- Written by Ken Kessler Ken Kessler
- Category: SoundStage! UK SoundStage! UK
- Created: 01 August 2014 01 August 2014
Not too sure what the correct and first-uttered version of this truism is, but I think it goes: "One's an incident, two's a coincidence, and three's a pattern." I've also heard three is a conspiracy, while Goldfinger said the third is enemy action. As I'm only talking about formats, let's try "three is a trend." My occurrences are disparate, true, but all involve high-resolution or high-definition physical storage.
During early-to-mid July, I read in the BBC-published Radio Times (the UK equivalent of TV Guide and the biggest-selling magazine in the country) that DVD, and by extension Blu-ray, are fading away thanks to HD streaming. For this even to merit mention in so mainstream a publication is tantamount to a prophet descending from a mountain with the missive carved in stone. To the credit of the BBC -- a state-funded organisation that long ago eviscerated its brilliant and innovative technical department -- one must be grateful that it addresses such matters.
From another source, a golden-eared friend, I'm told that AudioFidelity's SACD of the Butterfield Blues Band's East-West is "the best SACD I've ever heard." Now, after desperately trying to find a copy, I learn from AudioFidelity itself that the East-West SACD has "already sold out." So much for SACD being a flop.
That's not all. In the same couple of weeks, there have been wildly conflicting reactions to the remastered editions of the first three Led Zeppelin LPs, including the costly deluxe boxes at $120 USD apiece, ranging from "Brilliant!" to "Ehh . . ." Conversely, and with two months to go before their release, the advance word on the Beatles' mono LP box set from those privileged to have sneak previews at Abbey Road is beyond adulatory.
And what about hardware? On a Higher Note's Philip O'Hanlon sends out a news release about a forthcoming killer SACD player from Luxman. There are so many new cartridges, arms, and turntables on the horizon that you'd be forgiven for thinking that the vinyl revival is actually more than a cult. Denon is supposed to have a wild new DAC with a low price. Ortofon issues a mono cartridge -- something you expect of boutique brands but not from one of the three largest cartridge makers on the planet.
And yet we're to believe that physical formats are dying? Sure, I'm looking forward to receiving a Pono, but it's not going to supplant my turntable, CD player, or Blu-ray.
But make no mistake: CD sales are plummeting, while DVD and Blu-ray are suffering due to such conveniences as "catch up" TV. I don't know what North American cable/satellite suppliers offer, but the services available in the UK to Sky viewers and those using other providers like Virgin are remarkable: you need never miss a program, whether you set your recorder or not. Sky even has a section called "Box Sets," so you can download, say, the whole of The Sopranos.
And then there's good ol' Amazon: "Prime" members have their entire cloud-based music libraries and a shedload of TV programs and films accessible for a sane annual fee -- part of the deal that provides unlimited free postage. Yeah, I've succumbed to the charms of Amazon's cloud player, if not actually streaming the music I bought.
Thanks to Amazon, though, I caught Vikings and other new shows before they received UK broadcast, while music-wise I have used the free MP3 AutoRip facility to download my CD purchases, a no-brainer means of filling my iTunes folder that beats feeding CDs to a recalcitrant Mac.
Thus, you will not hear me playing the Luddite, championing only physical carriers while pooh-poohing downloading or streaming. That would be as stupid as suggesting the typewriter is going to undergo a comeback. (For that to happen, the events in the TV series Revolution will have to come true: a complete loss of electricity on a global scale.) Like it or not, the future most certainly is digital, the storage based in cyberspace, requiring not players in the home but merely suitable DACs or digital receivers.
BBC commentator Doctor Digital, in an entry in Radio Times entitled "Has Streaming Killed Blu-ray?" (visit www.radiotimes.com/tech), suggests that the likes of Netflix are winning over DVD and Blu-ray because they offer instant HD and a vast selection for less than the price of a single Blu-ray Disc per month. But here's the rub: he also admits that the HD services offered by Netflix, Amazon, et al, don’t "necessarily match [the quality of] a Blu-ray Disc."
This chap likes to give with one hand while taking with the other -- my kind of guy -- by stating that you need a speedy Internet connection (something the UK sorely lacks compared even to the fundamentally medieval states of Eastern Europe) to achieve decent 1080p playback from Netflix and its ilk. Then he states how "tired" Blu-ray looks when compared to 4K . . . which will really tax the UK networks.
Aah, 4K! Doctor Digital had written about that the week before, with the same ostensibly balanced view necessary in all BBC publications or broadcasts*, to outline the pluses and minuses of 4K circa mid-2014. The usual grumbles (you'll need a new TV) and praises (its arrival is inevitable) are seasoned with a whole lot of caveats.
You could substitute audio products for all of these observations. While sound playback is now the embarrassing perverted uncle to HD video, with only audiophiles actually caring about sound quality, his warnings about the slow decline of Blu-ray do parallel precisely what has happened to CD and SACD, surely the sound-only counterparts, respectively, to DVD and Blu-ray. All four carriers are being rendered obsolete by both streaming and downloading, and yet all four carriers are, for the time being, superior to what is going to replace them.
I do not know enough about the future acceleration of Internet speed -- beyond my local woes, with the UK being so far behind the rest of the civilized (and non-civilized) world -- but Doctor Digital also suggests that the changeover to 4K will take some time. The UK is always slow: he points out that, as of 2014, there are still around 12,000 households in the UK with licenses for black-and-white-only TV.
So just as 4K may take a while (speeds allowing) to decimate Blu-ray, for the time being, the same applies to high-resolution music downloads and streaming. I'd still rather listen to SACDs, LPs, and even CDs. They may have years rather than months, but the clock is ticking. Welcome to the beginning of the end.
*I'm being sarcastic. The BBC is so blatantly, shamelessly left-wing that there has been a government enquiry about its biases.
. . . Ken Kessler