Pros: good sound; good reliability; nice appearance
Cons: some controls a bit small; no tape/source switch
For several years, the main tape deck in my system has been a Nakamichi BX-300. I can't remember what I paid for it back in 1988 or so, but I think it was above $500. Tapes recorded on the BX-300 sound truly outstanding, and its playback quality is also excellent. But it does break down periodically, and replacement parts are getting harder to find.
Recently, I decided to research basic tape decks to replace my BX-300, should it break down again. I wanted a single cassette deck without auto-reverse, and I wanted something that was high quality with minimal frills. Because I often listen to solo guitar music, I need something with low wow and flutter. And because I rarely use Dolby (I often listen in my truck, and my truck's tape deck does not have Dolby), I need something with a decent signal to noise ratio.
After visiting several stereo stores and listening to what my friends had in their systems, I came to the tentative conclusion that the best bang-for-the buck simple cassette deck was the Sony TC-KE400S. Its construction quality appeared to be good, it was handsome in an understated kind of way, and the sound was generally excellent. Wow and flutter were below the threshold of audibility, and tape hiss without Dolby was low enough that it didn't bother me.
But I still wanted to know about dependability, so I took my investigation one step further. I entered the model number into a Google search, and read several consumer reviews of the TC-KE400S. The consensus seems to be that the TC-KE400S cassette deck doesn't break down. My positive listening impressions were also confirmed.
The retail price of the Sony TC-KE400S is about $250, but it can be found for under $200 at several mail-order audio sites. Epinions got this one right: The lowest price I found was $159, which is excellent for a deck of this quality.
What you get: The Sony TC-KE400S is a simple, straightforward analogue cassette deck. It is finished in black, with the cassette well located in the middle of the deck. It is 17" wide, 4 3/4" tall, and 12 1/4" inches deep, meaning that it will fit well, both aesthetically and physically, should you stack it atop your preamplifier or receiver. Its weight is 7 3/4 pounds.
Controls on the TC-KE400S are logically laid out, though some of the knobs are small. It features Dobly B and C, as well as Dolby S, which is said to be compatible with the Dolby B setting on older decks. It also features Dolby HX Pro headroom extension.
The TC-KE400S is a two-motor design, which is said to reduce wow and flutter. It is a two-head design. It has several features which I rarely use, including "track search" and "auto play," the latter of which allows you to tell the deck to start playing after rewinding. One feature I wish it did have is a button which allows you to compare source with your tape as you're recording. For this feature, you need the three-head TC-KE500S, for about $100 more.
The main controls of the TC-KE400S are sensitive to light touch, giving the deck a relatively luxurious feel. A headphone jack is provided as well.
Frequency response is rated as 30-15,000Hz ?3dB with Type II tape, the kind I ususally use. With Type IV tape, frequency response improves to 30-18,000Hz, ?3dB. Even with inexpensive Type I tape, frequency response is a respectable 30-14,000Hz, ?3dB.
Overall, I found the TC-KE400S to be an excellent performer. Using my usual Maxell XLII tapes (no Dolby), the sound was good, close to that of my Nakamichi. The deck feels fairly solid, though not quite as solid as my Nakamichi. The 16-LED record level indicators are not quite as sensitive as the 20-LED read-out on my Nakamichi, but they are good enough for setting peak recording levels.
Some consumer reviewers said there was some dynamic compression using Dolby with this deck, but I didn't notice any problems using Dobly B (though I didn't make the tapes).
If you are looking for a basic analog stereo cassette deck, I recommend you give the Sony TC-KE400S a listen. For under $200, I consider it something of a bargain.