More DualDiscs Planned

The record industry's favorite nonconformist, DualDisc, is getting a modest boost in February and March. Despite hand-wringing and compatibility warnings from scores of manufacturers, all of the major record labels say they plan to release some of the two-faced discs in coming weeks.

The most notable of the labels announcing a DualDisc release schedule is Sony BMG, whose Jordan Katz states, "We're thrilled to be coming to the marketplace with an innovative slate of DualDiscs, representing a broad range of artists and genres, including titles from Omarion, Jennifer Lopez, Velvet Revolver, Usher, AC/DC, Destiny's Child, and Avril Lavigne."

The consumer electronics arm of Sony was one of the first manufacturers to issue warnings about possible problems encountered in playing the non-standard music side of a DualDisc. Recent announcements for the new format are careful not to refer to the music side of a DualDisc as a "CD" or "compact disc," instead describing it as "a full audio album." While intended to be compatible with CD players, the music side of a DualDisc does not meet the Red Book specification for CD layer thickness. It also sports a shorter playing time.

More irony: Sony, along with Philips, brought DSD and SACD to the consumer market, neither of which are included as DualDisc formats. It should also be noted that DualDisc does not require high-resolution DVD-Audio tracks on its DVD side, and in the case of the announced Sony BMG releases, will have none.

With Sony apparently abandoning SACD while pushing DualDisc into the market, and Warners' DVD-Audio releases drying up fast, the fifth anniversaries for both SACD and DVD-Audio are looking less like birthdays and more like a DualWake (or DualDud . . . or DualDead).

However, it doesn't appear that DualDisc is intended as the next high-resolution format of choice, with most major labels emphasizing its "extraordinary" video, multimedia, and surround-sound capabilities. Most worrisome for audiophiles is that, while there will be a smattering of high-rez PCM available on some discs, the recent press announcement put together by the group of labels releasing DualDiscs this month makes no mention of high-resolution audio whatsoever.

This is all reminiscent of something one of the record label executives said to me by phone after a Dolby DVD-Audio press event a couple of years back: "We should never have marketed DVD-Audio as a better-sounding format to audiophiles. You can't please them, and nobody else cares about sound quality."

And then there's the price thing. Sony BMG's DualDiscs will carry an $18.98 suggested retail price before discounting, and new DualDisc releases can already be found online for as low as $12.99, putting them clearly in the range of typical CD pricing. Are the record labels finally admitting that regular music CDs have been overpriced and are a bad value, or are they saying that the video and surround extras on a DualDisc are not really worth anything extra?

While we're all for more reasonable music prices, one can't help but wonder if this is sending the opposite message to consumers than the one intended. After all, the music industry is in a fight for its life to prove to consumers that a compressed and compromised DRM-laden audio track—no cover art, no disc, no videos, no surround sound, and no high-rez audio included—downloaded from the Internet, is worth at least 99¢ or around $12 for a typical album's worth of material. Good luck.