SONY TC-KE500S Audio Cassette Deck - Product Review

Last Gasp Of The Audio Cassette

Sony TC-KE500S
Sony TC-KE500S 3-Head Dolby-S Audio Cassette Deck. Photo from

Is the era of the audio cassette finished with the advent of the CD burner? Believe it or not, there are still some good performing audio cassette decks. The Sony TC-KE500S is one of those decks. For more info, continue to my product review.


In a previous article, Adventures in CD Recording I stated that I had never personally owned an audio cassette deck. I have owned a couple of reel-to-reels audio tape decks in my life, including the classic AMPEX PR-10. However, I have never been totally satisfied with the quality of audio cassette technology (limited frequency response, dynamic range, and tape hiss) so the idea of making audio cassette copies of my vinyl records and CDs or buying audio cassette versions of my favorite recordings never really excited me too much.

Well, it looks like I may have to revise the above statement somewhat, as I have recently purchased an audio cassette deck. The reason; primarily to make audio tape copies of some of my CDs and play them in the cassette player in my car (I have grown somewhat weary of talk radio lately) and also be able to use audio cassette recording capability as an audio dubbing and soundtrack creation tool in amateur video production with a colleague.

For the above purposes, my requirements were:

- Great sound quality

- Excellent noise reduction characteristics

- Record monitoring capability

- Manual record settings

Features I didn't need were:

- Auto-reverse

- Dual Deck Dubbing capability

So, the quest was on. Having never seriously "shopped" for an audio cassette deck, I noticed several things. Cassette decks are extremely cheap, with dubbing decks even showing up in boomboxes. Most cassette decks are not only cheap in price but cheap in performance. Almost all decks available are of the dual dubbing deck variety. With the popularity of CD recorders and CD dubbing decks, most retailers don't carry much inventory or selection of cassette decks.

Enter the SONY TC-KE500S

After doing some Internet and shopping research, I decided on a deck that I thought would fill my needs, the SONY TC-KE500S. 

Of course, this audio cassette deck is still more than most "bargain" decks out there, but there are several features of this deck that separate it from the pack in both value and performance.

1. It is not a dubbing deck. It is a single well deck with no auto-reverse capability.

2. It is a three head deck, which is very important in that you have the ability to both monitor the input source or tape result while recording.

You hear what the tape actually recorded while the tape is being recorded, thus you are able to make adjustments as needed.

3. Besides Dolby B and C noise reduction (which is not an adequate noise reduction technology for serious audio recording), this deck includes Dolby "S" noise reduction which actually makes an impact on tapes hiss and silent spaces on the tape.

4. Automatic DolbyHX headroom extension. This reduces distortion and noise at higher frequencies. This is a must, along with Dolby "S" to really get a recorded result that is close to the source material.

5. Manual tape BIAS control. One of the main deficiencies of analog audio recording is that each brand/grade of tape has its own characteristics that result in unwanted tape hiss and distortion at certain recording levels. Although this deck has a very good automatic BIAS adjustment circuit, you do have the ability readjust the BIAS for your own taste. This is great if you intend to use the deck for live vocal or music recording.

Compatibility with all types of cassettes, from Type I and II to Type IV metal tapes. Note: Using Type IV metal tape is that if you intend to play the tapes in a variety of decks later, they must also be Type IV compatible. My suggestion: use Type-II tapes using Dolby S for best results.

Despite all these benefits, there are some negatives to this unit that must be pointed out.

1. This is by no means a professional audio recording deck -- although the performance is excellent for home recording needs, you must use it with a sound mixer that has RCA audio outputs in order to use this deck for live recording -- it does not have any type of microphone inputs.

2. Although Dolby "S" provides excellent noise reduction characteristics, this deck will not perform as well as DAT (Digital Audio Tape) decks that are used in more professional recording settings.

3. It is recommended that one use only C-90 (or shorter) length tapes, as longer tapes may have a tendency to stretch and cause problems with capstan tension. Since the deck has manual tape cueing only and no auto reverse, any tapes or CDs that you are making copies of will be cut off after 45 minutes on each side. However, you can turn the tape over, cue up your source for the remaining selections and just finish your recording. This may be frustrating for most, but since I monitor my recordings periodically anyway, I am usually there to accomplish this task. For me, it is just a minor inconvenience.

Testing the SONY TC-KE500S Audio Cassette Deck

In order to really test the performance of this deck, I recorded one of my favorite albums (which I have in various versions, Vinyl, DBX-encoded vinyl, and CD), "Dreamboat Annie" by Heart. The reason for this selection as the first test is that not only is the whole album a sonic masterpiece of rock performance but is also a record engineering masterpiece. The dynamic range, from soft expressive passages to Ann Wilson's piercing vocals to the deep bass extension on the Magic Man track can make you nauseous (from the bass vibrations), when played through the right amp and speakers. If this deck could handle this recording, it could probably handle most anything I could push at it.

To set this test up I used the following components: an old Yamaha CR-220 two-channel stereo receiver 20 years old and still going strong) with a SONY CDP-261 single well CD player, a pair of Radio Shack Minimus-7 loudspeakers to use as record monitors, as well as KOSS 4-AAA monitor headphones, and, of course, the CD version of Heart's "Dreamboat Annie". I plugged the SONY deck into the tape monitor loop of the Yamaha CR-220.

Frankly, I was not expecting great things from this test. I used the following setup parameters: the auto-tape bias setting, Dolby-S noise reduction, and the tape monitoring function (so I could monitor the actual recording in progress). I also set the manual record levels a little higher than recommended so I could see how the peaks would distort.

Needless to say, the result of the test was much better than I expected. I listened to the results through the KOSS headphones (which has excellent response characteristics). Although there was minor distortion and warbling on the highs during intense passages, the bass extension on the "Magic Man" track was very good, with only a slight bottoming out at the deepest point. The mid-range vocals lost very little depth over the source and tape hiss was not noticeable at normal listening levels. Hooking up the TC-KE500S to a couple of other systems in my apartment, the headphone listening results were confirmed, with some minor variations in bass response due to the different amp-speaker combinations used.

Lastly, having been satisfied with recording results as played through my home systems, I decided to go for an afternoon drive so I could listen to the results on my car stereo. My car stereo is by no means a great system. It is basically a stock Ford auto reverse cassette/radio with Dolby B noise reduction with stock speakers. Since I listen to talk radio and news mostly in the car, I have never thought of investing in high-end car system; I like to spend my audio dollars at home. Needless to say, however, I started up the car, inserted the "Dreamboat Annie" tape I made and waited for the tape hiss. Surprisingly, the tape hiss level was hardly noticeable. The Dolby "S" and HXpro Headroom Extension must have done the trick on the recording side because the results came out very well when played back on my car stereo.

Taking into account the lackluster capabilities of my car stereo (especially in terms of bass response), the recording was actually quite pleasing to listen to.

The highs exhibited more distortion (you really have to be looking for it) on intense passages than when played back through the SONY TC-KE500S, but the overall recording was definitely of better quality than anything I could hear over the air with the car FM Stereo radio. Mission accomplished! I now look forward to making tape copies of some of my favorite CDs and vinyl to take on the road.

In my opinion, if you are in need of good performance audio cassette deck with very few frills, essential features and you don't mind working a little harder to make your recordings, you won't be disappointed with the SONY TC-KE500S.

With the popularity of CD recording, the thought of me taking space to review an audio cassette deck may be an exercise in futility, but with the millions of audio cassette players and tapes still circulating worldwide, many of you may still need a replacement deck that will keep your cassette library alive. This unit has been in SONY's stable of products for quite a while and, with current trends towards CD recording, I am not sure how long this 3-Head tape deck will be available.