EDITORS CHOICE 05.04.18

Does OPPO’s exit spell doom for physical media?

oppo farewell on homepage of its website

With delivery of audio and video content increasingly taking place via electronic, streaming delivery or download, many have wondered if there will be a future for physical media delivery in general and optical media in general.

Pundits have pointed to the recent announcement by Best Buy, the major nationwide US consumer electronics retailer that they will stop selling CDs this summer, along with rumours that mass retail giant Target may do the same, as “the beginning of the end.” That was followed by a shock that some thought might be an April Fool’s prank when OPPO Digital announced that they are winding down production and will then leave the hardware business.

Given that OPPO’s DVD players and, more recently, UHD Blu-ray players have long been a favourite of audiophiles and custom installers, it’s not an understatement to say that announcement took the market by surprise. Yes, this will place “gradually,” with no precise end date revealed other than that it will take place after existing production runs are complete. Further, products will remain available until manufacturer, distributor and dealer inventory runs out.

“Given that OPPO’s products have long been a favourite of audiophiles and custom installers, it’s not an understatement to say that announcement took the market by surprise.”

As a final bit of information on the specifics of OPPO, while they will exit the sale of new hardware, they are not leaving their legions of customers and fans in a lurch. Not only has product quality and superb performance been a hallmark of the OPPO brand, so too has been their outstanding customer and technical support. That will continue for the foreseeable future, as will both in- and out-of-warranty service will remain available. Perhaps most important, OPPO has been more diligent than almost any brand we can think of when it comes to software upgrades not only for both bug fixes but also to add new features such as Dolby Vision. The updates will continue “from time to time”, as warranted. Newer products such as the current UDP-203 and UDP-205 UHD Blu-ray players “…will likely receive more frequent upgrades…” while older, more mature products will only get firmware upgrades to address critical issues.

This is all a credit to OPPO for winding down their hardware sales with the same respect for its customer base as they had when products were flying out the door. Given all of this, it is worth considering that purchasing a new unit where one has already been spec’d in may still make sense. Indeed, I have a client who has been asking for one, and I will honour that request even though that part of the system is not scheduled for a new months.

All well and good, but all of this cannot quell lingering doubts about the UHD Blu-ray format at the micro-level and physical media and, more broadly for the future of physical media, in general.

Oppo farewell message posted on april 2 on company's website

With regard to UHD Blu-ray, it still remains the highest quality playback media for 4K UHD content, particularly where incoming bandwidth is less than optimal. As has been the case going back to the birth of DVD, and before that even LaserDisc, for true movie fans, the added availability of “behind the scenes features,” outtakes and similar make physical disc playback appealing. Similarly, when there is a requirement for playback in languages other than the native one in a given country, Blu-ray and DVD shine. “Director’s Cuts”? You will rarely, if ever, find those from streaming services.

In discussions with representatives of the Blu-ray Disc Association at CES in Las Vegas, there was an upbeat tenor to the conversations. Sales of both hardware and software are on the upswing, as is the continued availability of new titles. All the advanced audio and video formats, including Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, HDR10, Dolby Vision and, soon, HDR-10+ will be available in abundance. High transfer rates will certainly beat the download of streaming content.

But, doesn’t the departure of OPPO consign optical players to more commodity products and features? Looking at the current field, the high-end audio path with discrete 7.1 analogue outputs, first available from OPPO, will be part of at least one new model on the way from Panasonic. Dolby Vision, again a first from OPPO, may now be found on players from LG, Panasonic, Philips, and Sony. While that HDR format is not available in Samsung players, they have already put out an update for dynamic metadata HDR via their own HDR-10+ scheme, also to be available in some high-end Panasonic models. At least as of this writing, the UHD Blu-ray player of Xbox One “S” and “X” models have HDR10 only, though an update for Dolby Vision has been rumoured.

“But, doesn’t the departure of OPPO consign optical players to more commodity products and features?”

Thus, the format and concept is far from gone, though even the most avid supporter would admit that the mass market is leaning towards streaming accessed through built-in, Smart TV, apps or via external streaming products such as Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon FireTV, Nvidia Shield and others, depending on your location. For that reason, it is worth noting that access to at least the most popular streaming services is common on standard and UHD Blu-ray players.

While looking to the future, it is also appropriate to look back at the past. While CD sales, and the outlets from which to purchase them, are declining, it is a certainty that many of your clients will have extensive and large libraries of CDs, as well as older DVDs. Those discs often contain programming not available via streaming, and it would be foolish not to provision a playback device to use for them.

Let’s put this all together. Is there a decline in the sales of optical disc media as streaming grows exponentially? Certainly. Are the decisions recently made by OPPO and Best Buy some evidence of reduced mass market support for physical media? Perhaps. However, does this mean that these formats are on the way out? I think not, at least for a decade or so to come.

Content is there and will continue to be released. Players will continue to be sold, albeit, perhaps by a smaller range of brands. Existing libraries of content are not going to suddenly beam up to a far-off planet or be dumped in the trash bin any more than vinyl and turntables are still with us for a select, but vocal and often well-heeled client base. Most importantly, for the best playback of video and audio content, with programs that show off a 4K UHD home theatre system with full-out, object-based audio at its maximum performance level, nothing else will do.

As always, watch market developments very carefully, but view them in the light of some thought and after taking a deep breath. At least from the perspective here, a paraphrase of the oft quoted remark by the famous writer and humourist Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, is in order; “Reports of the death of physical media playback are greatly exaggerated!” Time will tell.

 

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group, follow him on Twitter @captnvid, or comment on his article, below.