Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Pioneer TD-900 8-Track Car Stereo: The AN214’s Soul Mate?

Many old school car hi-fi enthusiasts swear by it, but is the Pioneer TD-900 8-track car stereo the AN214 IC audio amplifier’s soul mate?

By: Vanessa Uy

Unless you’ve managed to buy those limited edition Cheap trick albums being released on 8-track format being promoted on the Colbert Report back in 2009, buying prerecorded 8-track music albums this day and age is not going to be easy. Compared to vinyl LPs, 8-track tapes – being a magnetic recording media like cassette tapes – tend to get dull when improperly stored as the years go by. Aging recording media aside, does the Pioneer TD-900 8-track car stereo really is the audiophile soul mate of the AN214 IC audio amplifier?

If you’re fortunate enough to own an 8-track recorder – especially with a line-in proviso for CD, DVD-audio, Super Audio CD player, even MP3 downloads – then you’re in luck to test the audio beautifying effects of transferring / recording Red Book standard resolution digital music to analog magnetic recording media. I tried it with my recently acquired Pioneer RH-65 8-track player / recorder using new music that has probably been never ever released in 8-track format. Sound quality wise, digital media – even the lowly Red Book standard 16-bit 44.1 KHz CDs and MP3s – tend to improve when transferred to analog magnetic media. And the 8-track’s higher tape speed – twice that of standard cassette – tend to trick my ears that there’s more musical information that’s actually present in the two most common digital music media available to today’s typical CD and digital download aware music lover.

Given that the Pioneer RH-65 8-track player / recorder is old enough to appear that it is made in pioneers US headquarters in 178 Commerce Road, Carlstadt, New Jersey 07072, although the 8-track player / recorder’s back fascia says Made in Japan. For a product that’s made when NASA were still sending men to the Moon, both the Pioneer TD-900 8-track car stereo and the RH-65 8-track player / recorder can play music in a manner that a typical i-Pod will probably be capable 15 to 20 years from now, despite of both 8-track player’s very limited playlist and the 8-track format’s inherent signal-to-noise ratio that can barely reach 70 dB even with Dolby on.

Using fresh TDK blank 8-track tapes that from time to time turn up in garage sales in my neck of the woods, I tried transferring the Wyldsky’s debut CD which one of my audio-buddies purchased from Japan since our local music stores stopped stocking cool music back in 2005. By the way, Wyldsky is this band founded by former Great White guitarist Tyler Nelson and other former Great White members, in which Tyler Nelson named the band after her daughters Wylie and Skylar. All I can say is that the music of Wyldsky probably deserved to be recorded on 8-track in order for it to sound more soulful. Although I used a cheap CD / DVD universal player made in the People’s Republic of China at around 30 US dollars when new is probably cheaper than a second-hand Kalashnikov that sounded very great when connected to my trusty-but-rusty Audio Alchemy DAC. Hopefully, all i-Pods will sound as good as this in 20 years time.

Other tunes worthy for 8-track transfer includes the CD ¡Viva Zapata! by 7 Year Bitch and even those ¡Viva Zapata!-themed songs on their Gato Negro album do make good long haul driving tunes once transferred on 8-track. Even those Lunackicks albums in CD format seemed to become like 24-bit 192 KHz DVD Audio recordings or SACD in sound quality terms once recorded to 8-track. Even digital downloads and MP3s of those obscure but really great under-aged-teen girl punk groups will sound better without those 500 to 1,000 US dollar software-based DAC upgrades being pitched on-line supposedly to make your digital downloads sound like vinyl. Recording them to 8-track is a much cheaper proposition.

Concerned about 8-track’s wow and flutter problems? I tried recording Mother by Tori Amos from her Little Earthquakes CD – probably the most torturous wow and flutter test tune fortunate enough to be played on mainstream FM – and both domestic and car stereo decks passed with flying colors. And by the way, I chose not to test for the Classical Music capabilities of the 8-track car stereo since the car environment is too noisy for critical listening when it comes to this genre of music. Even the alternative rock’s version of Trinity and Beyond / “that atomic bomb movie” – Earthcrosser by Veruca Salt – can be spoiled in such noisy acoustic environment. Maybe 8-track is vinyl LP for cars?