Fairfax Tech Talk Column

Fairfax Tech Talk Column

24.7.2020 Fairfax Tech Talk Column 208


A decade ago I was privileged to have a tour through a new $18 million tiered theatre that was nearing completion. What most impressed me was the acoustic performance of the theatre. Sitting in the audience in any seat a person on stage could be heard clearly with no amplification necessary but then when the half million dollar sound system was fired up, the acoustics were even more impressive.

At least I thought so.

One of the other people in the tour group was a self-confessed audiophile and he told everyone who cared to listen about the distortion and flutter of the sound system and said that it needed hours of work to fine tune the expensive equipment.

If I didn’t know it before then, it was obvious to me that I was no audio expert. Even after hearing about all the supposed problems in the sound quality, it still sounded pretty impressive to me.

It was similar when vinyl fanatics dismissed the Compact Disc (CD) albums when they were introduced as being too ‘cold’ compared to the ‘warmth’ of a vinyl record. My experience with vinyl was that records were often scratched or had dust on them and they popped and crackled like Coco Pops.

One thing that even my limited high fidelity hearing can attest to though is that the cassette tape definitely is poorer sound quality. The cassette was introduced by Philips in 1963 but became wildly popular through the seventies and eighties with the cassette used in everything from a ‘boom box’ to car stereos and the biggest consumer hit of the decade, the Walkman which was released in 1979 and inspired the 1981 Cliff Richards hit, ‘Wired for Sound’.

The largest issue with the cassette tape is simply lack of data availability. The tape itself is only 3.81mm wide and that contains four magnetic tracks – a stereo track in each direction. The tape then only moves past the read heads at 47.625mm per second. Add in some stretching and dust and chewed tapes and the CD couldn’t come fast enough. 1993 was the year that CD sales overtook cassette sales.

So why am I even discussing cassettes twenty-seven years after they were deposed as the king? Well the king is making a comeback. In the UK in the first half of this year, 65,000 cassette albums were sold. My immediate thought was that these were old nostalgia albums but Lady Gaga sold 12,000 of her latest album on cassette. Overall sales have doubled compared to the same period in 2019. There are some things in life I just don’t get and this is one of them. Vinyl and CDs and streaming are all better quality than cassettes. Finding a song on a cassette is a clumsy process of fast forwarding and hoping – even vinyl is easier. Streamed music won’t skip when used in a portable device. CDs don’t degrade in quality. I am really struggling to see why anyone would want to buy a cassette.

It just goes to show. For all the research and reading and predicting that I do, when it comes to technology, predicting the future is incredibly difficult because every now and again, you see something like this increase in cassette sales and it just doesn’t make sense.

Oh well, if you can’t beat ‘em, you may as well join ‘em. I am sure I have an old Walkman and an eighties mix tape somewhere in my bottom drawer. I am off to do some roller-skating!

Please tell me any reason why you would buy music on a cassette at ask@techtalk.digital.

Mathew Dickerson