Commentary: Why the Audio Cassette still matters

SFFaudio Commentary

Why the cassette format still mattersThe New York Times had an interesting article on Sunday:

“The Analog Geezer That Keeps Working”
by Andrew Adam Newman.

Newman’s story talks about the surprising vitality of the venerable audio cassette within the audiobook industry.

While the videocassette (30 years old) is definitely a dead media (just a few years after the introduction of DVDs), the audiocassette format (42 years old) still lives.

A perusal of the wares from the big three audiobook publishers shows that the cassette format is still valid. And a 2005 Audiobook Publishers Association survey indicates that the cassette format still accounts for 37% of audiobooks sold. Though everyone agrees that the sound quality and bulk of cassettes are vastly inferior to that of CD, MP3-CD, and most digital download formats, the very analogness of a good old fashioned audio cassette is what keeps them in use.

The stats didn’t really surprise me. An audio cassette allows for the perfect delivery of an audiobook to ears. The NYT article perfectly captures the allure of what everyone agrees should, by all rights, be an inferior system. In spite of its aural failings, higher cost, the inevitable tape tangles, and sheer bulk of the physical cassette, the format is still relevant. Everyone agrees that the cassette is definitely on its way out, but its retreat into oblivion is only as quick as the advance of the ability of replacing formats to allow seamless bookmarking and ease of transfer.

The iPod still treats imported audiobook CD tracks as “songs” – which means they aren’t strung together in bookmarkable playlists unless you dance in just the right way. The interface of mp3 players in general is still tightly bound-up with the idea that these devices are for music delivery 100% of the time. Worse, Audible.com, which uses the proprietary AA format for the delivery of audiobooks, has a virtual stranglehold on what audiobooks will be bookmarkable on your iPod. I sometimes wonder if the champions of DRM and its associated allies aren’t determined to make listening to an audiobook as frustrating an experience as possible. That’s often what they achieve. And in part, that too is why the cassette still lives.

It is a sad state of affairs that we still have to listen to audiobooks on cassettes to get the original audiobook experience. We all shudder at the hiss – still, we can’t get a more “book-like” experience from another audiobook format. There is no need to chapterize a cassette, no need to format an audiobook on tape into another bookmarkable audio format. In short, cassettes just work exactly the way we want them to.

A few years ago I spotted an MP3 player that would have done the job of a cassette based system – one that worked perfectly with an audiobook listener’s need to pause at any given point without losing one’s place. This was an MP3 player that was portable in the way that no other device was. The design wasn’t so much as revolutionary as it was familiar and intuitive…

Digisette Duo MP3 Player

The Digisette Duo, pictured above, worked like a regular pocketable MP3 player. It had small buttons here and there to control playback, just like modern MP3 players. What was so unique about it was that it was portable to every listening environment. You could take the device naked in your pocket and just listen with a pair of earbuds, or clothe it in your Sony cassette Walkman for when you went jogging. You could pop it into your car stereo, or use it on your home stereo. And when you pressed stop it paused the track and would resume when you pressed play again. This ease of transfer and forethought allowed the exact same portability as a cassette, without one losing one’s place, the same as a cassette. The interface for play, pause, fast forward and rewind were all familiar and intuitive to audiobook listeners because they worked inside a regular cassette player’s environment.

The Digisette Duo suffered from too small a memory and too high a price to make much of an impact before its quick demise. But that isn’t my point. My point is that in order to succeed formats must fit the needs of the people who are using them. While CD players more often come with a bookmarking design these days, one cannot bookmark the CD itself. You can’t just pull the CD from your car stereo and take it into the home stereo and “BINGO” resume where you left off. That sucks.

The ubiquity of speaker mounts for iPods and other MP3 devices makes the portability better. The FM transmitters do too. But ultimately what I really want is the bookmarkability of a cassette with the sound quality and size of a iPod nano. I suspect the cassette audiobook will be around a few more years. I just hope that when its end finally comes, that it has an heir that will be just as bookmarkable and just as portable. Because ultimately, our focus is on the content, not the format.

One thought to “Commentary: Why the Audio Cassette still matters”

  1. In an Audiofile Magzine survey conducted June of last year, 27.6% of those polled (magazine readers and those visiting the magazine’s web site) designated cassettes as their preferred audio format vs. 36.2% audio CDs, 10.5% mp3 CDs, and 25.7% digital downloads. However, criteria like types of players available in their cars, and available formats from libraries were major factors behind answers. Fewer cars manufactured with cassette players and a rise in library digital download services and CDs will probably whittle this down. However, Brilliance Audio has recently started offering cassettes-on-demand at their AudioBookStand retail sales site.

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