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DVD Between the Lines: DVD-PLUS: Bridging the Compatibility Gap
Posted Apr 1, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

April 2003|A few years ago, a good friend of mine who works for a large international optical disc replicator sent me a disc and asked me to check it out. He wanted to know how well the disc played in various machines, including both DVD and CD players! It seems a client of theirs wanted to combine a compact disc containing a motion picture soundtrack with the DVD-Video of the same movie.

The fusing of a standard compact disc with one half of a DVD-Video disc was an interesting idea, but unfortunately one that was slightly ahead of its time. The disc that I evaluated was simply too thick to function reliably in the various players to which I had access. In some drives, it made an obnoxious grinding noise, others drives wouldn't read the tracks, and in machines equipped with slot drives, many times, I couldn't get the disc to eject from the machine. The specification of an optical disc requires that the thickness not exceed 1.5mm. The discs at that time were closer to 1.8mm thick—a sort of industrial-strength version of a standard CD. The DVD-Plus format had been launched, but was off to a rough start. Enter DVD-Audio.

Luckily, the engineering team at Sonopress (and other companies) wasn't discouraged by their initial efforts. With the arrival of high-resolution, multi-channel audio, there is a real and present need for the kind of hybrid disc that they created in 1999. The record industry has suffered through some very challenging years of late, brought upon by either piracy or excessive prices, depending on who you believe, and has been looking at ways to reinvigorate the sales of pre-recorded music. Sony and Philips introduced a stereo-only (then) high-resolution format called Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) a few years ago, and DVD-Audio emerged shortly thereafter. These new formats are designed to replace the venerable compact disc and drive music consumers back to their local record retailers. Both formats claim significant improvements in audio fidelity and both are capable of delivering audio into a 5.1-channel surround sound setup.

However, these two competing formats take two divergent views of the future of the music products. In the battle for consumer acceptance (and the acceptance of the major record labels), it has emerged that "backwards compatibility" with existing CD players is an important consideration for the buying public. The two formats have approached this issue in starkly contrasting ways.

Sony and Philips, who invented the CD back in 1982, designed SACD to include the possibility for a "hybrid" CD layer on the same side of the disc that contains the high-resolution audio, encoded in Direct Streaming Digital (DSD). While this option exists for producers of SACD titles, only about half of the current releases offer this option. Notably, the 20 remastered Rolling Stones titles on SACD include a CD-compatible layer. In fact, the packaging of these products doesn't contain any indication that the disc inside is anything more than a traditional CD. Purchasers of the Stones discs got the SACD layer for free and will be able to access the high-resolution DSD stream if and when they upgrade their playback hardware to include SACD compatibility.

The supporters of DVD-Audio took the approach that "backward compatibility" meant the new discs would play in existing DVD-Video machines and chose not to worry about CD players. With 65 million DVD players in the U.S., the assumption was that consumers would enjoy their surround music in home theaters, and they were probably right to a large extent.

But what happens when you want to take your new DVD-Audio disc on the road or play it in your personal Discman-type player? You're out of luck. In the battle for the hearts and ears of music consumers, Sony and Philips had a perceived competitive edge. The development of DVD-Plus couldn't have come at a more opportune time.

According to the latest information that I have, Sonopress has managed to shave the combined thickness of a compact disc and half DVD to just under the required 1.5mm. Now DVD-Audio proponents can deliver the high-resolution, multi-channel versions of their records on the DVD-Audio side and still include a 44.1kHz/16-bit "Red Book" CD. These two-sided discs are the perfect hybrid technology. One side contains the music only and is playable on virtually all CD players, and the other side can be played in any of the millions of DVD players. The playing field is all of a sudden level once again—or is it?

When audiophiles ask me about SACD versus DVD-Audio, I skip right past the debate about audio quality, since for most people that's not what's going to differentiate the two formats. When done properly, both DSD and high-resolution PCM audio can sound fantastic and both are substantially better than CDs. I focus instead on the multimedia capabilities of the DVD format. The future of audio products as envisioned by Sony and Philips and implemented as SACD lacks any ability to display video or still photography, or link up to the Internet (the SACD specification actually includes these options, but the existing hardware doesn't support them). At AIX Records (www.aixrecords.com), my fledgling audiophile label, we believe that consumers will appreciate the new high-resolution recordings that we produce and the multiple camera-angle video, the alternate mixes, the artist interviews, the behind-the-scenes footage, the photos, and the ability to access the Internet.

The introduction of DVD-Plus enhances the production options available to record producers, musicians, and engineers. That original sandwiched CD/DVD disc from Sonopress heralded the announcement of the next record industry delivery format, one that integrates high-resolution audio, video, photos, and media of all sorts onto a single ultra-compatible disc.

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