Digital Compact Cassettes – Only Four Years of Life

Feb 29


Jeff Noctis

Jeff Noctis

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Digtial compact cassettes were introduced in 1992 but didn’t catch on despite their high quality sound. They were competing with the new MiniDiscs as well as DATs and Compact Discs. Of the four, DCCs had the shortest life.


The 90's saw the development of a number of new audio formats. There were competing companies that wanted their new ways of listening to music to prevail. The early 90s saw the introduction of the MiniDisc and even the initial release of the .mp3 audio file. Phillips unveiled their version of digital audio in 1992 with the high quality Digital Compact Cassette.  Unfortunately however,Digital Compact Cassettes – Only Four Years of Life Articles the DCC was an expensive and short lived endeavor.

At the introduction of the DCC in 1992, Phillips had high hopes for a product they expected to take over the role of the standard cassette tape.  It was a lofty goal given that every year more than 2 billion cassette tapes were sold and 200 million players were being sold alongside them.  It wasn't necessarily a bad push, but there was stiff competition in the recordable digital market, especially from the MiniDisc.

Companies wanted the attention of consumers and digital music could be made much crisper and free of the quality issues from the wear and tear of analog formats.  The problem with the digital cassette tape compared to the analog cassette, however, was that digital audio requires a lot more tape. This meant that unlike the Compact Disc, the digital audio on the DCC had to be compressed.

The music at the time was recorded by sampling it as much as forty-eight thousands times per seconds.  Data is stored in binary and in this case, each of the samples is represented by a number written in a 16-digit string of binary (0's and 1's).  With a stereo, two channels means two signals so storing a single second of music requires 1.5 million 1's and 0's.

Put it all together with additional memory requires for control and error calculation and a single second of music requires 2.8 million 0's and 1's - or about 2.8 megabits.  At the time of the product launch, we were still sticking floppy discs in our computers and even the most powerful floppy discs used in personal computers at the time could only hold about 4 seconds worth of digital music.

In order to get all of that data packed into a digital cassette tape, developers realized that it would have to move extremely slowly.  If the digital cassette tape moved at a standard speed it would need to be extremely long.   Using technology from video cassette recorders, Phillips was able to create a DCC that would move tape slowly however read quickly while carrying a large amount of data.

At the time, Phillips was well respected for their ability to stay on top of advanced technology and create quality products.  With the benefit of their development teams, they were able to use data compression to reduce the binary needed to store the digital music.  This allowed them to use linear tracks and reduce the overall amount of tape

A Complicated Technology

Even with compression though, cramming all of that data into linear tracks is far from easy.  A standard analog tape has only four tracks - two stereo channels on each side of the cassette tape.  The Phillips DCC, using tape of the same width as standard analog cassettes, had 18 tracks with 9 going in one direction and 9 going in reverse.  Eight of those tracks would contain the music while the 9th track was all control information.

Because of this, a sophisticated recording head was developed in order to read all 9 tracks in parallel.  This sped up the flow of information onto and off of the digital compact cassette.  It's also why the machine was backwards compatible; the sophisticated head could easily play simple analog cassette tapes.  With the sophistication of the digital compact cassette however it's easy to see why a standard cassette player couldn't read the digital tape.

A Question of Quality

At the time, the biggest concern was whether or not the compression of the data on digital compact cassettes would damage the music.  During the launch of the product and the period leading up to, journalists spoke with various individuals in the music industry and many attested that the Philips system sounds as good as compact discs of the time, which used no compression at all.

With the quality being comparable to Compact Disc and MiniDisc technology, what led to the downfall of the Digital Compact Cassette?  It seams people were ready to move away from tape and sales of the competing MiniDisc (despite being lower in quality), beat the DCC. It had a short run of only 4 years and was discontinued in October of 1996. What once seemed like a fantastic advancement in technology quickly turned into a niche product for audiophiles.