Last year, the Walkman turned 40 and cassette sales were the highest for 15 years. How did Sony mark the occasion? With an admittedly rather good Android-flavoured music player, announced in September. Cashing in on a renewed appreciation for the format, the retro twist to the Sony NW-A100TPS arrived in the form of a cassette-inspired interface and a bundled case with original 1979 Walkman styling. It did beg the question, though, why not an actual, honest-to-god cassette player?
With sales climbing over the past five years and more than 80,000 tapes sold in the UK in 2019, according to music industry body BPI, Sony left space for an update to the iconic form. Taking up the challenge, Hong Kong-based Ninm Lab launched a much publicised crowdfunding campaign last summer for its affordable mini deck. Developed to offer retro appeal to Gen Z hipsters and/or anyone old enough to remember tapes the first time round and funded by 978 backers on Kickstarter, the It’s OK portable player’s big sell is Bluetooth 5.0.
With an early backer price of HK$588 (about £58), the device is now available to buy direct from Ninm Lab at 688 HK$ (around £68) plus postage. After acquiring the product as a regular Kickstarter punter, I was off to a shaky start. While it arrived bang on schedule, the deck’s play button wouldn’t stay down when pushed. After emailing the makers, I was immediately sent a replacement so I can’t fault Ninm Lab’s customer service.
Now I haven’t had anything to play my tapes on since scrapping an old Sony mini system around a decade ago, so they’ve been gathering dust ever since. In preparation for the arrival of the IT’S OK player, I lugged an armful of old tapes back to London from a high-security storage facility (my parents’ loft) and also picked up a copy of the Guardians of the Galaxy Awesome Mix Vol. 1 from eBay. After all, it wouldn’t be right to test a deck without listening to the mixtape that kicked off the recent renaissance.
I got a warm rush of nostalgia every time I snapped a tape into the deck, hearing the thunk, pressing play and watching it spin. It brought back memories of heading to school with a Pye player and a rucksack weighed down by bootlegged tapes (Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine). Reserved for home listening on a Philips stereo were the less cool Now tapes (Boyzone, East 17, Pato Banton).
It’s quite strange to use a cassette player without headphone cables and while a portable player wouldn’t have looked out of place 20-odd years ago, it brought some truly perplexed stares while travelling on the tube in 2020.
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Giving a contemporary twist to a vintage gadget, the It’s OK player is available in ‘Sakura’ pink, ‘Cloud’ white, and ‘Evening’ navy blue with a transparent cover that lets you see what’s playing. The design is cool, if a tad rough around the edges. Literally. Some of the joins don’t entirely line up leaving some very slightly jagged seams, though it’s really only something you’d notice if you’re looking closely. The deck doesn’t claim to be water resistant in any way, so it’s probably best to keep it out of the rain entirely.
The player tips the scales at about 250g, when you’ve got batteries and a tape inside. It’s nicely palm-sized, though, so it’ll fit in your bag but probably not your pocket. There’s also a plastic belt clip if you want to go full-out ’80s.
Controls are kept to the familiar play, stop, record, forward wind and rewind buttons, which all worked perfectly once we got our replacement deck. The top edge is home to a 3.5mm jack for wired headphones, alongside the on/off switch for Bluetooth mode. The only other physical control is the volume dial. While it works as it should, we found it was irritating to listen at a low volume – it went from reasonably loud to zero, with not much in-between. It could really do with a few more levels before hitting mute.
The deck only supports Type 1 cassettes, which covers most tapes you’re likely to play. However, you may find that some other types of cassette, such as Chrome, aren’t supported. The makers also state that tapes with a playing time of 120 minutes are not recommended and the deck features an auto-stop feature that kicks in at the end of each side.
It’s powered by two AA batteries (not included), which should be good for weeks or months, so you’ll need to opt for rechargeables if you want to protect the environment/your wallet. And it tells you something about the lo-fi vintage of the product that the instruction booklet includes, under ‘operating tips’, a diagram of how to wind the tape back into a cassette using a pencil.
Supplied with a blank 60-minute cassette, the deck can also be used to record your own messages. The built-in microphone isn’t powerful enough to pick out your voice from ambient noise if it’s placed on a table in front of you, but it works really well when you speak (or sing) right into it.
Flicking the Bluetooth switch lights up the pairing indicator, which flashes rapidly until it’s connected, then continues to flash at a much slower pace. We tried connecting first to a pair of wireless earbuds and then to a speaker, both of which were hooked up within a couple of seconds. The connection was impressively reliable, and didn’t drop out even once. It even stayed steady until we were about 10m from the deck. In connectivity terms, we can’t really fault this little gadget at all.
Sound quality is what lets the player down. There isn’t really that much to compare the player to in terms of current kit – we’re only aware of one other vaguely similar device, albeit without Bluetooth 5.0. The IT’S OK is a mono player, which makes it unique but feels like an odd choice. While it will play your stereo tunes through both your headphones, it’s not a true stereo mix. Even our old ‘90s player had stereo on board so this feels like overkill on the retro vibe.
I hooked up the player to my Audio-Technica M50xBT cans, a pair of Samsung Galaxy Buds and the Naim Mu-so QB 2nd-gen speaker. For test tracks, I tried out the player with a variety of tapes including my newly acquired Guardians of the Galaxy mix, plus some stone-cold classics including the greatest hits of Salt-N-Pepa, Kylie’s very first album and Now… 26. Unfortunately, with the lack of stereo, the overall sound feels rather thin. There’s not much bass and little detail at the top end so the audio is somewhat flat. It also sounds quite unbalanced, which is more noticeable when listening on headphones.
In performance terms, there wasn’t a huge difference between playing the tape deck at home and on the move, apart from having to lug around a relatively heavy player and spare tape. We did notice a slight variation in tape speed at times, which certainly added to the whole retro vibe. Audio quality is not really top priority on Ninm Lab’s tiny tape deck.
Still, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed using the IT’S OK player. This is not a product for diehard audiophiles who enjoy arguing with room-emptying conviction about bitrates and codecs or even, for that matter, amateur enthusiasts a step down from the obsessives. For many the faultless wireless capability will be outweighed by the flat, unbalanced sound. It’s more about giving you a way to enjoy your rickety old cassettes, without wires. Or capturing field recordings or faux-vintage voice messages for your friends. Whether they’ll have anything to play them on is another matter. It’s all about nostalgia, and as Ninm Labs put it, the “romance” of the cassette experience over audio quality.
As a personal tape deck, the It’s OK is far from perfect but the reason nearly 1,000 people stumped up the cash last year is that there’s no mainstream competition, at least in this niche. Options are slightly limited with budget brands such as GPO tending to only offer wired models but you can pick up a cheap Bluetooth player for around £40 on Amazon (without the Bluetooth 5 for better range and speeds).
If you’re serious about your cassettes, old-school hi-fi separates are the best bet. Plus Sony still sells at least one ‘boombox’ stereo with tape decks on board. If you want something cheap and cheerful to play your old tapes on without wires, or you’re into obscure bands that only release new material on tape, then this might be a compelling option. Otherwise, Ninm Lab hasn’t quite lived up to the Walkman’s legacy so we suspect tapeheads will be left waiting for something more substantial. Do we need a Bluetooth cassette player in 2020? Probably not. But do we want one? Yes. Yes, we do.
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