It was a blow when my trusty Aiwa personal cassette player died in November and was pronounced 'unrepairable' by my husband (who knows a great deal more about little electronic gadgets than me). So I had high hopes that I might get a replacement at Christmas because I really missed listening to music while I got on with my chores. I wasn't to be disappointed.... my beloved hubby bought me a nice new personal cassette player from the local electrical shop (complete with a sticker saying 'Equipment with SAND in it will not be repaired under guarantee'. That's because we live on an island and sand-clogged gadgets are unlikely to be a problem faced by many mainland shops!) So what exactly did emerge from that brightly-coloured wrapping paper on Christmas morning? Well, it's called a Panasonic RQ-SX21 (I just love the inspiring name, don't you?) and it is certainly a very stylish silver-bodied personal cassette player. (I don't really use a radio much so that's not a necessary feature for me - others might prefer a combined radio/cassette player instead). In these days of energy-consciousness, it was a nice surprise to find that the RQ-SX21 came with a NiCad rechargeable battery which lives in a dinky little grey plastic case when not in use. The package also includes a black plug adapter so all you do is pop the battery into a slot on the front and plug it into a mains socket in order to recharge. The battery is a DC 1.2volt rechargeable Nicad battery, very slim - and easy to lose! Even better, it also comes with a single pod for a standard AA battery (R6/LR6, AA, UM-3). This pod can be plugged into the side of the cassette player and held securely in place via a thumbwheel screw. According to the instruction leaflet, playback time with the single AA battery alone is about 12 hours, with the Nicad rechargeable battery is about 40 hours and, with the two in use together, a whopp
ing 52 hours! A nice touch is the battery indicator. You press a small button alongside three small red lights - three light up for fully charged, two for half way and one means that you're nearly out of juice. To recharge the Nicad battery, it will need to be plugged into a mains socket for about 2 hours in the UK and about 4 hours on the continent. (Hence the very sensible step of providing the AA standard battery pod as a backup power supply if your Nicad battery is out of action being recharged!) The instruction leaflet reckons that it can be recharged about 300 times before it needs replacing. It also points out that the NiCad battery is designated as recyclable. This model is the basic one but the instruction leaflet also doubles up for the fancier version called the RQ-SX41. The only difference that I could discern is that the latter has a 'remote control' - though why anyone should want to be remote from a 'personal' cassette player, I have no idea! It's a contradiction in terms... Anyway, the RQ-SX21 comes with a set of in-ear phones which didn't suit me at all. I just cannot get on with these - I think my ears must be all the wrong shape... So I had to buy myself a set of 'proper' headphones which would add about a fiver to the price overall. From the look of them, the in-ear phones were of good quality, seemed to give good sound reproduction (I did try them briefly before one fell out!) and were equipped with a 3mm gold-plated stereo plug. The RQ-SX21 is marketed as 'super slim' and 'ultra compact'. Its dimensions are given as approximately 10.8cm x 7.5mm x 17.8mm on the instruction leaflet. That is small - barely bigger than the cassette that goes inside. The case is aluminium and it has a 'brushed steel' silvery effect which is quite classy with its blue trims. Its weight is given as 152g which doesn't sound much but is actually reasonably heavy, much o
f it due to the metal case and the solid build quality. (That is with the rechargeable battery in place. It will be a bit heavier if you attach the optional AA battery pod to the side of the unit). It is equipped with the usual niceties that today's mobile music-lovers require such as auto reverse, extra bass system, a 'hold' function which prevents the unit from operating in error, and a tape program sensor (TPS) which enables you to skip up to 3 tracks and start playing from the beginning of a track. I tend to use a hipbag to carry my personal cassette player because I rarely have a convenient pocket to put it in when I'm working. The Aiwa had its buttons arranged along the top of the unit which made them easy to access when carried like this. However, on the Panasonic, the operating 'buttons' are almost flush against the front of the aluminium case and I didn't find these very convenient to use when it was in the hipbag. Too often I found myself searching with my fingertip to locate the correct button to play or stop the tape. You also have to remember to set the 'hold' function if you're working and listening to music. It was much too easy to accidentally press one of the buttons if you lean over something and your tape might suddenly surprise you by rewinding or fast forwarding unexpectedly. One or two of the controls (the 'hold' slider is a case in point) are very small and might be difficult to operate for anyone with large hands. I have come to the conclusion that the Panasonic RQ-SX21, together with its fancier sibling the RQ-SX41, is a personal cassette player aimed mainly at the female and teen market. It is small and stylish, ecologically friendly and sturdy enough to withstand plenty of use. As it was a present, I am unsure of the price but I have seen a similar Panasonic unit for about £70 and it comes with a fairly standard one year guarantee.