I found my Onkyo TA-RW344 tape deck in a Mesquite, Texas Goodwill. It wasn’t in perfect shape, but that was what I was looking for: Something that needed TLC but not any true repair.
The case was dirty, and the Goodwill sticker left a little residue on the front panel. This was nothing a rag and water couldn’t fix. The inside also needed a little work. After watching a very helpful YouTube video, I figured out how to clean the heads: 90% (or higher) isopropyl alcohol (NOT rubbing alcohol) and Q-Tips. There was nothing more than a little gunk on the heads, though the pinch rollers blackened more than a few of my Q-Tips.
I didn’t have a true demagnetizer (though I have one on my Amazon Wish List) so after several phone calls, I found a Radio Shack that claimed to have one. Unfortunately, the guy I talked to was wrong. All they had was one of the cassette numbers with little brushes and a supposed demagnetizing effect from, I’m guessing, static. I bought it anyway.
The “demagnetizer” either worked as well as advertised or the heads in the Onk didn’t really need demagnetizing (more likely) because the results we’re phenomenal!
To test the deck, I wanted something with a lot of high range. One of the problem with cassettes is that they’re bad at replicating high frequencies. This is why they “hiss” and why Dolby and dbx noise reduction systems were invented. To cut the hiss, you have to use noise reduction or lower the treble setting on your amplifier. Often, when you do this, you also muffle the sound of the recording. Next time you’re listening to your stereo, with a tape or not, turn the treble way down and you’ll see what I mean. So the true test, in my opinion, of a tape deck is whether it can reproduce hiss-free high frequencies without the crutch of noise reduction technology.
I picked Depeche Mode’s live album, 101 as my test for two reasons: The first is that the keyboards in synth-heavy music are replete with the high frequencies I wanted to test. Second, the sound of the cheering audience on a live album is another great test of high frequencies. It sounded great. A little hiss, but well within reason. Next, I had to try the Onk’s Dolby B and C settings. B cut down on the hiss without muffling, though I couldn’t say the same for C.
The TA-RW344 is not a world-class deck. Onks, as a rule, really aren’t. They’re a mid-range brand, like a Toyota to Nakamichi’s BMW. It’s also a double-well deck with only two heads and a default auto reverse—all the signs of a less than stellar product.
Nevertheless, it’s a damn good deck. It was manufactured in the early ’90s, when dual wells and auto reverse were the standard, so I really can’t fault Onkyo for that. I can turn the auto reverse off anyway. Nor can I compare it to a Nak and be fair. This is a good, well-made deck, and as such, it’s my go-to deck. It doesn’t require any maintenance, and I get consistent results out of it. If you find one in a used bin at your local thrift store or swap meet, you’d be a fool not to pick it up.