Paul White tries out a deceptively small mastering recorder that's ideal for location recording and sample gathering. Following on from July's review of the new Philips DCC730, this month I'm taking a look at the diminutive DCC170.
The DCC170 is a Walkman‑sized portable DCC recorder with both analogue and digital I/Os, a stereo mic input and the ability to play back analogue cassettes. In the basic package you get the machine itself, an internal nicad battery that provides up to three hours of recording time, a mains adaptor/battery charger and all the necessary leads, plus a blank tape and a pair of fair (but not terrific) mini earphones.
Technically, DCC machines shouldn't sound quite as good as DAT or CD, because they employ PASC data compression to reduce the amount of audio data roughly four‑fold to make it fit on the tape, but in practice, there's very little, if any, subjective difference between DCC and a typical budget DAT machine. Unfortunately, the same unpopular SCMS anti‑piracy copy management system is fitted to the DCC170 as is found on budget DAT recorders, which means that although you can make unlimited copies from a digital master, further digital backups cannot be made from your first‑generation copies.
Appearance And Controls
Philips' DCC 170 is no larger than a typical Walkman‑type cassette player, and includes an LCD window which can display the track names on ready‑recorded DCC tapes, as well as other format, mode and metering information. Interestingly, the lid houses the head and pinch rollers, while the dual capstan drive is located in the main body.
On the right‑hand side are the record controls, which include a three‑position mic/line selector switch with two mic sensitivity settings. The record level is set using a thumbwheel pot in Manual mode, but there's also an automatic level control setting for use in difficult or unpredictable situations. A single mini‑jack socket handles the stereo mic, line or digital input signal, and a Hold switch is provided to lock out all but the remote's controls, which could be useful if you have the recorder in your pocket.
On the back of the machine is the DC supply connector and the optical digital output, while on the left edge of the case are the controls relating to playback. Here you can select from four reverse modes in much the same way you can with an auto‑reverse cassette deck. There's also a Dolby B On/Off switch (relevant only when playing analogue cassettes), a control for switching in two levels of dynamic bass boost, and another little thumbwheel for controlling the overall volume. The purist in me suggests leaving the bass boost off, though this does only affect playback, and not the recording. The last feature in this section is the headphone jack, which also doubles as the remote control connection.
On the lid, we find the usual transport controls, but there's also an extra row of tiny buttons directly below the LCD which relate to the display mode and the writing of track markers. In text mode, you see the track titles on pre‑recorded DCC tapes, but you can't name your own tracks on this machine as you can on the larger models. The counter works a little like that on a CD, allowing you to see the absolute time, the time elapsed per track, or the time remaining on the tape. Unlike the previously reviewed 730, the DCC170 has conventional bargraph record meters, and though they're absolutely minuscule, they're nevertheless very welcome.
The main trouble with portable machines is that they tend to use non‑standard audio connectors, but as leads are provided, this is forgivable. As a straightforward digital recorder, the DCC 170 is very easy to use and sounds every bit as good as its shelf‑mounting counterpart. Though you can't name your own tunes using the text window, I feel this is more than compensated for by proper metering; the larger DCC730 merely shows you two numbers for peak level and headroom.
As with all digital recorders, DAT included, you have to avoid leaving unrecorded periods of blank tape between tracks, otherwise the automatic track numbering and renumbering systems won't work. The facility for searching individual tracks is useful, and in fast wind mode, you can spin through around one minute of recorded tape in about three seconds, which isn't bad.
Compared with a portable DAT, the DCC 170 is just as easy to use, and seems every bit as reliable. I tried shaking it quite vigorously, but couldn't persuade it to do other than play perfectly. One shortcoming of DCC in general is that you can't listen to your audio in a 'fast cue' mode. Technically, this is quite understandable, but it does make precise cueing up a little more tedious. Soundwise, I don't think there's much to choose between DCC and a budget DAT machine, but it is a drag that you have to turn the tape over half‑way rather than everything being 'on one side' as it is with DAT. On balance though, the DCC 170 is less than half the price of a portable DAT machine, and given its very attractive price, I can't really fault it as a home studio mastering recorder or location/sample sound‑gathering tool, particularly with the latest price cuts bringing DCC tape down to under a fiver. As for playing analogue cassettes (spit‑barf‑chiz!), I'd be reluctant to subject the digital head to wear for such an ignoble purpose!
- Excellent sound quality.
- Very attractive price.
- Easy to use.
- SCMS is implemented.
- Fiddly mini‑jacks.
A great value digital portable recorder with a host of applications.