Review: Philips PH2050W MP3/CD Cassette Adapter
Pros: An inexpensive, widely available cassette tape adapter that offers best-of-class audio performance by category’s standards, and uses an innovative cable repositioning mechanism to guarantee compatibility with both side- and bottom-loading tape decks. The most compatible such adapter we’ve tested.
Cons: Like all other cassette tape adapters we’ve tested, does not offer CD-quality audio output; still has a small amount of hiss-like noise that’s evident when speakers are turned up.
As we’ve noted many times in the past, including in our Cassette Tape Adapter Shootout, cassette tape adapters are amongst the most useful and affordable iPod accessories we’ve tested. Generally sold for $20 or less, they connect your iPod to tape players found in car stereos or boom boxes, almost always via the iPod’s headphone port, and allow you to hear iPod music through large connected speakers. Unfortunately, the tape adapter category has been stagnant for years, and few companies have tried to improve on the bare features of our top-rated accessory, Sony’s CPA-9C (iLounge rating: B+). Viewed by many companies as commodities, these adapters are widely perceived to have hit the ceilings in sound quality, pricing, and features, discouraging most vendors from innovating further beyond designs released a generation or two of devices ago.
Thankfully, Sony’s CPA-9C sounds very good - better in most regards than any FM transmitter - but it has two issues that have kept it out of our A-level, high recommendation category. First, even though it was the best of its breed, it isn’t equivalently low in noise or high in clarity to a direct line-in connection to a stereo. Second, though it works in most cars’ tape decks, it isn’t compatible with every type of tape player out there. While Philips’ new PH2050W ($15, sold commonly for $10 at stores such as Walmart) isn’t a huge improvement over the CPA-9C, it does improve slightly on Sony’s audio quality and more significantly on its tape deck compatibility, making it the most recommendable cassette tape adapter we’ve seen to date. We tested the PH2050W in car and boat tape decks without any issue, doing direct audio comparisons against the CPA-9C, and found it to be a superior option overall.
When comparing cassette adapters, differences in audio quality are measured in the sonic equivalent of millimeters rather than inches. Sony set a more than acceptable standard with the CPA-9C, which was originally released many years ago, providing a low level of background noise (heard as a hissing sound when the volume is turned up) and very little distortion of a headphone port’s properly adjusted audio. We’ve heard other companies promise to outdo the CPA-9C, but none actually have, and at this point, we get the sense that no one’s really trying. Though we can’t speak for earlier Philips adapters, such as the more commonly available PH-62050, the PH2050W improves a hint on the CPA-9C’s base level of noise, eliminating the hint of a hum you’ll hear in audio when your speakers’ volume level is turned up high. The level of hiss is roughly the same; the PH2050W is only slightly better.
The biggest difference you’ll notice between these two adapters is the presence of two large thumbscrews on the PH2050W’s top. Because it positions its headphone port connector cable off to one of its sides, Sony’s adapter can generally only be inserted into tape decks that load from the tape’s other side, and not those that load from a tape’s bottom. Most people found the CPA-9C to work perfectly, but to the chagrin of some users, boom boxes and some older car stereos use the latter type of connection. Philips’ thumbscrews let you detach a plastic top panel on the adapter to reposition its headphone cable for either type of tape loading mechanism, critically doing so without interrupting the electrical connection between the cable and the adapter. Other companies, most notably including Coby, have achieved similar cable repositioning in a less intelligent way in prior adapters; Philips’ solution properly sees the cable poke out of the adapter’s center on the top, maximizing its likelihood of working with bottom-loading tape decks.
To date, we’ve recommended Sony’s CPA-9C to our readers with only modest reservations, and the PH2050W essentially eliminates all but one of them: perfect sound quality. That said, it comes close enough, especially given its entirely reasonable sub-$15 pricing, and the less impressive performance of FM transmitters, that literally no one who has a cassette deck will complain about this omission. In compatibility, overall performance, and pricing, it’s as good as we’ve seen in a cassette tape adapter, and highly recommended.