PIONEER CT-A9: The Silver Ghost

When I was a kid, Pioneer was company that was somehow above other Japanese commercial brands, or it just looked like. Techics was great, Sharp… so, so… Sony was really good, JVC the same, but if somebody would say that he has Pioneer system… well, this was something special.

Today, Pioneer is just a shadow of stereo giant it used to be. Fortunately it is not like Akai or Nakamichi whose name is used by el cheapo Chinese product. But the stereo market is so small comparint to AV market, so it attracts far less attention of big companies.

I had many Pioneer upper market decks: starting from CT-F900 and 1250, then CT-A1 – the  first Pioneer deck with auto tuning, the one which is soooo big, after it CT-9R and CT-90R, CT939, 939 Mk2, 959, 979. There were CT-S6xx, 7xx, 8xx and 9xx series decks, including very good CT-S920S and, finally CT95.

But the model CT-A9 was always so different in my mind. I can’t say that others were not so specific: CT-979 (which is currently also in my possesion) is the most advanced version of CT-9xx series (besides CT-93, of course), with gorgeous variable bias by means of motorized potentiometer. Pioneer CT-F1250 and CT-A1 are also very unique machines judging by external design, and CT-A1 has partially specific engineering.

After 35+ years of experience with audio equipment and few hundred cassette decks I had at my site, I developed a special sense for such equipment in the way I can feel where the manufacturer saved money during design and production process. Sometimes these savings are just up to visual ones, but much more they are connected with electronics and important mechanical parts of the device. Simply put, management decides what is the maximum cost of production of the device, so engineers stick to the budget.

But the case of CT/A9 is somehow different. It’s price was around 2.300 DEM (around 1.150 EUR) and it was produced just around two years – from 1983. until 1985., being replaced by a little advanced CT-A9X which I never had. At the beginning of 80s big aluminium front panels vanished, and so were massive knobs.  It was all changed with plastic. The predeccessor of CT-A9, model CT-9R brought unsuccess trying to integrate advanced engineering and functionality: three heads and three DD motors, auto tuning and some other things, including autoreverse. Unfortunately the sound was just average despite the high price (1.900 DEM).

Well, to my opinion CT-A1 is a milestone in Pioneer deck production: instead of plastic fron and frame used in CT-9R, there is a metal everywhere, with most of buttons using aluminium covers. It is also the first Pioneer deck with completely new transport, called Referent Master Mechnanism. It is based on closed loop dual capstan, but later there was also a single capstan version (CT-737). Three motors are used, and the whole assembly is very, very silent during mode change. All crucial elements have been calculated so to avoid resonant frequencies, and the base is made of solid steel plate, together with plastic parts. Capstans are made in such way to avoid belt slippage.

Although not in the Studer cassette decks transport category, Pioneer Reference Master Mechanism is very well built, silent and reliable. From my perspective it is much, much better than Akai transport on GX95/75 decks which is of a similar construction and very rigid a the first look. It is better than most Denon transports and even very popular Sankyo mechanism and Sony TCM200D incorporated in many ES decks.

Taking into account later Pioneer models with such transport, there are two important differences: one is that CT-A9 is the only which uses direct driven capstan motor while latter used more or less standard DC motor, which was sometimes prone to fail (on CT-939 for example). DD motor on CT-A9 is quartz regulated, using 120 pole signal generator. The other difference is reel motor: later models used  classic DC motor, but CT-A1 had DC coreless one. It’s core was made of copper windings which rotate above Alnico magnet with large coercivity.

The next thing is very specific peak display: 35 segments per channel (it was a miracle back then), although without peak hold or color change, but fascinating enough and very rare in cassette deck world. The range of meter is also rare: starting from -40 dB up to +14 dB, the upper limit seen (almost) exclusively on decks with dBX.

The counter is digital, numerical, but also works as a real time one, but just for the remaining time.

It is interesting that CT-A9 is the only Pioneer deck that I am aware of, that closes door automatically when cassette is inserted. It is made with optical sensor… for example, Aiwa XK-S9000 uses the same function but with mechanical switch… around 18 years later. The only problem with optical sensor is that cassette shell shouldn’t be fully transparent, but this is not up to Pioneer… at the beginning of 80s these cassettes were very rare, if any.

Inside, electronics was the best Pioneer could have put in a cassette deck: shunt regulators, LEDs instead of classic diodes (less noise) in voltage stabilization circuits, audio grade capacitors and Dual-FET inputs. It also uses relays instead of cheap switching ICs (4066 mostly). When You turn of the deck, it is a good looking with LED sparkling inside :-).

Pioneer CT-A1 continued to use BLE system, much improved in the sense of using specialized ICs, regarding old CT-A1. BLE is an auto tuning system for Bias, Level and Equalization. Nevertheless, this deck also adds MOL settings (Maximum Output Level), similar to Onkyo TA-2360 with one of three possible settings: peak, over or under bias. These modify bias settings depending of the choice made by user, regarding type of music recorded. Over bias emphasizes low frequencies and under bias does the same with upper ones. Peak bias gives some neutral value to bias settings.

Last but not least, and also needed by every user is cleaning tape path: CT-A1 doesn’t have easy detachable door cover. Instead, the lower part of the door can be opened as a small window and give user a simple approach to heads, rollers and capstan shafts, similar to Hitachi D-2200. I really liked it, looks like engineers thought of everything.

And just to mention one more thing: CT-A9 connects timer settings with Auto BLE. It does in the manner that it calibrates itself before timer initiated recording. But You also have to set if You will use peak/over or under bias setting – just look at the picture.


The sound

Pioneer CT-A9 sounds pretty specific and different from cassette decks that came after it, including Pioneer own machines. It doesn’t like recordings made on other decks, so they sound a little dark (not without details) even with perfectly aligned azimuth. In this sense, CT-A9 is no choice for people having a large collection of pre-recorded cassettes. On the other side, recordings made and played back on CT-A9 have a grat amount of details, very, very good bas and even good sound stage and dynamic with a little amount of hiss. However, I have to emphasize that it’s sound is not so clear and bright as it is on, for example Yamaha K2000 deck (and other Yamaha decks) nor NAD 6300. It sounds more like old high end cassette decks. But, on the contrary, the recording of CT-A9 and played back on fully serviced Tascam 122 Mk3 was one of the best between 20+ different recordings from different machines, almost perfect.

What can I say at the end: beautiful, smart machine made by Pioneer, a real pearl in the collection.


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