Andrew Robinson began his career as an art director in entertainment advertising in 2003, after graduating from Art Center College of Design. In 2006, he became a creative director at Crew Creative Advertising, and oversaw the agency's Television Division, where he worked for clients such as TNT, TBS, History, FX, and Bravo to name a few. He now has one of the most popular AV-related channels on YouTube.
Despite 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.
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.
What 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.
The 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.
My 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.
The 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.
Getting 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 . . .
Where the Dune HD Max's video playback comes up short is in its upscaling. Once again using the 751BD as a benchmark, the Dune HD Max's image on the DVD edition of The Matrix Revolutions (Warner Bros.) looked slightly softer in comparison. Audio performance between the two players was largely the same. Surprisingly enough, the Dune HD Max's drive was a touch faster in loading the DVD when compared to the 751BD, clocking in at 26 seconds (play to disc menu), versus 31 seconds for the Cambridge. Despite its somewhat sluggish load times and loud tray mechanism, the Dune HD Max's Blu-ray drive is more than capable of serving as one's primary disc spinner if you don't already own a Blu-ray player. Its video performance on Blu-ray discs is equal to that of my reference Blu-ray player and its sound quality is also up to par. When it comes to DVD playback, the Dune HD Max's internal scalar isn't quite as good as some, though it's far from the worst. Taking into context the Dune HD Max's price, its DVD performance was good enough and on par with my once equally-priced Sony Blu-ray player. Regardless of the source material, colors were rich and nicely saturated, with solid and well-defined black levels coupled with smooth motion and few if any digital artifacts. Even though the Dune HD Max's upscaling wasn't quite reference level, it still managed to keep noise to a minimum.
Switching my focus to music, the Dune HD Max was again more than up to the task, though I found that certain discs, mainly those branded "enhanced CD," did occasionally give the Dune some trouble. Still, as a CD transport, its performance was lively, a touch forward but not brittle or lean. High frequencies were largely smooth and grain-free, so long as the source material wasn't mixed too aggressively. This wasn't the case with Moby's album Play (V2) and the track "Everloving." The midrange was open and, like the treble, very smooth and rife with detail. The bass was taut and agile, giving up just a hint of weight to my reference 751BD, but the differences were slight. Dynamics were solid across the board, as was soundstage delineation. When using the Dune HD Max a transport feeding my Integra AV preamp, the differences between it and my 751BD, again in transport mode, were slight. When relying on the Dune HD Max's analog audio outs, the differences between the two players became more noticeable, with the Dune sounding a bit recessed, soft and less composed by comparison. It wasn't as if the music suddenly became less enjoyable, it just wasn't as sharp as what I've grown accustomed to. Still, even with its host of analog output options, I have to imagine most will use the Dune HD Max as a transport, in which case it excels.
Moving on to the Dune HD Max's performance as a network-attached streaming device, I started with music, this time with another favorite reference track, Barenaked Ladies "I Love You" off their album Gordon. Ripped in both WAV (lossless) and MP3 format (320kbps), the Dune played both without fail. If I'm honest, the formats were somewhat difficult to distinguish from each other at times. I'm not suggesting that the MP3 was the WAV's equal, but if you want to conserve space on the network drives, I'd recommend skimping on your audio encoding, rather than your video. Regardless, both files retained the original CD's vigor and energy and, in both instances, were difficult to tell apart from the physical disc at times. Vocals were well-defined, with palpable presence in the center of the soundstage, which was also clearly delineated with tremendous space and focus. Bass was taut and deep, yet retained its plucky demeanor as defined by the disc. High frequencies were one of the few areas where the lesser-quality MP3 showed its deficiencies, mainly in the addition of some slight sibilance at the extremes. It wasn't anything I couldn't get past; it just wasn't as good as what you'll get from a WAV-encoded file or the disc itself. Regardless, there's no getting around the convenience that digitally ripped music, regardless of quality, provides compared to the physical disc. The convenience, coupled with the slick factor of navigating one's music library, courtesy of programs like Musicnizer, is just awesome. I did find that surfing my music library via Dune's included list style navigation was a touch faster, and once the music was playing, the default screen for both Musicnizer and Dune is the same - a blank screen with a list naming the song's title, artist name, album, track and year.
Moving on to streaming movie content via the Dune HD Max, I loaded up some HD content, first to the Maxtor drive I borrowed from a friend to place inside the Dune's hot swappable drive bay, and second to my NAS drive. The HD content on the Maxtor drive was given to me in ISO format, which was different from my usual .mkv. For whatever reason, ISO-encoded HD content takes a bit of time to load: roughly fourteen seconds from the Dune's internal drive and only a few seconds more from my NAS drive. Converting that same content to .mkv resulted in an image that appeared the same, yet load times were reduced dramatically (around five seconds), leading me to question the need for the Dune Max HD's internal drive capability, unless of course you used it to house your library's metadata. This did seem to produce an increase in speed and responsiveness when stored internally, as opposed to on the NAS. That said, no metadata scraping program, such as Zappiti, was as quick as Dune's built-in file browser, which isn't sexy but more than gets the job done.
With a few speed tests out of the way, I compared the Dune HD Max's HD streaming playback to that of the actual HD content itself which, for the record, was not copy-protected. With the Blu-ray disc in my Cambridge player and the file encoded in .mkv format being played back via the Dune HD Max, the differences were negligible at best when sitting a mere three feet from my 50-inch THX-calibrated Panasonic plasma. Increasing my distance to the customary ten feet I usually watch content from, I could discern no difference in picture quality, leading me to conclude that not only was the .mkv file format good enough for true HD encoding and playback, it was also the Dune's preferred format, taking into consideration quality and speed. Keep in mind the .mkv file was within reach of the Blu-ray file itself (30GB), as opposed to what you'll find on iTunes, where so-called HD films are often compressed down to one or two GB. Also, the .mkv file retained all of the film's audio formats, including Dolby TrueHD, as well as Dolby Digital and, in the case of this particular film, the director commentary as well. In an A/B comparison between the encoded HD file and the disc itself, I could discern no difference in audio quality, save maybe a slight increase in output volume from the Cambridge. Other than that, with both players passing along a bitstream signal to my Integra processor, the sound was identical.
Speaking in terms of sheer performance, i.e., once your content is playing, the Dune HD Max is every bit as good as some of today's best players, giving up only a little in the scaling department, which isn't a deal-breaker for me. As an audio transport, the Dune HD Max more than does the job for both two-channel and multi-channel streams and discs. Minus a bit of lag when initially playing back Blu-ray discs, I have to say I'm impressed by what the Dune HD Max can do for under $600. Toss in the fact that you can customize its user interface to suit your needs, and the argument for a player like the Dune HD Max gets even stronger.
The Dune HD Max is one of those products that is going to be as good as you make it which, for some like myself, makes it awesome. However, if you prefer a more automated approach, the Dune HD Max may not be your cup of tea. I know many of you may look at the Dune HD Max as a potential K-Scape killer, and you'd be right in thinking so, but you must be willing to do a lot of the work yourself. To put it bluntly, if you're one who prefers to have an installer work on your system or a maid clean your house, here's Kaleidescape's phone number: 650.625.6100. I don't mean that as a jab, it's just that I believe that customers who are seeking a true Kaleidescape-like system should probably go with a Kaleidescape system, for they'll no doubt find the Dune HD Max too labor-intensive at the onset for their tastes.
All that being said, there a few items worth mentioning for those drooling over the idea of purchasing a Dune HD Max. First, the Blu-ray drive is a bit clunky and, frankly, not very quick. It's also quite loud, although you can easily open the case and place a few pieces of foam weather-stripping atop the drive's naked chassis to minimize noise and internal vibrations, as I did. While this tweak cuts down on the drive's noise, it does nothing to improve its speed. My friend and I experimented with replacing the drive with another from Sony, but found the fit to be unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, the drive works and works well; it's just a matter of how patient you wish to be.
Next up, some of the Dune HD Max's menu options aren't all that readily accessible, as for some reason they are filed in seemingly random places within the various setup sub-menus. For example, the workgroup assignment sub-menu is found in the applications folder, rather than in the network folder. Once you learn where everything is, navigating the setup menus is quite painless, but there is a bit of a learning curve going into it.
The Dune HD Max lacks a fan, which bodes well for ambient noise, but is bad for any traditional hard drive you may put into its hot swappable drive bay. The Maxtor drive I experimented with inside the Dune's hard drive bay damn near cooked itself and I'm positive resulted in more than a few issues with the Dune's playback abilities. Removing the drive and letting the Dune cool down a bit seemed to please it, for I encountered no issues upon the drive's removal. Those with solid state drives will most likely not encounter this problem, though I found there wasn't much of a speed advantage to playing content off of the internal drive, rather than off my NAS drive.
Speaking of NAS drives, they're a hidden cost when it comes to building any sort of full-fledged media serving system. While a single-terabyte My Book Live drive may seem reasonable at under $150, you'll need more than a terabyte if you're looking to house mass quantities of data, especially if that data is HD in nature. When my system is fully up and running, I estimate my hard drive needs to be somewhere in the vicinity of 20-30 terabytes, which can get pricey. Thankfully, you can incur these costs over time, since the Dune products are aimed squarely at a DIY-type customer.
Lastly, because all of Dune's current lineup of products have the same core capability and rely on the same third-party software in order to spice up their usability, they're somewhat interchangeable. If you already own a Blu-ray player, are happy with it and want something purely to interface with your network-stored content, then the Dune HD Max may be overkill. Furthermore, the idea behind a device such as the Dune HD Max is to serve as the face of network-stored content, meaning its own hard drive bay may be overkill, too, which somewhat diminishes the Max's value proposition. While $599 is far from expensive in comparison to many other products in the marketplace, it's not Dune's best value. In my opinion, that distinction falls to their Smart lineup of products. However, if you give up the Blu-ray and hot swappable hard disc drive you're also going to have to go without the Dune HD Max's 7.1 analog outputs.
Competition and Comparison
While I consider the Dune HD Max to be in the same league as a Kaleidescape system, I don't believe there is a lot of crossover in terms of the potential customer base. I think the Dune HD Max's chief competition comes from other media serving devices, such as the Popcorn Hour and Home Theater PCs (HTPC). Like the Dune, the Popcorn Hour and HTPCs rely heavily on their owner's skill level and willingness to experiment with software and hardware. I'm told Popcorn Hour has since released a pretty trick jukebox that is automated like iTunes and available out of the box, as opposed to via a third party as is the case with the Dune. Both can be had for roughly the same type of money as the Dune HD Max and, depending on their configurations, can do many if not all of the same things, making a purchase decision virtually one of pure preference.
And then there is Apple. iTunes, for better or for worse, has become somewhat the standard among jukebox-style interfaces and for good reason - it's brilliant. Because iTunes is brilliant, other Apple products that use it as their backbone - for instance AppleTV - are also fairly brilliant from an end-user standpoint. iTunes makes cataloging, storing and enjoying content simple and intuitive, as well as largely automated. The problem with iTunes, and almost every other Apple product currently available, is that you have to make due with what Apple deems as good enough. For music, this means low-res files, and for movies, highly compressed and overpriced facsimiles of what you could buy and rip for less - if it wasn't illegal. Remember, Apple's focus isn't on the quality of the content it's selling you, but on its convenience, which is why even their so-called HD versions of films are nowhere near the quality you'll get from a DVD, let alone a Blu-ray disc.
Lastly, a number of today's modern home theater products, mainly Blu-ray players, game consoles and HDTVs, feature some sort of Ethernet connection or network capability, which means they may possess some of the same functionality as the Dune HD Max. For example, my Cambridge Audio Azur 751BD Blu-ray player can also access my NAS drive and play back .mkv files, among others, though it didn't seem to do as good a job, especially when streaming HD content. There is still the possibility that you may not even need a device such as the Dune or the Popcorn Hour to access your content; you may already have it in your PS3 or Xbox system.
For more on these devices, as well as others like them, please visit Home Theater Review's Media Server page.
So what is the Dune HD Max? Is it a Blu-ray player with network connectivity, or is it a network streaming device that just so happens to also possess a Blu-ray drive? More importantly, is the Dune HD Max the entry point towards building a working man's K-Scape system? Having spent several weeks with the Dune HD Max, I'd say yes to all of the above questions, for it is, in fact, all of those things. While the Dune HD Max may not be as automated a solution as, say, K-Scape or even iTunes, its ability to be tuned to the end user's specifications makes it far more versatile. Also, provided that same user is willing to do a bit of the work, the Dune HD Max is a far more customizable solution, too.
There's no getting around the fact that if you're one who likes to have copies of content on hard disc and to be able to access that content throughout your home, the Dune HD Max is among the best options from which to choose. However, it is not the only option, for there are numerous other media streaming devices similar to the Dune in both price and feature sets, some even coming with jukebox software already installed, which would make them more ideal out of the box for first-time users. Also, the Dune HD Max is somewhat undercut by its own stable mates, mainly Dune's Smart series of products, which offer much of the same functionality, but at a lower price made possible by foregoing items such as the Max's Blu-ray drive or hot swappable hard drive bay.
Still, for an all-in-one solution, the Dune HD Max is difficult to beat at its asking price of $599.99. One expense that potential customers do need to be aware of is the cost of hard drives; anyone looking to create a digital library of HD content should brace themselves for the expense that comes with storing all that data. It's not that the cost of hard drives is outlandish or even unreasonable - by no means is it as much as what you'll pay for a K-Scape system - it's just not quite as affordable as the Dune products themselves.
Still, at the end of the day, the Dune HD Max is one hell of an affordable and capable player, one that I've enjoyed immensely. While I still feel as if I've only scratched the surface of what the Dune HD Max can do, I have no reservations in giving it a strong recommendation to anyone looking to build a truly custom media serving system on the cheap. Simply put, I love it.