October 1, 2004
A Hot New Format or Another Corporate Boondoggle of Desperation?
Consumers have barely gotten used to the CDs spin-off formats. SACD and DVD-Audio are foreign terms to 90% of the salespersons at my local Circuit City, and to a larger percentage of buyers. I hear from readers that these discs are often difficult or impossible to find in local stores, and must be mail-ordered from such niche companies as Acoustic Sounds, where one can purchase any advanced-resolution disc made.
Now the recording industry, desperate to counter the millions of audio files shared over the Internet each month, has come up with yet another format: the DualDisc, a two-sided disc of which one side is a CD, the other a DVD. The CD side is just a regular CD; the DVD side might contain DVD-Video with compressed Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, or it might be configured as a DVD-A, with multichannel advanced-resolution sound. All of the major record labels -- BMG, EMI, Sony, Universal, and Warner -- and many independent labels, such as AIX Records, are backing the DualDisc. The formats producers claim that test marketing in Boston and Seattle has been highly successful.
The new process was preceded by one called DVD Plus, developed by Dieter Dierks. One of those discs, Kathleen Edwards Live from the Bowery Ballroom, is available in the US. I have a copy and can attest that it plays just fine in all my players, including the one in my car. Its short video side contains three video clips with PCM stereo sound. The labeling has to be the oddest in the industry: It tells you whether the side is CD or DVD, then tells you to turn the disc over to play that side! Dierks, who has a patent in Europe and one pending in the US, has legally challenged DualDiscs right to exist. But DualDiscs promoters are steaming ahead, hoping for an October release of titles following an August 24 launch announcement.
I have no doubt that the marriage of audio and video needs to be consummated in the software realm. Few people enter an electronics store any longer to buy a pure audio system. Instead, they purchase receivers and players that are capable of reproducing audio and video. Except for high-end equipment, dedicated CD players have all but disappeared in favor of more versatile DVD machines. Because most folks now have what we might call "entertainment centers" instead of audio or video systems, it makes sense to have a software format that caters to both halves of the audio/video experience.
I dont think that DualDisc is the solution. The only big advantage I see to it is that a DualDisc with a CD side and a DVD-A side could provide high-quality audio in the car and even better audio at home when played on a universal or DVD-A-compatible player. But Sony, ever the proponent of SACD, is allowing compressed Dolby Digital multichannel signals only on the DVD side of its DualDiscs. In that case, the CD side would have presumably better sound. Meanwhile, Sony continues to market hybrid SACD discs. Assuming a CD release of each title, one can see the Sony catalog not having just double but triple inventory, further confusing consumers. Nor is there any requirement for other producers to make the DVD side DVD-A. It can be DVD-Audio or DVD-Video. Because not all DualDiscs will have the same configuration, consumers will have to read the cover labels carefully to know exactly what theyre buying. Want more confusion? Proponents are shortening DualDisc to DD. Didnt that mean Dolby Digital somewhere along the way?
But it remains a neat idea to combine audio and video in a single release. Ive written elsewhere about EMIs Legend series, each title of which presents a portrait of a great classical music icon with a lengthy CD, augmented by a DVD containing video clips of performances by that artist. You can hear, then see the artist. The discs are packaged in slimline two-disc jewel cases. This enrichment of the entertainment experience makes sense.
The Legend series could not have been released on DualDisc without compromise. According to the press material, the DualDisc is limited in length to about 64 minutes per side. Many of the Legend CDs are well over 70 minutes long. And because it would make DualDiscs too thick to be playable in all players, a DualDiscs DVD side cannot be dual-layered -- another compromise. A full-featured two-disc set covering all audio and video possibilities seems far preferable to one lame-duck format.
Add to this what appears to be a marketing shambles. In the tradition of Warners "lets keep DVD-Audio a secret" method of promotion, DualDisc offers a website, www.dualdisc.com, that still reports itself as "coming soon" -- just as it did last May, when Sound & Visions Ken Richardson wrote about it. And a few days ago, when I contacted the person in charge of new formats at Universal, for help in writing this editorial, he had no promos or advances to send me. Launch announcements mean little if theres no spaceship to fly.
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