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For sightless audiophiles, Yamaha cassette deck takes first place

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

For sightless audiophiles, Yamaha cassette deck takes first place

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1985, The Syracuse Newspapers

Listening to recorded music is a long-recognized benefit of the technological revolution in home entertainment. For many avid listeners, however, what should be a simple pleasure has become an unwelcome task. Hundreds of thousands of sightless music lovers must cope daily with high-fidelity components designed without regard for operation by touch alone.

This is neither an uncommon problem nor one tht is difficult to solve. My own investigations into component ergonomics—the art of making an object easy to use—have shown that no more than a small fraction of all home audio products have controls whose functions are easily identified by feel and placement.

Audio components are redesigned almost yearly, and during this periodic model change, any manufacturer could improve the layout of all control panels at very little cost. Some companies have done better than others, but the industry's general response to the needs of sightless music lovers is to treat them s if they didn't exist.

Those of us who enjoy the gift of sight may wonder whether any of this realy matters to us. The answer is that all of us, sighted or not, rely on tactile clues when we operate equipment of any kind. Design that allows visual attention to be placd elsewhere can be more than just a time-saving feature— it can be life-saving, as in the case of ergonomicaly designed automobile dashboard controls.

Test procedures for evaluating control-panel layouts are utterly simple. You can do it at home. Stand or sit in your usual position, with your hands at your sides, away from the components in question, and then close your eyes tightly. (Wear a blindfold if you have a tendency to cheat.) For the next 15 minutes, run through the full operation of the component. If it is a tuner or receiver, can you dial or cal up all your regular AM or FM stations? Set the sound level to your liking, then alter the volume in either direction. Can you reset it to the original level easily? Other components can be equally troublesome without visual cues. Record players are generally easy to operate by touh alone, but the sepatare bands or "cuts" on each side of a record are impossible to locate without the aid of a special circuit, available in a few phonographs, that senses individual bands and plays them in any order.

If the component is a tape deck, can you figure out which side of the cassette should be inserted? Is there a way of setting record levels without looking at a meter diisplay? Can you tell if levels are too low or too high by listening to the recorder's output while you are recording? Can you find the "fast forward" and "rewind" buttons without groping? Among the cassette decks that are most difficult to use without looking at the controls is an audiophile recorder from Nakamichi, the company that consistently leads the industry in cassette recording technology. Its expensive "Dragon" cassette deck sports a dozen or more nearly identical control buttons so poorly organized that even users with normal eyesight have difficulty locating various functions.

At the opposite extreme is a modestly priced cassette deck from Yamaha, the K-600. Major controls on this $380 recorder are differently shaped and grouped according to function.

Touchplates, instead of the more typical buttons or switches, are used to actuate all transport functions. The major transport control is a large horizontal touchplate that can be pressed at the top for "play," at the bottom for "stop," and at the left or right for fast winding in either of those two directions.

A vertical touchplate to the left of the main control is pressed to alter tape direction (the deck will play and record forward or backward). Three small switches below the tape-direction touchplate determine whether the deck will play just one side of the tape, play both sides and then stop, or play each side in a continually alternating sequence.

Recordings can be faded in or out by pressing another touchplate at the other side of the transport panel, and the other controls are likewise separated and shaped intellugently. For example, the recording gain control is a single knob (the only round knob on the entire machine). To vary the left-right balance, the recordist asjusts a small blade-shaped knob next to the gain control. The arrangement is at once simple and elegant.

I was able to make recordings and play back previous tapes with my eyes closed after only 10 or 15 minutes spent getting used to the feel of the controls. The K-600 almost certainly surpasses any other home cassette deck in its ease of operation by touch alone.

In purely technical areas, the K-600 represents the best Japanese technology in the mid-rpice field. Sound quality is very good, tape handling is competent, and the deck's construction quality is, as expected from Yamaha, typically robust.

But the carefully thougt-out control layout is what makes this machine especially desirable. I salute Yamaha's engineers and designers.

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