Blu-ray the Winner

Sony has triumphed once again. The company that has until now held control of the dominant audio format, "Red Book" CD, and the dominant high-resolution audio format, SACD, will now dominate high-resolution video as well with its Blu-ray technology.

On Tuesday February 19, Toshiba announced that it will no longer develop, manufacture, or market HD DVD players and recorders. "We concluded that a swift decision would be best," Toshiba President Atsutoshi Nishida told the press at Toshiba's company office in Tokyo.

Nishida ascribed Toshiba's abdication to Warner Bros. Entertainment's January decision that the entertainment giant would abandon HD DVD, and only release high-definition movies in Blu-ray format. Warner had been the only remaining Hollywood studio releasing high-definition video in both HD DVD and Blu-ray formats. "They had tremendous impact," Nishida said. "If we had continued, that would have created problems for consumers, and we simply had no chance to win."

Industry observers had been expected Toshiba's announcement. On Saturday, the Associated Press cited a report from Japan's Kyodo News agency that Toshiba might withdraw its HD DVD video format. An unidentified company source said at the time that Toshiba Corp. is reviewing its operations, and that the fate of HD-DVD hinges on US demand for its HD DVD products "and other factors." The rumor followed an earlier report from Japan's public broadcaster NHK, cited by Reuters, which quoted someone at Toshiba saying, "We have entered the final stage of planning to make our exit from the next generation DVD business."

Toshiba has promised to continue providing product support to existing owners of HD DVD machines. Shipment of new machines is expected to stop by the end of March.

Toshiba has encountered a slew of setbacks of late. Despite its January announcement at CES that it had already sold 1 million HD DVD players in North America, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the largest US video retailer, announced on Friday that it would only sell Blu-Ray and no longer stock HD DVD. Wal-Mart's potential death blow came less than a week after Netflix, Inc. said it would cease carrying HD DVD rentals. Target Corp. and Blockbuster Inc. have also proclaimed that Blu-ray is the sole format they will stock.

Back in January—ancient history in the fast-moving format wars—Warner Bros. Entertainment's declaration that all its future movie releases would be in Blu-ray format was not the only blow to Toshiba's hopes for HD DVD's future. As if the screw needed to be tightened any further, Microsoft Corp. also announced that its exclusive backing of HD DVD was in jeopardy. It remains to be seen if Microsoft decides to modify its Xbox 360 video game machine, which currently accepts only HD DVD, to allow it to play Blu-ray.

All this may have profound implications for the future of high-resolution audio. Despite Sony's virtual abandonment of SACD, multichannel SACDs continue to be issued by Telarc, Channel Classics, Pentatone, Chandos, BIS, LSO, CSO Resound, SFS Media, Hyperion, Harmonia Mundi and other companies that specialize in classical and jazz. (Some but not all of these releases are DSD-native. Others, like the Linn SACDs, are transcoded from high-resolution LPCM.) The big question is whether these companies will remain loyal to SACD, or explore Blu-ray as an alternative high-resolution audio format.

Naxos, which bills itself as world's largest classical music distributor, has already made its decision. In the December 2007 issue of Stereophile, Klaus Heymann of Naxos revealed that the company, which has ceased releasing multichannel recordings in both SACD and DVD-A formats, has been awaiting the triumph of either Blu-ray or HD DVD before again releasing multichannel recordings. On February 18, Heymann announced that it will begin releasing multi-channel recordings on Blu-ray later this year. If other record companies follow Naxos' lead, expect a host of new high-end Blu-ray players designed to deliver audiophile quality sound from Blu-ray.

Certainly classical marketers of DVD have been watching developments carefully. In March, the Naxos-distributed label Opus Arte (now affiliated with the BBC) will release its first Blu-ray title in the United States. Already available in Europe, the award-winning Pacific Northwest Ballet production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, choreographed by the legendary George Balanchine, is sure to have tremendous appeal.

While Opus Arte announced on February 1 that it would continue to release in both HD DVD and Blu-ray formats, it altered its tune on February 18. "We have decided today to go with Blu-ray only," Opus Arte's Managing Director, Hans Petri, explained by phone from the UK. "All the news of the weekend makes it clear to us that HD DVD is dying, if not already dead.

"In our view, there's not a lot of difference between HD DVD and Blu-ray. HD DVD especially interested us because it was more interactive, but I understand that Blu-ray is updating its equipment, so that won't be an issue anymore. Blu-ray definitely has greater capacity, 50GB, which allows us to put complete operas on one disc. We are excited, because now that there's a winner in the format wars, people can buy equipment without worries and they can enjoy these fantastic operas and ballets on their beautiful, high-definition screens."

Opus Arte has already released its final HD DVD, of Puccini's La Bohème. Next week comes the Blu-ray version of the fabulous Royal Opera House Covent Garden production of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), conducted by Sir Colin Davis, with Diana Damrau delivering a phenomenally sung and choreographed Queen of the Night. Upcoming new Opus Arte Blu-ray releases include Die Fledermaus, Swan Lake, Il trovatore, La Bohème, and La Cenerentola. In addition, all of the approximately 60 operas and ballets Opus Arte has already recorded in high-definition will be released on Blu-ray over the next two years, to be joined by 25 or so newly recorded productions of opera and ballet per year.

Sony lost the format wars once, when VHS triumphed over Sony's Betamax. Clearly they have learned the lesson well. The future is looking good for high-resolution sound and video.