I’ve just spent the past six days navigating my way through all manner of high-tech kit at CES 2024, but it's a blast from the past that put the biggest smile on my face.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic to see lots of shiny new kit: LG’s transparent OLED TV was pretty spectacular and Sennheiser’s new flagship wireless earbuds will undoubtedly be ones to watch (or listen to) this year, but it’s always nice when a brand throws a bit of a curve ball. Which is exactly what Fiio did.
Tucked away in a hotel suite was its CP13 cassette player. Remember those?
Walking up to it, I immediately had a couple of flashbacks to my childhood. The first was a clear memory of spending an unhealthy amount of time sliding the four-band equaliser up and down on an old Sony Walkman.
The second was the time my parents taped over the volume control of my first-ever cassette player (possibly an Aiwa, but I can’t be 100 per cent sure), so Wham!’s The Final album wouldn’t damage my hearing. But that’s a story for another day…
Anyway, back to the CP13, a device that was the brainchild of Fiio’s CEO James Chung, who wanted to pay homage to the original Sony Walkman from 1979. Getting the player built was no mean feat as many of the mechanism parts, such as the head, were particularly hard to track down. Probably understandable, given it’s been a few years (or decades) since the cassette’s heyday.
In the flesh, it’s a striking little product, especially in the blue finish which, in my opinion at least, really hits the spot (black and white will also be available when it goes on sale, with other colours to follow).
In hand, immediately it all felt very familiar, like picking up a guitar after years of not playing. It took a while for my fingers to warm up, but the muscle memory was back in no time and before I knew it I was playing those control buttons (for play, stop, rewind and fast forward) like a six-string.
The metal case gives the player a nice tactile quality, while the front of the unit is made from plastic, with the classic peephole there for you to see your tapes doing their thing.
It’s virtually pure retro, but there is a splash of modernity to the design too, with a built-in rechargeable battery providing the power, good for around 15 hours of playtime. It charges via a USB-C connection on the right-hand edge of the player, which is also where you’ll find the volume dial and the all-important 3.5mm headphone jack.
For the money, £129 (around $165 / AU$245) build quality seemed fine as did the quality of the finish. It’s a relatively simple rectangular box, but there are some attractive, sharp lines there too. I’m not sure how easy it might be to knock the volume dial if the CP13 is in your pocket, but it does have a pleasingly smooth action.
So, how did it sound? This is where things get tricky. I gave the player a blast for a minute or two using a tape provided by the Fiio representative (indie band Vigilantes and their album Ambedo Auras) using a pair of Hidizs MP145 (£129/$149) in-ear headphones that were on hand in the demo room, and neither of which I’m familiar with.
To that end, it wasn’t the kind of demo to make any real qualitative judgements. For some, it will be just about reconnecting with a classic piece of portable audio, although for others I realise sound performance will be important – hopefully, we’ll be able to evaluate this further down the line.
Was my time with the Fiio CP13 a wholly positive experience? Not entirely. I found it frustrating for a couple of reasons, but only one of those was down to the tape player.
I found opening the case to slide in or eject a tape an extremely finicky affair. There’s a recess which is there to help, but it doesn’t feel particularly comfortable to hold or jab your nail in (if you have nails, that is). Also, because of where you naturally want to hold the player when you try to open it, you end up putting pressure on the case to keep it closed, and you need to manipulate your grip. Perhaps there’s a technique I need to master, but a simple thing like that could become frustrating very quickly.
The second source of frustration is purely my own doing. Most of my cassette collection has only recently been sent off to that big scrap heap in the sky. All the mixtapes I’d curated over the years have been jettisoned and there’s no getting them back. A slight hurdle, I think you’ll agree, but not of Fiio’s doing.
Could the CP13 replace my smartphone as my music source and hit eBay to rebuild my collection? Realistically, probably not. I can see the idea of rediscovering a cassette collection could be appealing to many, but for me, the sound quality would have to be up to scratch as well.