With Blu-ray Disc adoption now making up a total of 15% of the packaged media home video market according to the latest numbers from Home Media Research and the strong showing for Blu-ray player sales, with the latest NPD numbers showing sales for players up 53% this holiday season, all evidence points to Blu-ray being very much here to say and finally establishing itself as a formidable next-generation format.
Ask the average person what the advantage of Blu-ray is over DVD and they will most likely tell you about its high definition picture quality, but Blu-ray also holds another advantage — high-resolution audio. For audiophiles seeking the Holy Grail of aural bliss, the advanced fidelity that Blu-ray offers with its expanded storage capacity and bandwidth may be a dream come true. Finally, there is a format capable of high-resolution (up to 192kHz/24-bit in 2.0 and 7.1 in comparison to CD’s 44.1kHz/16-bit in 2.0 only) audio reproduction that can and has penetrated the market beyond a mere niche.
Previous efforts to market a high-res format to replace the compact disc have only ended in disappointment for most audiophiles. Super Audio CD (SACD or SA-CD), has only managed to eek out a small market for itself in the classical and jazz arenas, and the format that was meant to ride the coattails of DVD, DVD-Audio, or DVD-A, is pretty much non-existent outside of the very rare pop-rock title.
The two formats battled it out a few years back to be the successor to the Compact Disc, but it was like watching two pieces of lint battle over a portion of a pinhead. Neither format ever caught on with the masses and it is debatable whether that had more to do with the format war or people wanting downloads over another optical format.
Perhaps Blu-ray Audio releases have a better chance of succeeding since there is no format war, especially since HD DVD has been long dead now, and the format has been steadily penetrating the market at a pace that has matched or exceeded DVD at the same point in its lifespan, with over 12 million players in U.S. homes to date. But actual audio-only releases have been slow to come to market. Outside of an Internet-only release from Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts Vol. I – IV, a few releases from classical label Surround Records, the BD + SACD combo releases from Norwegian label 2L, and two of the major audio-only releases to hit the format, Neil Young’s sprawling Archive’s Vol. 1 and Tom Petty’s Live Anthology — a Best Buy Exclusive, there hasn’t been much activity in this area for Blu-ray.
Another problem with Blu-ray Audio Discs has been the complicated manner in which users must navigate the discs to access the different audio programs, as anyone who has used the Neil Young set can attest to. They are lacking the same “insert and play” ease of use that the CD has had since its launch and that even SACDs have — until now, that is.
German audio production facility msm-studios in conjunction with Norwegian classical label 2L has created what they have named the “Pure Audio” standard. As Stefan Bock, Managing Director of msm-studios, describes it:
“We have agreed on a feature set that distinguishes “Pure Audio” Blu-rays. The most important part of the concept is to navigate the discs without a screen (i.e. numeric track access, selection of the audio stream etc.) as well as to provide the customers playback information if the screen is left on.”
Stefan Bock was kind enough to take a little time to talk with TheaterByte about msm-studios’ Pure Audio standard. What follows is that interview:
TheaterByte: Is the “Pure Audio” format specifically created in BD-Java?
Stefan Bock: Yes, most of the features are only available if Java code is involved (i.e. color buttons to select the audio stream, etc.)
BD: How active does msm-studios plan to be in the authoring process to ensure the propagation of the “Pure Audio” specification on Blu-ray Audio releases?
SB: Until now, all activities regarding “Pure Audio” have been driven by 2L and us.
We have developed a feature set that 2L and msm-studios regarded as very important for a new audio media. We all have payed our dues with DVD-Audio and SA-CD, so we were quite aware of all the draw-backs in these standards. We both had agreed on a functionality that combines the best of both worlds. Although we had to develop all this by ourselves without any support of the BDA , we were quite happy to see some hardware manufacturers supporting us. Now as we have set a kind of standard, we are very happy to see other companies follow our ideas. We are heavily concerned that releases are according to our spec and we have made a proposal to the AES (Audio Engineering Society) to define “pure audio”. This will hopefully be an AES standard in May 2010.
BD: Does it require licensing from msm, or is it an open platform that anyone who wants to release an audio-only Blu-ray disc can use?
SB: As we have spent a lot of money into the project, we’ll have to find a way to recoup.We own a patent for switching between audio streams by using the color buttons (witch is essential for screenless navigation), but we don’t follow a license model based on this. We would like to have as many people making use of the concept. That was the reason to make the AES proposal that defines the essentials of a Pure Audio Blu-ray.
Today’s business model is based on our services. As most of the audio studios are not involved in Java programming at all, the biggest problem for them seems to be in the authoring itself. This is where we can help.
I know exactly how much effort we had to spend to make it work – I doubt whether it is worth to re-invent the wheel.
Of course, in the long run, it is not realistic to create all Pure Audio discs in the world. Actually, we are working on a web-based authoring solution so people can log in online to a server and will get an “Authoring assistant” that will automatically create the menus and a disc image that can be downloaded and burnt for reference. I’m sure that there are lot of people interested in this service as they don’t have to deal with Java code at all. Our aim is to make it simple and affordable. It’s easier to handle as supplying studios a piece of Java code or a piece of software. On the long run [sic], there might be a demand for an authoring solution, but this will be a long way to go.
BD: Are onscreen menus required at all, or can a disc be authored without any video content?
SB: Technically, we don’t need menus. But we strongly recommend to make use of them as I would expect end users to feel that the disc is broken if nothing appears on the screen. This is one of the reasons we are working on the web-tool. People will have an easy way to create menus on a template base.
BD: So, in your opinion, does this open the door for the mythical, “Profile 3.0” audio-only Blu-ray players to come to market? Is that something that you would like to see take off in the future?
SB: here’s no need for “Profile 3.0″ players and there won’t be any on the market.
Currently there are three labels using the Pure Audio format on Blu-ray: 2L, Naxos, and the German label Stockfish. Stefan Bock has said there is another Norwegian label set to begin using the Pure Audio format on Blu-ray Audio Disc releases, but there is nothing officially announced yet.
We’d like to thank Stefan Bock for taking the time to speak with us. We’d also like to take the time to thank everyone at msm-studios as well as Morten Lindberg at 2L for his assistance.
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