Behind The Scenes (July 1977)

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A little over 10 years ago, Philips introduced their compact cassette system, which stripped to essentials, was a tape recording system utilizing tape slightly over 1/7th inch in width, which operated at a speed of 1-7/8 ips, and was enclosed in a plastic shell which could be easily inserted and withdrawn from the record/playback mechanism, thus eliminating tape threading. The cassette was intended to be an inexpensive, convenient, portable speech recorder, suitable for dictation purposes. Within the Philips company, I'm sure that even the most wildly optimistic advocate of the cassette system never envisioned it becoming a high-fidelity stereo recording medium; in terms of prerecorded cassettes and in the opinion of many people the cassette is now a viable alternative to the phonograph disc. The advent of high-energy oxide formulations, new types of high -efficiency magnetic heads, Dolby-B noise reduction, advanced solid-state record/playback circuitry ... all have contributed to the establishment of the cassette as a truly high quality means of magnetic tape recording.

The high quality, versatility, and relatively modest cost of the cassette resulted in a veritable sales explosion, with literally hundreds of models of cassette recorders on the market.

While the cassette drove "low -end" open -reel magnetic tape recorders off the market, open -reel aficionados with the wherewithal supported the "high -end" recorder market and pointed out the technical shortcomings of the compact cassette.

They said that cassette tape was lacking in headroom ... it couldn't handle a wide enough dynamic range ... the tape went into saturation too fast and caused distortion ... tape motion wasn't stable, because guidance was a function of the shell, and the shells were inconsistent in construction.

While acknowledging all this, there were many tape enthusiasts who idly speculated on what a good thing it would be if someone could combine the best features of both systems.

Japanese Ingenuity

The ever-industrious, ever-ingenious Japanese evidently had just this sort of thing in mind when they announced the Elcaset tape recording system early last year. In essence, the Elcaset is a scaled -up version of the compact cassette, some 2 1/2 times larger in size, and it uses standard quarter -inch magnetic tape, operating at 3 3/4 ips ... double the speed of the cassette. Besides these obvious points, the Elcaset is considerably more sophisticated than the regular cassette. For instance, in the Elcaset the tape is pulled out of the plastic shell and onto the tape heads, eliminating the guidance problems inherent in the cassette system. The Elcaset shell was designed from the first to accept three heads, so true "off -the tape" monitoring is possible. Sensing notches are molded into the Elcaset to automatically program the recorder for such things as Dolby-B noise reduction and proper bias and equalization for the three specially formulated tapes designated Type One ... a low noise/high output gamma ferric oxide, Type Two ... a ferri chrome tape, and Type 3 ... chromium dioxide tape. While the Elcaset comes in C-60 and C-90 lengths and is stereo/mono compatible, a third "pilot" track between the stereo tracks can be used for such things as slide show synchronization and pre-set program selection. With the quarter inch wide tape, 3 3/4 ips speed, and special tapes, the Elcaset is capable of a much wider dynamic range, wider frequency response, less distortion, and a better signal-to-noise ratio than the cassette.

The Elcaset was a joint development of Sony, Matsushita, and Teac, and they were soon joined by JVC and Akai. There were some previews of the system for the audio press corps, who learned there were models of the Elcaset to be shown at the 1976 summer CES. As it turned out, to a limited extent, this did indeed happen. I was "button-holed" by the public relations minions of one company, who gave me very positive promises that an Elcaset unit would be sent to me in short order for my evaluation. Well, tempus fugited, I fidgited, and no Elcaset appeared. During this period, it seemed that some internecine un pleasantries were going on within the Elcaset consortium.

One of the things the group had to contend with was a certain amount of apathy and indifference to the Elcaset concept on the part of some audio dealers and some of the press. There were the usual expressions of "who needs it?"--common to many new developments in audio. These nay-sayers are entitled to their opinions, but to voice such ideas before they ever got to see or hear an Elcaset is patently unfair. If the ideas of these people prevailed, we would still be sharpening cactus needles and playing our music through "morning glory" horns!

Licensing Lethargy

Eventually, the reason for the reduced activity and nonappearance of Elcaset models from the various companies became apparent. It appears that Sony, probably the prime -mover in the Elcaset project and sole manufacturer of the special Elcaset tapes, wanted other tape companies like TDK and 3M, to pay a fee for a license

to manufacture these tapes. They are, of course, perfectly within their rights in making such a request, and one cannot castigate them for so doing.

However, might we gently suggest they take a leaf from Philips' book and offer their technology free of any license fees? There is little doubt that this Philips gesture was of inestimable value in the rapid proliferation and establishment of the cassette format.

As of now, negotiations are still going on, and one hopes that the issue will soon be resolved. One hopes that there may be some movement in this direction from the announcement by Teac that their Elcaset deck will soon be available. Superscope has begun to market the Sony decks, and the Sony decks are on the market in England, and have, in fact, been glowingly reviewed in the prestigious Hi-Fi News and Record Review. Technics demonstrated their Model RS -750005 Elcaset deck at the New York AES convention and at the recent Washington and Philadelphia Hi-Fi Shows. In December of last year, I was with a group of audio writers at the Technics plant in Osaka, where we got a thorough rundown on this Technics Elcaset unit.

Now I finally have a RS -750005 Elcaset unit and a supply of Type One and Type Two blank Elcasets. It seems that the chromium dioxide Type Three Elcasets are not yet available.

The RS -750005 Elcaset recorder is a very rugged-looking unit, in the "rack mount with large handles" configuration and the currently popular "black look." It is a front-loading unit, and there is an ingenious mechanism which automatically pulls the tape out of the Elcaset when the shell is inserted and locked in place. There is a double -gap ferrite erase head and separate permalloy record and play back heads, permitting off-the-tape monitoring. The tape drive is via a frequency generator servo-controlled d.c. motor, with a connecting belt driving the take-up reel. Wow and flutter is claimed to be 0.06 percent rms, and while I did not test it with a flutter bridge, sustained piano chords (piano is a fixed-pitch instrument) sounded quite clean and stable. Tape motion and record/play functions are controlled by the usual mechanical "finger" leverage system. The unit has two good-sized VU meters (peak indication with an LED would be helpful), tape-monitor switch, memory rewind, and separate pots for mike/line mixing. As noted previously, bias and equalization are automatically set by the sensing notches on the Elcaset shell, and front panel lights indicate what type of tape is being used. A panel covering the three heads unscrews for easy cleaning. There is no Dolby-B noise reduction furnished in this $599.00 Elcaset deck, and this brings up a marketing point .... The Sony EL5 Elcaset deck is the same price as the Technics and has Dolby B noise reduction ... but it only has two heads and does not permit off -the tape monitoring! Which is the more important? I. personally feel the answer is self-evident ... both machines should have the combination of three heads and Dolby B noise reduction.

Both Sony and Technics do have higher priced Elcaset units with both facilities. Frequency response of the Technics RS -75000S is rated at 25-18,000 Hz ±3 dB with Type One tape and 2520,000 Hz with Type Two or Three tape.

Testing Tells ...

I have a great new device for measuring overall record/playback response with three -head tape machines. This is the United Recording Equipment Industries (UREI) Model 2000 automatic X/Y response plotter.

This sweeps from 20 to 20 kHz, and a pen recorder plots the curve on log audio paper. I will be bringing you a detailed report on this unit in an upcoming column ... I am awaiting a new UREI module 2010, which can plot amplitude and frequency from test tapes and records, etc. so I can give a full report. Anyway, the curve I obtained speaks for itself! I hooked up a Dolby 505 Type B noise reduction unit to the Technics Elcaset, and at 9-10 dB better than the claimed 63 dB S/N ratio, hiss was no problem. I played a 15-ips master with Dolby -A noise reduction through an Ampex 440C and recorded it on Type One Elcaset tape. On A/B comparison, it was almost impossible to consistently tell one from the other.

The Elcaset handled the wide dynamics of Prokofiev's Lt. Kije suite with no strain, and the S/N was quite good. I played quite a few Elcasets I had recorded from master copies, and without exception, people who have heard them have been singularly impressed, not the least of which were some ladies, who loved the simplicity of the loading. It is early in the game, but on the basis of my experience and the fine reviews from England, the Elcaset deserves a hearing (no pun intended).

(Source: Audio magazine, July 1977; Bert Whyte)

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