The Holy Grail of High Fidelity, Part II
After posting what has now become “Part I” of this story a few weeks ago, I heard from a lot of audiophiles and old friends who thanked me for speaking up. It appears that many have been on the same path of discovery as I have, yet a large number of people also admitted that they had not yet discovered Blu-ray as an audio format after being put off by the impression that it was just meant for HD video.
After the format war with HD-DVD, which made people hesitate about adopting either HD-DVD or Blu-ray, nobody actually explained why Blu-ray was so exciting for music lovers. The fact that Blu-ray made it possible for audiophiles to achieve their life-long dream of hearing an identical un-compressed copy of the original studio master recording in their own listening room just never came up in discussion at the dealer level or in the audiophile trade press.
One reason for this resistance has to do with something called “the digital handshake.” For the first time in audio history, a two-way communication protocol has been implemented between the source and your system. Before you can see or hear the best audio and video content, you must first connect your Blu-ray source with HDMI v1.3 to your AVR or preamp/processor. The HDMI connection is required because the data rate and bandwidth (10.2 Gbps) are much too high for an analog connection. Instead, a new high-speed process called “bitstream” is used to transfer the data and check for security, so the data cannot be copied.
HDCP (high definition content protection) is an encryption and decryption technique developed by Intel and the studios/record labels to protect this new high definition content from being copied. You can listen, and you can see, but you cannot record this content. There is also the EDID (extended display identification data) signal from the source to the display to set the resolution of the display to match. It’s not just about protecting the content; the digital handshake is a necessity due to all the various display resolutions available today. Going digital can be a bumpy ride as a result, your system needs to be able to recognize the broadcast flags in the content so when you change programs or channels on your tuner, the picture fits the screen and the audio is decoded by the best available codec. In broadcast applications today, thats Dolby Digital Ex. The DTS version is Digital Surround ES.
Remember that vinyl discs, CDs, and DVDs are merely storage systems, and they can hold only so much data. Compression techniques are required for each to get the whole album or movie on the discs. A CD can hold 700 MB, a DVD can hold about 4.7 GB, and Blu-ray discs can store 50 GB. Clearly, with all that space, compression is no longer necessary on a Blu-ray Disc. The full dynamics of a live performance, 120 dB, is now available if you don’t mind making the changes required in your system.
Changes cost money. Simply put, many audiophiles had too much money invested in their 2-channel systems to simply discard them. The upgrade to HDMI, in fact, was not that expensive if you used an AVR with preamp outputs. Naturally, the AVR manufacturers stopped putting pre-outs on the least expensive receivers but the price of upgrading still only cost me $650 for a Pioneer Elite receiver with pre-outs. The Oppo Blu-ray player was $500 but worth every penny. Can it be done more affordably? Sure, but it can’t be done better.
I minimized the out-of-pocket expense to get v1.3 HDMI knowing that it will evolve further over time and I may need another one in two or three years. High priced audiophile preamps excel at 2-channel audio, but are now obsolete because they can’t play Blu-ray Discs. Blu-ray Discs also contain LPCM 2.0 soundtracks for audiophiles who are intent on remaining 2-channel listeners; you are not forced to listen to the multi-channel codecs, but you still need an HDMI connection to access even the 2-channel content if you want to hear the highest resolution version outside the record studio vaults.
Last but not least, the implementation of HDMI was sloppy and chaotic. Instead of plug and play, from the start it was plug and pray. Even now, there are times when I have to reboot my system because the two-way communication did not authenticate the system protection. Simply switching sources sometimes requires a reboot. At first, I was put off, but now I consider the inconvenience more than worthwhile, the bliss of hearing the true dynamics of the studio recording more than overcomes the pain of dealing with HDMI’s protocols. Understanding the changes required is the first step to audio nirvana. Nobody actually explained it to me, so I had to figure it all out on my own from available information and personal experience. I am sharing the story so those of you who didn’t know have a shorter learning curve and can start enjoying your systems as never before.
If you live in a condo or don’t have a system with the high-level playback capabilities, don’t bother. Your neighbors will never tolerate you playing your system this loud. But if you have the privacy, amplification, and speakers, you should go for it. The new Sade Live just arrived Saturday, it’s another stunning example of what Blu-ray can do when recorded by the world’s greatest artists.