Blu-ray audio: does anyone care?

Blu-ray disc structure
Blu-ray has the capacity for high def audio - but does anyone want to buy the discs?

Plasma TV maker and home cinema specialist Pioneer has revealed its new bid for domination of your living room – and it's centred around using Blu-ray as a high def music format for audiophiles.

Its prospects aren't bright.

Almost a decade ago Sony and Toshiba made similar claims for two then brand new audio formats, based around DVD red laser technology – Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio. The tidal wave of apathy that greeted them proved overwhelming.

In theory, the idea is a very good one – Blu-ray movie discs already carry full-bandwidth lossless audio soundtracks courtesy of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD, and the 25GB capacity lends itself to vinyl-quality audio rather nicely.

Better for who?

However, Pioneer, which is already losing money hand over fist, will have a major problem persuading the iPod-sated masses of the value of the format – assuming they can get some half-decent releases out the gate.

By that we mean major albums from contemporary artists that the average man in the street has actually heard of, rather than the more esoteric-verging-on-the-unlistenable stuff audiophiles prefer.

Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio both found that out to their cost. They largely failed because the promise of better sound quality and surround sound mixes of favourite albums had a very limited appeal.

So too did the overwhelming majority of available discs – predominately back catalogue stuff beloved of those with MOR-ish tastes.

The iPod problem

By 2001, many of us were enjoying the thrill of getting free low bit-rate downloads from the original Napster and toying with the first iPods, which appeared in October of that year.

Eight years on and its arguable that traditional hi-fi has been thrust into an even tighter corner that it was already.

Almost every major hi-fi and consumer electronics company has some kind of iPod dock or other gear in its product line-ups, with some audiophiles even singing the iPod's virtues as a playback medium.

The then head of Harman Audio even admitted during an IFA press conference in 2007 that the iPod had effectively saved the company.

Physical media vs downloads

Serious hi-fi makers are likely to be wary of supporting audio format this time – many of them had their fingers burned last time buying pricy SACD and DVD-Audio licences. The current cost of Blu-ray licensing has already proving prohibitive to some smaller players.

It's ironic, too, that Blu-ray audio's arrival comes hot on the heels of Apple's announcement yesterday that the iTunes Store will now carry 10 million tracks free of DRM and at 256k AAC quality – which is so within shouting distance of CD quality as to be practically indistinguishable.

With physical music disc sales already tanking in the USA and elsewhere, it sadly looks like Pioneer's Blu-ray audio format is a case of too little, too late.


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