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The Last Cassette Player Standing

In our globalized economy, the death of a technology can be more interesting than its life.

“I, for one, welcome our new Tanashin overlords.”

That isn’t a line from an ’80s Japan-panic flick. It’s a (slightly adapted) post at Tapeheads, an online forum for cassette tape enthusiasts.

Tanashin is a Japanese audio hardware company. Since the mid-80s, it has produced mechanisms—the assembly which transports, plays, and records the tape—for budget boomboxes, portable cassette recorders, and other low-cost devices. In those days, home hi-fi decks boasted much higher-quality playback and recording, with technology that, at its pinnacle, could rival the sound quality of the CD. Tanashin’s equipment never did, and was not intended to. The Tanashin mechanism was produced until 2009, and it has become infamous among the small but dedicated cassette-audiophile community for its ubiquity and relatively low performance specs.

In our globalized economy, the most interesting period in the life of a product may not be when it’s invented, or when it enjoys mainstream popularity, but rather when it’s dead—or clinging to life.

I confirmed with Tanashin, as did a writer in 2019 for the retro-technology fan magazine Kilobyte, that the company has indeed discontinued cassette mechanisms. Their final cassette-related product appears to have been players for automobiles. Incidentally, the last automobile to offer a cassette option was the 2010 Lexus SC 430. Almost certainly, it sported the final genuine Tanashin assembly. The company also noted in Kilobyte that it has never licensed its designs to other manufacturers.

But today, a decade after its Lexus swan song, the “Tanashin mechanism” lives on in the form of Chinese-made clones—unauthorized, but not illegal, given the expiration of patents—which are believed to be the last cassette tape mechanisms produced anywhere on the planet. Virtually any cassette-playing machine being made today (and there are still a fair number of them) uses one of these, from a Walkman clone you can buy in Target to a professional stereo deck that retails for $500. Those who still love the cassette format are not pleased with this state of affairs.

How did cheap clones of the Tanashin mechanism outlive a once-mighty home audio industry, and come to be the final available option for anybody attempting to manufacture a simple cassette tape player today? As strange a tale as it seems, there’s a clear logic to it.

As the cassette format began its decline in the early 1990s, the highest-quality and most expensive products disappeared first. Japanese audio icon Nakamichi, widely credited with producing the best-sounding home cassette decks ever made, exited the market around this time, and, flailing in the digital era, was bought out in 1998 by a Chinese holding company. More mainstream companies like Sony, Technics (a Panasonic imprint), and Pioneer slowly cheapened and shrunk their cassette-based offerings, until, by the late 1990s or early 2000s, they were selling off their last ones. (I recall, in a 2005 visit to Best Buy, seeing a very cheap $30 VCR, stacked up perfunctorily amid the DVD players. Cassette decks died in much the same way.)

One Tapeheads contributor notes that while vinyl and turntables remained diminished but alive over the decades—meaning that lots of factory equipment and accumulated know-how remained—cassettes fell off a cliff. Vital intellectual property around the technicalities of cassette-deck manufacturing was discarded or forgotten. Companies folded or decisively moved on. The industrial ecosystem in which exemplary equipment could be made evaporated. And it’s virtually impossible to bring that back, especially with only a small hobbyist market remaining today.

Tanashin, on the other hand, continued to produce low-cost mechanisms for basic devices, even as the broader industry collapsed around them. And they held out long enough for the Chinese clones of their product to see the cassette tape revival, such as it is.

There are several lessons here. The most politically salient is that in manufacturing, as in cooking, it is possible to “lose the recipe.” And with an accelerating pace of technological progress, it is possible to lose it in an alarmingly short span of time. This is perhaps the strongest argument for some form of industrial policy or trade protection: the recognition that the national value of manufacturing often lies not so much in the end product itself, but in the accumulated knowledge that goes into it, and the possibility of old processes and knowledge sparking new innovation. Of course, innovation is itself what killed the high-end cassette player. But many otherwise viable industries have struggled under the free-trade regime.

It’s easy to view today’s cassette players, cut off from most of the history of cassette-related manufacturing, as nothing more than low-end stragglers. Nearly every dying technology sees a burst of last-gasp innovation alongside a final liquidation of cheap models. But what’s going on here is a little wonkier and maybe indicative of something emergent.

The modern global manufacturing process, anchored in China’s Guangdong province, takes hold of dead technologies and reanimates them in a cheap but serviceable manner. It is thus possible to continue producing the same thing, or the same type of thing, long after mainstream manufacturers have vacated a shrinking market. Most of the cassette players being made today are not produced by an actual company, but rather ordered to spec, assembled mostly out of off-the-shelf parts, and slapped with a brand name (look up “Reka” or “Riptunes”). There’s something democratic about it: low-cost manufacturing on demand. There’s also something almost spooky about this. And, of course, related to the question of trade protection, southern China’s mighty yet nimble industrial ecosystem looks more than a little like the one we used to have. It’s enough to make one wistful.

The ecosystems that produce and sustain modern consumer products feel irreducibly complex. The nitty-gritty of modern manufacturing brings to mind the libertarian scripture “I, Pencil,” a broadside against central planning. As an essay, “I, Pencil” is prescriptive, suggesting that only a free market guided by the “invisible hand” can produce even something as seemingly simple as a pencil. But it is also descriptive. There is indeed something, again, spooky about the complexity of the global economy, of long supply chains, of curious, obsolete, low-cost consumer goods assembled from dozens of parts from dozens of countries. This should inspire a certain humility in economic policymakers. But it might also inspire nostalgia for bygone simplicity. This is all a world away from the simple “production” of the farmer, mason, or woodworker.

Of course, you can’t talk about players without talking about tapes. They’re still made as well, though in much-diminished quantity and quality. Most familiar tapes, such as Maxells or TDKs, are thought to be new shells and cases filled with new-old-stock tape from the old days. But a couple of upstart manufacturers have jumped back into the market.

One, the U.S.-based National Audio Company, recently purchased a “62-foot tape-coating line weighing 20 tons.” A final bit of complexity and spookiness: That tape-coating line began life decades ago making audio cassettes, was then workshopped into making credit card stripes, and then, as credit cards began to shed their stripes, was purchased by NAC and restored to its original tape-making function. The tapes resulting from this labor of love, however, are not considered particularly good.

As with the playback equipment, many tape recipes have been lost. A piece of inexpensive consumer-grade technology, so recently manufactured cheaply and at scale, is proving difficult to reinvent. This may all amount to an interesting story about a nostalgia-inducing product. But it also illustrates the workings of the economy the world has built—or, perhaps more accurately, that nobody in particular has built. No man can make a pencil. And, it turns out, no man can make a cassette player either.