I remember the scene well. Tokyo 1991, Tower Records, Shibuya. At one end of the huge shop floor lurked two strange new hi-fi oddities. One was a Sony MZ-1, which was a small black MiniDisc portable. The other was a massive Technics DCC recorder, about the size of a nineteen seventies video recorder and complete with tasteful wooden side cheeks. There was a crowd of people around the MiniDisc machine, but the DCC sat awkwardly beside completely unnoticed. This said it all – who in the shiny, new high tech nineties wanted another big, fat, dumpy looking tape-based format?
As the crowd cleared, I sauntered over to try the two formats out. The Sony MiniDisc was playing a dire Michael Bolton disc, and the sound was suitably appalling. Laced with digital nasties – weird, phasey effects, ‘breathing’, odd digital artefacts – even allowing for the questionable programme material, it was virtually unlistenable. The Technics DCC by comparison sounded really rather good – I remember being surprised by its clarity, sweetness of tone and musicality. Even as a regular DAT user (I carried around my Sony TC-D3 DATman everywhere I went, using it as a Walkman), I was surprised how good this data-compressed format sounded. Only when you wanted to change track or post-edit your recordings did it become a pain.
I once mentioned this anecdote to Marantz’s Ken Ishiwata, and he wasn’t surprised. As far as he was concerned, there was little wrong with DCC’s sound quality. He said that key Philips and Marantz personnel spent a hell of a lot of time getting the format’s PASC (Passive Adaptive SubCoding) data compression algorithm sorted, and then went on to do lots of tweaking elsewhere. Even today, this DD-82 sounds unexpectedly open and smooth – you don’t hear any compressed audio nasties and in some respects it’s warmer than uncompressed DAT. Later DCC machines like this had superior, 18-bit resolution and more respectable digital and analogue circuitry inside. You can thank a nicely implemented Philips SAA7350 Bitstream chip for that, plus myriad tweaks ranging from trick op-amps in the analogue output stage to those ubiquitous copper screws!
The DD-82 is a big old beast (420x132x344mm), and weighs a lot more than your average MiniDisc recorder (8.2kg). Place it against a contemporary MiniDisc machine like Sony’s MDS-JB940QS and it’s an ergonomic disaster area. With buttons scattered randomly all over the place, huge sixteen-segment bargraph display and an oppressive black fascia it’s very nineties mucho macho. Round the back, there’s a choice of coaxial or optical digital inputs plus line in (running through a fine sounding A-D converter) and fixed and variable analogue outs. Once the magic of this machine would be in the listening, but now it’s more about the beholding – by modern standards it’s pretty opaque and two dimensional, but still sounds surprisingly nice with it.
If you have enough hours in the day to endure DCC’s fussy whirring and tedious track search antics, and want an interesting period ‘curio’ to amuse your friends and family, then DCC machines are great value. Rather like Elcaset a decade ago, nobody wants them and they haven’t attained collectable status yet. The Marantz DD-82 is a very high quality example of the breed, yet can be picked up in the classifieds for next to nothing – and yes, you can still buy the tapes if you look hard enough. Fifteen years ago it would have cost over £700, yet can be had for less than one tenth of that now. DCC revival, anyone?