Deja vu: Yet another high-resolution audio 'format'

The Universal Music Group has released a slate of High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-ray discs. Does anyone care?

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read
Universal Music Group

At first blush you might think the Audiophiliac would be thrilled to hear the news about the Universal Music Group's new High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-rays -- and I would be, if I didn't know how this story plays out. In 1999 and 2000, the original high-resolution SACD and DVD-Audio formats debuted and quickly faltered. Then the record labels tried again with the DualDisc format in 2004, and that one came and went so fast most people didn't even know it existed. I heard a lot of those discs, and I didn't feel that most (but not all) of them sounded hugely better than the CDs of the same music. In the early 2000s there weren't enough people on the planet willing to pay premium prices for high-resolution sound -- and those formats were launched at a time when most folks were still in the habit of buying music. These days free, or almost free streaming music options from Spotify, Pandora, and so forth make it unlikely High Fidelity Pure Audio will celebrate its second anniversary. Anybody remember HD DVD?

For years I've heard rumblings from a few audiophiles clamoring for high-resolution music Blu-rays, but when they see Universal's paltry selection of 36 titles, they might get the feeling that the "format" is a flash in the pan. On the upside, the Blu-rays will contain three 24-bit/96kHz or 192kHz high-resolution audio files. These audio-only (no video) discs will include uncompressed PCM digital, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS Master Audio encoded files. And if High Fidelity Pure Audio discs buyers prefer for some reason to listen to lower-resolution audio, the discs will also include the option to download MP3 and FLAC versions of the songs.

I could not locate a single person at the Universal Music Group who knew anything about High Fidelity Pure Audio. The Blu-rays went on sale for 20 euros ($25.73) each in France in May, and the scheduled worldwide launch will come in September. The Rolling Stones, John Coltrane, Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, and Stevie Wonder -- yawn -- right, the same old titles we've seen on SACD and DVD-A since the turn of the century. There's just a smattering of newly recorded music forthcoming on High Fidelity Pure Audio, and that was one of the problems with SACD and DVD-A: very little new stuff was released on those formats. Will they ever learn? The promoters of the formats never really commit to them by releasing the hottest new titles in the new formats.

High Fidelity Pure Audio isn't much of a format, it's just a marketing program, and there's nothing wrong with that. The discs will play in all Blu-ray players. Then again, how will High Fidelity Pure Audio succeed where SACD and DVD-A never broke through to the mass market?

One reason it's doomed, I would venture to guess, is that the labels will be using the same already compromised masters from the LPs, CDs, and iTunes for the High Fidelity Pure Audio versions. What we really need are newly remixed versions that actually sound better than the ones they keep trotting out over and over again; mixes free of overzealous compression and other forms of processing. Until that happens, High Fidelity Pure Audio won't stand a chance of gaining any traction. I hope to try a few titles later this year, and I really want to be knocked out by the sound -- we'll see.

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