Can something be obsolete if it never caught on? The world tends to have completely forgotten about DAT, which was supposed to take the place of cassettes but provide a pure digital experience. DAT stands for Digital Audio Tape and at one time it was going to the be the future.

What was DAT?

The DAT tape format was a little smaller than cassette but physically had more in common with a VHS tape, including a little door on the front that protected the tape surface. The tape was 4mm wide, not too much wider than a cassette tape either.

I remember when DAT came to my local Tower Records in 1987. There were listening stations where you could compare the quality of cassette and DAT-based music. I specifically remember the comparison being between cassette and DAT, not between CD and DAT. CD was still a fairly new format in those days, but it had a few years’ headstart. Portable CD players were still super rare, though, and I don’t think anyone had a car CD player yet.

Whatever happened to DAT?

DAT never really made much of a splash because there wasn’t a lot of content available for it. Back during its short heyday in the late 1980s, there were only a few hundred albums available on DAT, while the competing compact disc already had hundreds of thousands. DAT’s real strength was that it was recordable and portable, but that didn’t resonate with a public which was already perfectly comfortable with regular cassettes. DAT gave you real digital quality, but that didn’t sway people.

I do remember DAT being touted as a replacement for cassettes in cars, but I don’t think I ever saw a car DAT player. There were portable DAT players, but I seem to remember them being about five times what a high-end Walkman cost.

DAT ended up being one of those “alternate universe” kind of formats. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with it, but it just didn’t catch on. Yes, it was better than cassette and more versatile than CD. But for whatever reason, people didn’t care. Still, you could imagine that in an alternate universe, it could have become completely dominant.

The legacy of DAT

For most folks, DAT’s useful life was a mere blip in the history of technology, but if you were an IT professional in the late 20th and early 21st century, you realize that DAT had another life. Renamed DDS (digital data storage) DAT became a cheap and popular method for data backup in the days when a gigabyte was still a lot.

DDS, the computer version of DAT, kept evolving to the point where one tape could store as much as 40GB (which again, seemed like a lot.) DAT suffered from the same problems as any tape, namely being fairly fragile and sensitive to heat and humidity, but it did offer a real backup solution in the days before recordable DVDs and cloud storage.

DAT finally gave way to other forms of tape storage and then to cloud or hard-drive based storage, but believe it or not it managed to have an almost fifteen-year lifespan. Not bad for a failed audio format.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.