Sony TC-KA1ESA Cassette Deck
Peter Kun Frary, Professor of Music University of Hawaii, Leeward
With the digital age and audio salesmen nipping at my coattails, I was persuaded to replace my dying cassette deck in my home system with a Sony MD recorder. Bad choice. The slightly harsh but cumulatively irritating timbre and lack of universality (few of my friends or students have MD decks) resulted in a cheap sale to a neighborhood teenager. Consequently, I purchased a Sony TC-KA1ESA cassette deck.
I rarely listen to cassettes at home but, instead, use this deck to record CD, DAT and LP for Walkman and auto use. Tapes are especially useful in cars because thieves prefer CDs and CD players (my car's CD deck and CDs are long gone). Heck, leave tapes on your dashboard and you may scare thieves away.
As the bottom of Sony's "luxury" ES line, the TC-KA1ESA gives you the important basics and nothing more: 3 heads, 2 motors, music scan, memory stop, auto tape selection, bias tuning, two-speed fast forward, balance, record level (some decks leave this off!) Dolby B, C, S & HX, headphone jack, and a real time counter. There is no auto reverse to muck up the sound. It responds to Sony system remotes but doesn't include a remote control.
The use of a 3-head design allows precise monitoring and optimization of individual heads for playback, recording and monitoring. This design approach yields greater audio fidelity than all-in-one or two-head designs. It also allows you to set levels without engaging record, a worthwhile time saving convenience.
The use of separate motors for each cassette hub is more robust and allows faster winding than single motor decks with failure prone crutch and belt mechanisms. Of course, a third motor for the capstan is even better but will cost you about $300 more.
The transport buttons are hard plastic. A rubber coating would have felt better and provided a sure grip. Unfortunately, the transport makes loud clicking sounds when stopping and starting (my Tascams are relatively quiet). A surprising amount of torque emanates from the 2 DC motors resulting in a zippy rewind and fast forward. I wish the cassette well was backlit but that's a feature you pay extra for in the top end TC-KA3ESA. If you want to record live audio you'll need a mixing board and/or a cable adapter. This puppy has only RCA I/O.
The AMS feature brings back memories of my Club Scout days and Morse Code: tap the button 2 times and it zips to track 2, tap 7 times and it double times it to track 7, etc. You can search up to track 30 but your finger might get sore (not to mention losing count).
The brightly backlit meters are of the bar graph type and provide a pretty light show. They're calibrated like most consumer decks. i.e., you can pin the meters wide open and not get much distortion. Zero dB on my Tascam 122MKIII seems to be about the same as signal strength as +6 on the Sony! Consequently, it would be hard for a novice to screw up a recording.
Contrary to its Sony ES pedigree, this deck is plasticky and light (like most VCR, DVD, MD decks), sporting a thin metal case and a metal-look plastic front panel. The fit and finish are of good quality, and it is certainly a handsome and unobtrusive unit if you like the black "professional" gear look. The cassette door features a ceramic cassette holder with a Sorbothane stabilizer to help resist resonance. The hard plastic feet could use dampening material to control resonance as well (you can roll your own). This is nothing alarming, but the TC-KA1ESA becomes warm after several hours of use (my Panasonic DVD and VCR decks become hot!). This deck was manufactured in Malaysia.
I was originally concerned with the plastic front panel because I live one block from a transmitting tower. Suckie, huh? Yes, RFI is in my phones and any cheap, unshielded audio component or musical instrument. Amazingly, Sony must have included excellent shielding on the inside because there is no audible RFI. I returned two more expensive decks due to RFI problems.
Setting the tape bias is easy and takes about 30 seconds with the built-in tone generator. I sometimes found the recommended settings slightly bright and CD like for my taste and, consequently, rolled off the highs during calibration. I prefer the "generic" uncalibrated setting with Sony tapes (Maxell chrome needs slight tuning). Could it be that Sony engineers have impaired upper frequency hearing and hence boost the highs? My old Sony CD deck and MDR-7506 "professional" headphones sounded so bright it hurt my teeth. The good news here is that tape bias is easily adjusted to taste. Of course, if you want good sound, be sure to use top-quality type II (chrome) or IV (metal) tape.
Fortunately, Sony saved the ES quality for the sonics. There are decks that sound a little better but not this side of $300. It sounds almost as good as my $1000 Tascam 122MKIII, a heavy weight three-head deck holed up in my studio rack.
I mainly listen to pitch and noise revealing recordings--solo classical guitar, lute and harpsichord--so it's not unusual for cassette decks (and turntables) to flunk Aural Training 101. However, this analog dodo immediately offered up fine sonic qualities--sonic qualities which include neutrality, a three dimensional soundstage, a near CD level of background quiet and excellent pitch stability. With Dolby S noise reduction engaged it was virtually impossible to distinguish between the source and recording. I could hear a very slight difference by playing the source and recording simultaneously and switching between the two while listening with Sennheiser 580 headphones. Listening through the main speakers I was not able to hear any apparent differences (I equalized volume). I was not as pleased with Dolby C as it sounds slightly muted (Dolby B sounds better).
I recorded source material from CD, DAT and LP on to Maxell XLII-S (type II), Maxell MX (type IV, metal) and Sony UX-ES (type II) with excellent results. All the tapes tracked well in my other machines, including a Sony 20th Anniversary Walkman (the stainless steel one), WM-EX7 Walkman, Pioneer auto deck, Tascam 103 and Tascam 122MKIII.
This deck inspires consumer confidence with the ES line's 5 year warranty. Plus, Sony maintains its own repair facilities here in Honolulu. Sony's similarly featured and priced deck, the TC-KE500S (they share the same manual), has an uninspiring one-year warranty.
Megabuck marketing teams and audio pundits have labeled analog audio as inferior to digital in order to move new digital product. The public eats these lies up and worships all that is digital. No wonder it's increasingly difficult to find quality audio cassette decks. Sure, there are plenty of expensive professional decks available from Tascam, Marantz and Denon, but consumer-grade, three-head decks are disappearing. Yeah, cheap boomboxes and two-cassette well decks are abundance, and they're part of the reason Joe Average thinks cassettes suck compared to MD. The TC-KA1ESA is Sony's dirty little analog secret: cheap, smooth sounding, good looking, quiet, universal and can kick Sony MD butts any day of the week.
I wish this deck included a remote control. Of course, it responds to Sony system remotes but I don't own a Sony amp or receiver (if someone loaned me a system remote I would program my learning remote).
Sound Quality: A • Construction: B • Ease of Use: A • Features: A • Bang for Buck: B+
I have been informed that the Sony ES 5 year warranty has been downgraded to 3 years. Still, that's longer than most warranty periods. Moreover, after 1.5 years of frequent use, the TC-KA1ESA has continued to prove itself by cranking out excellent recordings.
Where to Buy
Video Life 670 Auahi Street #A-06 Honolulu HI 96813 808 521-2020 email@example.com $249.00
Crutchfield 1 Crutchfield Park Charlottesville VA 22906-6020 800 955-9091 $300
©Copyright 2001 by Peter Kun Frary All Rights Reserved