So has this format been successful for you? That is what I asked Olivier Robert-Murphy, the head of Global New Business for Universal Music, at last night’s showcase to celebrate the release of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick road on their High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-Ray format. His answer was very frank, Not yet… but it hasn’t been a failure either. Indeed with over 100 titles being published on this audio-only Blu-Ray format and space being found on the shelves of the continent’s FNAC chain it is far from a failure
Olivier is passionate about this high end format. He points out that although Vinyl can give really good audio quality it is likely to give that only once immediately out of the wrapper and there is a real need for a format that can give that quality for a much longer period.
It may seem strange to introduce a new physical media method of distributing music when the world seems to be moving away from even downloads of music to streaming services but there is a demand out there. You only have to look at vinyl which has seen a massive increase in sale lately and is one of the bright spots for the music industry. Whilst this interest in vinyl was initially sparked by the DJ and mixing brigade more and more people are turning to it for a way to obtain better quality than the ubiquitous MP3s, I thought a focus on high quality audio had gone for good so I was very pleased to hear that the main growth area here is amongst the under 35s. Couple this with an equally unexpected growth in home audio technology and the demand for quality is hard to ignore. However why physical media when you could have a lossless download. As I discussed with Olivier one of the challenges for High bit rate streaming or downloads is the appalling broadband speeds most of the rural world suffers. It might be alright in urban areas but for people who are bandwidth challenged a high-end physical media is an easy answer.
Of course this has been tried before with both DVD-Audio and SACD offering a step up from CD quality (and definitely most MP3s) but whilst SACD did gain some traction that is widely regarded in the industry as a misstep. Those formats suffered from three main issues:-
- There were formats. More than one format never makes a good consumer choice and with a real split in the industry High-End audio enthusiasts would have had to buy both forms of equipment to enjoy all their favourite music
- It was specialised equipment with a lot of restrictions as the music industry was scared to death of people ripping their beautiful high-end audio
- It couldn’t go portable – copy protection prevented ripping and even if circumnavigation of this was legal the formats were pretty obscure and unsupported
Pure Audio, as the industry is now tending to call it, gets round these issues. Firstly its just a standard Blu-Ray. A Blu-Ray with no video but any ordinary Blu-Ray player can play the audio tracks. Audio tracks that are encoded to a minimum of 24/96 and up to 24/192. Some may bemoan the lack of 32 bit but there are good technical reasons why it is not supported to do with the way the engineers mix the source material (to put it fairly non-technically they need enough headroom to avoid losing bits) Almost all realeases are in both 2 channel stereo and 5.1 surround. They normally include raw PCM tracks, and Dolby TrueHd or dts-HD Master audio tracks.
Being able to be played on any standard Blu-Ray player is a big deal. Most homes now have some form of Blu-Ray players with analysts predicting 2015 as the year Blu-Rays take over from DVD, The real growth of Blu-Ray take up has been led by the Sony PS3 and this game station as Olivier remarked as a pretty good audio decoder and would make a very good source device for Pure Audio.
Whilst Pure Audio does have standard Blu-Ray copy protection Universal have mitigated this somewhat by offering a voucher for a digital download of the title. In the UK these are limited to 320kbps MP3 files and whilst these are better quality than most MP3s out there I was happy to hear that they are considering offering Lossless FLAC encodings – they have already offered these as an experiment in France. This does have to clear some internal music industry political worries – it is obviously scary to offer downloads at the same quality as your master material – but I think it is pretty essential for acceptance in the high-end audio community.
Having said that I’m sure Olivier would like to see this as quality music for the masses and it is certainly a step in the right direction,
The night gave an opportunity to listen to Elton John’s classic GoodBye Yellow Brick Road re-mastered onto the new format in the hallowed grounds of the Metropolis Studios listening rooms. The very studio where the re-mastering took place. This is the album credited with turning Elton John from just a plain star to global Super-Star. It is also known for having one of the most elaborate launch concerts in history. We weren’t treated to Pianos opening to the release of doves last night but we did get to hear a revealing rendition of an album considered to be the classic by many Elton fans. They won’t be disappointed in this release.
Talking to the engineer I was impressed with the lengths they had gone to in ensuring the best possible remix. This is a challenge with 40 years passing and the potential degradation of master tapes. Fortunately the quality of the source here was excellent but in many cases Universal have taken the decision not to release back catalogue on the new format because they do not have decent enough source material. I really applaud them for that as another issue that blighted both SACD and DVD-Audio was that often the source material used was lower quality than the new formats could produce.
Overall I really hope this format does well even if it is only a short-term fix until Broadband speed catch up with High-End audio. If nothing else, and maybe I am a bit Old-School, it is still great to hold a physical album in your hand.