CHICAGO (AP) _ Digital audio tape players may be an idea whose time has come, but when the technology will get to the United States is anybody's guess.

''It's definitely the controversy of this year's show,'' Michael Riggs, editor of High Fidelity magazine, said Monday from the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show.

''Last year, we had the dual-deck video recorders creating problems, now it's digital audio,'' he said. ''Before these two products, you had to go back a ways to find a case where the introduction of new technology didn't make everyone happy.''

DATs, as the cassette players are called, are being exhibited by every major electronics manufacturer at the show, which has drawn more than 100,000 dealers, exhibitors and distributors. It is the biggest and most prestigious trade show of its kind in the world.

Precisely for that reason, a South Korean electronics giant introduced a dual-video recording deck at the show last year that enabled its owner to copy from one tape onto another. That machine never was brought into the United States, where it faced challenges under copyright laws.

DATs make recordings of compact-disc quality, and allow owners to make audio tapes of pre-recorded material and live broadcasts.

The players have been widely available in Japan since mid-March, but effectively have been kept out of the U.S. market, said Riggs.

The imposition of tariffs on some Japanese goods by the Reagan administration and fears that any aggressive marketing of DATs might result in confrontations apparently are behind the manufacturers' decision to withhold the machines from the United States, said Riggs.

''The recording industry has mounted an impressive lobbying effort against DATs, but mostly it's fear on the part of the Japanese manufacturers,'' he said.

The Recording Industry Association of America is spearheading the lobbying effort against DATs.

The Washington, D.C.-based group is backing bills in both the U.S. House and Senate, seeking the inclusion of a ''spoiler'' microchip in each DAT that would prevent recording any material which had not been approved previously.

''Record companies would provide both copyable and non-copyable versions of material so die-hards could still tape at home,'' said Trish Heimers, a spokeswoman for the group. ''We're not trying to stop people from doing that, we just need a way to compensate the artists.''

In an interview, Heimers acknowleged that standard cassette players already enable people to perform every function DATs offer, but said the quality of DATs likely will lead to an increase in taping.

''When somebody records a tape at home, the only people benefiting are those who make blank tapes,'' she said. ''We already lose $1.5 billion a year to people who tape.''

The current controversy is reminiscent of the battle waged and lost by the movie industry against video recorders, and a spokesman for the electronics manufacturers association said he expects the same result in this fight.

''The recording industry has whipped itself into a frenzy, ignoring the fact that they'll make enormous profits from sales of this pre-recorded material,'' said Allan Schlosser, spokesman for the Electronic Industries Association.

''They've always felt threatened by new technology. You'll recall they were clinging to vinyl even though products like the 'Walkman' (a portable cassette player made by Sony), the 'boom box' and the car cassette players showed people wanted their music to go,'' he said.

Over the weekend, Marantz Co. announced plans to market DATs by October ''even if there is no pre-recorded software available and even if there are legislative barriers (being considered),'' said company President James Twerdahl.