Even for audiophiles, SACD is fading out of favor. Fewer labels are releasing new SACDs, and the labels that are still selling them are bringing out fewer discs. And of course for years now, DVD-Audio has been essentially extinct. What does the future hold for people who care about quality surround and stereo audio reproduction? The answer might very well be in the growing availability of Blu-ray players and discs.
Johannes Müller presented a very useful tutorial at the Audio Engineering Society's 126th Convention in Munich last May – AES members can view a streamed version at http://www.aes.org/tutorials/. In this tutorial, Müller notes that one of the fatal flaws of the SACD and DVD-Audio formats is that special players are needed to take full advantage of the high-resolution content, so they never reached a mass market. However, every Blu-ray player can reproduce high-resolution surround audio through its HDMI output: 7.1 channels of 24-bit 192-kHz audio, losslessly coded and/or LPCM, depending on what the content owner decides to include on the disc. Some also have multichannel analog outputs and built-in converters for LPCM and lossless coding. Additionally, as the retail prices of Blu-ray players are dropping precipitously and more people are buying Blu-ray discs, the cost of mastering and pressing these discs is also dropping, so limited production runs of specialized content is becoming more economically feasible.
Müller is with msm-studios in Munich, who have developed a method of authoring Blu-ray audio discs that they call Pure Audio. These discs can be navigated in a similar manner to SACDs and CDs using a standard Blu-ray remote control; no video display is required. However, they include simple on-screen menus which can show track titles, images, and audio stream selection (losslessly compressed surround, LPCM surround, or stereo). If desired, video segments can be included and selected from the on-screen menus.
Six Pure Audio discs have been released by Norwegian label 2L, packaged with hybrid SACDs of the same recordings. Four of these are available from Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/y9hj3re; all six can be ordered from Norway: http://www.mamut.net/lindberglyd/shop/ (scroll down to the bottom of the listing to find the Pure Audio releases).
The Blu-ray Disc Association has recently announced the finalization of Profile 3.0, their audio-only standard. Unfortunately, a thorough search of the Web does not yield any details on what this standard includes, how it addresses backward compatibility with existing players, and how it handles navigational issues. This information is available only to licensees at present. Further, the Audio Engineering Society has established a standards project to develop a specification for navigating audio-only Blu-ray discs: http://www.aes.org/standards/meetings/init-projects/aes-x188-init.cfm .
High-resolution surround audio on Blu-ray discs is not only technically feasible, it is commercially available.
But six releases from one small label are not enough to make a successful format.
It is probably too much to expect that the major labels such as Universal Music Group, Sony/BMG, EMI, and Warner will release surround recordings on Blu-ray. Their tepid efforts in SACD and DVD-Audio did not meet their sales expectations, so it's unlikely that we will see anything from them for the foreseeable future. Moreover, major labels have shown historically that they are nearly singularly focused on picking the lowest hanging fruit in the marketplace as opposed to working on adding value to the consumer thus their love affair with the Apple-owned world of CD-quality downloads in a world dominated by HD formats for television, movies, video games, computers and beyond.
The independent labels who supported SACD may decide to release their catalogs on a format which, because of its large installed player base, would have a much better chance of commercial success than was possible with SACD. It wouldn't take a technological miracle for majors and indie labels alike to rerelease not only the DVD-Audio and SACD catalogs in 24/192 Blu-ray complete with copy protection and over 30 percent market penetration with current players. The majors have 24/192 copies of most of the catalog material which could provide a much needed move from a 25-plus year old Compact Disc to something that provides a more musical, more resolute, more added value for the consumer way to sell music. Many think that the mysterious details of Blu-ray profile 3.0 could inspire enthusiasm for music on Blu-ray. Audiophiles are holding their breath, crossing their fingers and sending out prayers that this is true.
About Garry Margolis
Garry Margolis is an audio/video marketing consultant; he has worked with Philips on SACD issues. He is Treasurer of the Audio Engineering Society. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of Philips or the AES.