It’s been going on since the Internet first allowed the transmission of media…the struggle between downloads/streaming vs. physical media. On September 5, 2014, Victor Matsuda, Chairman of the Blu-ray Disc Association Global Promotions Committee, announced another salvo in this struggle. His big news is that we’re going to be able to purchase 4K Blu-ray discs to deliver Ultra HD-Video to consumers. The BDA (Blu-ray Disc Association) expects the specifications to be finalized by June of next year with players and new Ultra HD-Video software arriving for the holiday season.
The news from the IFA 2014 event in Berlin was not surprising. There are many people that feel the quality of downloads and streaming video (even if it’s called 4K) doesn’t match physical discs. And the BDA plans to improve the Blu-ray format in ways beyond just more pixels. According to the press release, frame rates will likely move from 23.98 to 60 fps, the color gamut will expand and have higher dynamic range, the HEVC (High Efficiency Video Codec)/H.265 encoding format will allow greater compression efficiency so that more frames can be accommodated, and the disc capacity will be increased from 50 GBs to 66 or 100 GB.
The announcement made no mention of any changes to the audio formats and specifications. Could it be that the Blu-ray disc format already meets or exceeds the highest imaginable fidelity standards? Blu-ray discs can deliver tremendous fidelity in PCM or the lossless encoding formats Dolby THD and DTS HD Master Audio. And they can provide both 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound but I believe that there’s more to offer in the way of more channels. The folks at NHK in Japan have been experimenting with 22.2 surround sound to accompany an experimental television standard called Super Hi-Vision, which sports 16 times more pixels than standard HDTV. The room that I visited at DTS last week is capable of delivering 11.2 surround sound.
The quest for higher quality images should be matched by a drive to elevate the audio experience as well. There is an event sponsored by Mix Magazine going on today in Los Angeles at the Sony Studios in Culver City focused on next generation film sound. Representatives from DTS, Dolby, and Auro 3D are there pitching their enhanced “immersive” audio systems. Dolby’s Atmos system is clearing leading the pack. They have dozens of theaters already equipped with the Atmos system and many of the front line post production facilities are upgrading their facilities to handle mixing in Atmos surround. If you haven’t heard it yet, do yourself a favor and get to a theater that is Atmos equipped. I watched “Gravity” with Atmos sound last June…and I can tell you it was amazing!
I met with a long time friend from AVID/Euphonix late yesterday afternoon about some possible upgrades to my System 5 console. He mentioned that even a few television shows would be rolled out with Atmos soundtracks now that home theaters will be able to play Atmos encoded movies. The Atmos algorithm can be used on the existing Blu-ray format through some fancy matrixing and decoding. So another generation of hardware is headed our way. At the CE Week events in New York last June there were product announcements by Onkyo, Denon, Yamaha, and other CE manufacturers regarding their support for Atmos.
The basic platform is improving but I have to wonder whether the additional pixels, higher frame rate and increase in the number of audio channels will actually improve the quality of the experience. We’ll see.