Monday, February 18, 2013

Was the 8-Track Better Than The Cassette Tape?

Even though both formats seem to be pitted against each other during much of the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, was the 8-Track better than the cassette tape? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Upon first inspection, it is way more mechanically complicated than the cassette tape, but with its intended application in car stereos, 8-Track does have the ergonomic advantage over Philips’ cassette tape since 8-Track plays in a continuous loop – i.e. once the last song of the album or 8-Track cartridge ends, it goes back to the first track / song. But there are those who still swear that as an analog tape format, the 8-Track has a better subjective sound quality than cassette – and if you are a serious audio enthusiast – if you’ll ever hear a well-set up 8-Track deck, you would swear that it is way better, sound quality wise, than cassette tape too. But first, here’s a brief history on the 8-Track tape. 

William Powel Lear a.k.a. Bill Lear was the oft credited inventor of the 8-Track tape, though other people – like Earl “Madman” Muntz - were instrumental of its culmination as a commercially successful product; Though most of the younger generation often tend to associate Bill Lear with the Lear Jet. The   8-Track cartridge or 8-Track tape is a magnetic tape based sound recording and playback format. It was very popular in the U.S. and other countries with a large U.S. military presence from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s but was relatively unknown in most European countries. 8-Track tapes were used as a carrier for quadraphonic sound during the start of the 1970s by simply reallocating the tracks but later reverted to its original two-channel stereo applications once the quadraphonic fever died with barely a whimper in 1975.

The endless loop tape cartridge was first designed back in 1952 by Bernard Cousino around a single reel carrying a continuous loop of standard ¼ inch plastic oxide coated recording tape running at 3 ¾ inches per second (9.5 cm / sec). Program starts and stops were signaled by a one-inch long metal foil that activates the track-change sensor. Bill Lear had tried to create an endless loop wire recorder in the 1940s but gave up in 1946, even though endless-loop 8mm film cartridges were already in use for him to copy from. Lear would then be inspired by Earl Muntz’s four-track design in the early 1960s. 

As a relatively more complicated mechanical system compared to the Philips’ cassette tape, the 8-Track tapes’ shortcomings were mostly mechanical related like higher that average wow and flutter measurements due to constantly changing load presented by the sliding tape pack. There’s also a tendency of the 8-Track to jam as the tape got dirty as the lubricant wore away and dries up as the tape is exposed in the rather hostile elevated temperatures of the automotive environment. The flattening of the pinch roller over time when an 8-Track cartridge was left plugged in causing increased wow and flutter and the last one was the inability to attain and maintain tape head alignment due to the movable head design. Though this list of shortcomings was mostly confined in 8-Track’s automotive use, its domestic applications – especially with dedicated recording and playback heads – can sometimes produce subjective sound quality results far better than that obtained from cassettes. 

 When recording unto 8-Tracks via a dedicated 8-Track recording deck like the Pioneer RH-65 8-Track Player/Recorder or the Pioneer H-R100 8-Track Player Recorder using either CDs, vinyl LPs, DVD-Audio and Super Audio CDs, the results were far better than any cassette deck on a rung lower than that of the Nakamichi. Even if the specifications show that 8-Track tapes only measure a bit better than 55dB signal-to-noise ratio even with Dolby B noise reduction on, 8-Tracks produce a much more open midrange compared to cassette tapes. His is probably due to much more tape of the 8-Track being run faster across a recording head to capture more resolution of the recorded event. And since the 8-Track tape’s being run at twice that of cassette’s 1 7/8 inches per second, the apparent wow and flutter problems are apparently only audible on more demanding Classical piano recordings than on everyday rock and pop. 

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