June 9, 2008

As Luck Would Have It

I was at Goodwill scrounging for LPs when I saw something unusual -- not an unusual occurrence at Goodwill. Off to my left was a silver-and-black rectangular box that, on quick glance, looked like a cross between a stainless-steel microwave and a toaster oven but not really like either one. It was big and eye-catching sitting there among the old rotary telephones and beat-up fax machines.

Closer inspection revealed its identity -- a Nakamichi 700ZXL cassette deck. On top was taped the user manual and an odd-looking peripheral: a Nakamichi NR-100 outboard Dolby C processor. The entire conglomeration was priced at $15, but it was half-price day, so $7.50 would take it home. "What is that?" a guy standing next to me asked as I inspected the deck. "A Nakamichi tape deck," I answered, pulling it from the shelf. His interest increased my interest.

As soon as I got it home, I plugged it in, hoping for perfect working order but closely watching for smoke. The lights came on and there were no untoward smells. So far so good. I dug through one of the closets for a cassette tape. The reels spun and the tape played!

The 700ZXL was made in the early 1980s. It was considered a less costly and more compact version of the enormous, top-of-the-line 1000ZXL, many of whose features it shares. The 700ZXL cost $3000 when new -- far beyond my means in those days. This would translate to $7000 today. I could easily understand the high cost once I removed the metal outer cover. The large chassis was packed with circuit boards for the deck's many features, including auto calibration and battery-backup memory. But all was not in perfect working order. Some of the display areas didn't illuminate, and there appeared to be a problem with the meters. Bigger still was an issue with recording, which caused the left channel to hiccup when using that outboard Dolby processor.

Nakamichi cassette decks were once the audio status symbol. If you owned one, you were known to have good taste and the money to exercise it. Nakamichi decks remain popular today, even though their maker abandoned them over a decade ago, ceasing manufacture and no longer stocking parts. But others have filled in. "Business is overwhelming," Jeff Galin, the owner of Electronic Service Labs, told me. Known by its initials, ESL services Nakamichi cassette decks of all but the very oldest vintages. If you send a deck to Jeff today, you likely won't get it back for more than six months -- his backlog is immense. Because of their many moving parts, cassette decks are prone to breaking down, but one of the prevalent problems with Nakamichi decks is due to the capacitors the company used for many years, which go bad over time. This leads to what Nakamichi aficionados call "orange cap disease" in honor of the color of those bum caps. Cassette decks also need periodic alignment in order to continue making the best-sounding tapes.

Jeff Galin and his staff are renowned among Nakamichi enthusiasts, many of whom have collections of cassette decks, for the service and restoration work they do. But this doesn't come cheap. My 700ZXL, for instance, could cost $2000 to bring back to working condition. For this reason, I've let a knowledgeable person do some triage before I decide to send it in for repair -- or put it up for sale on eBay.

I visit Goodwill every now and then, hoping to find some other vintage audio bonbon, but I've probably used up all of my good luck by finding a Nakamichi 700ZXL. I will give progress reports as I find out what's wrong with this deck and how much it will cost to fix. That it's big and eye-catching is undeniable.

...Marc Mickelson

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