PIONEER CT-S740S: The Poor Man’s BX300

This one was from the 1996. according to the Pioneer catalogue. During this era, cassette decks declined in bussiness plans of all manufacturers. This meant that the small amount of them still in production were made using cost cut philosophy or were déjà vu models with some make up. Of course, I remember some good Nakamichis, Sony TC-KA6ES and TEAC V6030/8030 next to few others, but there was a clear evidence of future disapperance of this kind of equipment. Some time ago I tested Pioneer CT-S640S which I found very good for the list price. I mentioned that it would be benefitial if company would have produced it with Reference Master transport, a very good component Pioneer made and kept for years in it’s upper class models. So… Here it is CT-S740S.

Looking at the front, it is almost the same as CT-S640S. But, taking a closer look reveals front mask almost all made of metal. Smaller part of it (under the cassette door) is made of plastic and can be removed to get access to the heads in case of readjustment. Everything else is almost the same: thin steel sheets and the deck that is very compact and not very deep, like we are talking about 80’s Fisher components, not upper line Pioneer. In the case the cover is removed, you will find that the back side of the deck is bending as being held just by one screw (although copper covered :)) and it looks like the whole unit would just fall apart. Pioneer price was  around 430 British Pounds, and around 900 DEM in Germany, which was not a small sum of money.

Comparing to CT-S640S the electronics looks almost identical, but it isn’t. Power section has been upgraded and some audiophile components like Nichicon Muse capacitors have been used. Some more copper covered parts are evident, like heatsink etc.

The heart of this mere 5 kilo deck is the Pioneer Reference Master Mechanism. Large capstan flywheels, closed loop dual capstan and reel motor with robust idler that lasts for decades are Pioneer’s trademark regarding this. It is among quitest you could ever get: motor, belt and gear driven head movement mechanism is very gentle and not loud at all. It is also very quick. Comparing it with CT-S640S cheap ALPS mechanism is like driving a small city car against Toyota RAV.

Many other options are also present: multi mode real time counter and variable range peak meters are one of them. I can’t applaud to the display, I would like it larger and higher quality since it’s contrast detorieted quickly over time. Other options include Pioneer’s patented FLEX system for sqeezing more life from old, frequency spectrum limited tapes, and helping in slight azimuth misaligned recordings. This is working by testing every track for three seconds and then the system decides if the music is in order with 1/f level curve, as the most music has this kind of level vs. frequency distribution. In case the signal complies with the distribution mentioned above, the FLEX circuit automatically turns itself off, until the next track on the tape. The small Pioneer PA0059 IC is responsible for all of this and is located just before signal leaves the deck.

Of course, Pioneer also put Dolby S in this decks, so it could win bad noise.

Calibration process is called Super Auto BLE XD. Just to mention, old Pioneer’s like CT-A9 or CT-9R had just “Auto BLE”, and this new acronym had to mean something. To cut a long story short, this one calibrates level, bias and equalization using 5 tones: 400 Hz, 3, 10; 12 and 15 kHz. It also attacks tape with higher level signals instead of standard -20 dB, so it mimics real-life music. Unfortunately, CT-S740S does this while measuring just one channel – the right one. XD (eXtended Dynamic) part of Super Auto BLE XD can be defeted, so the deck doesn’t perform this tape analyse. Pioneer, of course, suggests that XD should be used always.

The sound

Well, I thought it will be just fine tuned CT-S640S, but it wasn’t. It is really a nice piece of equipment and for the list price it is almost impossible to find any flaws in it’s sound. Very small amount of coloration is added and it can be found while listening to female voices. Pioneer sings with emotions – it is not just a machine for repetative process. Upper frequencies have details and dynamics, forming a very good and clean picture with active microdetails. The most important thing is that CT-S740S sound is cohesive, which means that low, mid and upper frequencies (and singers) play together, not by their own. I liked how HX Pro helped during recording – this was by no mean intrusive way to put high frequency transients to the tape for the sake of natural character. It did what is was supposed to and when it was supposed to. Although I tried really hard, I couldn’t hear any trace of forced dynamics, high extremes boost etc.

The only drawback is the bass: it is quite good, with definition and control on low octaves, but sometimes lacks proper attack, unlike it’s big cousin CT95 or CT959/979. Midbas is a little emphasized and lacks absolute control, but this may not be detected in mid class HiFi system. During the test, Super Auto BLE XD worked flawleslly and I couldn’t find any difference between input and recorded signal using monitor switch. Of course, this is different from comparing source vs. recorded material on CT-S740S. Using FLEX helped on old tapes, in the same way it did on CT-S620S: more details but also more artificial sounding music, so use it when you have no other solution.

Recordings with Dolby S were very, very good, with almost no hiss at all, beautifully detailed and very natural, so this deck should really bear Dolby S mark.

Conclusion

This was, for the price, a very special piece of equipment. Built around very cheap housing, it has the gold heart and pretty intelligent brain. It really reminds me of Nakamichi BX300 – maybe the best price/quality ratio Nakamichi deck ever made. Of course, BX300 is a better sounding deck, but if you can’t afford a 2nd hand BX300, try it with Pioneer for a small sum of money.

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