Slide Over C Ds, Cassettes Are Back Digital, That Is

If you're one of those technology resisters who finally broke down and bought a compact-disk player, brace yourself. A new set of audio initials is hitting the stores this month that will present music lovers with yet another tough decision.

DCC, for digital compact cassette, is a digital tape technology that allows you to buy terrific-sounding prerecorded cassettes and make CD-quality recordings onto blank cassettes. Best of all, the DCC decks can still play your huge library of old-fashioned analog cassettes.

READY FOR CHRISTMAS. DCC was invented by Philips Consumer Electronics, the same company that, jointly with Sony, brought CDs to the world 10 years ago. Philips is charging $799 for its first DCC deck. A Tandy player that uses technology licensed from Philips costs $700. Technics and Marantz will have slightly more expensive versions by Christmas.

As with CDs, the music on a DCC is recorded digitally, giving the cassettes the same crystal-clear sound quality. But unlike CD players, DCC decks can be jostled or bumped without ever missing a beat, making them ideal for cars and portable systems. They can also record. The tapes wear out slightly faster than CDs but are far longer-lasting than conventional cassettes, giving thousands of playings with no quality change.

And for once, the gods of consumer electronics did not kill off the old format for the new. DCC tapes are exactly the same size and configuration as analog tapes, so either type of cassette works in a DCC player. The analog cassettes don't sound any better or worse on the DCC deck, and DCC tapes still can't be played on an ordinary cassette deck. But since cassettes are the most popular format for prerecorded music, that represents a big advantage over Sony's digital audio tape format. Introduced a year ago, it has been relegated to professional recording studios after a long controversy over copying capabilities.

Besides compatibility, Philips made other improvements to DCC. The new cassettes have cases with no moving parts--no more broken covers. A metal shield on the cassette protects the tape from catching on anything and unraveling. The shield pushes out of the way automatically when the tape is inserted in the player. And the album graphics are printed directly on the face of the cassette, so you don't have to squint at tiny writing to find the tape you want.

Other nice features: The player has a window that displays the name of the record and the song you're playing. Like a CD, you can cue up any cut on the cassette. And all 45 to 90 minutes of music are on one side.

ONE-SHOT RECORDING. There are drawbacks--the most obvious is cost. But the price is sure to come down, and it is already considerably less than the $1,300 cost of the first CD players. For consumers who want more choice, Philips says it will come out with portable, car, and dual-deck players in the next 12 months. Music tapes will run you around $13, blank tapes about $8 to $10. Be aware that under an agreement reached with the recording industry to thwart piracy, you can make a digital recording on a blank tape only once. If you try to make a recording of the recording, or re-record on the tape, the next version will have analog, not digital, sound quality.

Philips is counting on DCC to make it a household name in the U.S. consumer-electronics market. To that end, it is making sure consumers can buy plenty of prerecorded cassettes. Some 100 titles are already available, and 500 more will be in the stores by the end of the year--everything from the new Bon Jovi album to Luciano Pavarotti. So bone up on those initials. Before you know it, DCC could well be the next audio item you can't live without.

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