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

12/08/2013

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.