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First test of a DAT recorder

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
 

Simple gray rule


First test of a DAT recorder: It's fantastic. But Oh! that price
 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1987, The Syracuse Newspapers

I have heard the future, and it sings.

It sounds wonderful. It's glorious.

For the last few weeks I have been playing with a digital audio tape cassette recorder. It's a Sony TCD-D10, a portable DAT machine. It was loaned to me.

I've made my own recordings on the Sony and listened to direct copies of studio master tapes that were sent with the recorder as demonstration material.

To say that I am impressed is only hinting at my reaction.

I have made tape recordings on the best available consumer equipment and on professional machines for more than three decades, and not once have I made a tape that could compare with the recordings I've made in the last few weeks on the Sony.

And none of the CDs in my collection sounds as good as the special DAT tapes that were duplicated for me by a friend in the recording business.

I could hardly have been more excited—or more frustrated. The DAT machine that I have been using (see photograph at right) is compact, easy to use and impossible to afford. And it is almost impossible to find.

Unlike every other type of consumer hi-fi equipment, DAT recorders are not available in the U.S. through regular channels. You can't go down to your stereo shop and order one, unless the store is one of the few U.S. outlets that sell gray-market DAT machines. These are recorders that are brought into the U.S. privately, without the manufacturers' cooperation and, more importantly, without the manufacturers' warranty.

Unless your name is Rockefeller, you probably can't afford one anyway. The Sony TCD-D10 costs about $2,600. Considering the size of the unit, which would fit in a child's lunch box, the price of entry into this medium of the future is about $300 an inch.

There's a word for that situation. It's "ouch."

Even the tapes that DAT recorders use are outrageously expensive. A single DAT cassette, no bigger than a credit card in length and width and no thicker than three nickels, costs $15. A regular audio cassette costs about $2.99.

In some ways, then, DAT recorders are like Donald Trump's yacht—glamorous and enticing from afar, which is the closest we're going to get to it.

But, on the other hand, unlike the tycoon's big white boat, DAT recorders and tapes won't stay expensive for long. Judging from the way other electronic components have come down in price, I'd guess that within 18 months after DAT sales officially begin in the U.S., DAT recorders will sell for about $700 and tapes will cost about $9.

No matter what the price, the quality is outstanding. In comparisons with a professional digital recording system, I found the Sony TCD-D10 to be superior in at least three ways:

Tapes are smoother sounding in the highest frequencies.

Recordings are quieter.

Selections on the tape are much easier to find.

 

DAT recordings sound better in the high frequencies—precisely where previous digital systems had trouble—because DAT recorders use a faster "sampling rate" when they are encoding standard, analog audio signals. The DAT rate is 48 kilohertz, an engineering term for 48,000 times a second. The older standard rate is 44 kilohertz.

Because of the way digital systems work, the highest frequency that can be recorded without problems is a little less than half the sampling rate. DAT recorders can go to about 23 kilohertz, while CDs and other digital tape systems can only go to about 21 kilohertz.

(In practice, the limit is lower for each system, since filters are used to cut the treble limit before it gets close to the halfway point. And most prerecorded DAT releases will use the lower sampling rate, according to the an agreement among all manufacturers.)

As for the quietness I noticed in the DAT tapes, the low noise level may have resulted from improved electronics in the DAT recorder. Sony has pioneered Japanese efforts to create improved circuits in the section of DAT recorders in which digital signals are converted back to analog form.

In many listening comparisons, I found the noise level in the DAT tapes quite a bit lower than the noise in most CDs. What noise I could detect was smoother, too.

Finally, the tiny DAT tapes are far easier to use than the bulky videotapes used with standard digital recording systems. (They use adapters to place digital signals on VCRs.)

The TCD-D10 was able to wind a two-hour DAT cassette from beginning to end in less than 44 seconds, and it was able to zip quickly from selection to selection. Index marks recorded on the tape let the machine know where each selection begins.

In other respects, the little Sony behaved just like a regular portable cassette machine. It was much more resistant to vibration than my Panasonic cassette recorder, but otherwise it was so similar that anyone who's ever used a dictation machine would have no trouble using the Sony DAT straight out of the box.

Built-in microphone jacks and a good-quality headphone playback circuit made the Sony perfect for on-location recordings, too. The battery is rated for two hours of use before needing recharging.

Do I like DAT? Definitely. It's fantastic.

Would I buy a recorder like the Sony TCD-D10? Not on your life. I can think of a lot better ways to spend $2,600.

Right now, DAT is a toy for rich consumers, although it's a promising new development for professional recording engineers. The amateurs among us will have to wait until the price comes down.


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