Blu-ray Audio: gimmick or game-changer?
by Dan Morgan
In 1983 Herbert von Karajan greeted the arrival of the Compact Disc with the words ‘All else is gaslight’. This, together with the new carrier’s promise of ‘perfect sound forever’, seems a tad optimistic thirty years on. For a start the 16/44.1 CD standard was no more than adequate, but improvements in the recording chain - and high-res spin-offs such as SACD - demonstrate just how far the silver disc has come since then. Alas, the recording industry - and, it must be said, the hardware manufacturers - are not known for their joined-up thinking; the majors soon gave up on SACD - still the best physical carrier of high-res music - which is now the preserve of a few smaller labels.
On the video front Blu-ray was trumpeted as successor to DVD; it’s been around some years now, and while its superior audio and video specs are beyond doubt the format isn’t always used to its full potential. Indeed, I’ve been disappointed by the indifferent quality of some classical releases. With the help of keen pricing Blu-ray players have sold well, although the focus is still on movies. That was true of DVD too, but then someone thought up the idea of using the latter’s high-res audio potential - and its multi-channel capabilities - just for music. No doubt backers of DVD-Audio (DVD-A) decided the ubiquity of DVD players handed them a guaranteed audience.
So what went wrong? Think Betamax and VHS; in other words, a pointless and very confusing format war between DVD-A and SACD that killed off one and nearly did for the other. This wasn’t helped by the big hitters - Universal Music Group (UMG) and Sony - bailing out on SACD at an early stage and Naxos dumping both. True, there are some excellent DVD-As out there and the more dedicated labels have stuck with SACD; regrettably, though, the damage has been done. In the meantime faster broadband speeds and an ever-waning interest in physical product have boosted sales of music downloads.
Given this significant shift in consumer preferences the music industry have had to regroup and reassess the silver disc’s future. One only has to go online to see big boxes of CDs being touted at knockdown prices; the majors have plundered their back catalogues for the umpteenth time, and cynics would suggest that’s a sure sign of desperation. On the high-res front we’ve been offered SHM SACDs - admittedly aimed at the Japanese market, but available elsewhere at eye-watering prices - and Blu-spec CDs. These niche developments are familiar to audiophiles, but desultory marketing and the average consumer’s lack of enthusiasm for high-quality sound make such refinements peripheral to say the least.
Enter Blu-ray Audio (BD-A). On paper it makes very good sense; the format offers five times the storage capacity of DVD. and that means there’s huge potential for extra content. More important, high-res audio - 24-bit/96kHz or even 24-bit/192kHz - is supported; there are improved surround options too, among them dts-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. Still scribbling on the back of that envelope after a liquid lunch the marketing men also realised the format has a ready-made audience - the home-cinema enthusiast; and given that Blu-ray video production was already well established production costs weren’t likely to be a problem either.
So where’s the catch? All BD-As aren’t equal, for a start. Take Naxos, for instance; they dabbled in high-res audio - some of their SACDs and DVD-As are still available online at inflated prices - before settling on BD-A. Unlike others in the high-res camp Naxos release separate BD-A versions of their new CDs, rather than include the CD and BD-A in the same box. Naxos chief Klaus Heymann seems content to issue just one or two BD-As a month, at least until he perceives the market is ready to absorb more of them. He also points out that his BD-As are genuine high-res originals, not re-masters of ageing analogue tapes; that sets Naxos apart from the likes of UMG, whose focus is on their back catalogue.
In May 2013 the UMG-led High Fidelity Pure Audio Group (HFPAG) attempted to differentiate their newly announced BD-A programme from that of their competitors by branding them as HFPAs. This is the third BD-A variant, and it joins the basic Naxos BD-As and the more flexible and comprehensively specified Pure Audio Blu-ray Discs from 2L, Gimell and Sono Luminus. It’s a great shame that there isn’t a single, agreed standard, as unnecessary variations are likely to make marketing more difficult and cause confusion in the minds of already overloaded consumers.
It’s not just a question of nomenclature either, for these three groups approach the new format in very different ways. For example 2L, Sono Luminus and Gimell’s BD-As allow you to select individual tracks using the numbered keypad on your Blu-ray player’s remote control; in addition, sub-menus - audio set-up, for example - are linked to the remote’s colour-coded keys. At a stroke that removes the need for a TV or monitor. Naxos and UMG’s discs can only be navigated on-screen, and as a reviewer colleague has already discovered that’s a significant drawback if your system is audio rather than video centred. Heymann doesn’t see it this way, and places the TV at the heart of the modern music/home-cinema environment.
The Pure Audio Blu-ray model has another powerful advantage over its Naxos/UMG rivals in that it includes an ingenious piece of embedded software called mshuttle; this allows you to access the disc’s added content via a PC/Mac/tablet providing it's on your network. Simply type the player’s IP address into your browser and these extras are instantly readable, downloadable or printable. This simple and elegant approach extends to the provision of a partnering CD (Gimell, Sono Luminus) or SACD (2L). I first encountered this very clever piece of technology on Gimell’s BD-A of music by Allegri and Palestrina (review). I was most impressed by the variety of downloadable files on offer as well; not only do you get PDF artwork and liner-notes you also get two-channel 16/44.1, 24/48 and 24/96 audio files (wma and flac).
Such a wide, all-encompassing range of user options is essential to the success of BD-A, especially in this fast-moving, multi-device/multi-platform world in which we live. That’s why I firmly believe Naxos and UMG’s self-imposed limitations on the new format will cost them dearly in the long run. An industry insider confided that adding the tweaks that are standard in Pure Audio Blu-rays would add little or nothing to the cost of disc production. UMG have other hurdles to overcome too, not least their chaotic release schedule. At the time of writing - late November/early December - Internet audiophiles were lambasting the company for not getting their new product to market on time.
That’s just the kind of negative publicity that Blu-ray Audio doesn’t need, especially when consumers are still smarting from the effects of the industry’s format wars and resigned to their chronic inability to act in concert. Warner Classics - part of HFPAG and heir to EMI’s invaluable back catalogue - are as muddled as any. Their idea of innovation is to cram Barenboim’s entire Ring cycle, extra goodies and downloadable mp3s and wav files onto a USB stick. I do like the idea of an entire set of works in one place, but the single BD-A of Solti’s Ring strikes me as a much more satisfying - if expensive - alternative (review). USB sticks are so last century, m’dears, so unless you want to lose out big time I’d suggest you focus on BD-A instead.
So, who are these BD-As aimed at? Heymann, 2L’s Morten Lindberg and Gimell’s Steve Smith all see home-cinema enthusiasts as their target market; I’d suggest their real audience is a far smaller sub-set of that group; the dedicated stereo/multi-channel listener who already enjoys high-res music on SACD and/or downloads, and whose system is most likely to be optimised for music rather than the overblown bass and exaggerated spatial effects of the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
Such music-centred systems - perhaps based on upmarket universal players from the likes of Cambridge, Denon, Marantz and Oppo - will probably include high-quality AV amplifier to which the audio is fed via HDMI cable. Owners of less sophisticated set-ups - perhaps using a mid- to low-priced Blu-ray player feeding a standard stereo amp via RCA connectors - can still reap the full rewards of high-res audio. Trouble is, the latest Blu-ray players have dispensed with analogue outputs; instead they only offer HDMI outputs, which will accept 24/96 or 24/192 audio, and coaxial/optical links, which won’t. The reason for this is pointless copy protection protocols, which dictate that audio signals sent via the latter will be downsampled. Not a deal-breaker perhaps, but worth remembering when contemplating changes to your system.
BD-As can also be played via a PC’s Blu-ray drive; Macs don’t support Blu-ray, but you can get around this problem with third-party software such as MacGo and a standalone Blu-ray drive. Again, the audio signal - which is sent to your Mac by USB or Firewire - will be downsampled. Still, 24/48 ought to be a marked improvement on 16/44.1. I will assess this in greater detail at some point - I use a Mac - and report back in a future review.
BD-As and SACDs aren’t the only source of superior sound - ostensibly the raison d’être of Blu-ray Audio. Initially a sceptic I soon came to appreciate the sonic virtues of high-res downloads, not to mention their ease of use and - broadband connection permitting - speed of accessibility. Regular readers will know I review these for Brian Wilson’s MWI Download News. Ironically, some of the best I’ve encountered are from UMG - Solti’s Mahler Eighth, Sir Colin Davis’s Concertgebouw Symphonie fantastique and a Debussy collection from Ansermet and the SRO. These are prime examples of what careful re-mastering can achieve when it comes to these analogue originals.
Trouble is, these downloads are expensive - Linn charge £18 for the 24/96 Studio Masters - so it would make much more sense for UMG to follow the Pure Audio Blu-ray example and issue easily navigable BD-As with the mp3s/high-res downloads as extras - and all for less than the price of their existing downloads. Gimell have proved it’s possible; the high-res stereo files offered as part of their initial release sell on their website for £14.99, whereas their debut Blu-ray can be had online for as little as £13.
I do worry that UMG are being much too tentative, though. I’ve also noticed that they offer high-res downloads of some new releases - ie not analogue masters - via sites such as Qobuz. These pre-orders are dirt cheap, but once the CD is released the price of the corresponding download rises steeply. Naxos also sell high-res downloads, but at the time of writing the prices vary widely from site to site. For example, the 24/96 Studio Masters of William Grant Still’s Second and Third Symphonies are available from Linn for £18 and from The Classical Shop for a much more reasonable £11.99. Such price differences don’t inspire consumer confidence.
Perhaps UMG and Naxos are just testing the water, but surely it makes good sense to go for maximum choice and offer the CD, BD-A and high-res downloads in a single, reasonably priced package? Besides, the storage capacity of Blu-rays could eliminate all those multi-CD boxes at a stroke. As the Pure Audio Blu-ray model so clearly shows the format can offer an unbeatable combination of quality, flexibility and economy; and that should be music to anyone’s ears.
This is the state of Blu-ray Audio as the year draws to a close. I haven’t mentioned all those that have joined the BD-A camp - the German label Tacet, for instance - but there’s more to come; my colleagues and I plan to review plenty of new BD-As in the weeks and months ahead. In particular Dave Billinge will be able to assess the multi-channel mixes, which are of overriding interest to those who are already hooked on surround sound.
Quite simply I’ve been bowled over by the sonic gains BD-A has to offer. Nowhere is this more dramatic than in the UMG War Requiem (review) and Gimell’s Allegri disc. Of the two the latter is the most complete and comprehensive package, which is why it's MusicWeb International’s Recording of the Year 2013. The Britten - sourced from 50-year-old analogue tapes - may not be as all-embracing in terms of content, but if UMG can get such astonishing results from other classics in their vaults we’ll be in for a treat.
Although somewhat basic and certainly not as sonically sophisticated as the two BD-As just mentioned, the Naxos discs I’ve reviewed - Antoni Wit’s Mahler Eighth and Slatkin’s Copland collection - are keenly priced and will give newcomers a fair idea of what high-res audio is all about. If I seem grudging in my praise of these discs it’s because they don’t exploit the new format to anything like its full potential. That’s also true of UMG, whose BD-As of Kleiber’s legendary Beethoven 5 and 7, Karajan’s Mahler 5 and an eclectic Grimaud programme are already in my review queue. Also awaiting my attention is 2L’s Nordic Sound sampler.
So, is Blu-ray Audio a gimmick or a game-changer? I’m as cynical as the next man when to comes to music industry hype, but my very positive reaction to the format - endorsed by the favourable comments of MWI colleagues - has convinced me of its unrivalled potential as a music/media carrier. The big question is whether consumers will embrace another disc, whatever its technical and logistical advantages. I remain a staunch supporter of high-res audio, be it SACD or downloads, and right now I see BD-A as a viable and exciting companion to both.