Akai GX-R99 Cassette Deck Review
The Akai GX-R99 cassette deck boasts as many attractive and truly useful features as any tape unit to come our way in some time. Capable of bidirectional autoreverse recording and playback, the deck has three heads, a closed-loop dual-capstan drive system, and a fully automatic tape-optimization system that can even set the record level controls. It also has Dolby B and C noise-reduction systems as well as an unusually versatile and informative fluorescent display panel.
The separate record and playback heads of the GX-R99 are made of glass-fused ferrite (said to offer greater wear resistance than ordinary ferrites) and are mounted on a plate that rotates 180 degrees when the tape direction is reversed. This shifts the two heads' track positions from side one to side two, and it keeps the record head "upstream," so that just-recorded material can be instantly played back in audible comparison regardless of the direction of tape motion. There are two separate fixed erase heads, one for each tape direction.
It is not necessary to use the motorized slide-out control panel (below the display area) simply to play or fast-wind a cassette in either direction. Tapes are dropped, tape openings downward, into slides on the back of the cassette-well door, and the usual transport-control pushbuttons to the right of the display are used. The illuminated cassette well shows how much tape remains on each reel but affords little label visibility. Cassette loading on the GX-R99 is unusual only in that you do not have to close the door manually: pressing any of the transport buttons closes the door and causes any tape slack to be taken up. Sensors inside the well switch between ferric and chrome/metal playback equalizations, as appropriate, and can't be overridden.
To record, however, you must press the open/close button to reveal the entire panoply of previously invisible recording controls on the slide-out control panel. Touching the record pause button starts an internal microprocessor program that adjusts record bias, equalization, and tape sensitivity for the tape in use. It also adjusts the MOL (maximum output level) indicators. The program takes about four seconds, after which the tape is rewound to the point at which the test signals were recorded, so they will be erased when normal recording is begun.
The record level can be set manually using a rocker switch to control level and channel balance. It can also be set by pressing a CRLP (computer recording level processing) button, which checks the highland mid-frequency content of the music being fed in for ten seconds and sets the record-level control accordingly. Should this setting later prove too high, the deck will (if operating in its CRLP rather than in its manual mode) gradually reduce the level automatically. The circuit is not a compressor or limiter, and it does not continuously "ride gain" on the music, for this would restrict the natural dynamic range. For convenience in taping FM sources, two programmable record levels can be preset and selected by pushbuttons, obviating the ten-second CRLP sampling delay, but this does not bypass the four-second tape-optimization program.
Either average (VU) or peak (dB) record and playback levels can be switched for display on the GX-R99's high-resolution fluorescent indicators (twenty-four segments per channel). The VU markings are calibrated from -30 to +8 VU; peak-reading levels are shown from - 17 to +15 dB. The Dolby-level marking is at +3 on either scale, and 1-dB (1-VU) resolution is maintained over all but the lowest levels. A third switchable level-display mode (and an unusual feature) shows the energy in the mid-frequency (400-Hz) and high-frequency (8-kHz) ranges, together with two MOL markers that indicate the tape's undistorted storage capacity in the two frequency bands. Recording levels can be set using this spectrum/MOL display in addition to the more conventional peak/VU metering. Settings of the record-level and balance controls (which are incremental rather than continuously variable) are shown on another part of the display. The digital tape counter can be switched to indicate conventional reel rotations, elapsed time, or remaining time.
The Akai GX-R99 measures 17-3/8 inches wide, 4-1/8 inches high, and 14-3/8 inches deep, and it weighs a little over 19 pounds. Price: $800.
The playback frequency-response curves for the GX-R99 shown in the graph represent an averaging of the forward and reverse directions, as these did not materially differ. The ferric (120-ms) response was exceptionally flat, being within ±0.5 dB throughout the 31.5- to 18,000-Hz range of the test tape.
Akai did not supply any of the blank tapes used in its factory checkout, but the manual indicated that these were Maxell UD (ferric), TDK SA (chrome-equivalent), and TDK MA (metal). Since the optimizing circuitry is used each time the deck is put into record mode, however, we felt justified in departing from the manual's suggestions, as we obtained slightly flatter response from the ferric TDK AD-X and the CrO2-type TDK SA-X. We obtained very nearly identical results from Maxell XLI-S and XLII-S and BASF Pro I-Super. Both the high-frequency overload characteristics at the IEC 0-dB level (250 nanowebers/meter) and overall frequency response at -20 dB for the three tape types were typical of those of a high-quality deck. Noticeable by their absence were low-frequency response ripples (head bumps). As usual, when the FM-stereo multiplex filter was switched in, the response above 16 kHz dropped rapidly.
The signal-to-noise ratios were good, and the wow-and-flutter performance was very good. Dolby tracking error was particularly low, especially with Dolby C. Fast-winding times, however, were slow. Input and output levels were normal.
Tape copies made of wide-range digital sources (Compact Discs) proved to be all but indistinguishable from the originals when we used the direct A-B comparison facilities the GX-R99 provides. At most there was a little additional hiss that survived even Dolby-C noise reduction, and there was a very slight rolloff of the highest frequencies when the level indicators ran up to maximum permissible levels (which is to be expected when overloading any tape).
We did find, however, that it was better to use the manual rather than the computerized level-setting procedure with such wide-range material. If the music began at a very soft level, subsequent downward record-level adjustments had to be made, and if it began very loudly, there was no provision for automatic upward adjustment during quiet passages. For nonclassical music, however, the ten-second sampling used by the CRLP circuit was adequate and convenient. Anyway, the manual procedure, simplified by the various level displays, is always available.
Since the GX-R99 contains so many features and buttons, learning to operate it does take some time, and while its technical features manual is extremely clear, its multilingual operating manual is not. We would have liked a switch to bypass the computerized tuning feature; the 4-second delay was a mild annoyance when using successive cassettes of the same tape type. And we would have liked continuously variable record-level and balance controls.
The fluorescent display panel was extremely informative, and the various memory-winding options (including a "record cancel" feature that takes you back to where you started if you wish to abort a copy quickly) were highly versatile. In sum, if you're looking for good performance with a wide variety of features, you should seriously consider the Akai GX-R99.