Home Theater Review

 

Where Are My Favorite Records on Blu-ray?

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Pure_Audio_logo.jpgIn January 2010, I wrote in Home Theater Review about the potential of Blu-ray Audio as the next-generation medium for high-resolution multi-channel music. Audiophiles are demanding to know what's happened since then. The rumored Profile 3.0 for audio-only players hasn't been announced, and sources told me that it's been dropped. This probably means that there will not be any automotive Blu-ray audio players. However, every existing Blu-ray player can output high-resolution LPCM and lossless-coded high-resolution DTS and Dolby multi-channel audio through its HDMI connection, so there's no other real need for an audio-only player.

Additional Resources
• Read more music industry news from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• See more original commentary in our Feature News Stories section.
• Learn more about related topics in our Blu-ray Software News section.
• Explore reviews in our Blu-ray Player Review section.

As expected, there have been very few major artist releases on Blu-ray audio. Most notable among the releases that have come out are Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon Immersion Edition, including James Guthrie's spectacular 5.1 remix (previously available on SACD), and Alan Parsons' 1973 4.0 aka quadraphonic mix (not previously commercially available), as well as the stereo original, all presented at 96/24 LPCM. There should be little or no sonic differences between the 5.1 remix on this release and the SACD -- my understanding is that the 5.1 remix was done in 96/24 and translated to DSD for the SACD release. This set includes lots of extras on its six discs, only one of which is a Blu-ray.

Rush's Moving Pictures is a Blu-ray/CD combination pack that includes 5.1 remixes in both 96/24 LPCM and DTS-HD Master Audio, plus a two-channel 96/24 mix.

A massive retrospective set of Neil Young's 1963-1972 recordings has been remastered in two-channel 192/24 uncompressed LPCM on nine discs; the tenth disc contains his first film, "Journey Through the Past," with both 5.1 DTS and stereo 96/24 LPCM tracks.

Tom Petty has two releases: a remastered Damn the Torpedoes in 5.1 LPCM and DTS-HD Master Audio, plus a stereo mix, all 96/24, and Mojo, in 96/24 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 48/24 LPCM stereo.

Naxos currently offers 16 classical Blu-ray audio-only discs, all with stereo and surround 96/24 or 88.2/24 LPCM tracks. As usual with Naxos, most of the artists are little-known.

AIX has 11 Blu-ray releases and three Blu-ray samplers that include 3D and/or 2D HD video, so they're not audio-only, but they feature Dolby TrueHD 7.1 and/or 5.1 audio. Given AIX's origins as an audiophile label, I expect excellent sound quality.

2L in Norway is one of the most active distributors in supporting and releasing Blu-ray audio-only discs. Their catalog currently includes 14 Blu-ray audio discs and they've announced 16 more releases, most of which will include an SACD in a two-disc package.

2L and some other small labels are using the Pure Audio Blu-ray interface developed by msm Studios in Germany, described in my previous article. It uses standard remote control buttons for motion control and numeric buttons for direct access to any track. It also uses the colored buttons on the remote to select surround or stereo versions of the recordings. Adding a display allows access to visual elements provided on the disc, such as track lists, credits and video content.

Pure Audio Blu-ray is the basis of a recommended user interface adopted by the Audio Engineering Society. Stefan Bock of msm Studios, the developers of Pure Audio Blu-ray discs, led a panel at the recent AES in Budapest discussing recent developments and releases of audio-only Blu-ray discs. During that panel, he described an optional added feature of Pure Audio BD: mShuttle.

mShuttle allows any network-connected Blu-ray player to be accessed from the Web browser of a Mac or PC on that network, so that content can be downloaded from the disc. No additional software is required to connect the computer and the Blu-ray player. The only information needed is the IP address of the Blu-ray player, which should be found in the player's settings menu.

For example, Blu-ray discs from 2L (see below) contain two-channel FLAC (lossless) files of all of the music on the discs in high resolution, as well as CD quality (44.1/16), plus a full set of 320 kb/s 16-bit MP3 files for use on a portable player. One disc had 44.1/16 WAV versions as well. These files are not copy-protected. Additionally, the cover art and booklets can be downloaded.

Note that a FLAC-compatible player has to be installed on the computer to play those files. iTunes and Windows Media players cannot play them.

mShuttle worked well in my testing. The only problem I encountered was when I tried to download more than one file at a time - this hung the download process. I hit the Home button on my Blu-ray remote and reloaded the disc; after this, I was able to download.

Update 8/6/12: After some discussion with msm, I updated my player's firmware, after which multiple files downloaded without further problems.  msm told me that some players can't handle multiple simultaneous file downloads, so mShuttle automatically downloads them sequentially.

Courtesy of Stefan Bock at msm Studios, I received two discs from 2L: Ola Gjeilo Piano Improvisations (2L-082-SABD) and Sigmund Groven & Iver Kleive: harmOrgan (2L-077-SABD). The sonics on both recordings are outstanding, as you would expect from Blu-ray. Gjeilo played a nine-foot Steinway D piano recorded in a small church, and it's one of the few recordings I've heard that puts a life-sized piano into my listening room. In fact, there are tracks with two and three pianos -- the piano was moved to the left and right sides of the church for overdubs, and the surround is extremely effective.

Groven and Kleive are a harmonica and pipe organ duo. At first glance, this combination seems improbable, but it actually works pretty well. Again, the recording is impeccable. Both of these recordings have hybrid surround/stereo SACDs included.

In my experience, 96/24 LPCM has sounded inferior to DSD used on SACDs, perhaps because of pre-echo in the audio band from the 48 KHz anti-aliasing filters needed for LPCM. However, the recordings on these Blu-ray discs are 192/24 LPCM (stereo) and DTS-HD Master Audio 192/24 (5.1 channel), and moving the brick wall filter up to 96 kHz seems to eliminate the audible difference between LPCM and DSD.

These recordings demonstrate that the technology for highest-quality in-home multichannel audio is a reality. The problem is not technology -- it's program material. Major labels received multi-million dollar subsidies to release multi-channel SACDs and DVD-Audio discs with major artists. When these discs didn't result in the sales the labels wanted, the discs disappeared and, with few exceptions, only an artist with serious clout such as Neil Young can insist on releasing high-quality multi-channel recordings.

Further, I'm told by small labels that licensing back-catalog recordings from major labels is still prohibitively expensive. The major labels don't see high-end licensing as incremental business providing extra income that they would not otherwise receive. Instead, they demand exorbitant amounts, thus insuring that these recordings will not be available in Blu-ray audio. In the days of the SACD-DVD-Audio format battle. it wasn't uncommon for a fee from a major label to be $250,000 for a B+ or A- classic rock title, with sales rarely going past 25,000 units per title (excluding Dark Side of the Moon on SACD). Simply put, there was no way to make those figures make sense in terms of for-profit business, yet the importance of selling music in HD is something that the majors have simply ignored, despite the fact that Hollywood movie studios, video game developers and pretty much everyone else that sells media has embraced the need for truly engaging high-definition content. The only way the suits at the majors will pay attention to formats like Blu-ray is for them to see the money right in front of them. While it's important to prove a point to the majors, it's more important to feed your high-performance AV system the best possible sound, and that comes via Blu-ray. Supply yourself with some of the titles above and prepare for an audio treat.

Garry Margolis is an audio/video marketing consultant. He worked with Philips on SACD and Blu-ray issues. He is Treasurer of the Audio Engineering Society. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of Philips or the AES.

Additional Resources
• Read more music industry news from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• See more original commentary in our Feature News Stories section.
• Learn more about related topics in our Blu-ray Software News section.
• Explore reviews in our Blu-ray Player Review section.
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