Vintage Test Report: Nakamichi Dragon Cassette Deck Page 3

Recording level is shown on a twenty-segment peak-indicating fluorescent display calibrated from -40 to + 10 dB. During tape adjustments the meter 's dynamic range is reduced and its resolution increased. The adjustments themselves utilize built-in 400-Hz and 15-kHz test-tone generators and are designed to ensure optimum bias and consistent sensitivity for ferric, chrome-type, and metal tapes. The adjustment system has illuminated LEDs to indicate the proper knobs to be turned, and it was easy to use and accurate.

Pushbuttons are provided to select between tape and source monitoring, 120- or 70-microsecond playback equalization, and Dolby-B, Dolby-C, or no noise reduction, as well as to activate an FM-multiplex filter and an infrasonic filter designed to eliminate the effects of turntable rumble. There is an automatic record-pause switch that causes the deck to stop about 15 seconds after the end of the music you are recording, in case you are otherwise occupied at the time. Other pushbuttons control the memory-rewind/play and auto-reverse features. An output-level control (which also affects the signal at the front panel 's headphone jack) is provided, and the combination of separate left- and right-channel record-level controls with a master record-level control facilitates level setting. In addition, an automatic 2- or 6-second fade up or down can be activated during recording. As is now customary on Nakamichi recorders, however, there are no microphone jacks or controls; an external mixer is needed for this kind of recording. Timer activation in either record or play mode is also switch-selectable.

The rear panel of the Dragon contains the line-in and line-out jacks, a jack to power an external microphone mixer, and another jack for a remote-control accessory. The deck measures 17 3/4 inches wide by 5/16 inches high by 11 /16 inches deep, and it weighs approximately 21 pounds. Price:$1,850.

Laboratory Measurements
Our sample of the Dragon was supplied with the three Nakamichi tapes used in its original setup and checkout: EX-II (ferric), SX (chrome-equivalent ferricobalt), and ZX (metal). These are the tapes we used for all our record-playback measurements. Because of the Dragon 's excellent bias and sensitivity adjustment systems, however, we were able to obtain virtually identical response curves from a variety of premium tape formulations, including: Maxell XLI-S, TDK AD, Fuji FR-I, and Memorex MRXI (ferries); TDK SA, Maxell UDXL-II, BASF Professional II, and Sony UCXS (Cr02-equivalents); and TDK MA, Sony Metallic, Fuji AR Metal, and the new Scotch XSM IV (metal).

Playback frequency response was checked with our IEC standard ferric (120-µs) and chrome (70-µs) calibrated tapes. Differences between forward- and reverse-direction response with either tape were so slight that we could simply take an average to arrive at the curves shown in the graph. Up to l0kHz both are within 1 dB of standardized response from the 31.5-Hz lower limit of the test tapes; above 10 kHz, however, there is a clearly rising response (± 3.7 to 4.2 dB at 18 kHz), which we have found characteristic of Nakamichi decks. This may make some prerecorded tapes sound slightly over-bright, but it can easily be corrected with a treble control.

Overall record-playback response, measured at a -20-dB level, was within ± 1 dB from 20 Hz to beyond 20 kHz with all three tape types, which is truly remarkable cassette-deck performance. Dolby tracking error-the difference in frequency response with and without the noise-reduction system-was within 1.5 dB from 20 Hz to 20 kHz using either Dolby-B or Dolby-C. Even at the 0-dB level, where all cassette tapes run into saturation at the highest frequencies, response did not drop to -6 dB until 13.2 kHz for the ferricobalt SX, 14 kHz for EX-II (ferric), and 18 kHz for ZX (metal). Indeed, though not shown on the graph, with metal tape and Dolby-C, the Dragon 's response at a 0-dB recording level was down only 2 dB at 20,000 Hz!


The upper curves indicate overall record-playback response at the manufacturer 's indicated 0-dB recording level using the tapes designated on the graph. In the center are the same measurements recorded at -20 db relative to the upper curves, a level conventionally used for tape-deck frequency-response measurements. Bottom curves show playback response from calibrated test tapes and indicate performance with prerecorded tapes.

Wow-and-flutter in the Dragon was the lowest we have ever measured in a cassette deck. With our Teac MTT-1 11 flutter test tape the readings were 0.016 per cent (weighted rms) and 0.024 per cent (DIN peak-weighted) in either direction. We suspect this must be the residual level on the test tape itself. On an overall record-rewind-playback basis, however, wow-and-flutter was only 0.0 17 per cent wrms (0.028 percent DIN peak-weighted) in the forward direction, 0.022 percent wrms (0.03 per cent DIN peak-weighted) in the reverse mode. At a 0-dB recording level the third-harmonic distortion of a 315-Hz tone measured 0.35, 0.88, and 0.4 per cent, respectively, for the Nakamichi EX-II, SX, and ZX tapes. To reach the 3 percent distortion point used to calculate the signal-to-noise ratio (S/N) required increasing the recorded level by 5.8, 3.8, and 8.4 dB, respectively, and the Dragon 's manual suggests that for ferric and Cr02-type tapes peaks should be allowed to reach a + 5-dB indication, +8 dB for metal. Using the 3 percent distortion reference, S/N 's for EX-II, SX, and ZX measured 50.7, 52, and 55.6 dB, respectively, with no noise reduction and no weighting. With Dolby-B and CCIR-ARM weighting, the S/N figures were 64.3, 66.2, and 68 dB, and Dolby-C increased them all the way to 73.9, 75.5, and 77.5 dB. As with many of our other measurements on the Dragon, these noise figures simply define the current state of the art in cassette-deck performance. The 0-dB output level of the Dragon was 1 volt and required a line-level input of 55 millivolts. Fast-forward and rewind times were very rapid, averaging 51 seconds for a C-60 cassette and 73 seconds for a C-90.

We found that the Nakamichi Dragon sounded every bit as good as it measured, and it handled as well as it sounded. With prerecorded tapes from In-Sync, Mobile Fidelity, and Nakamichi 's own concert hall in Japan, there was a kind of transparency and brilliance (which survived even after we turned our treble control down a trifle) that we almost never hear from cassette recordings. Because it operates continuously, the effect of the NAAC circuit with its split section playback head is usually subtle; except for when a flashing tape-direction light indicates that a large misalignment is being corrected, you have to listen very carefully to note the restoration of the high frequencies. But the difference in high-end response with prerecorded material between the usual fixed azimuth of another top-rated Nakamichi deck and the Dragon 's adaptive azimuth system is both measurable and audible, and it is on such small, yet real, improvements in the state of the art that Nakamichi 's reputation is founded.

As for the deck 's overall record-playback performance, perhaps the best word is impeccable. Using metal tape and Dolby-C, there was only one test source with which we could hear a clear difference between the input and recorded output: a pure but musically boring, 1-kHz sine wave from an audio generator. Not even a 15-ips professional analog mastering recorder with Dolby-A can pass this test, however.

True, we could pick nits. The viewing area in the cassette-well door is too small to be able to read the label, and, like all segmented recording-level displays, that of the Dragon is annoyingly imprecise when one is trying to measure differences within 1 dB. It also would have been interesting to have some indication as to the degree of misalignment in our prerecorded tapes, not just a flashing light telling us that an azimuth correction was taking place.

Overall, however, the Nakamichi Dragon is simply the finest cassette deck we have yet tested. No doubt there will be challengers for that title, but they will be up against a real fire-breathing champion when they appear. -Craig Stark


Brandon Iron's picture

There was no way I could afford any Nakamichi cassette deck in the 70's but I did have a DBX Expander/Compactor (and still have it!) to go with my TEAC (later replaced by a Sony) cassette deck. The DBX compacted the signal to noise ratio to fit onto the cassette tape and then on playback expanded the signal back to the original. I used this to make mix tapes from vinyl and reel to reel tapes and the playback sound was as good as the original. I later bought a cassette deck with dbx built in but it didn't work as well as my original standalone DBX.

JCook's picture

Many people don't know that Nakamichi built the Advent before they debuted their own brand deck.
For those who don't understand how "motors provided the needed pressure" for tape to head contact, it was capstan/pinch roller assemblies, one on either side of the head block, that isolated the tape from the rather unreliable specifications of the cassette shell.
As far as auto-reverse, UDAR was simply a way to provide high quality auto reverse at a lower price. It should be noted, that UDAR would only provide 100% azimuth alignment for tapes recorded on that machine. The Dragon would optimize alignment, in both directions, regardless of where the tape was recorded.

Moving into the 80's we sold good quality Nakamichi single capstan, two head decks for as little as $300. I've always bemoaned their demise, which seemed to be accelerated by their attempts at "Lifestyle" systems, the SoundSpace series.

sgarfinkle's picture

I loved my ZX7 cassette deck, which provided most of the useful features of the Dragon. I also loved the Nakamichi Dragon turntable, which used a laser measure the exact center of the record and then moved the record around to compensate for off-center record holes.