In the '80s, compact discs made vinyl albums obsolete. Now Philips Consumer Electronics is displaying a new tape format that may replace the compact cassette in the '90s.

Named Digital Compact Cassettes (DCC), the format will bring the digital sound of compact discs to cassettes. The new cassettes and players were presented to the music industry at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and will be introduced to consumers in 1992.The players will play conventional cassettes as well as the DCC format, and a licensing agreement will ensure that players manufactured by any other company must also play both formats.

The current compact cassette was introduced by Philips in 1963, but was overshadowed in the United States by the 8-track player, which became a feature on American automobiles in the '60s. Cassettes, which were smaller and more reliable, gained favor in the mid-'70s and had totally killed off the 8-track market by the early '80s. Compact cassettes also eventually outsold vinyl long-play albums and became the leading music-listening format.

In the United States, there are 270 million cassette players now in use, with the average American family owning three cassette players.

Spurred on by the success of compact discs, the first tape format with digital sound was digital audio tape (DAT), but the format failed to catch on with the public. After two years on the United States market, the least-expensive DAT player still sells for approximately $1,000. Individual blank tapes cost three times the price of standard compact cassettes, and pre-recorded tapes, of which very few are available, sell for over $20.

Philips expects the new DCC players to be introduced at $500-$600, with prices gradually dropping in the following years. And the tapes, which use a common chrome videotape cut to standard audio cassette size, are not expected to be priced much higher than regular high-grade cassette tapes.

The DAT format has been controversial since its introduction a few years ago. Record and music-publishing companies feared that DAT would make it too easy to make perfect copies of CDs and other DATs for illegal sale. Several safeguards were introduced to keep limitless copies from being produced.

Guy Demuynck, senior director of marketing audio for Philips, said all DCC players and tapes will have to include the Philips-developed Seriel Copy Management System, which allows consumers to copy their CDs and pre-recorded DCCs onto tape, but does not allow a digital copy of a digital copy.

Philips audio product manager David Birch-Jones said the company expects DAT will fall into the same audiophile niche as reel-to-reel tape, and DCC will eventually replace the standard compact cassettes.

Since most cassette players are used just to play rather than record (as in car and personal players), the key to making the format take off as quickly as CD is having pre-recorded tapes readily available. Several record companies have shown interest in the DCC format.

In addition to the advantages in sound, the DCC tapes will be able to be programmed for fast searches of specific songs, and for different playing sequences. It will also allow the consumer to see exactly how much time is left on a tape for recording or exactly how long a particular track lasts.

A metal guard on the back of the tape will cover the cassette openings and lock the tape hubs when the cassette is not in use. This will eliminate dirt coming into contact with the tape and the unwinding itself - the two biggest reasons for current tape malfunctions.