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Universal Launch New Pure Audio Range

by Bob Coyne Rating: Release Date:

Since the dawn of pop music, the record industry have looked at new ways of flogging the same songs to us in a new, 'better' format, and that's about to happen again. Last week Universal Music Group re-issued 36 albums on it's new High Fidelity Pure Audio format, including titles such as The Velvet Underground & Nico, Nirvana's Nevermind and In Utero, and Beck's Sea Change.

The idea is that by using Blu-ray discs, the audio can be added in its purest form without any compression. A single disc can hold 25 gigabytes of data in comparison to the measly 700 megabytes on a CD. It may come as a surprise to most people to read that the audio on your CD is actually compressed to 16 bit, sampled at 44.1kHz. With HFPA discs, it's uncompressed 24 bit sampled at 96kHz. Obviously, it's even lower for mp3s, the idea being to fit more on your iPod.

But with an entire generation brought up on digital formats and listening through headphones or iPod docking stations, will enough people care for this to really take off? Last year's figures show that physical album sales still account for 62.8 per cent which shows the death of the CD as a bit of an exaggeration. Not to mention the resurgence of vinyl.

You have to also look to the past to get an idea if HFPA will catch on. The Compact Cassette was introduced in 1963 to rival vinyl and was a success largely due to the fact it allowed us to take our music where vinyl previously hadn't, such as car stereos, ghetto blasters and, of course, the Walkman. The last truly successful format was obviously the CD. This succeeded as it managed to do what both vinyl and cassettes did. It gave us crystal clear sound and was portable.

It's when a format is introduced to directly replace another that it tends to fail. In the late 80s/early 90s there were a flurry of formats. First Digital Audio Tape (DAT) and then Digital Compact Cassette (DCC). Both were designed to replace the compact cassette and both failed. The problem was that the CD had already replaced the cassette anyway. Then the MiniDisc, designed to challenge the CD, came less than 10 years after the introduction of the CD and was therefore seen as a pointless new format when most people had only recently bought hi-fis with a CD player built in.

The point of that little history lesson is not just to show my age but to try and figure out HFPA's place in the market. Blu-ray discs are the same diameter as CDs so we have to assume the aim is to replace a format that is over 30 years old. It's a logical step: better quality, more capacity and they can sit on your shelf together with CDs. But, in the way that DAT and DCC failed to replace cassettes, will HFPA's biggest rival actually be the download?

Another problem they will face is the limited ways in which these discs can be played. At present, they only play through a Blu-ray disc player or a PS3. When CDs were introduced in 1982, it took at least five years for CD players to be common in most homes. That might explain why Universal has only released 36 titles. Blu-ray players and PS3s are quite common; the only problem is they are attached to your TV, not your stereo and therefore you're unlikely to benefit from this extra quality in sound.

The label sent me two albums to try out, The Velvet Underground & Nico and Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life. A strange choice bearing in mind they're trying to show the quality of sound over anything else and expecting you to pay twice the price of a CD. I compared the quality of The Velvet Underground with my CD copy and there is a difference but since this is an album that sounds like it was recorded in 1966 (because it was), you have to wonder why they didn't release something more current.

I'm sure other labels will be monitoring the success or failure of this launch, but Universal should be applauded for trying to offer a greater listening experience in a world where low quality mp3s and streaming has become acceptable. However, I feel the only way this will survive is for a number of things to happen. Stereo manufacturers need to get on board; at first it would be very specialist, high-end equipment but if we have to continue listening through our TV speakers there's no point. Secondly, the labels need to look at what they release in this format. Electronic music would be an obvious choice and maybe they need to aim for a genre where its fans still buy physical formats.

It's going to be tough. Faced with a CD or a HFPA disc at a slightly higher price, I would certainly opt for the HFPA option but only if the stereo equipment was available. Then again I wouldn't want to look like a MiniDisc owner in five years time, with a load of albums on an obsolete format. I guess we'll just have to see how this one pans out.

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