Like fashion, hi-fi formats come and go. When they’re on top, they appear majestic and unstoppable, ready to conquer the world. On the way down, no one seems to mind. This happened in the instance of Sony’s Digital Audio Tape format over the course of eighteen years. Pundits predicted it would “wipe out” Compact Disc when it debuted in 1987, yet less than two decades later, Sony discreetly withdrew the format. Although it feels like a long time ago, DAT was only around for a half-decade as a home hi-fi format. In other words, with a few small spec modifications, it lasted roughly the same amount of time as an iPhone.
A few ancient DAT machines are still operational today, but the most have been dumped and are now inert, like props in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film. This was once the future, but it is no more. Indeed, the DAT format as a whole is evocative of the 1980s – a bold new world of technology that appeared tremendously remarkable at the time, but now seems quaint and stupid.
Nowadays, it’s difficult to see why a sophisticated new tape-based format combining Compact Cassette, video cassette, and Compact Disc was created. However, given the dynamics at play in the 1980s, DAT looked like a pretty excellent concept at the time. Anything cassette-based is now considered quirky and ‘fun,’ but it was once the main diet of the music and video-loving masses – a useful product that we took for granted. Of course, the CD revolutionized recorded music, but that was still recorded music, and eighties musicians were accustomed to compiling their own best tunes. The ‘mixtape’ was the main food of music fans; we manufactured them in massive quantities, and the hi-fi business was selling oceans of ‘high speed dubbing cassette decks’ meant to accomplish exactly that by the late 1980s. DAT made perfect sense in this environment; Sony would make it much smaller than Compact Cassette, and it would be able to digitally duplicate items, retaining a (allegedly) flawless facsimile of the original.
The new Digital Audio Tape format (also termed R-DAT, ‘R’ standing for recordable) employed a 3.81mm magnetic tape inside what was effectively a miniaturized video cassette shell. It first appeared in Japan in autumn 1987, and then slowly spread throughout the world for nearly another year. DAT devices recorded and played uncompressed PCM digital at 32, 44.1, or 48kHz at 12- or 16-bits; at the time the format was launched, 16/48 was the extreme cutting edge.
Unlike Compact Cassette, the format only functioned in one direction and could record up to 180 minutes per tape at 16/48 – albeit, like C120 cassettes, lengthier DATs were less dependable due to the tape’s thinness. It offered a huge six hours of recording onto a DAT 180 when used in Long Play (LP) mode at 12-bit, 32kHz. When not in use, DAT shells, unlike Compact Cassette, had a smart locking device that effectively kept off the outside world. Tape speeds for SP and LP operations were 8.15mm/s and 4.075mm/s, respectively.
The format also included metadata, allowing for the storage of track ID points and an absolute time code. This meant that DAT could be used in the same way as CD could, with a real and dependable track search feature. The difference is that going from track 3 to track 15 on a CD takes a second or two, whereas the DAT machine had to physically wound through the tape – which could take up to thirty seconds or more. This may have seemed dreadful to CD users, but most people were used to cassettes in 1987, and DAT was a lot faster than that! It’s a hassle nowadays to watch a DAT system spin through an album in track search mode.
This is even more astonishing when you realize how much more complicated DAT was than Compact Cassette. DAT uses a rotating head and helical scan to record data, allowing for a larger density of data to be recorded – hence its tolerances are quite high. DAT was born out of a vast amount of research and development work done on video cassette recorders. Because it holds almost 5 gigabytes of data each minute, and that’s before you consider in the error correcting mechanism and other subcodes, anything less would mean the format would simply not operate.
The XD-S1100 was Aiwa’s third-generation machine, from a company known for its excellent analogue cassette decks and a top-tier reputation for tape recording. Indeed, Aiwa was so prominent in the mid-eighties that it released the world’s first commercially available DAT recorder, the EXCELIA sub-brand, in 1987. This deck appeared three years later, in November 1990, in its native Japan, at which point the breed had been much perfected — without all the costs being removed from the products, as was the case only a few years later.
The new XD-problem S1100’s was that it was quickly eclipsed by the sexier (but generally less reliable) Sony machines. In addition, thanks to the debut of Sony’s TCD-3 DAT portable in May 1991, and Aiwa’s own version of it, the HD-S1, the format was going out of the home and onto the streets about this time. The Aiwa’s sin was using the wrong brand name, having mediocre dealer support in the UK and Europe, and releasing the machine just as the novelty of small, high-quality home machines was wearing off. SCMS – Serial Copy Management System – was also installed, which limited users of all domestic decks to making copies of CDs to DAT for their own use. This meant that if you burned a CD to DAT and then tried to make a direct digital copy of it, the unit wouldn’t record. This feature wasn’t available on early DAT decks, but it became available as a result of a lawsuit filed by music rights holders, who – reasonably – didn’t want perfect digital copies of their music in wide circulation.
The Aiwa, with dimensions of 466x116x367.5mm and a weight of 7.5kg, was either a high-end budget design or a high-end budget design, depending on which end of the telescope you looked. It was certainly less expensive than many other machines on the market, and while it didn’t have the “carved from granite” construction of more expensive competitors, it was still a high-quality device. With a frequency response of 2Hz to 22kHz, a stated signal-to-noise ratio of 90dB, and a THD value of 0.005%, its 16-bit DACs provided some excellent specs for the day.
Let us not forget that this was far superior to the best Nakamichi high-end cassette deck of the time, as well as the best open reel. The words “under the measurable limit” were used to describe wow and flutter. It’s interesting recalling how cutting-edge DAT seemed back then, with dazzlingly good measured performance compared to what we were used to. The deck has typical characteristics, with the exception of having a pair of coaxial and optical digital inputs and outputs. At the very least, most low-cost machines omitted the coaxial digital output. It also had an illuminated tape section, a typical motorized loading drawer, and huge, high-resolution meters that made levelling a breeze. A high-speed search mechanism based on sub-code detection was also included, allowing the deck to function – to some extent at least – similarly to a CD player. Finally, it had RCA unbalanced line outputs and a monitoring headphone out.
It’s a good sounding machine acoustically. The Aiwa’s tape handling is very smooth – especially when compared to older decks – and it produces a nice open and clear sound via its integrated DAC. The wonderful advantage is that DAC technology has advanced much since the early 1990s, and you can easily plug it into a modern DAC like the Chord Hugo. When you do this, you get a much more musically articulate sound with a lot of depth, space, and detail; in comparison, the stock convertor sounds rather closed-in.
It’s an amazing sounding product that completely outperforms nearly all analogue tape machines by today’s standards, while Compact Cassette was still a thing. Nonetheless, things are progressing quickly, and most purchasers will now find the format to be too fussy and potentially unstable. As a result, the Aiwa XD-S1100 is a bit of a curiosity in today’s world – and not fully practical. This is an excellent equipment if, like me, you have a lot of valuable DAT tapes and wish to transcribe them to CD or hard drive as.WAV files, but I don’t see many people using Digital Audio Tape on a regular basis these days, especially now that computer recording is so cheap and accessible.
DAT was always too finicky for widespread audiophile use, thus it quickly relegated itself to the realm of semi-pro studio users, where it was frequently employed as a mastering medium. Even yet, as a home recording technology, it’s an interesting look back at a time when things hadn’t quite worked out. Aiwa’s XD-S1100 is of considerable historical significance to collectors as a wonderful value usable DAT machine if you can find a nice surviving example. Because it was only produced for two years, it never became a cult favorite, so costs are still reasonable; expect to pay around £200 for a mint, boxed machine like this, complete with its original remote control.