It’s been a few years since vinyl records came back into vogue, and sales are showing no signs of slowing down. Alongside tube amps instead of solid state receivers, old-school analog is as cool now as it was back in the day. So where do things go next?
It turns out that the answer to that question might be the venerable cassette tape. So should you ditch your iPhone in favor of a Sony Walkman from the ‘90s? Probably not, but there are a few reasons you might be interested in cassettes. Then again, there are a few reasons to avoid them as well.
Why Are Cassettes Cool Again?
Some people may argue that cassettes were never cool, but we’ll look at that a little later. Much of the rise in popularity of cassettes has to do with the popularity of vinyl, because for many independent artists, putting out a vinyl version of a recording is impossible.
Pressing vinyl is expensive. So much so that pressing 100 copies is nearly the same price as pressing 500 or even 1,000. If you know you’re not going to sell that many copies, it’s simply financially impossible to release a record unless you’ve got the cash to spare.
While cassettes are more expensive than they used to be, they’re still cheap in comparison to vinyl. Independent artists can even dub tapes on their own, releasing them in batches as small as 10. With sites like BandCamp, you can bundle a physical release with a digital copy of an album, meaning you get the tape for the sake of having a physical copy, but you can listen to the lossless digital version.
The Sound Quality of Cassettes
Simply put, cassettes don’t sound that good. They don’t offer the dynamic range of vinyl, nor do they offer the frequency range of a CD.
A type II high-bias cassette offers a frequency range of roughly 16-18 kHz, assuming you’re using a good quality cassette deck. Most recordings don’t come on that type of tape however, they come on normal bias tape, which only has a frequency range of 12 to 16 kHz at the high end. Compared to CDs and vinyl, this is fairly limited.
Even worse, they sound worse the more you listen to them, as the magnetized film on the tape falls off a little bit each time you play them. Using a quality cassette deck can mitigate this to an extent, but it’s still an inevitability.
Why Are People Buying Cassettes?
The main reason people buy cassettes is to support the artists releasing them. As I mentioned earlier, many cassette releases also include a digital copy, meaning that you can listen to the recording on your phone or computer. The cassette itself is largely just for the sake of collecting.
Of course, there are enthusiasts and retro-minded people who have a hi-if system with an expensive cassette deck. There are also cassette-only releases, but these aren’t all that common.
Should You Build a Cassette Collection?
Short answer? Probably not. It can be cool to have a few, but for the reasons laid out above, cassettes don’t have much that makes it easy to recommend them.
For a longer answer, it depends. There are certain musical genre, like indie rock and electronic music, where cassettes are coming back in a big way. If you really enjoy artists releasing cassette-only albums, then it’s absolutely worthwhile. Just know that for audio quality, there are better options.
Maybe There’s a Better Way…
If you’re looking to build a music collection but like hi-fi sound quality, cassettes clearly aren’t your best option. They degrade over time, with each play, plus they don’t have much to offer when it comes to sound quality to begin with.
While building a physical music collection is a worthwhile pursuit, you’re better off with vinyl. It’s got bigger, better cover art, plus collectors are always after rare vinyl, meaning you could get some of your money back if you decide to go back to listening via Spotify or Apple Music.
If you’re not a fan of vinyl, just wait until CDs see the inevitable resurrection in popularity. It’s bound to happen eventually.
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