Digital Bloating

Without question, enhanced CDs offer more but of what?

Okay, I'll admit it: I'm a slave to technology. When laser discs resurfaced in the late '80s, I couldn't pass up owning one of the magical machines. And having shelled out the bucks for a laser disc player, it seemed to make sense to upgrade to a home theater system, since pumping a laser disc's digital sound through two stereo speakers is a lot like drinking a fancy beer in a baby's bottle.

More recently, I said good-bye to an old friend -- the cartridge-driven 16-bit Super Nintendo video-game system -- to welcome the awesome power of the CD-driven 32-bit Sony Playstation, which now beckons to me constantly. Given all that, I should be the perfect patsy for enhanced compact discs, a new hybrid of the audio disc and the computer CD/ROM that, according to some, will phase out plain old music CDs in a few years.

But not even countless hours spent playing video games have eroded my mind to the point that I believe new technology is always what it's hyped to be. Take the MiniDisc and the Digital Compact Cassette, for example. Just a few years ago, these two formats -- both of which boasted digital sound and recordability -- were supposed to swiftly dispatch the conventional audio cassette to vinyl hell. It didn't happen. Instead, the MiniDisc and DCC became the Betamax of the '90s.

So which is the enhanced CD? Laser disc or MiniDisc? At the moment, it's a little hard to say. Basically, an enhanced CD takes advantage of an audio disc's unused space, filling it with computer data for a multimedia presentation that's accessible when the disc is used in a computer's CD/ROM drive. When played through a regular compact disc player, there's really nothing "enhanced" about them, though the first generation of enhanced CDs -- known as "single session" discs since they stored their computer data in the CD's first track -- did a reasonably good job of enhancing annoyance when they were used in a disc changer turned to the random play mode, since the player tried to reproduce the data as music. The newer titles, thankfully, tend to be in the "multi-session" format, which means the data is stored in a hidden track, one that only CD/ROM drives can read.

Enhanced discs have been around for a while, most often mixed inconspicuously with regular CDs. This Christmas, there're supposed to be as many as 100 titles available for placement under the tree. The only clue to their content is the packaging and the discs' variety of names, which includes CD+ and CD Plus (both trademarks of Sony), Rainbow Disc (a trademark of Phillips), E-CD and CD+MM; the prices are roughly the same as for a standard CD. Some titles, such as the Cranberries' Doors and Windows, are available only in the enhanced format, while others are alternate versions of existing albums, such as the CD Plus version of Alice in Chains' Jar of Flies.

What distinguishes an enhanced disc is its multimedia capabilities, and that's where the weight of this new technology rests. Unfortunately, the creators of the majority of the enhanced titles currently available use the technology in a basic fashion, producing items that seem more self-promotional than artistic. And to cheapen things further, many titles utilize existing materials -- such as band photos -- rather than items created specifically for the enhanced format.

You might call this the "high-tech liner notes" approach, and the discs that use it have a number of similar characteristics. By pointing and clicking through graphic menus adorned with artwork consistent with the album packaging, users can access media relevant to the artist and/or the music. Where the artist is concerned, there's usually a fair amount of biographical information presented in text, as well as video footage, sound bites of interviews and plenty of photos. The problem with this content is that it's a bit of a one-trick pony; a single time through exhausts much of its appeal. As for the presentation, it's hard to argue with the fact that photos are far more rich as hard copy, it's less eye-straining to read text in printed form rather than on-screen and unless you're using a fancy -- not to mention pricey -- computer setup, video footage looks much better on tape or TV.

Where the music is concerned, users can not only play a CD's songs, but also listen to sound bites of songs from previous releases and view lyric sheets and art. In addition to listing the current album's lyrics, some discs allow you to click on a particular line and have the song jump to that section, while others simply highlight what's being sung as the tune progresses, in a fashion similar to karaoke. But as with the video footage and TVs, it's likely that your home stereo sounds much better than the audio output from your computer.

Getting the impression that most current enhanced CDs offer little more than fan club fodder? For the most part, that's true. It's doubtful anyone outside of Sarah McLachlan's die-hard admirers would have any need for the in-depth recap of her trip to Southeast Asia or the catalog of merchandise found on the enhanced version of The Freedom Sessions EP. And it's likely only hard-core groupies will be interested in the walk through Bush's tour bus that accompanies the band's Little Things single (it looks like footage of a typical MTV vidiot's room) or the inane revelation on Doors and Windows that the Cranberries are a bunch of alcoholics -- they're Irish and they are rock stars, for God's sake!

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