In Japan, Sony has traditionally been regarded as one of the country’s great innovating companies. Co-founder Akio Morita once said that if Sony didn’t actually invent a technology, it would at least be the one able to translate it into something consumers would buy. Be it the first transistor TV or the first domestic video recorder, the original Walkman to the first DATman, from CD to MiniDisc, Sony was there from the word “go”…
However, as any marketing department will tell you, engineering excellence does not guarantee commercial success. People won’t buy consumer electronics just because they’re new – only if they can see how the new technology can improve their everyday lives will they invest. This is where Sony made its greatest mistakes – Elcaset.
At the beginning of the nineteen seventies, a group of Sony product planners decided what the world needed was a new cassette system. In awe of the enormous success that its great European rival Philips was enjoying with Compact Cassette, yet thoroughly unimpressed by its poor technical performance, Sony hatched a plan. What if they could take the serious home recordist’s medium – open reel tape – and enclose it in a convenient cassette?
Thus was born Elcaset, a format several times the size of conventional cassettes, but far easier to use than open reel. The tape ran at 3 3/4 ips, twice that of cassette, and was the same width as standard quarter track open reel. With Sony’s flagship Ferrichrome formulation, the new format boasted superb performance – with the top EL-7 deck Sony claimed a 20-27,000Hz (NAB) frequency response, no mean feat when its best cassette deck, the TC-229SD, could barely crawl past 16,000Hz!
The only machines the company built were the EL-5 and EL-7, over-engineered monsters using extremely high quality components throughout. Although not as big as open reel machines, they dwarf today’s black boxes in size and weight – 13kgs of brushed aluminium, diecast transports, big ferrite heads and discrete components are not to be sneezed at. The two machines differ mainly in transport and head layout. The EL-5 is a two motor, two head machine, while the EL-7 has a three heads and a dual capstan closed loop transport for greater speed stability. This said, even the cooking EL-5 boasted a claimed 0.06% WRMS wow and flutter, a figure that puts many expensive modern cassette decks to shame.
In action, either Sony deck operates smoothly and cleanly and are pretty foolproof, running smoothly and quietly. For a mid-seventies product, ergonomics are excellent, always a Sony forte, the only inconvenience being manual setting of bias and equalisation. With Ferrichrome tape they give a bright, clear, confident sound with none of the nasties you associate from anything lower down the cassette evolutionary scale than a Nakamichi. Even the single capstan EL-5’s pitch stability is excellent, with no cracking piano notes or wobbly violins. Harmonics are remarkably well preserved, with an ease and naturalness that has always given cassette a hard time, and treble had real sparkle. The record and replay amps introduce a touch of grain and hardness to the sound through the tape monitor circuit which doesn’t quite give the sumptuous analogue sound some would hope for, though.
As Sony supremo Akio Morita confessed in his book Made in Japan, his company would concentrate on technology for its own sake, and think about little details like marketing and consumer needs later. Elcaset failed because hi-fi purists associated closed cassettes with lo-fi, and Compact Cassette users weren’t worried about sound quality so much as size and portability. The format satisfied neither criteria as well as existing options. This lack of commercial focus plagued innovative research-and-development intensive companies like Sony and Philips for years. Only when they came together with Compact Disc did they truly get it right, and even then they had to fight tooth and claw. Bringing the public what you think they want is an extremely risky business…