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Monday, May 28, 2012

Feldy's Favorites and the Sony WA8ESA

If you're into audio, you need to buy a tape deck.  I know it sounds strange given the limits of the cassette tape medium as far as fidelity goes, (signal to noise ratios being far less than CD, plus inherent flaws such as wow and flutter) but I have finally started using the Sony WA8ESA dubbing deck I bought new two summers ago, (see earlier post- thank you Chips Unlimited) and I am really having a killer time with it. As I type, the machine is quietly recording nothing over an old Sony Type IV metal SR tape that I had from goodness knows when. When the tape is blank and reasonably quiet (I do not have a bulk eraser) I intend to make a summer mix with it, one that will compete with the legendary "Feldy's Favorites."  More about that in a bit.

The W8AESA is a dubbing deck that was new in 1996 (according to the manual mine came with).  It is a two-head dual auto reverse design, with HX Pro and Dolby B,C and S noise reduction.  With Type IV metal tape (very expensive to come by now) it can achieve S/N ratio of 58 dB with the Dolby noise reduction off, with a 30-19,000 Hz frequency response.  This is not an ES deck of yore- it only weighs 9 pounds, and whereas the operation is quick and feels solid (full logic controls) the sheet metal is flimsy and I doubt there are any space-age anti resonance materials in the case.  The deck has some very nice features, however, beyond mere dual auto reverse. 

One can automatically or manually set the record level.  If you choose to do so automatically,  play part of a track you intend to record in the record pause mode and the deck "listens" and sets the level based on loud and quiet passages.  You can calibrate the bias for the type of tape you are using, which is neat.  You insert the tape, hit the deck you want to calibrate (A or B- whichever the tape is in) and then select the side of the tape you want calibrated (the direction) followed by pressing pause.  The machine then goes through a 9 second routine wherein it records test signals, analyzes and then sets the appropriate bias.  Call me a nerd, but I really get a kick out of watching it do its thing.  

In many ways, this deck was a real help for parties in the days before 100 disc changers or 10 to the X power number of lame MP3s on Teraflop iFads.    A setting allows me to loop each tape continuously for playback so I could have maybe -wait for it- up to 200 minutes of uninterrupted music!  Keeewwwl!  Even cooler is the Random Music Sensor play- if I record the tracks with enough blank space between them, I can then program the random playback of up to 28 songs.  Why I'd want to do that I don't know, but it's nice to know that I could.

A big downer for this deck is the fact that the cassette wells are not back lit.  It's pretty tough to see where you are on a tape in a dimly lit room.  I could of course just use the clear and easily legible counters, but I want the lights as an option.

The sound is. . . pretty good, actually.  I would characterize it as "soft."  It has been so long since I spent any quality time listening to tapes that it is hard to characterize the sound.  Is it better than the SCD-XA5400es SACD player?  Um, no.  Is it better than 75% of the records I own on the Rega/Orofon Red combo?  Absolutely.  I will know more as I build experience I can use to make judgments.  The two decks I hope to make comparisons with are the Sony TC-KA1ESA that lives at James' house, and the Dual CC8066 at Dennis' house.  Upside is that all of these decks are very low mileage- the W8AESA has had a mere three tapes made on it and maybe another two or three played back,  No worn belts or idlers and pinch rollers out of round.  The best way to compare of course, is to make mix tapes!

Which brings me to the title of this post.  A mutual friend of ours once made (in the summer of 1987, I think?) what he felt to be was  the ULTIMATE mix tape.  As I recall, it had both "Xanadu" from Farewell to Kings AND the "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" on it, so it was certainly geared to specific tastes.  I remember liking it.  Was it the best?  Hard to say.  Today I did a dry run on a nice Maxell XL II 90 I had unused.  I included some re-mastered Tull, some Stones SACD stuff and even the 180 gram vinyl re-release of "Yours is No Disgrace" from the Yes album.  Making a tape is not like creating a playlist on your computer.  There is little room for error, and you are always on the clock.  Making a mistake means re-tracing your steps AND loss of fidelity- tape is a mechanical medium, after all.  But I really got into the song selection, the order, the flow of the thing.  Haven't felt that way in a while.  And when I played it back i got satisfaction not only that it sounded pretty good, but that the tunes all worked together.  Is it the ultimate?  Nope.  Not even close to: "Feldy's Favorites" which was on an earlier generation Maxell, if I recall correctly.  This is just the beginning.  I have to send out a challenge and see what everyone cooks up!

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