Perfect sound forever -- but when?

January 21, 1993

For more than a year now the audio industry has been trumpeting the imminent arrival of two revolutionary recording technologies that promise the clarity of compact disc and the convenience of cassette tapes. So far, neither the new machines nor the software have shown up on dealers' shelves. No one seems to know when they will.

Like the compact disc, which revolutionized the recording industry a decade ago, the new formats -- Phillips' Digital Compact Cassette and Sony's Mini Disc -- are based on digital technology to encode musical sounds as a stream of computer data. Unlike CDs, the new systems allow users to record as well as play back. The Phillips machines will also play back -- but not record -- conventional cassettes. Both systems employ sophisticated data reduction schemes to cram the same amount of music onto a much smaller package.

Phillips' Digital Compact Cassette was supposed to make its debut last April. Sony's Mini Disc, a pint-size version of the 5-inch CD, was to have appeared last summer. Both systems were designed to supplant the ubiquitous analog cassette tape, introduced in the 1960s, which offered convenience and portability but not high fidelity.

Yet neither system has managed to get off the ground. Some industry observers believe manufacturers were reluctant to introduce a new product during a recession. Others speculate about unforeseen technical problems. Since the two systems, which are incompatible with each other, will compete for the same market, whichever appears first could win a decisive advantage.

Record companies are waiting to see which system will catch on before commiting. Sony, which owns the huge Columbia Records library, has an assured supplier of pre-recorded material for its machines -- if the public accepts them. Phillips has negotiated deals with major record labels. But the immediate prospect may be for a period of uncertainty comparable to the jockeying between 8-track tapes and cassettes a generation ago.

Meanwhile area stores are eager to test the market -- if only they could get their hands on the products. Local retailers say rumors have been flying but manufacturers have made no commitments about delivery dates. Thus consumers anticipating the next evolution of digital sound, with its promise of "perfect sound forever," are left to wonder when "forever" will actually get here.

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