay just how much fun it is, especially the sheer beauty of physical media. It’s like vinyl, which has made a big return, and even though cassette players may not have a vinyl-like boom, they have made a comeback.

If you do decide to buy (or find one lying around your house) a cassette player, whether Fiio, We Are Rewind or from some other company, just make sure you know where to buy cassettes (new or second-hand) to keep your player fresh for many years down the road. In India, many local stores that used to sell music and music equipment are still around, from New Gramophone House in Delhi to Music Circle in Mumbai and Music Corner in Bengaluru. A few online sellers like Calcuttarecords.com and and Vintagestores.in sell old Hindi film cassette tapes along with some Indian classical and Western pop as well.

 

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