DENON DR-M44: The Mistery

Submitted on: 01 Apr 21

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Category: Analog recorders/players

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Nippon Denki Onkyo Kabushikigaisha was founded in Japan one hundred and ten years ago. Of course, no one outside of Japan could easily remember a name like this, so sometime in 1947 the name was changed to Denon. The company still exists, making a holding with Marantz, from 2002. on.

When I think of Denon, the first thing that comes to my mind are their phenomenal-looking turntables, some of them characterized by the top quality. In addition, they had esteemed amplifiers within several price categories: the low end, the middle and upper class and representatives of the high end at that time with several top devices – the classic Japanese business policy was (is) to show from time to time what they know and can achieve. Personally, I never particularly appreciated Denon – there were always some compromises, savings, there was some exceptional design on one side but also some bad sound on the other.

As for the CD players, the top models were respectful. I remember owning DCD-3300: it’s one of the best multibit players I’ve heard, seemed to me that they were waging a strong battle with Sony and Pioneer.

I also had a DCD-3560. Do you know that there are literally two cast bricks at the bottom of the chassis, more precisely plates, to make it more massive and more resistant to vibrations ???

Unfortunately, I only have a picture of an open player in the archive … note that the servo and control are on the top plate, while the DAC itself is literally in the sarcophagus. I won’t talk about these players, because I had them a long time ago and I already forgot their sound, and I don’t have many beautiful pictures either … at that time I took mainly nude photos of these devices :), but cassette decks are not the only devices I know to some extent :).

Let’s go back to the topic: Denon DR-M44. I recently bought it from my good friend Šćepa, who sold it to me cheaply because the deck had to be serviced due to low hours of use during last few years. Thank you Šćepa, you didn’t made my day, but You made my month :).

This cassette deck – M44 appeared on the market in 1984. and remained for only a year, when it was succeeded by the 44HX model with … you guessed it, the HX Pro system whose LED shone brightly on the front panel via a small plate similar to Naim’s illuminated green advertisements on their devices. The HX Pro circuit could not be turned off.

The basic version, which I own, does not have the HX Pro. The price of the model was a fairly high 1,500 DEM (750 EUR), which put it in the class of expensive Sony, Pioneer and Aiwa decks. Stereoplay magazine ranked it in the highest category, along with Nakamichi Dragon, Teac Z6000/7000, Revox B215, Teac V-970X, etc.

The Denon DR-M44 is certainly not a perfect deck, but it has one feature that should be appreciated: simplicity. Some devices have a million commands on them: the most necessary ones, the less necessary and the unnecessary. It’s all nice, but it often happens that someone needs one thing and another user needs another. I can understand manufacturers: they are trying to strike a balance in the price category, so some of them put this or that into their portfolio of device features.

With the DR-M44 it is obvious that they concentrated on the quality of electronics and the solid mechanism. They added autocalibration, a very solid display and … that’s it. Want a quality deck with a minimum of commands? Here you go. Do you want intro skip, blank skip, rec return, three hundred and twenty-five counter functions, manual calibration if you don’t trust the microcontroller, do you want him to write you love letters and dictate the lyrics? Look elsewhere, DR-M44 doesn’t do that.

Of course not everything is as nice as you might think. Denon engineers didn’t think how nice it would be to insert a relay that will switch tape/monitor signals, so they put a nice little unreliable (well, after 20-30 years) switch which starts to make dropouts as the time goes by. It is the same on many decks, to cite the famous Harman CD491 as an example. Removing, disassembling, cleaning will bring this little switch back to life.

Basically, the DR-M44 has a great display: a large four-digit counter (not a real-time one), tape type, auto tuning status as well as a couple of other functions. The peaks are with peak-hold feature, dual colored, a little thinner that I would like them to be.

Under the display there are commands for counter, autocalibration, Dolby system and tape/source switch. Then comes the second row, the keys are covered with metal which is great, and there is a button for the output level and the headphone level. And that is all.


Some technology tricks

The way DR-M44 is made is typically commercial Japanese audio device from the 80’s: saving where it is less visible. The case is plastic, but with a metal upper and front cover, as well as transport buttons, so there is not much to blame.

There is not much free space in the case, unlike the DR-M33, but that’s thanks to a special autocalibration board. I’ll speak about autocalibration later.

The transport is the one I found in several generations of Denon decks, with minor modifications. It was used all the way up to the DR-M800. Here it is a version with an idler for transmitting force to the wheels and three motors, one of which is intended for servicing the mechanics. The main engine is direct driven, and the whole system is closed loop dual capstan.

The transport itself is solid, but not exactly the easiest one to service. There are also more complicated ones, e.g. Sankyo transports from this age are not so easy to some respect, but with Denon you have to take care even more. Unfortunately, much of my work on this transport was done “thanks” to the previous serviceman who left some surplus of parts in the deck, while some others were missing.

I can conclude that this transport is a good one – in my opinion not as generous as Sankyo, but quite solid and durable. It has its bugs but they can be solved. I must mention that in later versions you can expect a visible drop in quality – but the designers would certainly be surprised if they had knew that someone will use their product after 35 years.

I called the Denon DR-M44 a mystery for a special reason, and that is its autocalibration system. It is stated on the net that it has perhaps the fastest autocalibration among all decks, but that is not true: for example Yamaha K-2000 does that job drastically faster. But the above is not relevant to this story. What is relevant is the way 44 actually does autocalibration.

Namely, most decks do automatic tuning by adjusting the tape response (sensitivity, sometimes referred to as level) and bias, in different layouts: some adjust sensitivity and then bias, some first rough bias, then tape response and then bias again. Some also adjust the equalization of the recording (this was also present among decks with manual calibration – continuously or in discrete steps). There are also more complicated versions like Pioneer’s Super AutoBLE XD, which is not a much modified version of what Bang & Olufsen used on the Beocord 9000 back in 1982., and is based on “firing” strong test tones and measuring distortion to calculate real performance limits of the deck. Some devices do the same for both channels, others do it for each channel separately. I won’t go into greater details…

But the bottom line is that if the deck automatically adjusts only two parameters, those two are sensitivity (tape response or sensitivity) and bias. But not the Denon DR-M44. It starts from a fixed bias and adjusts the sensitivity and equalization towards specific tape formulation. By equalizing the recording, a smaller or larger amount of treble in the recording can also be obtained. The system used by Denon is the same on the DR-M3 and DR-M4 models, while on the older DR-F7 and F8 sensitivity/bias autocalibration system is used. It is obvious that for some reason Denon later switched to sensitivity/equalization autocalibration procedure.

What is particularly interesting is the display: it was applied only to the generation to which the DR-M44 belonged,. The display itself has few markers which are related to autocalibration (autotuning: memory and reference). However, if you look closely, you will see that to the left of them there is one which is unused: calibration. Under it there are two of them, called level and bias. What is confusing is that none of the decks in DR-M44 generation uses these markers at all. The question remains: did Denon engineers planned to introduce a model that would have manual or automatic calibration of sensitivity (level) and bias and use the mentioned markings on the display? Basically, it is a mystery what the constructors imagined and how such a calibration system was chosen.


The Sound

Serviced and tuned, the Denon DR-M44 sounds extremely good, I could say almost perfect. The combination of detail, harmony, musicality and dynamics is amazing and does not go along with its beautiful but modest design.

I know decks that have more detail, a wider scene, more dynamics, but very few have it all together. If I talk abouy the sound, the DR-M44 is a deck I could live with for the rest of my life and let it be the only device for a compact cassette. The later version of the 44HX adds the HX Pro with an ugly mark in the middle of the dashboard, but I personally don’t think it needs it at all – the treble details are great – they’re not as clean as on some later decks, especially Yamaha, for example, but they’re incredibly natural. And this is the area where Nakamichi almost always won the competition. To add just one more thing: the bass is strong and the mid tones are exceptional.

I remember Denon DR-M44 some 25-30 years ago when I had it for the first time. Now, in 2021. it sounds just as good as it did then.

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