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Compressed Audio on Writable DVD – Why Not?

Playing compressed music recorded to recordable and rewritable DVD discs seems to me to be the most logical path forward for the consumer electronics industry.

Compressed Audio on Writable DVD – Why Not?

Hugh Bennett
EMediaLive, June 1, 2002

Confronted by two mutually incompatible recordable (DVD-R/+R) and three rewritable formats (DVD-RW/RAM/+RW), do DVD consumers have compelling reasons to buy any of them? Sure, personal video editing may appeal to those with time to kill, and DVD data storage may be convincing to the few with more information than can fit onto a couple of CD-Rs. But for the rest of us, far greater promise for writable DVD lies in audio applications. Playing compressed music recorded to recordable and rewritable DVD discs seems to me to be the most logical path forward for the consumer electronics industry.

Until their recent adoption of compression technology, consumer audio products hadn’t experienced significant change in years. But thanks to MP3, WMA, and other schemes, new designs have emerged employing a variety of digital media such as flash memory, hard drives, and the leader of the pack, CD-R/ RW discs. One compressed CD-R/RW disc holds as much as 20 ordinary CDs and can transform a single, compact, and only slightly modified player into a virtual multi-disc changer.

But how much more attractive would be devices that could also play compressed files from writable DVDs? While a CD-R/ RW may hold a handful of audio CDs, a writable DVD disc can accommodate hundreds of compressed CDs and, in the case of DVD-R, at a modest cost. Even sonic purists could celebrate since DVD’s enormous capacity can hold a fistful of CDs in their original uncompressed PCM state. And this capability would greatly enhance writable DVD’s consumer appeal.

The potential to hold entire music collections on a single inexpensive disc offers staggering possibilities for all manner of audio products ranging from boom boxes and personal players to home component, bookshelf, executive, ultra-micro, clock radio, and shower units and even to mobile car and marine devices. And, thanks to dual-laser optical pickups, each device could be made truly universal playing not only compressed DVD discs but regular audio CDs and CD-R/RW discs as well. No other digital storage technology even comes close. This potential, however, has been ignored by the manufacturers’ video-centric DVD thinking. The failure of the optical storage and consumer electronics industries to appreciate the audio potential for writable DVD is nowhere more apparent than in the designs of their DVD-Video players. Granted, many DVD-Video devices already play compressed audio files written on CD-R or CD-RW discs. Coupled with on-screen interfaces and home theater amplifiers with high performance speakers, set-top DVD-Video players now have all the makings of formidable home audio devices. Even portable DVD-Video players could serve up a potent entertainment mixture on the go. Given these innate qualities, it seems only natural that DVD-Video devices that play compressed audio files from CD-R/RW discs should do the same from writable DVDs.

To test if MP3-enabled DVD-Video players could indeed read compressed audio files from DVD discs, I recorded a couple of suitably formatted DVD-Rs and tried them in a dozen name-brand DVD-Video players. The results were not encouraging. Most of the units returned cryptic messages declaring that the discs were unrecognizable while one ill-mannered player had the audacity to lock-up. Surely, manufacturers can’t be that short-sighted when they design their products. Phone calls to some of the companies involved confirmed my worst suspicions. Most seemed genuinely puzzled at the suggestion that anyone would want to play MP3 tracks from DVD discs.

The inability of MP3-enabled DVD-Video devices to play compressed audio from writable DVD discs reflects part of a design limitation which also prevents units from reading DVD-Video content written on CD-R and CD-RW discs. Even though a disc may be recorded in the correct logical format and contain supported filetypes, the DVD-Video player is programmed to accommodate only a few format possibilities based on the physical construction of a disc. As soon as a player determines that a CD has been loaded, the machine assumes it to be a Red Book audio disc or, in some cases a VideoCD or MP3 CD-R/RW. Similarly, when the player encounters a DVD, it presumes that the disc is a DVD-Video title.

In all fairness, current DVD-Video players don’t deal well with compressed audio files. There are more issues to be resolved, of course, than simply supporting MP3 DVDs in order to broaden consumer appeal, such as primitive file navigation and unfriendly interfaces. Fortunately, improvements are coming thanks to OSTA’s MultiAudio specification and proprietary efforts such as Planetweb’s Digital Audio Manager. However, neither of these approaches requires reading compressed audio files from specific types of media, including writable DVD discs, so manufacturers are free to continue with their unimaginative ways.

Rather than engaging in meaningless debate about whose technology is best or who has the greatest market momentum, writable DVD product initiators like Pioneer, Philips, Matsushita, and Sony should spend their time thinking realistically about the desires of the purchasing public. And with even the FBI and the CIA now expected to communicate, the age of convergence dictates that normally separate, insular computer and consumer electronics divisions of these companies devise mutually beneficial product strategies. Exploiting the potential for compressed audio on writable DVDs would be a good place to start the revolution.

Hugh Bennett, editor-in-chief of Hugh’s News, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems, a reseller, systems integrator and industry consultant based in London, Ontario, Canada. Hugh is author of The Authoritative Blu-ray Disc (BD) FAQ and The Authoritative HD DVD FAQ, available on Hugh’s News, as well as Understanding Recordable & Rewritable DVD and Understanding CD-R & CD-RW, published by the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA).

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