It’s easy to think of Nakamichi as a purveyor of frighteningly expensive esoterica. Thanks to its much vaunted Dragon and MusicLink ranges, the company achieved legendary status. Like Luxman, MacIntosh, Revox or Goldmund, its marque enjoyed guilt-edged, twenty four carat gold-plated surety. The chances of Nakamichi doing anything even remotely affordable was less than seeing flying pigs, right? Wrong. When launched in 1978 the 480 cassette sold for ‘just’ £220 – mere Linn Sondek money – which was bargain basement by this brand’s standards!
Purists may decry it for being just a two head design (and therefore lacking the all-important split record/play head so beloved by serious tape worms), but this is to misunderstand the Nakamichi tradition. Some ten years earlier, the company wasn’t building unfeasibly expensive audio esoterica, but learning its craft doing a vast range of OEM gear for others. Ever heard of a Fischer Nakamichi RC-70 (1969), a Marlux 5000 (1972), Motorola NR-147 (1970), Sansui SC-700 (1973), Sylvania SY-32 (1971) or Concord MK-1X (1971)? Then there was the Harman Kardon CAD-4a (1967), Saba CR835 (1974), Norelco 2100 (1971), Sonab C 500 (1977) and the Leak 2001 (1973)! Add Goodmans, Philips and Elac to the list of names Nakamichi designed and manufactured cassette decks for in its early years, and you soon see that there’s more to this company than a few eighties Yuppie fashion accessories…
All this gave the company resources to develop its own components. Whereas other cassette deck brands bought in key components from third party OEM manufacturers, Nakamichi developed bespoke designs with superior motors and heads for higher signal-to-noise ratios and lower distortion. The result was clear to hear, as well as resulting in impressive measured specifications. The 480 was packed with fine ingredients – a Nakamichi RP-9E record/ replay head and E-8L erase head, plus three bespoke motors and a well calibrated Dolby B noise reduction with switchable MPX filter (removing the 19kHz filter from the recording signal path). The transport was beautifully engineered with two precision capstans driven by the DC servo motors via rubber belts.
No variable bias was offered – it came preset for the company’s own brand of EX, SX, ZX tapes – Ferric, Chrome and Metal – but could of course be reset by your Nakamichi dealer. Tape counter, record level sliders and fast-ballistic meters aside, that was your lot. Compared to equivalently priced high end Japanese designs, it was a model of simplicity and ergonomic purity – you put the tape in, waited for a second as the auto tensioner took up the slack, and then pressed record. No setting up, fiddly adjustments or tape calibration – it just got on with the job. And being a Nakamichi, who needed a third head anyway, because you just knew the recording would be right.
Sound is very good even by today’s standards. It’s clean and crisp, with powerful, well articulated and tuneful bass, a wide and expansive midband with bold imaging and a clear, bell-like treble. Wow, flutter, crackle, hiss, break-up, distortion? Of course not – this isn’t a budget Aiwa, Sony or JVC we’re talking about here.
In 1980, the 480z arrived with the addition of a fine bias adjuster, and the 482 appeared with a discrete 3-head transport. These are equally desirable second-hand acquisitions, but somehow dilute Nakamichi’s pure, bare-bones, ‘less is more’ concept that the 480 so eloquently espoused. Today, all are available for between £150 and £200 in mint condition. They’re all beautiful bits of kit, showing a crispness of design and ergonomic brilliance that today’s manufacturers could do well to emulate. The face that they’re built so well makes them a safe used bet, too – which is something you can’t say about cassette decks very often. Like a classic nineteen seventies Mercedes, the quality remains after the fashion has gone.