The depth and breadth of nineteen seventies hi-fi was considerable. We all know about the rise of the major Japanese marques, but there were plenty of other continental European brands growing too, alongside the last gasps of British manufacturers like Garrard and Leak. Bang & Olufsen arguably experienced its golden age at this time, but there were other companies selling beautifully designed equipment too – from Dieter Rams’ work with West German Braun to Clas-Göran Wanning at Swedish-based Sonab.
As Swedish as SAAB, it made wilfully different products to most others, such as the radical OA series of loudspeakers with their array of top-mounted tweeters. Then there was the attractive range of Sonab amplifiers and receivers, which focused on ease-of-use and minimalist design, eschewing the clutter of Japanese rivals. And that’s why Clas-Göran Wanning gave the C 500 cassette deck its rather oddball looks, too.
By the early seventies, Compact Cassette was just beginning to take off; the format had been around for a decade but – like CD ten years later – did not reach mass acceptance until it had been on sale for a good long while. By 1974 however, many manufacturers realised they needed a hi-fi stereo cassette deck. Some like Sony, Philips and Pioneer set about their own; other companies had no option but to get an OEM specialist to make one with their badge on for them.
The company at the forefront of this was Nakamichi, which did a vast range of decks including the Thorn DCR1, Harman Kardon HK1000 and HK2000, Goodmans SCD100, Wharfedale 20D, Advent 200, Sansui SC-700 and Fisher RC-70/80. These were all closely based on the Nakamichi 500 chassis, and it’s from this that the Sonab C 500 was born too. Soon after, Nakamichi’s next generation 550 shared its innards with the Concord MK7, Elac CD520, Leak 2002 and Yamaha TB-700.
What Sonab brought to the party was aesthetic and ergonomic design; it was one of the very best of the Nakamichi derivatives. At the time, the company said it was, “constructed in such a way as to make it as simple as possible to handle, to play and above all to record”. This was no hollow rhetoric, because even by today’s standards it is a clean and elegant looking machine. Despite having a plastic body it was well made, and as you would expect the Nakamichi transport is crisp and positive to use.
Measured performance was very respectable by mid-seventies standards, although it won’t set the world alight now. We’re talking wow and flutter of 0.13% (peak weighted) and 30-16,000Hz frequency response (+/-3dB). Signal-to-noise ratio was 51dB with Ferric and Dolby off, 60dB with Chrome and Dolby on. This was good for a deck of the day, and a small and compact one at that (380x250x105mm) weighing 4.5kg.
It was a nice machine to live with; everything was straightforward, yet being a Nakamichi at heart you could get around the back where there were record calibration presets for Chrome and Ferric tape, so you could set it up accurately for your favourite formulation. The unusual recessed meters were simple to read if you looked over the top of the deck, as you would when setting recording levels, but largely invisible during playback when you didn’t need them.
Sonically the Sonab is good but not great. Obviously, any deck of this age may well be at death’s door, but a well preserved one whose Permalloy head hasn’t worn down will give a punchy, musical sound that has a reasonably sparkly top end if used with good Chrome tape. It will sound stable and detailed, but by the standards of nineties cassette decks for example, it’s still soft and blurred. Still, this is a great curio, and in its day a quality item; the Sonab C 500 was very expensive when new.
There are a surprisingly large number of these still around on online auction sites, albeit most on sale in Northern Europe rather than the UK. Expect to pay between £100 and £200 depending on price, condition and provenance. Happy hunting for this, one of the most unusual Nakamichis in drag ever made!