Most audio equipment is only intended for leisure use at home, so although accuracy and dependability are high on the list of ‘nice things to have’ they are seldom considered absolutely essential. There are other uses for audio products too of course, in industry, research and government. Here the standards must by necessity be higher for often there is a great deal more at stake…
Uher of Munich, Germany, is a well known name in professional audio circles. Specialising initially in tape recorders, its most famous product was the 4000 ‘Report’ portable open reel machine. Introduced in the early nineteen sixties and in widespread use for at least thirty years after that, the Report sold around a million units and was respected as a smaller, cheaper and more reliable alternative to the established Nagra machines. Despite this success, in 1971 Uher chose to augment the 4000 with something smaller – a cassette recorder!
Initially known as the CR124, Uher’s first cassette machine was a miniature marvel. With a footprint scarcely 18cm square, the new model recorded in hi-fi quality and featured one of the first auto-reverse mechanisms, certainly the first in a portable. A stereo machine when most 4000s were still mono, the built-in monitor loudspeaker could be augmented by an external stereo pair driven by the CR124’s onboard 1W IC amplifiers. Power came either from dry batteries, a rechargeable NiCad pack, a 12V car adaptor or optional mains unit. A built-in mono condenser microphone, developed specially for Uher by AKG, was included, as was a socket on the front panel for an external stereo one.
The casework was formed from a sturdy and finely machined diecasting which was also an integral part of the transport, giving the ultimate in ruggedness and consistency. Motive power was supplied by the same electronically governed motor that was found in the 4000 report, meaning that the CR124 had the same characteristic rattle when being switched on and off due to the centrifugal starting contacts inside. Unusually for the time, the deck was electronically controlled which allowed a wide range of useful accessories to be offered. Stats of frequency response up to 12.5kHz and wow and flutter of 0.12% were good for a large hi-fi deck of this era, let alone a battery portable.
The introduction of the CR210 in 1974 marked a step up in performance for the Compact Report series. Reconfiguring the circuits to be able to use the now standardised equalisation for chrome tapes increased the upper frequency response limit to 16kHz confirmed the CR210 as a serious hi-fi recorder whilst the auto-reverse system gained optical sensors in place of the original mechanical contacts for enhanced reliability. A newly styled front panel in precision injection moulded black plastic (that most Germanic of mediums) gave the outside a clean new look whilst some of the controls had been simplified for easier use. The auto-reverse system remained as before, functional on playback only (recordings could be made in the forward direction only) with its status signalled by a tiny centre-zero meter.
Built for hard use, the CR210 had deep capstan bearings, turned brass flywheels, a ceramic erase head and tape guide and electronics built on easily replaceable plug-in modules. In defiance of an era where the production of most electronic equipment was becoming centralised in Japan, Uher continued with its policy of sourcing as many parts as possible for the CR210 from inside Germany; from the main chassis casting and the motor down to the smallest resistor or capacitor almost nothing in it was imported. This excellent (if expensive) recorder found many uses, especially in an age when paranoia was descending over much of Western Europe.
The CR210 remained in the Uher range up until 1979. 1977 had seen the introduction of the slightly larger CR240, which added better metering, ferrichrome tape compatibility and Dolby B noise reduction to the formula. In exchange for these refinements the auto reverse function was lost, along with some of the CR210’s extreme compactness (although the CR240 was for a time the smallest Dolby recorder available). At this time the CR210 gained an all-black colour scheme to match the new model, along with the same enlarged tape viewing window which could now be removed for easier head cleaning. Despite these updates, the lack of a noise reduction system was an obvious drawback which made the pricy CR210 a tough sell.
Out of its protective case, the CR210 looks like a just-nicked car radio. Slot loading adds to this impression, although it works in an unusual way. The cassette is first loaded, where an over-centre spring sucks it inside. Then, using a lever to the right, the operator lowers it into the bowels of the machine, where it latches with a positive click. The main control is then a tiny joystick in the centre of the CR210’s front panel. This starts and the ‘north’ position, moving it to the centre with a cassette loaded turns on the amplifiers and the motor. The positions ‘east’ and ‘west’ select playback in either direction, whereas ‘south’ is pause. Beneath the joystick is another lever which has a heavy, mechanical action. This selects fast forward or rewind, disengaging playback automatically when it is used.
The record button, marked with a red dot, can only be engaged with the joystick in its ‘north’ position; electronic logic rejects the function if the cassette loaded has been erase protected. Battery strength and recording level are indicated by an unusual edge-wise meter. The same knob is used for both volume and manual recording adjustment, although automatic level control can also be selected. Pushing the knob illuminates the cassette viewing window so that the amount of tape remaining can be seen.
Through its own loudspeaker, the CR210 has a surprisingly rich sound. This is due in part to the high quality speaker and in part to the volume control being loudness compensated, a curious feature for a model aimed mostly at the professional user. With efficient loudspeakers the built in amplifiers do a good job too, although the loudness circuit does thicken and muddy the sound. Used in a good hi-fi system with DIN standard connections the CR210 is an excellent performer, especially when used with the BASF chrome tapes that it was originally designed for. The lack of Dolby means that there is more hiss than you’d expect from a modern deck but the stability of the unique transport is beyond reproach.
Clean, bright sounding recordings are the order of the day, although the use of fixed azimuth means that the accuracy of the setting is compromised in the reverse direction. This can lead to dull reproduction if the auto reverse function is used. Some experimentation is required to get the recording level right as there are no standard reference marks on the meter (e.g. Dolby level), and BASF chrome tape is famously intolerant of over recording. The trick is to use as much level as is possible to drown out the hiss, but not so much that saturation leads to sibilance and distortion. Playback of pre-recorded material is predictably bright due to the absence of Dolby but this is no bad thing in many cases.
The Compact Report models are nowhere near as easy to find as the open reel 4000s but they are around if you look. Inside they are fearsomely complex, simple tasks like belt replacement require an almost total stripdown of the complete machine. The fragile “litz” wiring used in some models is incredibly thin and easy to dislodge during repairs and it is not possible to make measurements on the plug-in modules whilst they are in situ, making the overhaul of an ailing Uher CR something that really is for experts only. The four channel brass faced head is fortunately a durable component since it is unique to this model, as are the ceramic erase head and guides. The later two items can come unglued if excessive force is used during cleaning so treat them with care.
When buying, it is nice to get a power unit as these recorders are heavy on batteries and standard rechargeables cannot be used as their lower voltage is insufficient to operate the deck solenoids. The connectors used look like regular DIN types but some have non-standard patterns, making a complete set of accessories a useful asset. An interesting alternative to the more obvious Marantz and Sony choices, the CR210 is a consistently useful asset, whether you need it for listening to Kraftwerk or keeping tabs on a Baader Meinhof operative… TJ