Nakamichi Corporation was founded in Japan in 1948, the brainchild of tape magnetics research engineer Etsuro Nakamichi. The man was fascinated with tape, and in 1951 started manufacturing open reel decks for other hi-fi companies to put their own badges on. It was a tough business to be in, requiring high tolerances and careful alignment, alongside large volumes – not something most companies could manage. However, young Etsuro wasn’t content with this – and his company continued to research new ways of getting better results. In 1957 the company had a major breakthrough, getting a tape head to reproduce sound from 20Hz to 20kHz, and this rather laid the template for the company’s later products. Nakamichi’s ability to make its own top-quality bespoke tape heads set the company apart from its rivals for many decades.
After spending the nineteen sixties making fine OEM machines, Nakamichi began producing cassette recorders for itself with the 700 in 1972. It was a great product, but the company’s brand was largely unknown in the market, and it struggled to achieve any real commercial success. The company duly pushed hard with OEM work, and found it a lucrative way of selling its basic technology. Back then, few but the very largest Japanese (and indeed foreign) makers had the engineering knowhow to make their own hi-fi cassette decks, and many duly approached Nakamichi. Many differently branded machines came out using the same Nakamichi 500 chassis up to 1975; for example, the Advent 200, Fisher RC-70/80, Goodmans SCD100, Harman Kardon HK1000 and HK2000, Sansui SC-700, Sonab C 500, Thorn DCR1 and Wharfedale 20D. The next generation Nakamichi 550 shared its insides with the Concord MK7, Elac CD520, Leak 2002 and Yamaha TB-700.
This was a cheap and easy way for hi-fi brands to get a foothold in the rapidly growing cassette market. There was no shame to it either, because the machines offered to the OEM market by Nakamichi were better engineered than most in-house designs of the day. For an idea of the quality that the company was able to deliver, the Nakamichi-made Sonab had a wow and flutter figure 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 superb by the standards of the day; Sony’s budget designs from five years later struggled to match these sort of specs. At the same time, the brand launched its own cassette decks. Returning to its own brand, Nakamichi launched an audacious new high end model, the 1000. This got the name noticed, and the following 600 – a handsome ‘ski-slope’ design really put it on the map in 1974. The company was beginning to be highly regarded as a manufacturer in its own right.
Around this time, Bowers & Wilkins Ltd. made an agreement with Nakamichi to distribute their loudspeakers in Japan. As a result, B&W’s John Bowers quickly built up a friendship with company president Niro Nakamichi and the following year there was a reciprocal arrangement for their decks to be sold in the UK. A joint-venture company – Nakamichi B&W UK Ltd – was established, with Niro and Osamu Nakamichi as the Japanese directors, and John Bowers and Paul Wilkins as the UK directors. Paul Wilkins once observed, “Nakamichi’s cassette decks were built with a design philosophy of ‘performance first, convenience second’. Sonic performance was always put ahead of other considerations.”
After an update of the 1000 and 700 (mk II versions), the company then put out its first range of modern front loading machines – the 580 and 680 series, and the 480 budget range. By 1979, the company had an even more contemporary line-up which was far more swish to use that its products of just five or so years before. The brand continued to innovate, working hard on head and transport design, and 1981’s high end ZX-7 arrived with discrete three-head technology – three heads that are physically, electrically and magnetically independent, allowing accurate individual alignment for optimum results – and Nakamichi’s dual capstan “asymmetrical diffused resonance transport” which offered excellent speed stability whilst minimising head-to-tape contact irregularities. To improve this further, a pad lifter was fitted to the play head to push the cassette tape pressure pad off the head, thus reducing “scrape flutter”, and allowing the transport to control tape tension and head-to-tape contact. The ZX-7 was arguably the first great, fully rounded, flagship Nakamichi – but its stellar price tag in the UK (over £500) meant a great budget line was needed…
Enter the BX-series, which attempted to distill Nakamichi values down to something that was affordable for more enthusiasts. Despite this, it was still as expensive as most companies’ flagship high end designs. The BX-150 you see here had its genesis with the 1992 BX-2; this handsome eighties front loader sported vertical LED peak programme meters, vertical level sliders and both Dolby B and C, allowing substantially better signal to noise ratio. The cheaper Dolby B-only BX-1 followed, and then Nakamichi refreshed this with the BX-100, BX-125, BX-150 and BX-300 offering the same styling with updated features and subtle tweaks. Selling for £400 in 1984, the 150 was the top model in the company’s basic range, yet oozed quality and had great performance.
The manufacturer claimed “extreme transport precision, with remarkably low flutter”, thanks to a microprocessor controlled single-capstan transport. A bespoke Nakamichi Sendust laminate core record/playback head was fitted, which the company said “rivals the performance of a superior Nakamichi discrete 3 head system”. By any other manufacturer’s standards it was an extremely sophisticated product, being diminished only in the company of the ZX-7. With the new-fangled metal tape, it managed a frequency response of 20-20,000Hz (-3dB), a signal-to-noise ratio of 68dB (with Dolby C) and total harmonic distortion of just 1%. This was real high end stuff, by the standards of any cassette deck, even now.
The BX-150 was carefully designed to be no-nonsense, devoid of frills and easy to use. It didn’t have extensive tape calibration facilities; the idea was that your supplying dealer would set the deck up for the tapes of your choice. Yet once properly calibrated, the Nakamichi was capable of superb performance, not far off that of the high end machines. It was refreshingly compact too at 430x110x250mm and weighed a modest 5.5kg; it certainly wasn’t a behemoth. The fascia design was crisp and the machine offered just what was required to make a really good recording; Dolby B and C, switchable MPX filter, an excellent set of LED meters and full logic control. Fancy track search, auto-reverse and other frills were left off, to get basic performance as strong as possible at the price. The only luxuries were a dual speed master recording level fader and an auto repeat function.
In use, a well preserved BX-150 performs superbly. The tape drive is near silent, the logic control faultless and the machine a delight to handle. Able to record metal tape up to very high levels (+6dB or more) without excess distortion, the Nakamichi can exploit the best tape formulations yet sounds surprisingly good with plain old TDK D, too. Stable, smooth and silky, there’s no doubting the brand’s immaculate pedigree – even if the deck lacks many of the ‘bells and whistles’ of price rivals of its day. Ironically, many of these competitors used all kinds of technological trickery, such as Dolby HX (Headroom Extension) and multiple direct drive motors to improve their sound quality – yet the innate quality of the Nakamichi’s heads and transport mechanism still prevail.
The great thing about the BX-150 – and its close family members – is the sheer volume sold, back in the day. There are lots of them still around, and many have been looked after well and regularly serviced by UK distributor Bowers & Wilkins. Contrast that to the average Japanese cassette deck from the early eighties, and the latter will likely be used and abused – if it hasn’t already been consigned to a skip. The BX series is surprisingly plentiful, and you can get a good one from as little as £100 secondhand. There are better decks of course, but it’s a great entry (or re-entry) into the world of Compact Cassette, and built to last. Rather like buying a used car, seek out a low mileage mint condition machine if you possibly can, ideally with its original box. This done, you’ll have a lovely historical piece of hi-fi, with peerless provenance.