Majors Test-market Hybrid Discs

During the first week of February, major record labels quietly launched small-scale test marketing of a new hybrid disc that combines a standard CD on one side with a DVD on the other.

The labels are testing consumer acceptance of the format with about a dozen music titles placed in record stores in Seattle and Boston. Priced at $18.99 each—more than most CDs but less than most DVDs—the aptly-named "DualDiscs" feature standard Red Book 44.1kHz/16-bit two-channel audio on the CD side and a variety of DVD content on the other, including "graphics, song lyrics, web links, photos, DVD-video, and/or DVD-Audio," according to one announcement. At the discretion of artists, producers, and label executives, the DVD side of the discs can offer a wide range of content, including high-resolution 96kHz/24-bit two-channel audio and multichannel audio as high-rez DVD-A or Dolby Digital 5.1.

Backed by the music industry's "Big Five"—BMG, EMI, Warner Music Group, Sony Music, and Universal Music Group—the hybrid discs are something of a technical triumph, having overcome engineering obstacles that some pundits had predicted would make commercial production impossible. The emergence of DualDiscs indicates an increasing willingness by innovative engineers to push past the limits of the more-than-20-year-old Red Book CD standard.

The industry seems to be hoping that by physically bonding CDs to DVDs and thereby offering consumers a potentially more convenient and versatile entertainment format, it will see music sales pick up, literally on the backs of ever-more-popular DVDs. While consumers may enjoy the convenience and novelty of the conjoined discs, they may not get quite everything they might have enjoyed had they purchased the same selections separately.

A limitation on disc thickness is rumored to confine DualDisc CDs to 60 minutes of music, as opposed to 74 minutes for ordinary discs. (References to limited running time popped up in several reports about DualDiscs, but we were unable to find any official verification.) The thickness of the two bonded formats supposedly limits DVD content to a single layer only, meaning a DualDisc can provide only half as much entertainment as a dual-layer DVD. Most movies that run two hours or longer are released on dual-layer DVDs.

The disc-thickness limitation was a concession to automotive CD changers, which have extremely tight tolerances on disc dimensions. While convenient for consumers, DualDiscs' compatibility with such players may ultimately scuttle the experiment. Changers are notoriously rough on discs, and scratched DVDs are notoriously glitchy, especially when played in inexpensive machines. This is due to the difference in wavelength between the CD laser and its DVD equivalent. A slight surface scratch has no effect on CD playback; to a CD laser, it looks like a hair. To a DVD laser, the same size scratch looks like a fire hose. Many inexpensive DVD players will hang up or stop tracking when they encounter scratches. Upscale machines with more robust error correction systems can play scratched DVDs without problems, but these aren't the players owned by the majority of consumers, especially not by those likely to be seduced by the appeal of two-for-one discs.

Record labels may not be aware of durability issues with DVDs, but according to some reports, they have concerns that consumers could feel they aren't getting everything they want with DualDiscs, despite the attractive price. Some marketing executives are said to favor packaging related CDs and DVDs together, such as a movie with its soundtrack on an accompanying CD, or a CD with music videos and similar content on a DVD. (That experiment has already been tried, with promising results.) The industry is willing to try anything to win customers back to the packaged-goods model of recorded music, which may explain why Sony Music is trying DualDiscs while simultaneously backing the Super Audio CD. (In keeping with the company's SACD agenda, Sony Music DualDiscs do not offer DVD-A.) In electronics, as well as recorded music, Sony can offer one line of products to a niche market of purists, and another to the mass market, without losing credibility with either.

The DualDisc format has its own logo and website, but at present, "DualDisc.com" is simply a placeholder.

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