Sony discreetly discontinued their Digital Audio Tape format in 2005, but it has been on the critical radar for some time. Indeed, the DTC-A6 was the last major high-end consumer DAT machine released by the Japanese electronics giant, debuting in October 1996. Sony effectively ceased development of their devices with this, even if DAT didn’t spool its last reel for another nine years or so. Everything after that was the same supper, reheated and served on a less appetizing dish. Each subsequent line of Sony DAT decks that followed from this point in the mid-nineties was ever more cheaply manufactured and stripped of ever more features.
Consider the DTC-A6 the last of the summer wine from DAT’s golden era — it was new enough to have plenty of refinements that the older models lacked, but old enough to not have been cost-cut into oblivion like the models that followed. It does, in fact, use a revised version of the company’s three-motor transport system as well as the (annoyingly named) Anti-Resonant Midship Drive. The transport on earlier DAT machines was more complicated and bug-prone, and it was positioned to the left of the fascia. This mechanism enables for a fifty-second rewind time and a high-speed search of 200 or 400 times. Sony’s ‘Pulse’ D/A converter is also included on the deck; this is a good Bitstream device that sounds smooth and clear, though it doesn’t win any awards by today’s standards. Of course, there are coaxial and optical digital outputs, allowing it to be connected to a snazzy new DAC and sound fantastic.
The recording side is intriguing because, unlike early DAT machines like the Sony DTC-1000ES from 1987, it provides the option of recording at CD quality 16/44 or DAT’s best 16/48 resolution (which sounds unexpectedly better); feed it a CD and it will choose 16/44 automatically. It also contains the 12/32 Long Play mode stated above. The real gem is Super Bit Mapping, Sony’s magical digital signal processing system that intelligently noise-shaped the digital input stream. It may have been forgotten about for a long time, but it was Sony’s magic digital signal processing system that intelligently noise-shaped the digital input stream. The DTC-A6 includes 24-bit analogue-to-digital converters, despite being a 16-bit format, and Sony’s SBM system optimizes how the excess audio data is discarded to make the remaining 16-bits sound as nice as possible. The least significant 8-bit information is weaved out of the 16-bit filtered data. Super Bit Mapping, according to the business, delivers a sound that’s almost similar to 20-bit quality by reorienting quantization noise to beyond 15kHz, and it’s still playable on any SBM-encoded DAT with any player. This is only available on newer Sony machines, and it’s a really useful function if you do a lot of recording from analogue sources.
The Sony isn’t a marvel in terms of ergonomics. The firm was known for adorning its products with buttons in a matter-of-fact manner, and the DTC-A6 is no exception. Still, everything is quite self-explanatory, and the deck has a high-quality fluorescent display that is extremely instructive. The track start ID controls are to the left of the fascia, while the transport buttons and recording mode choices are to the right of the central tape drive, along with the rotary input level control. This is substantially duplicated on the included remote control, unlike Sony’s older DAT decks. This doesn’t have the same robust build quality as early DAT machines, and it seems a little light. However, it is significantly less clumsy in operation than the machines from the late 1980s.
The DTC-A6 outperforms preceding DAT machines in terms of sound quality. With a smooth sound that’s filled with detail and incision, the later DAC and digital filter aid here. It’s a little genteel by today’s standards, and it lacks real dynamic punch – but feed the digital audio stream to a modern DAC and you’ll be pleasantly impressed. Make an analogue-sourced recording at 48kHz with SBM turned on, and you might be surprised at how amazing it sounds; it’s in the area of hi-res audio and a notch above normal CD. Although DAT is ancient and decrepit, it may still provide excellent recordings when properly set up. In Long Play mode, the usual reported frequency response is 2-22,000Hz (0.5 dB), or 2-14,500Hz (0.5 dB). It also features a dynamic range of more than 90 decibels, a total harmonic distortion of less than 0.005%, and virtually no wow or flutter. Warp back to 1987, when such a specification from a cassette format astounded everyone.
Sony stopped making DAT machines in December 2005, after roughly 660,000 decks of various types had been shipped since its inception. Although it failed to displace Compact Cassette, it found a second life in small professional recording studios, where it was used to master innumerable early 1990s dance records. Sony also repurposed it as a computer storage media, giving it the name Digital Data Storage. It can also be found in various film and television recordings.
That is why, if you look around, machines like this are still available. Small studios and home recordists banged a lot of them, therefore the physical health of the device is crucial. Buyer careful, like with any vintage hi-fi item — especially one that is tape-based! Prices range from £50 to £300; as always, inspect the quality and try before you buy. The majority of DAT machines are only a short distance from the dump, and those willing to service them are few and few between. However, mint, privately owned, low-mileage versions do occasionally appear, and these are the ones to have.
So, bye-bye, Digital Audio Tape. It’s very much committed to Sony’s big hi-fi graveyard in the sky, where it can rest in peace with Elcaset and MiniDisc, the company’s other wonderful failures. If you conduct home recording – particularly vinyl archiving – DAT machines are still useful; for this purpose, purchase one of Sony’s later SBM-equipped decks, such as the DTC-A6. In reality, it’s an idea whose time has past – and yet another beautiful failure from Sony’s once-brave and forward-thinking company.