Setup and the realization of the deck's many functions were both instantaneous--a quick review of the DC520's attractive front panel is all you need (there's no remote, after all). The two-color display shows deck status, record mode, tape direction, and tape counters. A small balance knob governs a large input-level adjuster, a two-position switch manages the auto-reverse feature, and a Dolby NR (noise reduction) setting lets you select Dolby B, C, or "off."
Other functions include high-speed dubbing, record mute (which inserts a four-second pause during recording), and a sexy feature called Sync Reverse, which uses auto-reverse to intelligently manage tape copying with tapes of unequal length. If the playback tape is longer, the tape being recorded will end up missing the ends of each side. If the record tape is longer, the DC520 will wait until the record tape winds to the end of its first side before starting in on the second side of the playback cassette.
The DC520's most salient feature has to be its sound, and at a time when CD and minidisc are coupling to inch the poor old cassette off the playing field, that's saying a lot! The fact is, though, we all have boxes of old tapes lying around that we just can't bear to part with, and the DC520 made it fun to dig them out and give 'em another pull across the tape heads. Tapes that were 15 years old--rife with dropouts and fading signals--came to life again in the wells of this deck. The DC520 brings a stability and warble-free confidence to the playback that other cassette decks (to say nothing of boomboxes) can't seem to muster.
The recordings we made sounded clean and punchy, much like their digital sources. Dolby HX Pro reportedly allows the deck to accurately record distortion-free treble frequencies at high input levels. Owing it to HX Pro or not, the DC520 performed very well under duress; distortion was not apparent even when levels were pushing the +6 dB maximum on the meter.
In recording, the pause button works great, letting you pause and resume on a dime for quick transitions on mixed tapes. But while the pause button makes perfectly silent transitions, stopping a recording leaves a sizeable click on the tape. So if it's between hitting Stop and letting the tape run to its end, choose the latter. (There is no click when pressing Record.)
Noise reduction was hit and miss. Dolby C effectively reduces tape hiss, but the sound quality is not as pleasing as it is with Dolby B or, best of all, Dolby off. If you're taping busy music like pop, rock, or much jazz, don't bother with the Dolby--you'll never notice the tape hiss. Dolby C comes in handy, however, with classical music or other dynamic material, keeping quiet notes from being buried under tape hiss.
Scant few component cassette decks include volume controls for their headphone jacks, and the DC520 follows the herd here--as if tapes were inherently recorded at the level at which you want to listen to them!
Quibbles aside, the DC520 is a remarkable cassette deck, offering optimal recording and playback of a convenient little format that refuses to die. --Michael Mikesell