Glass Houses: Let’s Play Two—The Case for DualDisc
Posted May 24, 2005

DualDisc. Finally, here's a format that has the potential to push music distribution into its next generation with a physical disc. That's good news for replicators, but even better news for consumers. Yes, there are some playback compatibility problems associated with the disc, and I will get into those, but let me first focus on the positive.

DualDisc, an audio CD and the data side of a DVD-5 bonded together, blends video and music successfully. Not only does it combine the audio and visual sides of an artist's creativity in a single product, but it gives consumers exposure to the awesome experience of 5.1 music, whether in the DVD-Video or DVD-Audio format. Let's face it: for all their sonic virtues, DVD-Audio and SACD have not delivered the 5.1 listening experience to the music mainstream, in large part because they don't work on players that music fans already have. DualDisc, by contrast, comes to the consumer in a natural way without forcing it down their throats and demanding the purchase of a new player.

Sony, unfazed by the lukewarm reception of SACD, is taking an all-or-nothing approach to advancing the format by offering certain titles only on DualDisc, while other labels are selling two SKUs. While I believe Sony is doing the right thing by offering titles in DualDisc format only for same price as a CD—since they're essentially adding value at no cost to the consumer--DualDisc purchasers who have had playability problems will disagree with me on that point I'm sure.

The problem is that some CD and DVD players and DVD drives cannot recognize the CD side of the disc because technically it is not compliant with the Red Book specification for audio CD; for one thing, the side of the bonded disc that a player is being asked to read is too thick, which makes it difficult for some lasers to focus.

That Sony would knowingly manufacture and sell CDs that don't meet CD standards seems a little strange perhaps if you consider that Sony, along with Philips, invented the compact disc and owns a half of the patent rights. (Philips has refused to allow DualDiscs to carry the Compact Disc Digital Audio logo, and Sony has placed a warning on the discs that they are out of spec and may not play in all players.)

Since the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) knew ahead of time that some players—computer DVD drives in particular--could pose a problem, it insisted on some ground rules for labels putting out DualDisc titles. In order to license the logo, the RIAA requires that the same music that is on the CD must be on the DVD side. (You can check out RIAAs licensing info at www.dualdisclicensing.org.) This certainly solves the problem for computer DVD drives: if someone can't play the CD side, all they need to do is flip it over. The DVD side will always play, and what's more—in addition to whatever video or informational content it includes--it will deliver the entire album in 5.1 surround sound if your system is so equipped.

While I couldn't get someone from Sony on the phone before deadline, Andrew DaPuzzo, director of audio sales at Sonopress, a replicator very involved with making these discs for several labels, was able to shed a little light on the reasons behind the specification and playback problems.

For the format to work in a compliant drive, the DVD Forum allows the DVD side of the disc to have a minimum thickness of .55 mm; at .61mm, it's just 1/100 of a millimeter thicker than a standard .6mm DVD side, so there's nothing compromised there. Essential to the construction of the disc, however, was a CD side that's too thin at .87mm (while a DVD is two halves bonded together, a CD laser is used to having the entire 1.2mm thickness of a CD to focus on). While the overall thickness of the disc at 1.48mm is at the far edge of acceptability for bonded DVD media and DVD players, the fact that the CD side is too thin means that in some players the CD read laser doesn't properly focus. (Incidentally, the format also confines the DVD side to single-layer.) While manufacturers report that about 539 of their tests have shown that the discs play in the "overwhelming majority" of players, they also acknowledge in some cases computers can present a problem, especially DVD drives.

Consumers see the situation somewhat differently. Today's online music forums are strewn with lengthy threads about playability problems with the latest run of DualDisc titles. They cite playback issues that reach beyond computer DVD drives into a variety of CD players, car systems in particular. One audiophile site, Positive Feedback Online (www.positive-feedback.com), reports that their research indicates a 60% playback rate of DualDiscs in CD players.

According to testing done by PMTC and Intellikey, out of the 35 car players in their testing pool, only one player had a problem playing the discs. Of course, that is not comforting to the person who owns that car system and can't play Bruce Springsteen's Devils & Dust disc, for example, which has generated the lion's share of the online griping. Unfortunately, there is no solution for that person (except downloading and burning the album from iTunes) because Sony's discs only have one SKU, that of the DualDisc.

Informal surveys done at retail stores by yours truly do not show any major return problems. A call to Fred Fox, executive vice president of merchandise and marketing for Transworld Entertainment, a large retailer whose stores include FYE and Strawberries, reports that there have been virtually no complaints. Universal Music Group's Director of New Formats, Paul Bishow also says the percentage of problems has been tiny and he suspects newer drives will not present as many problems. "Suspects" is the key word here.

Flipping the disc doesn't remedy all the problems for the discs' use with computer drives. "If you had planned to rip the CD to play it on your iPod," DaPuzzo says, "and that doesn't work, you won't be able to rip [the audio from] the DVD side." DaPuzzo says this problem can potentially be solved by putting secure WMA or AAC files or secure Apple files on the DVD so that they can then be downloaded to a user's hard drive. That way you wouldn't have to rip the CD file. But that's the manufacturers' decision to make, and at this point, they aren't doing it. While making the discs iPod-friendly would certainly uphold the principle of electronic Fair Use that Sony fought for and won in the Betamax decision of 1976 (for all the good it did them), part of the point here is to win back some of the iPod Nation who have abandoned packaged media by offering them benefits that iPods and other playback solutions for ripped and downloaded music can't deliver: DVD-quality video content, more extensive information about the artists, and 5.1 surround sound.

This, ultimately, is the tremendous upside of DualDisc for consumers, record labels, and replicators alike: they provide a reason to buy packaged, physical media to a music-buying populace that's very nearly learned to live without it. While the mass migration to personal audio players and electronic music distribution has arguably not been as bad for the record labels as they claim, there's no question it's hurt replicators. Though the move to iPods and iPod-like devices has leveraged significant technological advances, it's also caused the music-buying public to stagnate, or even move backwards in terms of the audio quality they accept and find acceptable, even as the emergence of 5.1 has pushed the envelope for others in terms of what they hear and the ways they hear it.

While the marginal market performance of DVD-Audio and SACD may indicate that 5.1's appeal is confined to a small audiophile elite, one could just as easily argue that by requiring special player purchases, those formats never gave 5.1 a proper chance to win over the music mainstream. DualDisc may not be the industry's last chance to convert the masses, but it's probably its best one. I would never say that selling out-of-spec CDs was a good thing. But if playback problems force some consumers to put aside their iPods, flip their new discs over, and start hearing them in 5.1, maybe they'll finally find out what they've been missing.