Yes, ‘tis the Clash of the Titans, as four old behemoths of analogue recording media slog it out for supremacy.
This was a much more difficult comparison than the previous, widely varied shoot-out (including Type I and Type II tapes), as all the cassettes in the current test were Type IVs covering the same territory. There was some difference in the age of the products, but even so, four high quality metal position cassettes were obviously going to deliver extremely good results, and accordingly, be a challenge to set apart…
A simple live electric guitar recording was not going to be enough to separate these tapes, so I opted instead to record a live MIDI sequence which included a range of instrument types – bass, PCM drums, keyboards, brass sounds, etc. This would give a wider (and easier to isolate) frequency range. As before, though, the test was not scientifically measured – it was purely a basic audible assessment.
THAT’S AS:IV 46
Unsurprisingly, this 46 minute specimen from 1994 started the ball rolling with a text book Type IV recording. Excellent preservation of the full frequency spectrum, brilliant definition and a full midrange without any overbearing hardness. The volume on playback was also strong, no worries about background noise, or any other untoward surprises.
I was thinking as I played back this first recording that the results of the overall comparison might prove too similar to warrant a blog post, but the next contender quickly showed me that all metal tapes were not created equal…
SONY METAL-ES 60
This cassette is about eight years older than the That’s, and therefore it was at a disadvantage both in technological terms, and as regards the potential effects of ageing. Additionally, the Sony was the sole 60 minute cassette in this roundup, with all its rivals packing shorter (46 minute) tape lengths, which are theoretically less susceptible to qualitative flaws.
However, I really liked the way this tape captured and reproduced the sound. On the downside, the Sony exhibited a reduced playback level as compared with the previous contender. But on the positive side the (very) high end zing was mightily impressive. The midrange wasn’t quite as full and solid as with the That’s, but I wouldn’t necessarily regard that as a bad thing. One of the reasons I love chrome cassettes is that they’re often a little more transparent in the midrange, and whilst you can tell this is a metal tape, its character does hint somewhat at the best of ‘80s chrome…. With the obvious exception of the bass, which I found to be very tight, deep and strong in this Sony Metal – unlike your average CrO2 job.
Whilst the Sony’s balance of frequencies was subtly different from that in the actual live sound, it was a nice rendition, which I actually preferred to the original in this instance. That wouldn’t always be the case though. Whether this very slightly ‘scooped’ version would work, would depend on the equalisation of the original live mix.
TDK MA-X 46
A TDK MA-X from 1988 looked, on paper, like it would be very similar to the ’86 Sony. However, it was a little different. The obvious variations were that the TDK’s playback was louder, and its treble response was more subtle. It’s a slightly rounder sound, which I felt was the least ‘metallic’ of all the tapes. This cassette did have very good definition, but it didn’t have the very bright top end of the Sony, or the more solid punch of the That’s. Don’t be misled though. It doesn’t sound like there are treble frequencies missing – they’re just not as prominent.
The bass is still nice and substantial on the TDK, so whether it’s better or worse than the Sony would be a matter of personal taste. To some, the Sony might sound overbright, and this slightly rounder reproduction may be more in keeping with their desires.
I should stress, also, that these differences are very, very subtle – especially with as many as four tapes under consideration. You wouldn’t just listen to each recording once and reach a conclusion. You’re constantly alternating the tapes in the deck, running a section, then comparing it with a different rival. You’re thinking: “Is that treble rounder?…”, then swapping over, then swapping again… “Yes, it DOES sound rounder and more subtle.” Then you’re swapping again to compare the reproduction of the bass, and so on. The most immediately obvious difference was the Sony’s reduced playback level – which was illustrated by the LED meters as well as in audible terms. Other differences took longer to verify.
1995’s Maxell MX-S46 was easier to tell apart from the other three cassettes. It has a harder sound, which was actually more representative of the original recording. On that basis, I’d say it was technically the best performer. Its output was the loudest, the biggest and the most solid, but the sizzling treble highs were still there, and the definition/punch was exceptional.
However, once a tape cassette gets too close to a live sound to actually call, you’re really into the territory of neo-digital reproduction, and the question tape enthusiasts will be asking is: “Would I really want something so clinically accurate, when I could just record digitally?” I’m not suggesting that the Maxell MX-S46 sounds like a CD, but it’s an extremely faithful recording, and surely the whole point of using tapes is to gain a little sweetening, colouring, subtle scooping or whatever.
These Type IV metal bias cassettes were all highly competitive, delivering superb quality, and I wouldn’t envisage any of them disappointing a listener. I’m pretty confident I can announce the Maxell as the winner of the battle on technical grounds, but I personally like the Sony Metal-ES 60 the best. As you might expect, it’s very ‘eighties, and despite the volume drop on playback (for which you can easily compensate at the recording stage), that stinging treble and slightly ‘chromey’ midrange combined well with a thumping bass to evoke memories of DX7s, HR-16s, over-enthusiastic tweeters, filofaxes and red braces.
Take away that nostalgia though, and your choice might be very different.