A decade ago I was moderately surprised to find that companies like Sony were showing off portable music players at CES, because I figured most people had moved on to using smartphones to listen to music.
But that’s before I realized there was a whole world of portable hi-fi music products. So what’s new at CES this year? Something decidedly more analog… and not particularly hi-fi at all. A portable cassette player.
Chinese company FiiO makes portable music players and HiFi digital to analog converters. But late last year the company announced it was developing a portable cassette player called the FiiO CP13 that looks a bit like a Sony Walkman with a (very) few modern touches.
The company showed off the CP13 at CES 2024 this week, and plans to begin selling it in early March, 2024 for about $165.
So what does it do? It plays tape cassettes and looks pretty nice. That’s pretty much it. But maybe that’s all it needs to do.
Tape cassettes are having a moment, with many musicians and music fans adopting the technology for its analog properties… and ephemeral characteristics. Digital music sounds the same every time you play it on the same equipment, but tape cassettes degrade over time, leading to warping and other imperfections in the audio.
I’ll always have a soft spot for tapes… even if I have no urge to ever listen to them again (or bother with trying to repair one that’s come unwound). When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, tapes offered an inexpensive way to record music off the radio or from other tapes to make mix tapes, among other things. And when my friends and I started a band together, we recorded our music first on a boombox with a tape recorder and then at my guitar teacher’s house, using a 4-track tape recorder.
The FiiO CP13 doesn’t have a record function. It’s just for playing music. But these days, a growing number of bands are distributing their music on tape cassettes as well as CDs, vinyl, and streaming, and a portable player like this could be the perfect way to listen.
FiiO’s portable cassette player is an entirely analog device with a 3.5mm headphone jack, large play, pause, fast-forward, and rewind buttons, and ana auto-rewind function when you get to the end of a tape.
It does have a few modern touches including a built-in Lithium Ion battery that lasts for up to 13 hours of music playback (or longer at lower volumes) and offers 268 days of standby time. There’s a USB-C port for charging.
The company says using a built-in battery rather than removable batteries leads to longer playback time and a slightly thinner design (including removable batteries would increase the thickness of the CP13 by about 1 millimeter).
But there’s no support for Bluetooth audio. You’ll need to use wired headphones or speakers or plug in a Bluetooth dongle if you want to use wireless audio. And the USB-C port is just for charging, not for transferring music. That’s because there is no hardware in the FiiO CP13 for storing or playing digital music.
The FiiO CP13 isn’t the only modern cassette player. In fact, it uses off-the-shelf components that are widely used by other companies operating in this space, and FiiO acknowledges that while it’s made some changes to the hardware, this portable music player won’t be much better than the competition (and honestly probably isn’t as good as discontinued classics like Sony’s Walkman DD series cassette players).
But it has an attractive design, support for a nice looking protective case (sold separately), and is a first-generation product that FiiO can improve upon in the future if the first model sells well.
What else could be on the horizon? A company representative hints that a modern portable CD player isn’t out of the question, as could be cassette decks for home use.