The format wars were at their fiercest back when digital music and the internet was just a fledgling twinkle in the eye of Apple, Sony, et al. But just because the fight over superiority in mediums has leavened out over the decades it doesn’t mean that IT companies stop attempting to find ways to get consumers to re-buy their collections on a shiny new medium.
While Sony’s Blu Ray format is no longer particularly shiny or new, it has outlasted the company’s other mediums that went the way of the dodo (R.I.P. Betamax, Walkman, MiniDisc, UMD, etc.) and just as the high fidelity storage format superseded the DVD, record labels are now looking to Blu Ray to take over from the mantle of the dying CD format.
Perhaps coming (many) years too late, record labels are looking to tempt music fans away from the tinny quality of mp3s and digital downloads with the promise of the opportunity to hear “the full richness and depth of an artist’s vision” offered by albums being issued using Blu Ray technology for a high fidelity audio experience.
Universal Music Group has unveiled its new ‘High Fidelity Pure Audio’ (HFPA) range, featuring 27 classic albums issued on Blu Ray to be released in the UK this month, as BBC reports.
The full list of enhanced titles includes classics like Nirvana’s Nevermind and In Utero, The Velvet Underground And Nico, Amy Winehouse’s Back In Black, Beck’s Sea Change, as well as albums from The Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, John Coltrane, Lionel Ritchie, Nick Drake, Supertramp, Stevie Wonder, and more.
The HFPA format, which uses the extra storage advantages of Blu Ray to offer PCM, Dolby True HD and/or DTS HD Master Audio in full surround, was first developed and launched by Universal in France earlier this year, where a dry run of 35 titles already achieved sales of more than 500,000, with Universal now rolling out the format into the UK and other markets in the lead-up to Christmas. “We’re talking to a niche… I’m talking about the guy who spent 40 grand on his hi-fi system… it could represent a very nice [sales] percentage.”
From a technical standpoint, HFPA uses a 96k sample rate at 24-bit resolution, which is superior to CD’s 44.1kHz and 16-bit specs, and much higher quality than that of the average mp3 file, meaning that there’s much less compression of the audio, presenting a ‘lossless’ listening experience.
HFPA already has the support of the ‘Big Three’ record label majors – Universal, Sony, and Warner – who are no doubt drawn to the format’s inherent copy-protection, the quality of the audio files uses a lot more data, meaning that even if they were ‘ripped’ or ‘pirated’, the average four-minute song would be around 1GB in size, automatically chewing up a lot of space on computers and portable mp3 players.
Which presents the inherent double-edged sword and niche appeal of the new format. Not only does it require a Blu Ray player and a decent speaker system to properly appreciate the enhanced fidelity, but its a strange move from the very same labels that failed to ignite the interest of consumers, or even audiophiles, in previous high quality formats like DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD) in the 2000s.
Never mind that most music listeners have already migrated online, as seen by the boom of music streaming services and digital music platforms, with industry reports projecting that digital will completely overtake physical sales in three years’ time.
Rather than hoping to turn the tide (or the clock back to the glory days) or even bring back music listeners from the digital music frontier, the labels and the new HFPA format are instead looking to tap a small but significant market of music lovers looking for an audiophile experience.
Universal’s Olivier Robert Murphy admits as much, telling BBC, that “we’re talking to specialists, we’re talking to a niche… I’m talking about the guy who spent 40 grand on his hi-fi system. Let’s face it, this guy is probably 35-plus, and likes heritage artists.”
Despite the niche viewpoint, Murphy says the long-term goal is to release new albums in HFPA as well. “It could represent a very nice percentage of physical sales,” he said. “When I see that we’re selling more vinyl now than in 2002, I know there is an appetite for this kind of music.”
In other words, Universal sees an overlap in the market between their new format and the fans that are scooping up vinyl, pushing it into a major sales resurgence. There’s also the same demographic overlap that Neil Young is targeting for the launch of his ‘iPod killer’, Pono – the “high-resolution, studio-quality, cloud-based digital music ecosystem” the Canadian music legend is launching in early 2014.
The news of Universal’s Blu Ray-based HFPA format also arrives as Sony looks to launch its own range of players supporting HFPA as well as its own Direct Stream Digital (DSD) format, cottoning on to the idea of giving jaded music listeners a high-quality sonic experience.
“Now is the time to offer high-resolution audio products that bring music enthusiasts closer to their favourite recordings, and allow them to experience those recordings the way the artists intended,” said Sony President and COO Phil Molyneux in a statement of the new DSD format and Sony range, using the same sentimental vernacular as Neil Young’s Pono mission statement and Universal’s new HFPA albums range, promising: “sound as it was intended by the artist.”