Future project: Early 1970s Califone AV80 cassette player

It might not be a retro computer, but it’s a retro device.

In addition to vintage computers and electronics, I’ve also always been interested in heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. My interest was piqued when I learned Rheem Manufacturing — a manufacturer of water heaters, gas furnaces, air conditioners/heat pumps and more under various brands, mostly Rheem and Ruud — had once owned Califone.

Who is Califone?

Later I learned Rheem manufactured much more than HVAC equipment and water heaters. According to a timeline by the Madison, Wisconsin, chapter of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), it turns out they were also one of the largest shipping container manufacturers in the world at one time, along with steel drums, gas ranges, automotive parts and more. They even had a research division for aircraft materials, military equipment and commercial products. According to the timeline, Rheem Manufacturing acquired Califone in 1959:

Rheem acquired a substantial majority interest in Califone Corp., in 1959, and a minority interest in Roberts Electronics, Inc., in 1961, and formed the Rheem Califone-Roberts Division, selling tape recorders, teaching machines, sound systems and other related equipment for the home, schools and industry.

-“Rheem Manufacturing Company Historical Time Line,” Madison, Wisconsin, chapter of American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)
The Rheem Manufacturing logo is seen on the front of the Rheem Califone AV80 cassette recorder. The logo matches the one found on a late 1960s Rheem gas furnace at work, and is still used on HVAC and water heating products to this day.

I remembered my elementary school using Califone cassette players in the classroom, along with the uncomfortable Califone headphones they were paired with. Schools were one of Califone’s largest markets, but it certainly wasn’t the only one.

Last June I was attending an event featuring a cakewalk. The device used to play the music was none other than a stylish Rheem Califone “Commander II” phonograph. With its chrome cabinet and sturdy metal construction, it looked like it came from a 1950s movie set. It was even connected to Rheem Califone-branded public address speakers.

I later searched eBay for Rheem Califone equipment. You’ll mostly see newer Califone equipment, such as the aforementioned cassette players and headphones I remember. But you’ll eventually find original Rheem Califone — or even older equipment from before Rheem acquired Califone — equipment, the ancestor of the later models.

Califone is still around, or at least the brand is. The brand is mostly geared toward educational institutions, however, providing headphones, speakers and other equipment to schools through vendors like School Specialty. As of writing this, in 2024, School Specialty still had a Califone cassette player — the CAS-1500 — listed on its store. (The CAS-1500 is somewhat similar to the ones I remember from elementary school, although ours was wider.)

Tech YouTuber Techmoan even created a video a while back about Califone’s magnetic card reader.

The use of a cassette recorder/player in 2024

While most people use solid-state storage solutions and digital audio in 2024, sometimes it’s nice to have a way to connect with the past. Although most people prefer stereo cassette decks, mono decks can also be useful.

I previously had a pocket-sized Sony mono cassette recorder that somehow went missing. I had found it useful for not just playing back music cassettes (although in mono), but also playing back voice recordings from the past. In the late 1960s, my grandparents purchased a Soundesign 7621 cassette recorder for my great-grandmother to record her life story on. Decades later, my grandmother asked me to digitize the recordings — especially as some of the tapes had already broken.

I didn’t get too far, as I had to play the tape at speed while my computer recorded. It would’ve probably taken several months to digitize the entire collection of cassettes. A cousin finally found a service that digitizes the cassettes, repairing the damaged ones.

Later, the Soundesign used to record the tapes was randomly discovered in my grandparent’s garage in mixed shape. The “leather” case it came with is hard and beyond economical repair, but the machine itself appears to be in fair condition. Unfortunately, the Soundesign isn’t functional. While testing it, the machine destructively ate a tape and didn’t work.

The Soundesign 7621 cassette recorder outside of its deteriorated “leather” case. My great-grandmother (whose name is written on it in faded permanent marker, blurred in this photo) once used this machine to record several cassettes about her life.

On a more recent occasion, I obtained the cassette tape that accompanied the “A Guide to Macintosh” software that taught early Macintosh users how to use a graphical user interface. I didn’t have a machine … until now.

The AV80

The Rheem Califone AV80 cassette recorder before cleaning and restoration work. It functions in play, but neither rewind nor fast forward works. I haven’t yet tested record, since I don’t have a blank cassette on hand.

In mid-January I came across a Rheem Califone AV80 player for sale on eBay. The price wasn’t horrible, and it didn’t have the same exorbitant shipping costs found with the old Califone turntables and other, more heavier equipment. I decided to buy it, mostly because I wanted a cassette player, but also as a project. It also connects back to my interest in HVAC, with Rheem/Ruud being one of my more favorite brands/manufacturers of equipment.

The package arrived with one corner damaged, initially concerning me. Thankfully the eBay seller took special care in packaging it, using the perfect amount of bubble wrap and filling gaps with paper. Kudos to them!

Despite being battered around in shipping, the Rheem Califone AV80 cassette recorder arrived intact thanks to the eBay seller’s phenomenal packaging job with several layers of bubble wrap and fill.

I had to purchase four “D” cell batteries for the AV80. I forgot how massive, both physically and weight-wise, these batteries are. The AV80 can be powered by AC power (120 volts line, which connects on the side of the machine) or the batteries. Unlike the Soundesign, the AV80 automatically switches between AC and DC operation. (The Soundesign has a manual switch on its bottom by the battery compartment.)

The power connector found on the Rheem Califone AV80 cassette recorder. It has a transformer inside, so line voltage (120 volts here in the United States) would be applied to these contacts. There is no ground, which was normal for audio equipment in that era — even those with a metal chassis. The unit can also be powered with four D cell batteries, which I opted to use since I don’t have the proper cable for this connector. Plus, I don’t like plugging old equipment straight into the mains (line voltage) without giving it a good inspection. I have yet to disassemble or even remove the cover on this recorder.

While at work with a 1960s Rheem horizontal gas furnace nearby, I popped the batteries in, followed by the “A Guided Tour of Macintosh” cassette tape. I turned the volume knob up and pressed play.

It worked, at least in play. The AV80 features a massive speaker that gets fairly loud. Despite some worrying whirring sounds on its first play, the AV80 seemed to play mostly at the normal speed.

The first test of the Rheem Califone AV80 cassette recorder

The AV80 did not, however, fast forward or rewind. The motor spins, but the capstans don’t rotate.

A close up of the Rheem Califone AV80 cassette recorder’s transport controls. Along the right edge there’s a level and battery level gauge, with a counter above it.

I wasn’t able to test the audio output or input jacks, as they’re quarter-inch (6.35mm) connectors instead of the modern ubiquitous (for consumer audio equipment) 3.5mm jack. The AV80 is also monaural, so you will only hear audio in one ear/channel of any (stereo) headphone or device connected. Like with my compact Macs that also have a mono output, a “mono-to-stereo” adapter can be used to simulate stereo sound by spreading the mono input across both stereo channels.

The Rheem Califone AV80 uses quarter-inch (1/4″, or 6.35mm) connectors for the external speaker output and radio (line-level) input on its front. I’ll need an adapter to plug the wimpy traditional 3.5mm connectors on my modern headphones into this machine. The Califone headphones these machines were originally used with most likely had the quarter-inch connector. There’s also smaller connectors for the microphone and remote, neither of which I have.

In addition to the quarter-inch line out and line input connectors, there’s also microphone and remote connectors. There’s also a compartment on the bottom where the microphone can be stored. I did not get a microphone or remote with the AV80.

The bottom of the Rheem Califone AV80 cassette recorder. The top compartment is for storing the microphone, while the bottom compartment holds the four D cell batteries used to power the machine.
The data sticker for the Rheem Califone AV80 cassette recorder. I haven’t been able to decipher a date code from the serial number, which is AV80-30886033. The unit was made in Japan for Rheem Manufacturing of Los Angeles, California. Rheem Manufacturing purchased Califone Corporation in 1959.
The Rheem Califone AV80 uses quarter-inch (1/4″, or 6.35mm) connectors for the external speaker output and radio (line-level) input on its front. I’ll need an adapter to plug the wimpy traditional 3.5mm connectors on my modern headphones into this machine. The Califone headphones these machines were originally used with most likely had the quarter-inch connector. There’s also smaller connectors for the microphone and remote, neither of which I have.

Obviously, the machine needs some TLC to restore it to fully-functioning condition. It likely needs a new belt, both internal and external cleaning, and some lubrication. I’ll also need to go over the heads with some high-percentage isopropyl alcohol. (That might be a good time to also clean and lubricate the SuperSE’s 800k floppy drive, which I’ve never got around to working on.) I’d also like to clean the external up and make it look a lot cleaner.

Stay tuned for this future project to get underway.