Here Comes Blu Music
The idea is to use Blu-ray for audio-only music releases. This is not the first time high-res audio has been marketed on disc. The DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD formats have been there and done that for many years. Both of them have been widely declared failures, though I refuse to accept this view as long as I'm still acquiring new releases in either format—and I'm quite enjoying my DVD-Audio disc of King Crimson's Discipline in surround and my SACD of Janos Starker, Antal Dorati, and the London Symphony Orchestra performing Schumann's Cello Concerto in a Mercury Living Presence three-channel-stereo recording. True, DVD-Audio and SACD haven't achieved mass-market status. But they do persist as tiny but exquisite audiophile niche formats.
Presumably that's the plan for what I'm going to informally call Blu music. It won't take the marketplace by storm, replacing either CDs or downloads. But it may make life a little more interesting for the growing high-res audio audience, replacing some SACD releases that are out of print and not returning, and supplementing high-res downloads from the likes of HDtracks and Acoustic Sounds.
The Universal Music Group is not the only label doing the Blu music thing. Classical labels such as Naxos, 2L, and Aix have been doing Blu music for years. While rock-related Blu music releases are scarcer, DGM has been getting in on the act with its massive King Crimson box sets such as The Road to Red and Larks' Tongues in Aspic: The Complete Recordings, both of which include Blu-ray discs alongside DVD-As and CDs. What's new is the participation of Universal, one of the Big Three mega-labels.
Initial releases include works of Dvorak, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and Vivaldi on Universal's Decca label. Amazon also shows releases of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic and a twofer disc of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh symphonies by Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic. (I've bought that last item and will discuss it below.) There are even a few pop-music releases: Derek & the Dominoes' Layla, Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the Who's Tommy, and Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life. About 100 titles are promised by the end of 2014.
The concept is simple: Market high-resolution audio on Blu-ray disc, which is quite capable of supporting high-res formats. Universal is setting a minimum resolution of 24/96, which definitely qualifies as high-res. The one Blu music disc I've bought has high-res soundtracks in multiple formats including DTS-HD Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD, and PCM. The first two are lossless formats, and the third one is uncompressed, so no lossy nonsense here. There's no video; these are strictly audio-only discs.
This begs a few questions, some of which were raised by Stereophile in its interviews with Universal executives here and here. Will Universal release Blu music titles from the early (and often bad-sounding) years of digital recording technology? No, because they're not good enough. What about analog recordings? Yes, because the better ones qualify as high-res. According to an explanatory note inside the casing of the disc I purchased: "We have carefully sourced original recorded material and mastered it accordingly."
This sort of issue is already in the news thank to Pono, the Neil Young brainchild that would feed a high-res audio player with studio-quality masters sourced from the original master tapes. Provenance is shaping up as a key issue in the marketing of high-res audio.
As mentioned, I've tried one of Universal's Blu music discs: the Kleiber/Beethoven symphony recordings mentioned above. Kleiber's interpretations of the Beethoven symphonies are definitive; it's a pity he never recorded the full cycle. This disc of the fifth and seventh symphonies comes in a Blu-ray-like package, but with colorless transparent plastic in lieu of the usual blue plastic. The words HIGH FIDELITY and PURE AUDIO are emblazoned in gold lettering on either side of the Blu-ray logo (my scanner didn't do justice to the gold). On the back of the case, in the lower righthand corner, where you'd ordinarily look for format and channel-configuration info, the source is identified as "Minimum 24bit/96khz."
As the owner of the previous LP and CD releases, I'm in a position to compare the three. I'm certain that the Blu music release sounds different than both releases on earlier formats. Compare to the LP, it is more dynamic, vibrant, and detailed (and of course no surface noise). Compared to the CD, it's less schematic and clinical, with more tone color.
Incidentally, the disc came packed with a slip of paper offering a free download version available from what is dubbed the High Fidelity Pure Audio website. Would this solve the source mystery? To my disappointment, the downloaded files turned out to be MP3, which is not "high fidelity" or "pure audio" at all. It would not be safe to assume that your purchase of a High Fidelity/Pure Audio disc means you're getting a high-res download along with it, regardless of what's on the disc.
So: Whither Blu music? The biggest factor in the format's favor is Blu-ray's installed hardware base. There were 100 million Blu-ray players spinning away in homes worldwide, including 27 percent of U.S. households, in 2012, according to Strategy Analytics. And that's just the two-year-old sum of standalone players, not including video game consoles and computer drives. If even a fraction of those Blu-ray player owners were interested in Blu music, the format might have a fighting chance. However, not all of those Blu-ray players are hooked up to high-quality component systems capable of getting the best out of a high-res format. Many of them are undoubtedly feeding low-quality soundbars or TV speakers.
Even so, there is certainly consumer interest in a high-res hard-copy format. Six million LPs were sold in 2012, with sizeable gains every year. Blu music might conceivably tap into that groundswell.
But whether Blu music will prosper remains uncertain. Most likely, at best, it will become no more than a niche format like DVD-Audio and SACD, with a few hundred releases a year. Someone, somewhere will soon be declaring it dead before it even gets out of the starting gate. (Some folks take delight in declaring the mortality of high-res formats. Perhaps what really haunts them is their own mortality.)
Blu music doesn't have to sell a gazillion units to survive. It only has to quietly become part of Blu-ray disc sales in general. That's not quite an impossible dream. And anything that gets good sound into the ears of listeners is a good thing.
Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems.