Will new technology make today's sound systems relics of the past?

December 13, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Stereos used to be so simple.

Once, all your home hi-fi system needed was a turntable, a tuner and a tape deck to seem totally up-to-date. But today's aspiring audiophiles are faced with a growing menu of additional options. First there was CD, the laser-read replacement for the old-fashioned LP; then there was DAT, a digital recording system built around what appeared to be tiny videotape cassettes.

And now we're being hammered by ads touting the advantages of two new digital formats: MD and DCC. Each is being billed as the obvious heir to the MC (that's cassette tape to you) empire, offering both the crystalline clarity of digital sound as well as the portability and recording capacity of standard cassettes.

Even worse than this format confusion is the fear that with each new breakthrough, all the stuff you already own will become obsolete.

It's a reasonable worry. After all, it only took a decade for CDs to become America's top-selling prerecorded music carrier, pushing aside cassette tapes and forcing the LP into extinction. Nor has the CD boom been a matter of majority rule. Surveys show that CD players are found in no more than 37 percent of American households; by comparison, VCRs are almost twice as common.

Moreover, a recent report by Yankelovich Partners suggests that only 12 percent of the population at large is actively interested in new technology, a group that tends to be young, educated, affluent and male. For almost everyone else, though, the prospect of new gadgetry is greeted with what the report describes as "show me" skepticism; indeed, 45 percent polled agreed that "modern conveniences are often not worth the trouble."

So why has Sony thrown its considerable weight behind the new MD (or "mini-disc") format? Why is Philips N.V. pouring millions into advertising for its DCC (or "digital compact cassette") system?

Why, because of consumer demand, of course.

"It's important for a manufacturer to listen to what consumers are really saying," says Mike Piehl, marketing manager at Philips Audio. "And what we hear is that there is a strong need or desire to be able to record CD quality sound, and make it affordable. DAT really was not an affordable format for the masses. But even the very first generation of DCC [decks] are relatively affordable, vs. the first generation of CD players."

Over at Sony, though, they heard that demand a little differently. Sure, consumers wanted to make CD-quiet digital recordings. But they also wanted CD-style features.

"What we wanted to do was come up with a system that will give you near the performance of CD and for portable application," says Paul Foschino, director of new technology at Sony. "We feel that the consumer looking for digital sound, quick random access and durability from the format is going to be looking at Minidisc very seriously."

On the surface, both MD and DCC would seem to provide the same function as the older DAT (or "digital audio tape") format. But even though DAT enjoyed quick success on the professional recording market, it never had much luck with average consumers, who were put off by the high price of DAT recorders, of DAT blank tapes, and the near-total unavailability of prerecorded DAT albums.

So both Philips (which invented CD) and Sony (which devised DAT) went back to the drawing board to find a new, more mass-marketable means of making digital recordings. And what they came up with amounted to radically different approaches to the same problem.

For Philips, the answer is DCC, a digital tape recorder that avoided the DAT cost problem by relying on a tape similar in size and design to the cassettes people already own. This way, consumers would be able to make new digital recordings, and still be able to play their old cassettes. (DCC machines cannot record on non-DCC cassettes, however).

"DCC is very evolutionary -- it's not revolutionary," says Piehl. "It's a natural development of a very, very popular format."

Philips' DCC900 -- the first DCC player -- got its American launch last month. A component-sized tape deck, it boasts sound quality "comparable to" CDs, and includes an optical input port for direct-from-digital taping. It also features a motorized, CD-style drawer for the DCC tape; auto-reverse (important, since DCC tapes don't flip over); a 12-character display which automatically lists the album and song titles; and a list price of $799.

Drawbacks? Well, even though DCC machines allow the user to seek out individual tracks on an album for CD-like random access, they do so at the same speed as regular cassette fast-forward -- meaning less-than-instant access. And there have been reports of "head clogging" when analog tapes are played on DCC machines.

Sony's MD

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