[after publishing this post, eagle-eye reader "GaryShadyray" pointed out that this Lanier unit isn't for microcassettes, but the incompatible "minicassette". The main point of the post doesn't change much, so here it is. Thanks for helping us keep the story straight, Gary!]
James and I are interviewed from time to time about this whole "retro" world that we trade in. One recurring question we get every time asks what we think makes retro gadgets special. Of course there's the nostalgia and sentimentality that we imprint on our retro favorites, whether it's your first first car or your first Atari game... That personal connection is one that no one can tell us is right or wrong.
I also tend to bring up miniaturization. In the past, if a company managed to miniaturize a sophisticated mechanical something, that used to signal real quality and precision. A modern MP3 player is a matchbook-sized collection of off-the-shelf bits; mostly commodity electronics. Even the cheapest no-name MP3 player can be impossibly tiny - the only thing keeping audio players from getting any smaller is that our human sausage fingers still have to work the buttons.
There were note-taking cassette players that were about the size of a Walkman, but they were still kind of bulky. By making the cassettes smaller, the entire recorder could fit comfortably in the hand. It's the smae idea behind scaling down camcorders by introducing smaller cassette formats like VHS-C and Video8. Back in the days of moving parts, this was quite a trick. Amazingly, microcassettes worked. The format neve proved to be proactical for music reproduction, so microcassettes brought their barely-there fidelity to handheld notetaking gadets and answering machines.
When I got a microcassette of my own in the 80s, I marveled at how small the machinery of the microcassette player actually was, but then recently I found this Lanier VW35 that's even smaller. Even when sheathed it its leatherette case, the entire player is only about the size of a conventional cassette. Heck, I've seen modern digital recorders (with no moving parts, mind you) at about the same size.
You can still find blank microcassettes, and even the handheld recorders in stores... and it's not just legions of Twin Peaks fans buying them up (for those who may not remember, Twin Peaks featured Kyle MacLachlan as a peculiar detective recording his observations for someone named "Diane". I still have a theory that "Diane" was actually the name of the microcassette recorder itself... but I digress...)
We are at the point where a cheap digital audio recorder and a $5 memory card has pretty much seen the microcassette run out of tape. I do marvel at the Lanier's astonishing small size, but I don't feel like I'm going to get a lot of use out of it. At least until some crowd of hipsters picks microcassettes as the latest retro smug and ironic music format. Which I guess wouldn't actually be that crazy. Conventional cassettes were first used as a lo-fi dictation format for businesses. Who knows if someone in the 80s could have goosed microcassette performance to be a format suitable for music?
Fidelity aside, this truly miniature microcassette recorder is an amazing achievement. Lanier didn't have to wait until the digital revolution for things to get miraculously small.