In a barely noticed revolution, a new high-fidelity audio medium has been launched in Australia with a minimum of fuss but with maximum potential benefit for recorded-music lovers.
Only a few years ago, two rival high-fidelity mediums were battling to bring audio to consumers at a sound quality far surpassing that of conventional silver CDs. DVD-Audio and Super-Audio CD (SACD) both required listeners to buy expensive new disc players to appreciate the sonic benefit. At the same time, many people were abandoning CDs and trading down in sonic quality in favour of compressed MP3s.
The winner of this brief format competition was SACD, but its market share was minute.
There is still a niche market for SACDs, but only one or two factories in the world are producing the discs. The days when almost the entire back catalogue of the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan were issued on SACD seem long gone. Nowadays, only the occasional classical or legacy jazz issue keeps the format alive.
Now, all the big music publishing companies around the world, led by the Universal Music conglomerate, have launched a format that will revolutionise the world of high-quality audio.
Universal calls it Pure Audio, and it will succeed because it piggybacks on Blu-ray, a format that already has a viable and growing presence.
Blu-ray discs are the home-delivery medium of choice for high-definition video. The widespread availability of inexpensive players that will handle all Blu-ray, DVD and audio discs, and an increasing catalogue of video titles, seems to assure the medium of a viable long-term future. Blu-ray players are estimated to be in one-third of homes, prices have tumbled and, with units now costing $100 or less, sales are buoyant.
Any Blu-ray player will play these new Pure Audio Blu-ray discs. If the player is connected to a hi-fi or home-cinema surround system, it will deliver this high-resolution audio format, which sounds almost indistinguishable from that of the original master recording.
A single Blu-ray disc can hold the data equivalent of a score or more standard CDs. This means it can be used to store musical information without audio compression. This is the audiophile's holy grail.
I have been sampling six Blu-ray discs, including The Who's Tommy, Carlos Kleiber's recordings of Beethoven's 5th and 7th symphonies, and the classic jazz album Getz/Gilberto, bringing together Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto - and Joao's wife, Astrud, with her sultry vocal on the song The Girl From Ipanema.
There is a stunning purity in the sound from these recordings. They offer multiple audio formats, giving a choice of original stereo or, when available, new surround mixes, as done for Tommy.
When doing a direct comparison of, for instance, the Getz/Gilberto album, the Blu-ray medium provides the same spine-tingling immediacy o f SACD, but there is a slightly warmer overall acoustic, with a presence and depth more reminiscent of the original vinyl LP.
The orchestral timbres on the Kleiber Beethoven discs are every bit as fine as on SACD and streets ahead of the flat sound on CD. Again, there seems to be a greater depth to the recording, giving an added richness to this notoriously dry album.
Pure Audio's product manager for Universal Music in London, Josh Phillips, says my ears are not playing tricks.
''Blu-ray audio benefits from a wider bandwidth than we have on SACD and, of course, there is no competition with CD. There is more than 10 times the musical information possible for every note of music.''
Statistics help us understand the significant improvement in sound over a standard CD. An ordinary CD samples a piece of music about 44,100 times a second. Each of these tiny audio samples, done at 16 bits of resolution, gives a range of 65,536 possible values for the music. On Blu-ray, however, the sampling is usually done at 96,600 times a second, at 24-bit resolution. The possible number of values leaps to more than 16 million.
Instead of audio samples, think of an artist's palette of colours and the extra richness offered by using more than 16 million shades.
Phillips' Pure Audio colleague, Olivier Robert-Murphy, the company's global head of new business, says the first step in this revolution in audio quality was taken last year, when every leading company in the music industry joined to form the High Fidelity Pure Audio Group. With Universal (whose labels include HMV, Decca, Verve and Philips), Warner, Sony and many others on board, there is little risk of a format war.
However, different companies are taking various philosophical approaches to their Blu-ray audio offerings, from Universal's use of the medium to bring us both modern digital and old analog recordings, to Naxos' decision to use it only for modern 24-bit digital recordings, with no transfers of older material.
''Universal won't be issuing legacy recordings of poor audio quality,'' Phillips says. ''But if we think we can get the best from old tapes, we won't be afraid to bake them and try to extract everything we can.''
Yes, he said ''bake''. Age causes the ferrous oxide on old magnetic tapes to crumble and separate from the base. Baking them in an oven can rebond the old oxides and bring the music back to life.
Universal is initially making its Pure Audio range available in Australia through JB Hi-Fi, and a glance at its online catalogue (found via a search for Pure Audio) shows about 35 titles available now. Another swag of titles will be released soon.
With Sony soon to announce the release of about 50 Blu-ray audio titles and Warner also joining in this year, Robert-Murphy predicts more than 400 titles will be available by the end of the year.
Every title sold carries the right to a free download of the music in MP3 format. You can have your quality and carry it, too.