We're Still Making Car Cassette Players

They just aren't in cars these days

I’m a big fan of old tech videos on YouTube, which are a wealth of information regarding not just various curiosities of design or consumer marketing, but also all sorts of ancillary historical and cultural information. I’ve written about this kind of thing before—see this post and this one—and for today I’m going back to this topic.

YouTuber VWestlife, who reviews new and old audio tech (lots of record and cassette stuff), and sometimes does very deep dives into the history or pedigree of a device, recently did a really interesting video on those “all-in-one music center” stereos that are sold on Amazon and in stores like Kohl’s and Bed Bath & Beyond. They look like this (spotted at a gift shop in Hawaii).

His video focuses particularly on the cassette player portion of these devices, which is almost always a perfunctory slot-loading mechanism on the side of the unit, as shown in the thumbnail here.

These devices, in pretty much exactly the same form as today, have been in continuous production under dozens of different brand names since at least around the year 2000. They appear, for example, in Radio Shack catalogs from those years. Similar devices, in “cathedral radio”-style cases, have been in production since the late 1980s. Virtually all of them feature this exact, obviously very low cost, cassette mechanism.

It turns out, it isn’t a recent attempt at making the absolute cheapest possible cassette player (it does work, but sounds about as good as a handheld dictation microcassette machine.) According to that video, it is actually a clone of a cassette mechanism designed long ago for car cassette players by Tanashin, a Japanese company known for its low-cost audio parts.

Tanashin, however, has not made any cassette-related equipment since the late 2000s, so any modern device using one of their designs is made by a third party, based on their now-expired patents. (Though it’s likely there were unauthorized clones back when Tanashin was still making them, too.)

I wrote a whole article about this back in February, outlining the reality that, as far anybody with an interest in cassette tapes and players can tell, the only cassette mechanisms still in production anywhere in the world are Tanashin clones from China. That includes the mechanisms inside any boombox, shoebox recorder, or cassette deck you can find today. So I knew that—but I didn’t know that there was this even cheaper mechanism, also a Tanashin design, that somehow migrated from car stereos to the side of cheap tabletop stereos! Do you think Tanashin executives in the 1980s would ever guess their humble designs would essentially outlive the entire cassette industry?

If this doesn’t interest you, it might seem like just a random little story. I guess it is, but I think it’s also a fascinating dispatch from the weird world of global capitalism. Lots of real audio brand names end up on equipment like this—Pyle, Crosley, Emerson, even TEAC—yet the product itself is this sort of unlicensed, almost emergent thing arising out of southern China’s massive industrial ecosystem.

I can see, based on this, how counterfeit parts can end up in the supply chains even for major companies. The motor in that cassette mechanism, for example, is a knock-off too, and virtually every cassette-playing device probably also contains these motors. They may not be illegal per se, but they’re definitely not the real thing.)

At some point I’ll probably revisit some of this, but I’ll leave it here for now. If you have one of these all-in-one stereos, or if you’ve seen them in the store before, now you have a little anecdote about them.

Related Reading:

The Curious Case of the Last Record Changer

Master of Tape

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