Dune HD Max Blu-ray/Media Streaming Player Reviewed

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Dune HD Max Blu-ray/Media Streaming Player Reviewed

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Dune_HD_Max_media_streamer_review_CES.jpgDespite what a few audiophiles will tell you, vinyl at any meaningful level outside of kitsch is dead and CDs aren't far behind. Sure, there may be a resurgence in physical media sales here and there, but the vast majority of the population, the ones not altogether interested in such things as high-end audio/video, have made the jump to digital music files - quality be damned. The truth is movies aren't far behind, and while we may find ourselves at the precipice of a new consumer format in 4K, it's streaming and downloads that are gaining momentum. Why? For a lot of folks, it's the convenience that many of these streaming services and/or their lower-resolution files provide. They're easily indexed, stored, accessed and enjoyed on the go, attributes that physical formats largely lack. Ignoring the portability factor for the purposes of this discussion, one must take a good long look at the convenience that services like iTunes, Pandora, AmazonVOD, Netflix and CinemaNow provide; an endless library from which to choose and enjoy at the touch of a button. No longer do we necessarily have to acquire our media libraries. Now, it seems, we need only pay for a subscription.

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• Read more media server reviews written by the HomeTheaterReview.com staff.
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But where does that leave our existing libraries? Can't they somehow be stored and enjoyed with the same ease and convenience described above? Of course they can, and while the topic may tread through the murky waters of legality, there's no getting around the fact that people are ripping their own content to their various computers, hard drives and/or portable devices. While the practice may be frowned upon, depending on the context, there are no laws against hardware that is capable of playing back such content.

With all of the above covered, say hello to the Dune HD Max Blu-ray/Media Streaming player.

The Dune HD Max retails direct for $599.95 and, at that price, it represents Dune's flagship effort. If the Dune HD Max is too rich or too much in terms of features for your needs, you can easily pick up one of Dune HD's lesser players like the Smart H1, which retails for $319.95. At first glance, the Dune HD Max looks like your run of the mill DVD or Blu-ray player, as it's roughly the same size and shape as most disc spinners and is clad in an all-black aluminum housing. But appearances can be deceiving for the Dune HD Max endeavors to be the centerpiece of your home entertainment system and digital lifestyle, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The front panel of the Dune HD Max is broken into three distinct sections. Moving from left to right, you'll find its Blu-ray drive, followed by its center-mounted display and ending with its 3.5 SATA hot swappable hard drive bay. Resting along the bottom are the Dune HD Max's manual controls, which are mostly suited for optical disc playback. There's also an SD card slot, as well as a USB input located on the front panel.

Around back, you'll find a host of connection options, starting with the Dune HD Max's Ethernet input, followed by two more USB inputs. To the right of those inputs are the video outputs, which include HDMI (1.3), composite, S and component video outs. Next to them rest a pair of digital audio outputs, one coaxial, the other optical, both flanked by a pair of analog audio outs. Across what I'll refer to as the great divide (more on that in a moment), you'll find the Dune HD Max's 7.1 analog audio outputs, which means you can enjoy the latest surround sound codecs like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, even if your current AV preamp or receiver doesn't support them. Another nice feature that compliments the Dune HD Max's analog audio outs is its digital volume control capability, which makes items like AV preamps superfluous in certain installations. Next to its 7.1 analog outs is the Dune HD Max's AC power receptacle and master power switch. This is an awful lot of physical connections and features for a player that measures just under 17 inches in width by nearly 12 inches deep and a scant two-and-a-half inches tall. Even its weight out of the box is manageable, at a touch over nine pounds.

Dune_HD_Max_media_streamer_review_inside.jpgWhat makes the Dune HD Max special, however, isn't what it possesses on the outside. Instead, the Dune HD Max is all about what's on the inside. At its core, the Dune HD Max gets its strength from its Sigma Designs SMP8642 processor which, when coupled with its Blu-ray drive, gives it the ability to play back virtually every video format known to man. Supported video codecs are MPEG2, MPEG4, XVID, WMV9, VC1, H.264 with file format support for MKV, MPEG-TS, MPEG-PS, M2TS, VOB, AVI, MOV, MP4, QT, ASF, WMV, Blu-ray ISO, BDMV, DVD-ISO and VIDEO_TS. The included optical drive supports CD, DVD and Blu-ray data discs, as well as MP3, JPEG and other image discs. Obviously, it also supports retail and consumer-created CD, DVD and Blu-ray discs. Regardless of which video format you choose, you'll have the flexibility to enjoy it either natively or upscaled to 1080p. The Dune HD Max even supports 3D video content. Additionally, the Dune HD Max will support the brand new THX Media Director Technology, which will make it the first media server and Blu-ray player in the world to support the technology.

Supported audio codecs include AC3 (Dolby Digital), DTS, MPEG, AAC, LPCM, WMA, WMAPro, EAC3 (Dolby Digital Plus), Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio, FLAC, multichannel FLAC, Ogg/Vorbis, MP3, MPA and M4A - I think that's all of them. Along with accommodating all of the supported audio formats, the Dune HD Max is capable of playing them back in resolutions up to 192kHz/24-bit.

As impressive as the Dune HD Max's format support is, the way in which it accesses that content is equally impressive. Beyond its optical drive and USB inputs, the Dune HD Max can access content via its 3.5 SATA hard drive bay, which can house any 3.5 HDD of your choosing, as well as 3.5-compatible solid state drives for even faster performance. This means you can essentially turn the Dune HD Max into a multi-terabyte media juggernaut for not a lot of money. A quick search online revealed that three-terabyte hard drives sell for less than $200, though SSD drives will run you a bit more. While three terabytes may not sound like enough for those with large HD video collections, it's plenty for even the most vast music collection. Furthermore, there is space inside the player for more hard drive expansion, evident in the placement of two removable panels that I referred to earlier as the great divide. The Dune HD Max can access content via its SD card slot as well, but its real party piece is its ability to be the front man to a whole-home, network-attached storage (NAS) setup.

NAS setups allow for you to store all your content in a central location, say, a hard drive array in an office or closet, which then sends content throughout your home via Ethernet connections. Speaking of Ethernet, the Dune HD Max is currently a 10/100 Mbit device, which is good enough for HD video streaming, but isn't as fast as today's best routers, which are capable of Gigabit speeds. While the Dune HD Max does not feature any sort of WiFi built-in capability, it is possible to convert it to a WiFi-enabled device by sacrificing one of its USB ports to add an external WiFi stick. Regardless of how you choose to connect the Dune HD Max to your network for the purposes of streaming content, connecting it to the Internet will allow you to access many of its Internet browsing, IPTV, BitTorrent and radio applications. Sorry, but there is currently no support for services like Netflix, Pandora, CinemaNow etc., although rumor has it that this isn't the fault of the Dune HD Max or the folks at Dune HD. However, VUDU has been confirmed to be making its way onto the Dune HD Max in a future firmware update.

For more on the Dune HD Max's vast array of features and specifications, please visit Dune HD's website.

This brings me to the Dune HD Max's remote. Like the Dune HD Max itself, the remote is a full-featured affair. Surprisingly enough, it's easy to use, navigate and even operate from memory after a few minutes of use. Despite having zero backlighting, I still found it functional even in the dark, thanks to its intuitive and straightforward layout. Most commands can be carried out via the remote's centrally located directional buttons and large enter button. Power users will undoubtedly clamor for a QWERTY keyboard, but those with old-school text messaging skills should have little problem should they have to rename and/or move files around via the Dune HD Max's interface.

Dune_HD_Max_media_streamer_review_rear_right_half.jpgThe Hookup -Part 1: Connecting the Dune HD Max to Your System
Simply taking the Dune HD Max out of the box and connecting it to your system is simple enough. In fact, if you've installed a DVD or Blu-ray player at any point, you're more than capable of connecting the Dune to your system. For my system, this meant connecting the Dune HD Max to my Integra DHC 30.2 AV preamp via HDMI, courtesy of a one-meter Planet Waves HDMI cable. I also ran a generic optical cable from the Dune HD Max to my Integra for music playback, due in part to the Integra's HDMI handshake quirks. I also connected the Dune HD Max to my Napa Acoustic's MT-34 tube integrated amplifier via a two-meter pair of analog interconnects (unbalanced) for more audiophile-style two-channel listening, although for the purposes of this review, the sound quality descriptions will be focused on the Dune's performance via my Integra AV preamp.

Out of the box, the Dune HD Max's picture settings are pretty much dead accurate for a disc spinner, meaning no additional calibration should be required - on the Dune, that is. If the Dune HD Max were merely another Blu-ray player, you'd be done, but it's not.

I requested the Dune HD Max for review because I was looking for a solution that would allow me to stream all my content easily in its true native form. I'm no stranger to media archiving and streaming, having employed a fairly robust network of AppleTVs throughout my home. However, I have become increasingly unhappy with the AppleTV's lagging quality and constant updates - updates that have taken it further away from being a media extender and made it more of a streamer for services like Netflix and YouTube. Also, any fan of Apple or the AppleTV will note that its video capabilities leave a lot to be desired. Furthermore, no Apple product (out of the box) has support for the Blu-ray format, which is a non-starter in my book. So, while my AppleTV setup had gotten pretty trick over the years, I was ready for a change.

I could've flexed a bit of my "Do you know who I am?" muscle to acquire a Kaleidescape branded system, though even at a discount, it was cost-prohibitive. So I challenged myself to create a system as capable as what you'll find via a Kaleidescape, but only costing slightly more than what you'd spend building what I had with my Apple products. Initial budget: less than $1,000, which included the Dune HD Max.

Before we go any further, allow me this disclaimer: ripping copy-protected content in any format for any reason is currently illegal. While the music industry may turn a blind eye to personal copies or backups in some cases, Hollywood most assuredly does not. Whether you agree or disagree with Hollywood's position is irrelevant for the purposes of this review, as this article will focus solely upon the performance afforded you by the Dune HD Max, as well as its ability to stream content of all types. The content I refer to here is material that I either created or was given for the purposes of this review. This review will dive into tools and methods necessary to ingest content, so that the Dune HD Max can read it and/or play it back, but it will not provide you with a blueprint for how to steal copy-protected material. It should also be noted that neither the Dune HD Max nor any other Dune HD product supports any form of drop-n-rip solution. The Dune HD Max is merely a player of content that the end user creates and/or makes available to it. Okay, back to the review.

Dune_HD_Max_media_streamer_review_Netgear_router.jpgMy AppleTV devices were connected to my home's Netgear N Router, which allowed them to access files on several hard drives inside my Mac Pro tower. This wasn't going to work for the Dune - not that it couldn't, but like I said earlier, I wanted something more robust, beginning with a new router. Upon taking delivery of the Dune HD Max, I ventured to my local big box retailer and picked up a few items (which I continue to use to this day) that would help me better test the Dune. First up was a new Gigabit-enabled router from Netgear for $180. The Gigabit Netgear router would be used exclusively for my budding Dune system. In order to keep things clean and simple, and it would not interface at all with any of my other home computers. Next, I purchased an external one-terabyte NAS drive from Western Digital (WD) from their My Book Live series ($149) to use as a proof of concept drive for this review. Obviously, those with a lot of content will require more storage than a single terabyte, but for the purposes of this review, I used the My Book Live from WD. Lastly, I bought a Samsung PC laptop for $349.99 to aide in the setup and configuration of my new network, as well as the Dune HD Max itself. You can use a Mac to do these functions, but you may find it limiting when it comes time to encode your content and save it for the Dune to access. Also, Macs have a tendency to create unique file and/or folder structures automatically when connected to NAS drives, which at first seems like a godsend, but in reality it will cause some headaches down the road. I originally set up my network via my Mac, only to erase everything and start over on a PC thanks to the Mac's creative formatting. I also borrowed an internal hard drive from friend and fellow Home Theater Equipment forum member RayJr. in order to test the Dune HD Max's internal hard disc capabilities.

Upon plugging in and connecting the NAS drive and Gigabit router to the Dune HD Max's Ethernet port, the first thing I did was to acquire the various devices' IP addresses. This allows you to input them manually in the various setup menus. Sadly, Dune does not provide a great deal of instruction for these. Those of you who have set up home networks before will be old hands at this, but for me, it was an altogether new experience. With some help from my resident go-to PC guru RayJr. (I'm a Mac guy), I was able to get the NAS drive to mount on the Dune by going into the Dune HD Max's setup menu and entering it into its network sub menu. From there, we mapped the NAS drive to my PC, again using the IP address, then to the Dune HD Max by going into its Applications sub menu, labeled SMB Server (Setup - Applications - SMB Server). By pointing the Dune HD Max to the work group we created, adjustments and file transfers from my PC laptop to the Dune or the NAS drive would be easy and trouble free. Thankfully, installing an internal hard drive into the front mounted 3.5 HDD bay is less troublesome, but you're still going to want to map it to your main computer.

Once all the drives were connected and in sync with each other, I was able to begin navigating the Dune's onscreen interface, which out of the box is pretty straightforward and easy to do. The user interface is largely icon-based, though you can easily change what Dune calls your "view" of it to list mode if you so desire. The first screen you see is your home screen. At first glance, it's populated to the gills with options and icons that you may or may not want. Highlighting the item you like and pressing enter will take you to that particular feature. Highlighting an item and hitting the pop-up menu button on the remote will bring up a list of options that let you do anything from renaming the feature to deleting it altogether. I wanted to keep my home screen as uncluttered as possible, so I removed all of the superfluous items until I was left with the following options: Optical, Setup, Shared Music (Music), Shared Videos (Movies) and NAS. You can also re-skin the home page background, as Dune does give you a wide variety of choices with regard to preloaded skins.

From here, you can upload whatever content you wish to your network and the Dune HD Max will see it and play it back, provided it's encoded in a compatible format. However, navigating through that content is done purely in list or generic icon fashion, which is lightning fast, reliable and easy, but not altogether sexy. To spice the user experience up a bit, you'll need to download a few inexpensive or sometimes even free programs from the Internet.

Dune_HD_Max_media_streamer_review_rear_left_half.jpgThe Hookup -Part 2: Media Scraping, Library and Encoding Software
Apple products rely on iTunes for their metadata and organizational schemes. The Dune HD Max, or any Dune HD product, for that matter, relies on you. What this means is, if you like a particular way a piece of music software handles your music collection, you can most likely use it with the Dune while relying on another piece of software for movies, thus tailoring your experience to your needs. This also means that you're going to be responsible for more of the legwork, which may sound like a raw deal, but once you get into it, it isn't as bad as it sounds - in fact, it's better than anything iTunes can do, although some solutions may not look as sexy as iTunes.

For the purposes of this review, I'll focus my attention on the programs I used, which are Zappiti (free), Musicnizer ($29), Playlist Creator (free), MakeMKV (free) and Windows Media Player (free). Zappiti is what is referred to as a movie scraper: it reads your movie files and scans the Internet automatically for the requisite metadata, often pulling it from sites such as IMDB.com. Dune supplied me with a handful of legally-acquired HD movie trailers that I was able to sync with Zappiti in order to test its scraping abilities. Zappiti is by no means the only metadata scraping software available for the Dune via the Internet. There are also MyMovies, yaDIS and others. However, having used all three, I found Zappiti to be the most user-friendly for a newbie.

Dune_HD_Max_media_streamer_review_Zappiti.jpgGetting Zappiti to pull metadata such as poster art, synopsis, files and contact data is a breeze - simply tell it where your files are stored and where you'd like to store said metadata, and Zappiti handles the rest. In my test, which included more than a dozen movie trailers, Zappiti worked without fail, often taking just a few minutes to complete its task. Where Zappiti sometimes comes up short is in its retrieval of actor or studio metadata, though both are easily worked around via its manual edit function. When all is said and done, Zappiti will leave you with a cover flow style of navigation, whereby your screen is filled with small thumbnail posters for you to browse through, much like K-Scape. Pressing "enter" on one of the posters produces a secondary page with more art, story information and technical specifications. Hitting "enter" on the secondary page causes the linked content to play. Zappiti also creates folders that the Dune can read, which will allow you to browse by genre, year, studio, etc. MyMovies achieves the same end result and, I'm told, can be used in conjunction with other software like AnyDVD, turning MyMovies into an all-inclusive solution, but I did not test these claims.

For music files, I used the program Musicnizer, which operates almost exactly in the same way that Zappiti does, only it scrapes the Internet for music metadata. The end result of using Musicnizer is much the same as Zappiti or MyMovies, with a screen full of cover art for you to choose from. Musicnizer lacks the ability to create custom playlists. For those, I use a free program called Playlist Creator. Playlist Creator makes .pls files that the Dune HD Max can then read and access, resulting in music playlists not unlike what you'd expect from iTunes or even Sooloos. The only catch is that you have to populate them yourself. The beauty of all of the above-mentioned programs, and other like them, is that they're largely open source, meaning you can easily customize them to better suit your needs. If you fancy yourself a bit of a nerd (I thought I was one, until I started hanging out on HTPC forums), you can even write your own scraping program that the Dune HD Max can read and access easily.

As for getting content onto your network for the Dune HD Max to access, that's another story, for there are seemingly countless avenues to travel, all with varying results. For obvious legal reasons, I can not tell or teach you how to rip copy-protected content. However, I can share with you which programs I used in order to get full-resolution, non-copy-protected content onto my network hard drive. For music, I simply used Windows Media Player, which came as a stock piece of software with my laptop. Windows Media Player is eerily similar to iTunes in its operation; however, it can rip music to a wider range of formats than iTunes can.

For video content, I used a free program called MakeMKV. MakeMKV encodes video in the popular and largely universal .mkv file format, while retaining the source's original structure. For example, I had a Blu-ray test disc of a film I helped produce that was full HD quality, but used the compression codec h.264. h.264 is pretty much standard among many of today's Blu-ray discs, so this would be a good test of MakeMKV's HD capabilities. Since this was a test disc and it did not have copy protection, I wasn't breaking any laws - also, the disc was given to me by a friend for this test. Inserting the Blu-ray disc into my portable LG USB Blu-ray drive and launching the MakeMKV software allowed me to encode the film in the .mkv format, while still retaining the original h.264 compression. In other words, MakeMKV made a bit-for-bit copy of the content without re-encoding, since the .mkv file format is nothing more than a container. Another nice feature MakeMKV has is its ability to retain multiple audio streams, subtitles and even chapter markers, which some encoding software lacks. With MakeMKV, you can even choose which of the aforementioned features you wish to keep and which ones you can live without. For example, if your content has both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks and you know you prefer the DTS codec, then you can simply run your encode with the DTS option selected and save yourself a bit of file space. The process was straightforward and simple and those familiar with programs such as AnyDVD, Handbrake or the like should have no troubles with MakeMKV. Encoding time seemed dependent upon two things: first, the computer's processor speed and second, the length of the content being encoded. Still, the process was always faster than real time, leading me to believe one could encode a large volume of content in a short period of time.

Since the Dune HD Max is such a versatile player, there's more than one way to skin the proverbial cat when it comes to your content. If you'd like to know more about any of the above-mentioned programs or procedures, please visit our forum at HomeTheaterEquipment.com. There are also a number of other forums dedicated to the topics at hand, which can be easily found via a simple Internet search.

I started off by testing the Dune HD Max's abilities as a Blu-ray/DVD player by comparing its performance to my reference universal player, the Cambridge Audio Azur 751BD. Just listening to the Dune HD Max's disc drive made me think it was of lesser quality than the Cambridge. First, I wanted to test its speed. To do this, I used The Dark Knight on Blu-ray disc (Warner Bros.). The Dark Knight is a disc that loads directly to the film rather than to a menu, so with a benchmark set by the 751BD of 57 seconds (from pressing "play" to the start of the movie), the Dune HD Max did it in an underwhelming 2:06 - more than double the time it took the Cambridge. Thankfully, when comparing the two players' audio and video performances, they were virtually indistinguishable from one another.

Read more about the Performance, the Downside and the Conclusion of the Dune HD Max on Page 2 . . .

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