So you've finally given in to CDs, despite the comparatively high cost and audiophile gripes about their supposedly cold, clinical sound.
Well, time to readjust your mind set again. Two new digital-format acronyms are vying for attention: DCC and MD.
Unlike compact discs, both the digital compact cassette and the MiniDisc let you make handy, portable copies of music. And unlike with conventional tape, some experts say the copies sound as good as the originals.
A lot of electronics-industry talk has it that the arrival of the two formats signals a battle royal, in which only one of the two will survive. But that's a bit drastic. Cooler heads predict that both formats will co-exist for many years, and that CDs are here to stay.
DCC arrived first
DCC was the first of the new formats in stores, debuting last month. DCC decks are being snapped up by "early adopters," the industry's term for well-heeled electronics buffs who love to be the first in the neighborhood to own a new technology. The machines run from $700 to $1,000, much more than a standard cassette deck; blank cassettes list for about $10 and prerecorded cassettes cost about the same as CDs, about $16 list price for big-selling titles.
"Because DCC records digitally, it introduces no hiss, background noise or other sound degradation," says Mike Piehl, marketing manager for Philips Audio, an American subsidiary of Dutch conglomerate Philips NV, which developed the format with Japan's Matsushita Electric. "It allows the DCC cassette to have the sound quality you've grown accustomed to with CDs."
Unlike the CD, which reproduces all the sound waves created in the studio -- whether humans can hear them or not -- DCC and MD records only the sound in the audible range. Each then uses its own type of electronic wizardry to produce CD-like quality.
Not all the 'sounds'
In terms of such audiophile arcana as bits of digital informatio per second, DCC's and MD's technical specifications don't come close to the output of a compact-disc player. But the theory behind DCC and MD is that part of what a CD reproduces is not really necessary -- either some of the "sounds" can't be heard or they're "masked" by competing sounds. (So why do CD-makers painstakingly record sound waves you can't hear? Because guys with $20,000 worth of audio equipment think they can hear everything.)
Among the main selling points of DCC is what its makers call "backward compatibility." That means you'll be able to play conventional audio cassettes in DCC machines. They won't sound any better, but they won't sound any worse, either. And it means that,unlike the traumatic conversion from vinyl to CD, your current tape collection won't be obsolete if you buy the new machine. But DCC tapes won't play in your conventional tape deck.
Although the first DCC machines are large home decks, everyone involved with the format says portable and car units will follow soon. Indeed, DCC seems like a natural as a portable format, thanks to its rugged case, which doesn't allow the tape to be exposed to the air.
The biggest drawback of DCC, according to early reviews, is access time. As advanced as DCC is, tape is a linear medium, so you still must travel some distance to get from here to there on the cassette. CD enthusiasts who have become accustomed to virtually instantaneous access to any track may find DCC's fast-forwarding and rewinding a bit wearisome.
DCC is not the first digital tape. Digital audio tape -- remember DAT? -- was. However, when the format came to market a few years back, music companies fearful of rampant unauthorized copying quashed it by refusing to release prerecorded DATs.
Copying OK for personal use
Those fears have been calmed by the clinking of cold, hard cash A law signed by President Bush in October allows you to make copies of prerecorded music for personal use, and mandates that hardware manufacturers pay royalties to recording artists.
Royalties will be paid on DAT decks too, but don't expect prerecorded digital audio tapes to finally arrive in stores. Both hardware-and software-makers appear to have given up on the consumer version of DAT for a variety of reasons, some practical (its technology is a bit outdated) and some unfathomable to people outside the business.
Because of the music industry's obsession with illicit copying, all digital recording machines are now equipped with the high-tech Serial Copy Management System, which allows you to make a digital copy of an original, but will turn a copy of a copy into the conventional analog format.
For those who want their music prerecorded, more than 400 DCC and about 300 MD titles, in genres from classical to pop, are available,or will be soon.
The MiniDisc, created by Sony, arrived in stores this month. It looks like a smaller version of a computer diskette and can hold up to 74 minutes of music.
Good news and bad news