Stupid Tech: PlusDeck2, PC-based Cassette Deck

Electronic Music 411 reviews the PlusDeck2, which is a cassette tape deck that plugs into a PC’s empty drive bay in order to digitize analog cassettes, and also spit PC audio back out to cassette. As someone who still owns hundreds of audio cassettes, I can see the value of having a device that makes it easy to digitize these tapes, but this thing is really just a poorly-conceived solution in search of a problem.

First off, the design of this deck looks like an el-cheapo car cassette stereo since it uses a slot-in type mechanism, for obvious space-saving reasons. There’s a reason why you don’t see this type of mechanism on home cassette decks (or even boomboxes) — that’s because it’s unreliable and much more prone to breakage, than the typical door-type mechanism.

On top of that, I see no provision for specifying or detecting the type of tape — old-school tape users will recall that cassettes come in three different formulations, type I ferric oxide, type II chrome, and type IV metal. For best sound, a good deck needs to know what type of tape you’re using in order to adjust to its unique characteristics.

There’s also no provision for decoding Dolby noise reduction, which has been standard for prerecorded cassettes since the early 1980s, and which most home cassette decks have supported since that time, as well. While you can play a Dolby-encoded cassette on a deck that doesn’t have decoding, that does affect the quality of playback.

In theory, you could do Dolby decoding in software, but there’s no indication that such capability in included with the PlusDeck.

Unfortuately the Electronic Music 411 review barely addresses the sound quality of this deck, and doesn’t make any mention of the tape-type or Dolby issues. I get the sense that the reviewer is operating under the expectation that cassettes are inherently low quality, and so is simply tolerating hiss, noise and any number of tonal aberrations.

However, anyone over the age of 30 with any amount of experience in recording music should know that very high quality audio can be obtained with cassettes, although it often requires a bit of tweaking. From the 1970s into the 90s, a fair amount of high quality cassette equipment was available. However, I’d bet the majority of people used pretty low quality equipment, like boomboxes and all-in-one integrated stereos, where the cassette deck was often substandard, which perpetuated the cassette as inherently lo-fi myth.

But the most stupid aspect of this product is the fact that it’s simple as hell to attach a cassette deck to your PC’s sound input — all you need is a $3 cable from Radio Shack. I argue that this is much easier for most users than cracking open the case to install the PlusDeck in an empty drive bay, installing the PCI card, and then installing the drivers and software (which, apparently, isn’t completely in English).

Anyway, for the basic cassette deck method, sound recording software abounds, and a pretty good application for digitizing and cleaning up your cassettes (and LPs) is included with popular suites like Easy Media Creator. If you just want to digitize and don’t need fancy noise reduction, you can use a free sound editor like Audacity, which works on Windows, MacOS and Linux.

Even if you don’t own a decent cassette deck, it’s not hard to buy an OK one for, like, 80 bucks — a little more than half the cost of the PlusDeck. You don’t even have to buy a new one — a working used deck is pretty easy to get at a garage sale, pawn shop or even Ebay.

And as far as dumping audio back to cassette goes… you’re probably better off getting an MP3 player or portable CD player and one of those little cassette adaptors to plug it into a car stereo or other older stereo.

Now, I haven’t used the the PlusDeck, so maybe my observations and assumptions are incorrect… but I doubt it. If only because it’s manufactured by some no-name Korean company and not any manufacturer known for making decent quality cassette equipment. If you still want to use a cheap-ass cassette deck to digitize your cassette collection, you’ll save a lot by buying a no-name walkman at K-Mart for $10 and plugging that in. I’ll bet your results will be comparable to the PlusDeck.