ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

February 1, 2005

DualDisc, Take 2

A few months ago, I wrote about the audio industry’s new software format, the DualDisc. Most of what I had to say at that time was based on projection and speculation. I’ve since had some hands-on experience with DualDiscs, and this experience has led me to one new realization, and the ability to review some specific titles.

If you missed that first column and the DualDisc’s sporadic promotion, here’s the deal: This "new" format is really an amalgam of two well-established ones, the CD and the DVD. One side of a DualDisc is CD, the other DVD. This makes the disc compatible with almost all players and allows the inclusion of video and audio material on the same disc.

The end of standalone DVD-Audio?

DualDisc signals either the end of or a new beginning for the DVD-Audio disc. Whereas the competing high-resolution format can be played in a regular CD player, a DVD-A could be played only in DVD players. In addition, because most automobile players are still CD-only, DVD-As were incompatible with on-the-road listening. Considering the number of hours many of us spend in our vehicles, which have become virtual homes away from home, this is an important consideration. I was able to enjoy, for example, Patricia Barber’s hybrid Mobile Fidelity SACDs in high-resolution sound on my universal disc player at home, then take them with me to listen to in my car, where they offered solid CD reproduction. But such discs as the phenomenal DVD-A of the Big Phat Band could be enjoyed only at home.

But with one DVD-A side, DualDiscs can compete with hybrid SACDs. In fact, I no longer see the point in making discs that are solely DVD-A. Apparently Silverline, one of the largest producers of DualDiscs, agrees. The company had released the highly desirable Vanguard recordings of producer Seymour Solomon on DVD-A, including the complete Mahler symphonies with Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony. They had gotten to Symphony 4, then announced that Symphony 5 would be released on DualDisc only, with one side 5.1-channel DVD-A, the other side CD. There will be no standalone DVD-A release. When I asked a Silverline exec if this was to be the future release pattern, he said, "Let’s see." Which to me means that Silverline will go with the flow. My guess is that, despite a recent spate of releases from the Universal Music Group, the DVD-Audio disc is dead -- a DualDisc can give a consumer virtually everything the DVD-A could, and can be played as a regular CD.

DualDiscs in the home and on the road

The DualDiscs I sampled worked splendidly. The best was a Silverline release of Abravanel’s luminous reading of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. The DVD-A side produced the best sound I’ve ever heard from this already good-sounding recording. It also gave me a few video features, including a still-frame archive, where I was pleasantly shocked to find a copy of a review I’d written for the now-defunct Laser Disc Gazette of this recording’s first CD release some ten years ago. The CD side played just fine in my car’s Alpine magazine changer. The only problem was that the CD side did not contain the complete ballet, due to time constraints imposed by the DualDisc format. Still, the CD provided a lot more music than the usual suite -- about two-thirds of the complete ballet.

Another disc, on the Lava label, offered Simple Plan’s Still Not Getting Any . . .

The DVD-A side played fine at home, with excellent sound, though the music -- each song seems a variation of the first -- wore somewhat thin. But when I put it in the car player, I found the tunes just right for a Thanksgiving drive along the Potomac. In this case, then, DualDisc to the rescue. The DVD-A side, by the way, contains some video, a still-frame archive, and a making-of featurette. The video on a DVD-A doesn’t have anywhere near the picture quality found on some of the best DVD-Vs, but it’s serviceable.

I then tried a Poncho Sanchez concert, Poncho at Montreux, on Silverline. The Latin jazz artist and his dynamic band sounded spiffy in 5.1 channels at home, and there was a video of one of the songs, as well as some artist photos. In the car, the disc gave me hi-fi sound that got me through a traffic jam smiling. And this disc exhibited yet another possibility for DualDisc: ROM content. I was able to pop the disc into my computer and get some extra features, including a download for personal use, had I desired it.

Contrary to some reports of damage to players resulting from playing DualDiscs, all the ones I had played without a hitch on any player into which I fed them: three home players, two universals, one CD player, and the car player. And as soon as the Big Phat Band title is released on DualDisc, I can enjoy it in my car as well as at home.

Down the road, I think we’ll see a genuinely new format in which a rotating software disc has nothing to do with things. Perhaps one of the new blue-laser systems will catch on, with high-resolution audio riding the coattails of the high-definition video they will provide.

But for the here and now, DualDisc is an innovative spin on present technology. Wisely shopped, the format can provide some interesting possibilities. Most important, it works. If you remember, as I do, the early days of stereo LP or CD, that’s saying a lot.

...Rad Bennett

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