The entry-level dual cassette decks sold today by brands like ION, Pyle, Marantz, Renkforce, and Auna are actually based on a design that been in production since at least 1991, and were originally sold as part of a matched audio component system also including an amplifier, tuner, CD player, etc., as explained in this video:
However, despite looking virtually unchanged since the 1990s (aside from slight styling changes and the addition of a USB output), the internal workings of these decks have unfortunately been cheapened out over time, and their performance and reliability have suffered as a result. They've gradually switched from using genuine Tanashin mechanisms and good-quality motors from legitimate manufacturers to cheaper knockoff mechanisms -- not made or authorized by Tanashin -- and inferior, often counterfeit motors.
This trend is demonstrated in the following video comparing an ION Tape2PC deck made in 2007 to a Pyle PT-649D deck made in 2018, which shows how to identify the difference between the "good" and "bad" components, tests and shows the difference in performance between them, and calls upon the manufacturers of these decks to return to using higher-quality components -- a plea which may unfortunately fall upon deaf ears:
Thanks to the data I've collected from Tapeheads.net forum members, my YouTube subscribers, and kind eBay sellers who were willing to open up their decks and take some internal photos, I have been able to trace the timeline of these changes.
The original 1990s design used genuine Tanashin TK20FX mechanisms, genuine Mabuchi motors, metal flywheels, and large upper pulleys, capable of meeting or exceeding the listed specification of <0.2% DIN (peak) wow & flutter -- the German standard for the minimum performance that a tape recorder or player must meet in order to be advertised as "Hi-Fi" (read more about it here):
Sometime during or before the mid 2000s, Sanko motors and plastic flywheels were substituted to cut costs, but according to my test of the 2007 ION deck, this design is still capable of meeting the listed wow & flutter specification:
Around 2013, production cost was cut again by substituting smaller upper pulleys and lower-quality TRW motors, which often causes the wow & flutter to significantly exceed the listed specification. StaryLary's test of a 2016 Renkforce deck showed wow & flutter as high as 0.36% RMS and 0.73% quasi-peak, although this was done with a homemade test tape, so the actual figures may not be quite as bad. Also the mechanisms are subtly different than before, now stamped with production numbers beginning with "CSG", but I believe these are still made or licensed by Tanashin, as higher-quality brands like Sony, TASCAM, and TEAC still use CSG cassette mechanisms today.
Between 2013 and 2017, production switched to using knockoff "JS" mechanisms, again likely to cut costs, although maybe they eventually had no choice if licensed production of the TK20FX mechanism ended in 2017 (see Footnote below), since all of these decks made since then use the knockoff "JS" mechanisms. The quality control of these mechanisms is spotty to begin with, and they do not stand up well to heavy use, leading to problems such as chipped teeth on the gears, bent spindles, and jammed buttons.
The plastic flywheels were replaced with metal ones, but these are often visibly wobbly, which will likely nullify any improvement in wow & flutter that the return to heavier metal flywheels might have delivered. And the motors were downgraded yet again, to ones which claim to be manufactured by Mabuchi but are actually counterfeit. These motors are electrically noisy, causing hum and buzzing in the audio, and similarly high levels of wow & flutter as the TRW motors.
Nonetheless, if your deck is new or gently used, it may still come close to meeting the listed specification; Mike Rivers' test of a Marantz deck in 2019 showed a wow & flutter of 0.25% AES6 (peak).
In general, the left side deck on these units seems to be more heavily used and abused than the right side deck, as most people are using them just to play tapes, so they naturally go for the playback-only deck rather than the recording deck. So if you get a used one, stick to using the right side deck, as it will likely be less worn out, and work better. And always press Stop when going from one operation mode of the deck to another. Never go directly from Play to Rewind or Fast Forward without pressing Stop first, as that could damage the gears.ION
Vintage cassette decks
Cassette decks from the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s from well-known brands like Sony, Pioneer, Technics, Kenwood, Onkyo, Yamaha, JVC, etc. almost always offer better audio quality, improved durability, and more features (such as Dolby Noise Reduction and the ability to record onto Type IV Metal tape) than these modern entry-level decks.
This video by Interface shows the basics of age-related maintenance that you may need to do on vintage cassette decks, such as cleaning, aligning, and demagnetizing the heads:
You may also need to eventually replace the belts in a vintage cassette deck, which is often rather tricky to do, and unfortunately it is impossible to offer a one-size-fits-all tutorial on how to replace the belts, due to the multitude of different designs of mechanisms used over the years. You may be able to find a tutorial specific to your make and model of deck, and a vendor selling a belt kit with exact replacements of the belts you'll need. Or you can avoid the problem by choosing a deck whose seller can assure you the belts were already replaced recently.
Boomboxes & bookshelf stereo systems
If your standards aren't that high, even many boomboxes and bookshelf stereo systems from the 1990s and 2000s contain cassette players and recorders which can deliver performance nearly identical to the modern low-end decks documented above, and these are extremely plentiful and cheap in thrift stores, yard/car boot sales, online classified ads, etc.
For example, for US$24.99 at Goodwill I found a Sony CMT-NEZ30 micro bookshelf CD/cassette stereo system, one of the last of its kind from 2006, in perfect working condition, including speakers. And even a 1990s Soundesign stereo system is also capable of delivering surprisingly good cassette tape recording and playback quality:
Or if you want something new, the Sony CFD-S70 boombox (around US$60) contains a genuine Tanashin mechanism and a TRW motor (as documented in this video by Fans, boomboxes, and more), and the Sony CFD-S401 boombox (around US$180 on eBay, imported from Japan) adds larger speakers, soft-touch controls, and more features. Techmoan reviewed both of those models in this video:
But please avoid the cheap (usually less than US$50 / £50) new boomboxes and Walkman-style cassette players and recorders, as they usually are monaural rather than stereo, and offer very poor audio quality, as shown in The 8-Bit Guy's review of a QFX "X-Bass" boombox:
Higher-quality new cassette decks
If your budget allows and you really want something new, TEAC and TASCAM cassette decks and CD/cassette combo decks are the highest-quality ones made today. These have list prices of up to US$499, but lately TEAC USA has been selling them as open box specials on their eBay store at prices between $299 and $349.
Here's my detailed review and test of the TASCAM 202mkVII cassette deck, also sold as the TEAC W-1200 (with minor differences explained in the video description):
And here's my review of the TASCAM CD-A580 CD/cassette combo deck, also sold as the TEAC AD-850 (again with minor differences explained in the video):
Connecting to your computer
If you want to digitize your old tapes, you don't necessarily need a cassette player with USB output -- you can connect any cassette deck, boombox, Walkman, or bookshelf stereo system to your computer using a USB audio capture device costing around US$15 to $20. Just be sure to disable any bass boost, loudness, or equalization settings your cassette player may have when transferring the audio. Or, you won't need a USB output if your computer has a line-level audio input or a software-defined audio jack that can be set to Line In mode. This includes many older Macs, and most desktop PCs.
There are many online tutorials on transferring (sometimes incorrectly referred to as "ripping") analog audio into your computer, as well as free software like Audacity or Ocenaudio for recording and editing audio on your computer and saving it into your desired format (MP3, AAC, WAV, FLAC, etc.).
According to an article in the 2019/2 issue of Kilobyte magazine (pages 20 to 23), Marcelo Inoue from the Audio Business Sales Department of Tanashin was quoted as saying that they have not manufactured any new cassette deck mechanisms since 2009, and all mechanisms made since then have been unauthorized clones manufactured by other companies.
However, this is improbable, considering that mechanisms bearing Tanashin's telltale production number stamped in black ink were found in these decks until at least 2017, and new boomboxes from Sony and Toshiba and decks from TEAC and TASCAM still use what appear to be genuine Tanashin mechanisms even today in 2020. I e-mailed Tanashin asking for clarification, but as of yet I have not received a reply.
As mentioned above, I do not know if these ION/Pyle/etc. decks all switched to knockoff mechanisms by 2017 because that's when Tanashin discontinued the TK20FX mechanism they were using, or just to further cut costs. Even if Tanashin did discontinue the mechanism, I would hope the companies selling these decks could at least demand that the OEM of the "JS" clone mechanisms they're now using improve their quality control, and switch from the inferior fake-"Mabuchi" and TRW motors to higher-quality motors from legitimate suppliers. Even if this would necessitate raising the retail price of these decks slightly, the improvement in audio quality and mechanical durability would be greatly appreciated and would increase customer satisfaction.
I would especially demand this of the Marantz PMD-300CP, as it claims to be "Professional" and sells for about $30 more than the virtually identical ION deck! The Professional division of Marantz, as well as ION and Alesis are all owned by InMusic Brands, which explains the similarities in their products. And if you want contact Pyle and ask them to improve their decks as well, their parent company is Sound Around, Inc..