Last week’s news that Best Buy will exit the Blu-ray business in 2024 was certainly a bummer, but for those of us who still buy and collect Blu-ray discs, it wasn’t the least bit surprising.
Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits, the longtime DVD and Blu-ray champion who broke the Best Buy story, began sounding the alarm about the slow—and then not so slow—decline of physical media years ago, and there have been plenty of warning signs, from Samsung and Oppo halting the manufacture of new Blu-ray players in 2019 to the recent decision of Ingram Entertainment, one of the biggest distributors of DVDs and Blu-rays, to leave the disc business behind.
Sales of DVDs have cratered, plummeting from a high of $16.3 billion a year back in 2005 to just $2.2 billion in 2018. Blu-ray sales never ascended to the heights that DVD discs did, in part because of an early format war (with Samsung-backed HD-DVD, remember that?) and also because of…well, you know why.
So by the time Netflix announced it was shuttering its DVD rental business, the demise of physical media was a well-established storyline. And now that Best Buy is punting on disc sales, it’s game over for Blu-ray, right?
Well, maybe not. Just look at vinyl.
After being left for dead in the 1990s, vinyl records have been making a noticeable, if modest, comeback. Unit sales are still only a tiny fraction of what they were in the early 1980s—just 41.3 million records in 2022, versus north of 300 million in the late 1970s—and the explosive pandemic-era growth in vinyl sales has cooled in recent months. But still, there’s a small but healthy vinyl market out there, with plenty of product for those who want it.
What I’m getting at is that—fingers crossed—Blu-ray may follow the same trajectory as vinyl, with a small but viable market for those of us who still value physical media when it comes to home video.
No, Blu-ray sales figures aren’t encouraging; there’s little evidence of green shoots of growth for Blu-ray, or at least not yet.
What is encouraging is the number of retailers that still are in the Blu-ray business, many of which are smaller, boutique vendors that specialize in genre titles or newly restored catalog movies. Then there are the specialty Blu-ray distributors, such as Criterion, Kino Lorber, and Arrow, that are continuing to churn out top-notch discs (such as Arrow’s new 4K UHD release of The Warriors, pictured above).
Will Blu-ray ever mount a serious challenge to streaming? Of course not, just like vinyl won’t ever make a serious dent in Spotify. While I’m a fan of Blu-ray, I stream as much on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video as anyone, and I don’t feel any need to binge-watch Suits from a Blu-ray box set.
But when it’s time to revisit Mulholland Drive, I won’t settle for less than Criterion’s 4K UHD version, which delivers a sterling HDR image that pulls out details that weren’t even visible in the original 2001 theatrical release, along with an uncompressed soundtrack that doesn’t neuter the audio’s dynamic range.
Of course, there is a streaming alternative to Blu-ray: Kaleidescape, the high-end streaming service that offers bit rates that rival 4K Blu-ray discs, not to mention lossless audio. Nice, aside from the price tag: nearly $4,000 for their cheapest streaming player, and that doesn’t include extra for the required storage drive.
In any event, I’m cautiously optimistic that Blu-ray will be here for several years to come—maybe not at Best Buy, but it’ll be around.