Apart from Nakamichi, few other Japanese names were so closely associated with cassette as Aiwa. Sony, JVC and Pioneer made some very fine examples of the breed, yet did other notable products too. Aiwa made a full range of equipment – including some interesting and quirky stuff like the LP-3000 turntable and AT-9700 tuner – yet its stock-in-trade was high quality mid-priced cassette decks. Akai also made a name for itself in this category, but was better known for its open-reel tape recorders of five or so years earlier. Almost uniquely, Aiwa seized on the rise of cassette, grabbed the ball and ran with it.
The Compact Cassette story started in August 1963, when Dutch electronics company Philips displayed a prototype of a small cartridge of magnetic tape designed to work in highly compact players that could be battery operated and taken anywhere. It was reversible, and offered up to forty five minutes per side, thanks to a low tape speed of 4.76cm/s. The tape was the same found in commercial open reel recorders, being an Iron oxide formulation held on a Mylar backing. German company BASF was asked to supply its PES-18 formulation. Its meagre 3.81mm width was designed for mono operation; little of the tape was exposed, making it a relatively robust format by the standards of the day.
The Japanese paid very close attention to the format. Philips asked a licence fee from hardware manufacturers, whereas the actual cassettes were to be licence-free. In September 1963, German company Grundig proposed to Sony that the two companies collaborate on producing an international standard for cassette tapes, in a bid to exclude Philips. The Dutch giant countered and proposed the co-development of their Compact Cassette format; this was agreed but disputes about royalties followed. Philips initially wanted 25 Yen per unit, then 6. Sony’s Norio Ohga refused, saying it would go with the Grundig system, causing Philips to drop its demand. It waived royalties for Sony, and subsequently made the technology open to everyone in 1965, when the Compact Cassette name was born…
The Japanese, in love with miniaturisation, jumped at this chance. Advent’s Model 201 of 1971 became the first hi-fi cassette recorder, combining Dolby NR and chrome tape functionality. It wasn’t a big seller, but ushered in the hi-fi age. Then in 1973, Nakamichi’s 1000 machine appeared, a hugely expensive cassette deck conferring true audiophile credibility on the format. Within a year, all major Japanese manufacturers had cassette decks out. Aiwa fielded the AD-1200, which was a fine ‘affordable’ machine, and rapidly expanded its range into a variety of different price points…
Many of us have forgotten now, but the first generation of Japanese cassette decks were top-loaders. But by 1975 – thanks to the hugely attractive Mario Bellini-designed Yamaha TC-800GL – the more high end designs became so-called ‘ski-slope’ designs, with a sloping front panel and often a (then highly fashionable) perspex dustcover. Nakamichi’s 600 was a fine example of this, but was extremely expensive. Sensing a gap in the market, Aiwa launched the AD-1250 in 1976. It had the looks of the Nakamichi, but cost nearly one third of its price at £150. Inside, it used many Sony components seen in that company’s entry-level TC-118SD – a good basic frequency generator servo motor with belt drive and a decently sized flywheel. Aiwa Ferrite Guard Heads (FGH) were used, a variation on the theme of Sony’s F&F heads, and these are very long lasting indeed. The deck offered Ferric, FerriChrome and Chromium Bias and EQ positions, and peak recording level LED to make up for the slow ballistics of the analogue VU meters. Round the back, a variable output level control was fitted.
The deck garnered good reviews in British hi-fi magazines of the time, and people remarked on how stylish it was. In a world obsessed by Star Wars, the AD-1250’s aesthetic futurism really chimed with the mood of the time. The large slab of brushed aluminium covering the control panel was a joy, although the silver painted plastic casing was less impressive; it looked great when new but hasn’t stood the test of time well and many examples have faded or worn paint now. The piano-style transport controls were also plastic, but the mechanism itself was slick in operation so didn’t let the side down. Also, it not having logic control wasn’t unusual on mid-price decks at this time, let alone the relatively affordable end of the market that the AD-1250 inhabited.
Many loved the AD-1250, but it did seem to be something of a Ford Cortina dressed up in Ferrari clothes. It had a beautiful body that was streets ahead of all its price rivals, but look beyond those cool curves and it was all too plain vanilla. What was needed was a spec’d-up design, for a relatively modest increase in price, that would really confer the chassis with an exotic feel. The AD-2000 was precisely this; launched in September 1978 it reached the UK as a 1979-model year machine and sported the (then) extremely impressive addition of fluorescent peak meters. The AD-1250’s analogue VU metering was poor, so this was a worthwhile addition and gave loads of added showroom appeal. Another really useful tweak was variable bias; allowing users to vary it by ±20% for the Ferric tape of their choice. It also got dark grey paint to the casework, silver coloured transport controls and a clear – rather than smoked – dustcover.
A well preserved AD-2000 feels silky to use, runs smoothly and delivers decent speed stability and a usefully wide frequency range – the manufacturer claimed better than 0.18% and 25Hz to 16kHz (-3dB) respectively. A 58dB signal to noise ratio, improved by 10dB with Dolby switched in, is also very satisfactory for the time, but not exceptional. The result is a sweet sounding cassette deck that’s crisp, punchy and fun to listen to. It’s no Nakamichi 600 of course, but it’s very nice indeed and it’s surprising that Aiwa didn’t sell more. The price started at £200 but the ski-slope shape seemed to bring about its early death; by 1980 people wanted front loading cassette decks and the AD-2000 seemed to be stylistically flogging a dead horse. The last models ended up in Comet, selling for £50 with a free dustcover; an ignominious end. What was once the shape of things to come, was fast consigned to the past.
The AD-2000 is a rare cassette deck in the great scheme of Aiwa things; it made vast numbers of front loaders – many very good – whose sales dwarfed it. Still, they do pop up secondhand with reassuring regularity; there’s always a couple every month turning up if you look closely. Prices range from £10 to £200 depending on condition. Avoid an old and worn out one if you can; it’s expensive to restore a cassette deck to as-new condition, and there are few specialists who can do it. The major service item on the AD-2000 is the belts; like any forty year old piece of rubber, if they haven’t been changed they’ll need to be. The ferrite heads rarely ever wear out, so if the one you’re considering looks past its best then this machine will have been hammered. If you can possibly find one with an original box, then all the better.