Is Blu-Ray Audio the Next Big Thing for Audiophiles?

230px-Blu-ray_Disc.svg.pngIf you hang around in audiophile circles, you may have seen that the latest way to deliver music is Blu-Ray audio, or BD-A (BD, or Blu-Ray disc, is the standard abbreviation for such a disc). These discs can only be read in Blu-Ray players, but can offer high-resolution audio, in both stereo and surround mixes, up to 24-bit 192 kHz. The BD-A is seen as a replacement for SACDs, which never really took off in the market, despite their having even higher resolution audio.

If you follow this blog, you’ve certain/y seen that I’m more interested in music than sound; I don’t have the audiophile itch to try and get better and better sound through expensive, incremental improvements to my listening equipment. I have a very good stereo, very good headphones, and, while I may splurge in the future for a pair of Grados, there’s no reason for me to spend more.

I’m not sold on high-resolution audio, but I can understand that some people may be. Whether it’s simply a placebo effect, or whether the music actually does sound better, I can’t say. Perhaps you need a stereo that’s much more expensive than mine to hear the difference.

But BD-A is simply the latest step in marketing audio to those who are willing to pay more. Writing at MusicWeb International, Dan Morgan asks whether it’s a gimmick or game changer. He outlines the history of BD-A, and points out that it’s another step in the format wars, with different record labels choosing different ways to present the audio.

The concept of BD-A is interesting. Many such discs not only let you listen to high-resolution files on your stereo system, but also let you copy them from the disc to your computer. However, this copy process is not simple. You need to find your Blu-Ray player’s IP address and connect to it over a network from a computer. While this is not problem for me, this isn’t a simple task for many users. Part of the reason for this process is the copy protection on Blu-Ray discs; you can’t simply pop a Blu-Ray in a computer’s drive and copy its contents (though there are apps you can buy that will crack the copy protection and let you copy movies).

Also, BD-As have different types of menus, and require that you have a TV set connected to your Blu-Ray drive. Many music listeners don’t have this; they may have a listening room with just a stereo, making it onerous to play BD-As (they need to buy a TV set just to be able to operate the BD-As). Compare this to CDs: you can play any CD on any CD (or DVD or Blu-Ray player), navigating only from the device’s display. This is essentially because the Red Book CD format was agreed on and universally accepted, ensuring that all CDs would be playable on all players. While there is a more-or-less accepted standard for movies on Blu-Ray discs, this is not the case for Blu-Ray audio.

And this, in my opinion, is why BD-A will fail. By making these discs complicated to operate, and by having vastly different systems on different labels, only the most dedicated users will bother buying more than a couple. It’s not enough to provide music in good quality; the listening process has to be user-friendly. BD-As often look like they’re designed for experienced computer users, and, given that the average age of the classical music market is that of people who didn’t grow up with computers, many users will be frustrated.

The music industry will continue trying to come up with new formats to get us to buy our favorite music again and again. There are only so many times that people will do this in a lifetime. When we moved to CD, we got an easier-to-use product, with arguably better quality sound. (Certainly, some early CDs sounded terrible, but not having pops and clicks from LPs makes a huge difference.) Self-professed audiophiles will buy BD-As, but I can’t see them catching on, unless an international standard is developed for them. And it’s unlikely that will happen any time soon.

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13 replies
  1. Chris says:

    I agree 100%. I’m a self confessed audiophile. I own hundreds of sacds, DVD-a, records, bluray concerts, etc. I own a very pricey arcam d33 dac. However I cannot discern a difference between hi resolution audio and 16 bit redbook. It’s the mastering that’s important. CDs are perfectly fine (or 16/44) for consumer audio playback.

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  2. Chris says:

    The sacd usually came from a superior mastering. Even 10-12 years later, some of these recordings are the best versions. Sony made sure these recordings were some of the finest. However, it only took me thousands of dollars to recognize that if I trusted my ears, I couldn’t discern some of the differences like I had thought.

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  3. Lucius says:

    To each his own ears….
    I’ve done blind testing, and the superior clarity and presence of SACD has always been immediately apparent to me. So I’m disappointed the the format did not succeed. However, I do agree with Kirk on the implausibility of BD-A as it currently stands. Besides, it’s quite late to the party now that downloadable HD audio is increasingly available

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  4. kobbyp says:

    Thanks again, Kirk, for keeping us informed about all things musical. Unfortunately, I have to agree that this format is likely to be marginalized by its complexity. Once again engineer types seem to have lost sight of the forest for all their interests in trees. As an avid appreciator of hires music, I’m doing just fine downloading individual, 24 bit, tracks from sites like eClassical, Linn Records, Qobuz, and many others. And, for what it’s worth, I’ve given up insisting everyone can hear what I can hear in hires tracks. My good friend is a classical composer, and early on I realized his interest in the music itself supersedes his intereset in the quallity of its audio presentation.

    Afterall, the music is why we listen …

    Now if only iTunes would offer hires.

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    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      I can’t see iTunes doing hi-res in the immediate future. However, they are having labels provide them with hi-res tracks, notably for Mastered for iTunes tracks. So perhaps there’s something to look forward to in a year or two.

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    • kobbyp says:

      Kirk, this is not a comment for posting. I have unfortunately, just posted a comment to your Blue-Ray article under the user name of my friend – kobbyp (long story). I will repost it soon under my account. Please disregard this previous comment, I will resend it soon. Sorry for this inconvenience. Bill

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      • mikey says:

        Agree. But do Apple ever do anything we want?

        And if they did, no doubt they’d do the stupid ‘format killer’ of asking a whopping 50% more money for ALAC for no good reason, just as they do now for their crap HD in 1080p.

        (‘crap HD’ in that they don’t do the best HD quality on the market –BD is– yet they have the cheek to ask the same or more money for it anyway! Many of us have the download bandwidth Apple, please UP the quality if you want to ask top money from us!)

        It’s about time Apple realised they should be offering better QUALITY for the money they ask for things, inc. artwork, booklets, et al. I don’t use iTunes AT ALL for these very reasons.

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  5. Glenn a says:

    I was an early adopter of cds and remain an sacd enthusiast. I have never heard a cd even approach the audio quality of the current generation of sacds. For example the recent sinatra discs or nat king cole. Of course there are ratty sacds out there.

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  6. PierOz says:

    Hi Kirk, I agree with you, blu ray audio is unlikely to succeed as a new standard, but perhaps labels are done with trying to impose one standard of diffusion and want to diversify the offering instead. I think that the approach behind Universal’s last launch of Blu ray audio, is to bring an audience that is neither audiophile (as lots of them moved to high res downloads) nor iTunes users (more interested by the convenience of the format and who are happy with its quality—not a criticism—) but own a home cinema to high res audio. As Universal is releasing more blu ray audio, they must have sold enough to continue offering the format, beside downloads in diverse quality, streaming, vinyls and CDs.
    I’ve seen strange choices in terms of price though, for example Miles Davis’s soundtrack for lift to the scaffold has a higher price in high res download than as a blu ray! As the blu ray comes with a download why buy at a higher price on qobuz? The other oddity is the lack of albums in multichannel, if you want to target home cinema owners that is quite strange. Other labels like Sony have started to offer blu ray audio targeting a classical audience with multichannel recordings, such as the “requiem experience”.
    Finally, despite being high res, we are faced with the same problems as with the cd concerning dynamic compression and quality of mastering. It seems like most rock blu ray edited by universal have a high dynamic compression (Bashung, Derek and the Dominos…).
    I doubt that people are going to buy the same albums again, but for new releases, I think it is great to have the choice of format that suits your particular use. Personally, I would download a high res version, if it’s cheaper, or if I want the multichannel version, then I get the blu ray. Sacd is not dead either, it is still a niche, but now as dsd files are starting to be offered as downloads, we might see a resurgence of interest.
    What I would really like, is that the ‘industry’ gets a chart of quality with a set standard for dynamic compression, that would be an even greater steps for music.
    p.s: qobuz has started business in uk, which is a great news for us uk residents.

    Reply
    • PierOz says:

      and, of course, the main reason behind the blu ray audio thing (and high res in general) is to sell music at a higher price than cd. Incidentally many labels recently put their prices up for high res downloads (rhino/warner for example…and universal). When a cd can be found around 10€, high res downloads and blu ray audio are priced between 15 and 20€ (well…lift to the scaffold is at 26€ on qobuz!!) which was the price of a cd in the mid 90s.
      I don’t think blu ray audio is the next big thing for audiophiles, labels like 2L have been selling them for a while along with sacd and digital high res files, but they are likely to buy a blu ray audio if the download isn’t available or if it is cheaper.

      Reply

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