PIONEER CT-959: Pioneer at it’s best

Pioneer has a long tradition of making high quality components and is one of the few companies that survived market turbulences started in the beginning of 80s up to now.

Technically speaking, this company was one of the pioneers (sounds silly, does it) that used direct driven motor to rotate capstan and shaft on their cassette decks – just remember the famous (though not SO good) CT-F1250 from 1978. Few years after came CT-xR series (where “X” stands for 9, 8…) which used very advanced transport consisting of three DD motors: one was used for capstans – they were not closed loop configuration, but auto reverse so they rotated in different directions. The two others were reel motors – just like on great TEAC Master Cassette Decks Z7000/6000. Using DD motors for reel drive purposes has many advantages, some of them are that it will never slip like rubber idler and will make almost no vibrations as gears usually do. The other thing is torque: it can be controlled easily, by means of electronics, both on take up and supply side. At the end, DD motors are dead quiet.

Surprisingly, after some years guys at Pioneer changed their mind: rubber is better. So, Pioneer Reference Master Mechanism was born: large belt driven capstans, idler reel drive and quiet servo for heads assembly lifting etc. Older versions have less plastic than the new ones. Anyway, it is one of the quietest cassette tape transports of all, including famous Nakamichi 2nd generation. It is also reliable and durable, with some capstan motor failures on CT939 series, but is easy to fix. Idler lasts literally for decades, and wow&flutter figures are very low, says Pioneer. Model CT-959 belongs to the long line of “9xx” cassette decks, which ended, to my knowledge, with CTS-920S, the little brother of famous CT95.

Personally, I am not Pioneer fan, although You may think I am while reading previous text. I always find their devices missing something: quality, options or something else. The predecessors of CT959 are CT939 and CT939 MkII. It is very strange that among many useful luxury features Pioneer didn’t add oscillators for manual tape tuning: CT939 doesn’t even have recording sensivity option, just variable bias, the same one like on their much, much cheaper two head decks.

CT959 makes things better, adding 400 Hz and 10 KHz oscillators to the circuitry. They work at the same time, so no independent adjustment for each channel is possible, but the upgrade towards CT939 is obvious. Unfortunately, this means that the deck has to be perfectly aligned in the factory or realigned when changes occur, for example head wear etc. It is also almost impossible to make this calibration perfect on all kinds of tapes.

Controls are easy to work with and are pretty  logical. There is Dolby B and C and CD direct option, track searching etc. One nice feature is meter range option, where peak meters change the actual range at the press of the button and precisely display points around 0 dB, which is important during recording process. Display size and colour is very good, but I would like larger peak segments.

Inside, CT959 looks fabulous: fully copper shielded mains transformer – CT939 and CT939 MK2 had it shielded with casted metal cover. Transformer in CT959 uses some kind of resin as a part of anti vibration measures. The whole chassis (except cover) is also manufactured using copper shielding, and the cover is somehow hardened with additional metal sheet, looks sturdy, but is nothing really special.

Pioneer CT-959 electronics is very well laid out, and input record level and balance variable resistors are shielded. There is a trace of numerous use of audiophile components, like high quality electrolytic capacitors, and the display unit is completely shielded. Power and logic transport control sections are also divided from sensitive audio circuits.

Pioneer CT-959 sounds very, very good, no matter what cassette you put in it. In it’s class it is very transparent and has pretty good 3D stage, so hard to get on cassette decks. Micro details are precise and timing is one of the best I have heard on such machines. Bass has great body and you can feel the slam. Although it uses HX Pro all the time, there is no trace of artificial upper end or emphasized notes, everything is relaxed and sounds the way it should be.

If we compare it to some other decks, JVC TD-V1050 has even better detail retrieval but is not so emotional like Pioneer. NAD 6300 is maybe better for some thanks to it’s very distinctive sound character. Sony TC-KA6ES is somewhere near but I would take CT-959 instead. Although very good, none of the mentioned decks are not in, say, Nakamichi ZX9 class regarding transparency, emotional transfer etc., but Pioneer CT-959 is good on it’s own. It’s elegant design mixed with fine features and high quality workmanship makes him a high class contender.

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