Special Report on Electronic Gifts: Battle of the giants to give you digital sounds at home

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The Independent Online
IF SOMEONE says they've got digits in their ears this Christmas it could be that Auntie Ethel has stuck her fingers in little Johnny's lug-'oles, but it is more probable that someone has been bought an expensive new gizmo.

The audio market is undergoing an unprecedented revolution as two new digital recording formats are launched. Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) from Philips, which went on sale in October, and Mini Disc from Sony, which is launched next Tuesday, are two very different solutions to the same problem: how to record sound digitally at home.

Since the introduction of the compact disc in 1983, the audio world has changed. As more and more people have enjoyed the quality of digital CD sound, so they have come to expect absolute silence when there is silence and a lack of the pops, crackles and hisses so familiar with good old LPs and ordinary cassettes.

DCC builds on the popularity of the audio cassette which outsells vinyl LPs and still just outsells CDs. By making the new format use the same cassette size as conventional audio cassettes, Philips is able to sell DCC on its 'backward compatibility' - that is, your old tapes will play on your new machine. According to Philips, each home has on average 65 tapes that they will be able to play immediately on the new system. However, digital tapes recorded on your DCC will not play on your old analogue players such as your car stereo. Mini Disc on the other hand is incompatible with everything. Discs for Sony's new system cannot be played on CD players nor anything else. Sony believes that its system, in the long term, offers facilities that users want: for example you can instantly jump to any song on an album just as you can with CDs (and LPs).

While Philips has gone for the hi-fi market, Sony has gone for the portable user. Sony will offer a chunky recorder Walkman for pounds 500 and a slightly less chunky, but still substantial, player-only model for pounds 400. Both are shock-protected and work well while on the move, even if you go out for a jog. Philips' hi-fi will be joined by a smaller, midi-sized system in February, price pounds 350.

I and my friends who have listened to the systems think they both sound fine. The only sensible thing to do is to check for yourself. With pre-recorded material, Mini Disc allows you to jump from track to track almost instantly. While DCC also has this function, it can take a lot longer. However, if you do not have a modern tape deck, the DCC deck's ability to find the beginning of tracks on an existing analogue track is very welcome.

As to which will come to dominate the market, it is quite possible both will find a niche. However, by next Christmas, the prices will have dropped, more players and recorders will be available and other manufacturers will have entered the fray.