Sony threw a few shovelfuls of dirt into the grave of physical media last week with its announcement of support for high-resolution audio and 4K video content for consumers via downloads and networking — not on any variety of shiny spinning disc.
Sony was a big early promoter of both DVD and Blu-ray formats, but rather than extend the Blu-ray Disc format to accommodate 4K playback, the company announced the Video Unlimited 4K service, which went live over Labor Day weekend with around 70 full-length features and TV shows available for rental and/or purchase via download, nearly all of it content owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment. By the end of the year, according to Sony Electronics President and COO Phil Molyneux, that number will increase to 100 titles.
Some of the content was unexpected. There were a few classic films in the blockbuster mix, as well as the complete run of Breaking Bad to date — a TV show shot on 35mm film and scanned in 4K. And Sony made the proposition more attractive by announcing its least expensive Ultra HDTVs yet: the 55-inch XBR-55X850A ($3499) and the 65-inch XVR-65X850A ($4999). You access 4K content using the Sony FMP-X1 4K Ultra HD Media Player, which will cost you $699, or $499 if you buy it together with a Sony 4K TV.
(Also announced last week was a new 65-inch curved-screen LED LCD HDTV, a set designed, according to Sony's press release, "to provide a greater sense of the picture's depth of feel." We're not sure what that means, either, but it'll cost you $3,999.)
On the audio side of the business, Sony announced a new line of products designed for "high resolution audio," a catch-all term encompassing a variety of better-than-CD audio formats. Ranging in price from $799 to $1,999, they sync music files with your computer, and will play everything from plain old MP3s, AACs, and WMAs to formats like high-res PCM and Sony's own Direct Stream Digital that let the music shine.
The music sounded good in demo rooms, but in order to be successful Sony will have to reach a mainstream market and not just the audiophiles who cared enough about music to know what a Super Audio CD was. It's not clear whether removing the physical media format from the equation makes it easier or harder for ordinary music fans to understand the benefits of higher-resolution audio.
And then in addition to the outlay for a new 4K TV or a high-res audio component, there's the increased cost of content. John Coltrane's classic My Favorite Things
album can be downloaded from the iTunes store for a budget-friendly $7.99, while the same album in "Audiophile 192kHz/24bit" format from the tony HDtracks
website (founded by David and Norman Chesky of the audiophile label Chesky Records) will run you $24.98. 4K video content will also sell at a premium, with feature-film purchases generally priced at $29.99, 24-hour rentals at $7.00, and individual television episodes at $3.99.
If you've got a 4K TV, catching up with Breaking Bad just got about a third more expensive.