NEW YORK — Sony has been dealing with LCDs for years. Liquid crystal displays abound in their phones, PDAs, computers and TVs. Now Sony is embracing another kind of LCD: lowest common denominator. Instead of promoting Super Audio CDs — a 21st century music format that Sony invented — the company has decided to take a step backward, by offering yet another confusing format that I believe is bound to fail.
A DualDisc looks like most CDs or DVDs. That’s because it is two-sided hybrid. On one side is the full-length CD audio album. The other side offers DVD content which might include enhanced album audio, 5.1 surround sound, music videos, artist interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, documentary films, photo galleries, lyrics, computer-ready digital song files or Web links. The content depends on the artist.
The main selling point here is that the DVD side of the DualDisc offers what the music industry is touting as superior audio. Many DualDiscs include surround sound mixes that have been specially created during the recording process. When listened to on a 5.1 channel surround system, the result is a rich, three-dimensional musical experience.
In theory, you don’t need any special new equipment to play a DualDisc. The DVD side plays wherever a DVD plays, including many gaming consoles and computers. DualDiscs with computer extras and Web links can be used in a PC like a DVD-ROM. The CD side holds as much music as a regular CD but the DVD side holds less than a normal DVD.
The CD side plays on all but a limited number of CD and DVD players. However, to take full advantage of DualDiscs that feature surround sound, you’ll need a 5.1 channel surround system. The DVD side might contain high-resolution DVD-Audio. Then again it might not. DualDiscs won’t contain SACD audio. Sony seems to have abandoned the great-sounding technology .
Did you notice that subtle warning that DualDiscs will play in "all but a limited number" of machines? DualDiscs come with asterisks and cautions all over the place: a sticker on the cellophane wrapper, highlighted text on the DualDisc box and a little blow-in card inside all tell you:
“The audio side of this disc does not conform to CD specifications and therefore not all DVD and CD players will play the audio side of this disc.”
The problem is the width of the disc. By fusing a CD and a DVD the hybrid disc is slightly thicker and doesn’t really confirm to what is called the "red book" CD standard. The difference in thickness is difficult to see, hence the warnings.
Manufacturers are worried that someone may have trouble using a DualDisc in an old slot-loaded CD or DVD player but the industry line is that so far there have been few if any complaints.
Not true, says my local retailer, a very large music and electronics superstore in lower Manhattan. I went in there today to buy a few DualDiscs and was told that they were seeing a lot of returns. The gentleman behind the counter said that said maybe three discs a week were coming back because they didn’t play properly, or at all, on customer’s machines.
Three discs a week may not sound like a lot, but he said that they don’t sell that many of them. He added that customers also complained about the quality of the 5.1 surround sound and the video programming on the DVD sides.
On the other hand, I’m happy to report that I had no problems playing my DualDiscs either in my cars or at home. That includes a number of CD/SACD and DVD players, PCs and laptops. As expected, of course, the DVD side doesn’t play in my Sony 9000ES CD/SACD machine.
I now have three DualDiscs in my possession: "Rebirth," by Jennifer Lopez, "Back in Black" by AC/DC, and the Miles Davis’ classic "Kind of Blue." "Rebirth" comes with a documentary plus two video versions of "Get Right." The DVD side of "Back in Black" comes with a version of the entire album in Superior Sound, a film on the making of the album and an on-screen discography. "Kind of Blue" comes with a 5.1 channel surround sound version, the documentary "Made in Heaven" and a historic photo gallery.
Sound wise, my DualDiscs range from horrible and one-dimensional ("Rebirth") to average CD quality good (the other two). I’ve watched the included videos and thought they looked fine. The two-channel audio on the DVD side sounded OK coming from my HDTV’s speakers. I don’t have a surround sound system set up at the moment so I can’t comment on that.
The DualDiscs cost $13.99 each. The CD-only version of the J. Lo album was selling for the same price as the DualDisc. The older AC/DC and Miles Davis albums were selling for $9.99 on CD. The extra material was nice, but not worth the extra $4.
The J. Lo pricing raises another question. If the CD and DualDisc versions are selling for the same price, why buy the CD? More importantly, why isn’t the CD selling for less if it has fewer features? Maybe if record companies started lowering the price of CDs then CD sales might be able to compete with MP3s and popular downloading services. People might think twice about spending $9.99 for a download from iTunes if the actual CD sold for the same price.
Being able to play DualDiscs on current hardware is a terrific idea — except for one big glaring fact: Sony is a hardware maker. In the past, new software technology (cassettes, 8-track, CD, DVD) always needed new players, boosting sales in other divisions. This new technology does not. From a business point of view, what was Sony thinking?
Then there’s the audio on the DVD side. Sony decided to throw in the towel on their hi-res SACD format for their competitors’ DVD-Audio or 5.1 surround. After spending millions on a terrific hardware/software format, they’ve just given up. The latest SACDs play on both CD and SACD players — and many times, they cost the same as the CD version. Why didn’t Sony add a DVD side to that disc? Hopefully, some other company will add SACD audio to their DualDiscs.
BMG, EMI, Warner Music Group, and Universal are joining Sony in marketing these discs. The big test will come at the end of April when the new Bruce Springsteen album is released only on DualDisc, not CD. I’m hoping the album is released on vinyl too. That just might be the version to hear.
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