Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Blu-Ray albums target hi-fi fans

Amy Winehouse Back to Black album cover Back to Black is among the albums to be re-mastered in high definition

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Record companies are trying to tempt fans away from MP3s by releasing albums in a crystal-clear Blu-Ray format.

Nirvana's Nevermind and Amy Winehouse's Back To Black will be among the first records to be released in the format, which comes to the UK this month.

Listeners will need a Blu-Ray player and a stereo system to play the discs, which promise to deliver "the sound as it was intended by the artist".

However, high-fidelity audio products have failed to catch on in the past.

DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD), both of which launched in the early 2000s, delivered better quality sound than ordinary CDs but faltered in the marketplace.

The new format, officially called Pure Audio, uses similar encoding techniques to those predecessors but, crucially, has the support of all the major record labels from the outset.

Pioneered by Universal Music, it launched in France earlier this year, where the initial batch of 35 titles have already achieved sales of more than 500,000.

One album, Mylene Farmer's Monkey Me, has sold 84,000 copies on Blu-Ray alone - which would be enough to ensure a top 10 placing in the UK charts.

Comparison of CD and Pure Audio
How it works

Ordinary CDs take a "snapshot" of a piece of music 44,100 times every second (known as a sample rate of 44.1kHz).

Each snapshot is captured to a certain degree of accuracy - there are 16 digital "bits" per sample, giving a range of 65,536 possible values.

Most of the albums released in the new Blu-Ray audio format are sampled at 96kHz (96,000 snapshots per second) at 24-bit resolution (giving 16,777,216 possible values).
Universal Music says the format allows users to hear "the full richness and depth of an artist's vision".

The BBC was given several tracks to audition, comparing them directly to the equivalent songs on CD and MP3 through a home stereo system.

Stevie Wonder's I Wish opened up, with a rounder, fuller bass and the intricate hi-hat work sounding crisp and bright.

Bob Marley's Is This Love sounded more spacious than the muddy MP3, with Marley's soulful vocals so clear he could almost have been in the room.

The clarity wasn't always an advantage, however: Serge Gainsbourg's spittle-flecked come-ons in L'hotel Particulier sounded doubly creepy in full resolution.

But despite the improvement in clarity, the question remains: Will fans accept the format?

Although they are lower quality than a CD, the portability of MP3s and Apple's iTunes format proved more alluring to consumers than either SACD or DVD-Audio, which are no longer manufactured in any great number.
Niche audience
"It's all about timing," said Olivier Robert Murphy, global head of new business at Universal.

"When SACD launched it was supported by only part of the industry, and you had to buy a 1,000 euro (£842) player. Here, we have 33% of the population that already has a Blu-Ray player at home."

A rack of CDs
Record labels boosted profits by persuading fans to re-purchase their favourite albums on CD in the '80s

"The magic of this format is that you buy a £60 player, you put the disc in, you play it through a basic stereo sound system - the sound is incredible."

Warner Music and Sony have already released albums on Blu-Ray in France and Japan, while Universal plans to issue 200 albums in 14 countries "very quickly".

At launch, the UK catalogue will contain albums such as The Velvet Underground and Nico's self-titled debut, Queen's A Night At The Opera and Marvin Gaye's What's Going On?

Classical releases include the Berlin Philharmonic's interpretation of Mahler's Symphony No.5 and Rolando Vilazon's collection of Verdi's works for the tenor.

Murphy acknowledged the selection relied heavily on heritage acts.

"It's not necessarily a strategy," he told the BBC, "but what we realised is that initially 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."

Bob Marley album cover for Legend
Bob Marley's timeless hits collection Legend was the third biggest-selling title during the French launch

However, Murphy said the long-term goal was to release new albums in the format, too.

"For me, 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."

But, in an admission of modern listening habits, albums purchased in the Blu-Ray format will come with a free copy of the lower-quality digital version.

"Blu-Ray is a copy-protected format," said Murphy. "If someone has spent £15 on a product, he should have the right to put it on their iPod and listen to it when he's doing his fitness programme."

Eventually, the Pure Audio files could be distributed digitally themselves - but with a four-minute song needing 1GB of storage space, Murphy said it would be "three to four years" before that was a reality.

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