High-resolution audio on disc has not fared well. SACD and DVD-A came out only to battle each other and leave no one victorious. Websites like HD Tracks are great sources of material but too hard for many to take advantage of. For many people a simple way to get higher quality music into their lives doesn’t exist.
They are going to try to fix that, again, with Pure Audio Blu-ray. These new discs arrive here later this year but are already available in Europe. They contain no video, only audio in high-resolution, 24/96 lossless formats. Each disc contains PCM, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD Master Audio lossless tracks. Each track is identical in content and should sound the same.
Blu-ray players more ubiquitous than SACD and DVD-A ever were and HDMI makes it easy to send high-resolution audio from a player to a receiver. It seems like an idea worth trying out. I ordered the recent Rolling Stones anthology Grrr! from Amazon.co.uk since I have many of the same tracks on both CD and SACD to compare to.
There are two immediately apparent benefits to the Blu-ray Pure Audio disc over the CD and HD Tracks versions: Size and Cost. Unlike the CD anthology, the entire 50 tracks fit on a single Blu-ray disc. I may not sit down to listen to three straight hours of the Stones but I can still select my favorite tracks without changing discs. My total cost for the imported disc is just over $20 but the HD Tracks download sells for $50. Since the US versions will include mp3 or FLAC downloads, that is a serious savings over the HD Tracks version. The UK version does not include any downloads.
I can’t verify if this is the same master as the SACD and HD Tracks versions. Those are DSD or 24/88.2 respectively while this clocks in as a 24/96 PCM track. To compare the different versions, I use the CD version of Singles Collection: The London Years, the SACD of Hot Rocks, and the Grrr! Blu-ray. Playback was on an Oppo BDP-105 using RCA outputs to a Marantz AV7005 and Halo A31 amplifier. Speakers are Definitive Technology Mythos STS. I also did evaluations using HiFiMan HE-400 headphones.
Both the SACD and Blu-ray clearly better the CD. On the CD tape hiss is very apparent on “Sympathy for the Devil” while it was present but more in the background on the high-resolution versions. The bongo drums in the opening of the song are tinny and thin on the CD but have more heft and clarity on the other releases. The piano also has far more weight and authority on the SACD and Blu-ray versions. The overall sound is just more natural and authentic on Blu-ray or SACD compared to CD. Far more detail and sound-stage are present. There is a larger sense of space around the instruments and there is just more weight behind the music.
While both outclassed the thin-sounding CD, I can’t determine a difference between the two high-resolution versions. Even adding an Oppo BDP-83SE for fast A/B switching didn’t let me decide which sounded better. It was a draw, but both sound far better than the CD. I was worried that Blu-ray may suffer from artifacts being a 24/96 disc and not the 24/88.2 that DSD transfers are usually converted to but it sounds identical to me.
The menu interface for Grrr! isn’t anything to write home about but it is functional. I did all of my testing with no display connected at all using the Blu-ray disc just like a CD. For convenience, the single disc of Grrr! is much nicer than the triple CD of The London Years or the double-SACD of Hot Rocks.
While I remain unsure about the retail success of Pure Audio Blu-ray, its failure should not be for sonic reasons. Offering up 50 tracks of high-resolution audio on a single disc for $20 represents a tremendous bargain in my mind. That most people can easily play it back on their existing systems with no additional hardware makes it even better. I think it faces an uphill climb in the marketplace, but I’ll be happy to see it succeed to offer us more options for high quality audio.
If you like the Rolling Stones, go ahead and order up Grrr! now and give the Blu-ray a shot. It is cheaper than the CD or HD Tracks versions, and is more convenient than both. Hopefully when it comes to the US later this year we’ll start to get even more titles to choose from.