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Get Ready for Retro Audio Cassettes & Landline Phones

In our highly digitized world, there still seems to be a place for nostalgia-based analog-based products and systems. In the space of a few weeks, there were two interesting articles in The Wall Street Journal which touched on this subject.

The first article, “A Global Shortage of Magnetic Tape Leaves Cassette Fans Reeling,” was about some music groups that wanted to distribute their music in a “tangible” format to key fans only, and so used old-fashioned analog-cassette (Philips) tapes which either bought or made (duplicated) on their own, Figure 1 . Apparently, the setup effort and cost of pressing just a few vinyl records was prohibitive, so they went to that old cassette-tape format.

Figure 1

The Philips audio cassette tape was the way that you took your own music on-the-go or at home for several decades, until it was displaced by the compact disc. (Source: Historische Philips Producten/Philips Historical Products)

The Philips audio cassette tape was the way that you took your own music on-the-go or at home for several decades, until it was displaced by the compact disc. (Source: Historische Philips Producten/Philips Historical Products)

The article went into detail about how one of the few companies which duplicates the cassettes has run out of tape (it is no longer made), and was trying to restore and rebuild the machinery needed for making the high-grade ferric oxide cassette tape. While recording cassettes is easy, making the actual tape is a complicated, labor intensive, precise process which demands careful mixing of pure, unique ingredients, and perhaps some “magic” as well.

The article didn’t touch on what I would consider the obvious: how were these fans going to play the cassette tapes? Production of the new players stopped a long time ago, and even if you find an old one in the closet or attic, it probably won’t work; some of the internal rubber wheels and pulleys have deteriorated. Why didn’t the group just make CDs, which are as easy as tapes to make on your own, and can be played on any PC with a CD/DVD drive. I guess that’s not the point of the story, which is that some old-time analog nostalgia is a tiny trend, but of uncertain intensity and longevity.

(There was a also recent news story on how use of tape for data storage is on the rise which I wrote about, see The Hottest Data-Storage Medium Is…Magnetic Tape? – but that’s a technical decision based on storage density, costs, security, and reliability. Also, a few year ago, I read about a one-person operation where the owner copied music onto recycled eight-track tape cassettes – not entirely legal, due to copyright issues – for nostalgia fans of that truly obsolete audio format, as well as restorers of antique cars.)

The other article was about several small companies that specialize in buying, fixing, and reselling old land-line phones, from the earliest models to more recent ones, see “An Entrepreneur Builds a Business Selling Old Phones.” Many of these phones are bought by movie productions to build for their “period” sets (and did you see that office-full of IBM Selectric typewriters in the film “Catch Me If You Can,” or the “bullpen” of mathematicians – they were called “computers” – with their all-mechanical calculating machines in the more-recent film “Hidden Figures”?). Others are bought by collectors (people will collect almost anything, it seems), and some people want just one phone, most likely to remind them of their youth and those “good old days.”

The all-analog landline phones had some advantages. In general, their audio quality (not the link quality) was ranged from very good to excellent, and was consistent. Once a connection was established, there were few “can you hear me know?” events, since the connection was via a dedicated path (at least it was that way in the earliest days, before TDM links and other advances).

Further, a Western Electric phone (they were the captive manufacturing part of the Bell System) was designed and built to last for decades, unlike today’s cell/smartphones; many times, their handsets were even used as improvised hammers and survived with only a few minor dents. The classic Model 500, introduced in 1949, is probably the best-known good example with its comfortable handset which could be easily cradled on the caller’s shoulder or neck, Figure 2 , but there are many other examples. (There are even adapters which let you use the old-fashioned handset with a modern smartphone.)

Figure 2

The classic Bell Model 500 phone was also in the best (and only) choice for many decades, available in many colors; many variants took over its role after this model was phased out. (Source: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York)

The classic Bell Model 500 phone was also in the best (and only) choice for many decades, available in many colors; many variants took over its role after this model was phased out. (Source: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York)

What’s driving this burst of nostalgia? There are many reasons, ranging from rational to hard-to-figure. Maybe people are longing for a time when their closest technical “companions” did not have operating systems, constant upgrades, bugs, crashes, or needless features. I suspect that professors and graduate students are working on this question right now, for their scholarly papers.

Of course, like so many of these trends, they usually don’t last long; people soon tire and move on to other interests and fads. Yes, sales of new recordings on vinyl records are growing at a fast pace, but that’s from a minuscule base and still represents only a tiny, almost invisible percentage of total music sales, over half of which are now via download and streaming (even CD sales have dropped dramatically in the past decade). But, hey, any trend – however short-lived – that looks at old-time analog products with respect and consideration is very OK by me!

What’s your take on the minor re-emergence of cassettes, landline phones, or even vinyl records? Why do you think it is happening?

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4 comments on “Get Ready for Retro Audio Cassettes & Landline Phones

  1. Pesky Varmint
    December 4, 2017

    No question about it, the sound quality of the old landline was unmatched.

    Sound quality was to me one of the major irritants of cell phones for a long time.

    What proved to me what a joke it was, was using Cisco IP Communicator VOIP app

    on my computer while using my smartphone as a Wi-Fi hotspot. And how I could

    get crystal clear voice that way, but garbage when I use the smartphone alone.

    Finally we got HD voice (essentially Voice Over LTE). However when I first tried it I got

    a bit of a shock since it is true wideband audio, not the classic 3 kHz limited land

    line bandwidth. It took me a bit to get used to hearing with clarity and bandwidth

    but at least the mobile phone audio is getting better.

    Then there is the “deer in the headlights” look I got when I would go into a mobile provider store and tell them I need a phone with a good RF front end since I live in a fringe area (I actually solved that problem with a booster).

    As far as cassettes I don't know, my entire music collection is WAV files on a single thumb drive.

  2. Jean-Luc.Suchail
    December 6, 2017

    I still have a TEAC and a Thomson cassette recorders/players, as well as a TEAC, a REVOX and a PHILIPS tape recorders. All these items are in perfect operating conditions with the (few) belts recently replaced.

    The TEAC X1000R with the DBX system, when using chromium tapes (EE) is giving 100dB dynamics and 22kHz bandwidth at 19cm/s. No noticeable difference from original CD…..

    People should invest more on loudspeakers, it is in the vast majority the weakest point of the chain…..

     

  3. MWagner_MA
    December 6, 2017

    In the 1980's you could buy equipment that was designed to last.  I still have a 1982 Technics Cassette deck (on loan to the mother-in-law), and a 1990 Yamaha 3-head deck in perfect condition.  I still listen to music recorded on TDK and Maxell CRO2 (cromium dioxide) high quality tapes.  The tapes are 35 years old and still sound great!  Good luck trying to buy pre-recorded tapes though.  Even back then the pre-made stuff was lousy.  If you are an audiophile, you recorded your own from some other source for convenience at the time. (LP -> Tape or CD-> Tape).

  4. David Ashton
    December 6, 2017

    Apart from wanting to play a collection of old ones, I can't understand why anyone would want to go back to Cassettes.  The average cassette and player sound pretty ugh, though I will grant that using good quality cassettes on good equipment did give reasonable results.

    Jean-Luc, I am envious of your Reel-to-Reel machines.  Now THOSE are tape recorders!

    Landline phones… the 500's were nice big solid phones but with pulse dialling they would not work on most modern exhanges?  I have a couple of old pulse/tone phones at work, I'll bring one home and try it.  Keypads, not dials 🙁

    Bill.. “There are even adapters which let you use the old-fashioned handset with a modern smartphone.”   The ideal would be to have a dock that you slip your smartphone into when you get home, to get your calls on your house phones.  I guess you could do it with bluetooth (though not sure about dialling a call?) which would be a good solution – otherwise you'd need adapters for 1001 + different smartphones.  How about another article on what is available?

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