Those who have been over to my place know I’m a pretty big Audio/Video geek. While the constraints of living in a NYC apartment necessarily constrain my ability to assemble a really over the top audio setup, we have a 1080p projector mounted to the ceiling, surrounds all over the place and a blu-ray player.
Yes, blu-ray. In fact, some of my more future-thinking friends from the tech community have questioned the decision to invest in a player (although let’s be clear – you can get one for $200 and we needed a new DVD player anyway) and the discs because, as everyone clearly knows, physical media is a dead-end and it’s all going to be on-demand streaming and/or downloads, whether that comes from the cable provider, a service like Netflix, iTunes or a broader set of web services.
The reason I bought a blu-ray player and a handful of blu-ray discs (mostly those that really benefit from the format’s capabilities – films like Kill Bill, the restored Godfather discs and of course, Wall-E) is pretty simple: it’s the absolute best in-home movie experience by a wide margin. Video and audio are demonstrably better than DVD or even the “HD” offerings from download services or on demand. And it makes sense that it is such – blu-ray is a 25 or 50Gb format depending on the disc’s properties. It’s far less compressed and, frankly, crappy than my alternatives.
For the same reason, I sometimes still buy CDs (although I admit less and less often) rather than buy compressed music on the web. Why? Because if you have decent equipment it sounds much much better. Granted, the majority of my music listening takes place via my iPod or computer at work, so I’m decreasingly likely to benefit from these advantages, but they are nonetheless true. CDs are uncompressed digital music and MP3s (or other formats you’re likely to use) are compressed as much as 12 to 1. It’s unsurprising that when you put a CD next to an MP3 of the same music at the same volume over good equipment, one sounds dramatically better than the other.
And yet all of this is preamble to the question being posed today – does anyone really care? The “hi-fi” community has a reputation for being a bunch of geeky, mostly older men closing their eyes while they try to hear subtle differences between two different interconnect cables. And while that stereotype is probably unfair, it highlights the fact that most consumers of music just don’t care that MP3s sound like garbage. Younger consumers grew up listening to music primarily on iPods with lousy earbuds (and often so loud they can’t hear anyway, but that’s a separate issue). Convenience, not fidelity, is what has been winning in the audio market for 25 years, ever since people gave up the sound of LPs for cassette tapes, the lowest-fidelity medium of all.
And so I agree with those who say we’re likely to see the same trend in video. On my setup, at 106” of 1080p projection, I really enjoy the difference between a DVD or 720p download and a blu-ray disc. But I suspect I’m in the small minority. I don’t agree with the bears on this issue that blu-ray will fail spectacularly, and I think it will continue to exist as a format that serves a segment of the market interested in high-quality video. It’s neither Betamax nor DVD in its future prospects, but somewhere in between.
Where the question gets really interesting, though, is whether the consumer’s preference for convenience over fidelity extends beyond the A/V context. I think that this merits its own post, and so I’ll do that later, but the question posed there is whether or not we’re trading away fidelity in our informational content in favor of convenience, much as we’ve done with our music and movies.