In a world that's now filled with do-it-yourself options, is there still a market for a higher-end dedicated movie and/or music server? That's the inevitable question that we must address as we review Kaleidescape's new $3,995 Cinema One. This product represents something of a departure for the company, in that this is the first Kaleidescape server that you can buy directly from the company's website, as well as through retailers like Magnolia and the Kaleidescape dealer network. The Premiere product line, as the pricier products are now dubbed, is still sold exclusively through dealers.
When we first highlighted the Cinema One as a new product announcement on our Facebook page, the comments immediately started pouring in, questioning two things. One: how could we call a $4,000 server a "mid-level" product? And two: why would anyone spend $4,000 on a movie server when you can assemble your own system for substantially less money using an external hard drive and a media management software application? In answer to the first question, compared with other Kaleidescape products, the Cinema One is "mid-level." The Premiere 1U and 3U servers upon which you could build a whole-house Kaleidescape system cost $9,495 (to store 150 Blu-rays or 900 DVDs) and $24,195 (to store 650 Blu-rays or 3,600 DVDs), respectively - that doesn't include the cost of any remote-zone players and disc vaults to store your discs. Kaleidescape estimates the starting cost of a Premiere system at around $13,900. So yeah, comparatively speaking, the Cinema One is mid-level - much like the $6,500 Krell Foundation preamp we recently reviewed would be considered mid-level for a company like Krell. Call it the theory of price relativity.
The second question is a fair one, and here's my answer: just because everyone can assemble a cheaper DIY solution doesn't mean everyone wants to do it. The simple fact is, not everyone has a DIY mentality. Not everyone wants to go out and buy an external hard drive and then experiment with a bunch of media management applications to figure out which one they like the best. While digital copies are becoming a standard bonus feature on new Blu-ray releases, if you want to make digital copies of the older discs already in your collection, you have to learn how to use ripping software, a questionably legal endeavor that's also just too "techie" for some people. If you've taken the DIY approach and are happy with the results, that's great. However, we also need to acknowledge that there's an audience out there that has zero interest in doing such things. They just want to buy a box, plug it in, and go. That Kaleidescape has been in business since 2001 is testament to the fact that, at least in the very high-end realm, people are willing to pay a lot of money to let someone else design it and set it up. Kaleidescape is taking a risk by moving down a notch in price to see if there's a place for them in the buy-direct market, where people have to set up the product themselves. Only time and sales volume will reveal whether the gamble pays off.
Now that I've given my two cents on the elephant in the room, let's focus on the product itself. The Cinema One is a movie (and music) server and player that contains a 4TB hard drive, large enough to store about 100 Blu-ray-quality movies or 600 DVD-quality movies. You can play BDs, DVDs, and CDs, as well as import your DVD and CD collections and then put the discs away; you can also import your Blu-ray discs, with some limitations that we'll address in a moment. The Cinema One has the same general user interface, with the same features, as the Kaleidescape Premiere products, albeit with some minor tweaks to make setup easier. The Cinema One is compatible with the Kaleidescape Store, through which you can purchase and download HD movies and TV shows at bit-for-bit quality (in both video and audio) as Blu-ray discs. DVD-quality purchases are also available.
Kaleidescape designed the Cinema One to have a more "retail-friendly" aesthetic and form factor than its Premiere products. The box measures 17 inches wide by 2.8 high by 10 deep and weighs 10.2 pounds. The form is close to that of my reference OPPO BDP-103, but with about two inches less depth. The box has a brushed-silver chassis and a lighter silver front face with a shimmering Kaleidescape logo in the center. To the right are three buttons for eject, import, and power; to the left is the slot-loading disc drive. The player comes neatly packaged; HDMI and Ethernet cables are included.
The backside is also clean, sporting a single HDMI output, coaxial digital and stereo analog audio outputs, a USB port, an Ethernet port for a wired network connection (a USB WiFi adapter is also included in the package), and an IR input for integration into an advanced control system. There's no dedicated RS-232 port, but Ethernet control is also an option. Since my modem is located right near my equipment rack, I used a wired connection to my network, and I ran HDMI at times directly to a Panasonic TC-P60VT60 TV and at times through a Harman/Kardon AVR 3700 receiver. You can link two Cinema One players together via a wired network connection to expand your storage capacity and access the full library through each player.
The supplied IR remote has a very Harmony-esque quality in its rounded shape and slightly rubberized feel. The buttons on the top half of the remote have blue backlighting; this is where you'll find the transport controls, directional arrows, and buttons for OK, menu, volume, and more. The bottom half, where the number pad and color buttons reside, is not backlit, but these buttons won't likely see much use. Kaleidescape also offers a free iOS control app for iPad that essentially mimics the Cinema One's user experience in a handheld, touchscreen form. All of the remote control's buttons are replicated, and you can also browse your movie and music collections via the app so as not to interfere with what's already playing on the screen. The app is easy to set up, response time is very quick, and since it's controlling everything over your network, you don't need line-of-sight - which is nice when you're using the system to play music.
The Settings menu includes the standard assortment of options you'd expect to find on a Blu-ray player. On the audio side, bitstream output allows you to pass Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio over HDMI for your receiver to decode, or you can use the Cinema One's internal decoders for basic Dolby Digital and DTS. The player cannot fully decode 7.1-channel Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, though it will pass-through the signal if connected to a receiver; it can only decode the 5.1-channel core audio stream. Coaxial digital and stereo analog give the unit backwards compatibility for those who own receivers that lack HDMI. There's also a D-BOX decoding mode if you have a D-BOX motion system. On the video side, you can select a resolution from 720p up to 1080p, with the choice to allow 1080p/24. The Cinema One also has a pass-through option to output every title at its native resolution to let your TV, receiver, or external scaler handle the upconversion. Aspect ratio options include 16:9, CinemaScape 2.35:1 anamorphic, CinemaScape 2.35:1 letterbox, and CinemaScape native 2.35:1 display for those who have 2.35:1-shaped screens.
My review sample came preloaded with a lot of movies and music, so I didn't get the experience of starting completely from scratch with an empty hard drive. I did test the importing and downloading procedures, though. To import a disc, just pop it in disc drive and select the "import" option from the menu. That's it. You cannot dictate quality settings for your imports; everything is bit-for-bit, so you can't choose to lower the quality to fit more content on the hard drive. This lines up with the Kaleidescape mentality of keeping everything as simple as possible and as high-quality as possible. Importing the Lone Star DVD (the film is 135 minutes long) took only about 20 minutes. Importing the Immortal Beloved on Blu-ray took about two hours (the film runs 121 minutes).
If you haven't heard, Kaleidescape has been involved in a fairly ugly legal battle with the DVD Copy Control Association over allowing people to import DVDs and then put the discs away, although for now you can still do it. To avoid a similar fight over Blu-ray discs, Kaleidescape requires that the Blu-ray disc physically be present in the system in order to play back the imported copy. That means the Blu-ray disc must either be in the Cinema One's own disc drive or in the optional DV7000 disc vault, which holds 320 discs and costs $5,495. If you don't pony up for the disc vault, you may ask yourself why bother importing the disc at all if you have to load it in the drive to play it. Well, once the Blu-ray movie is imported, it's always listed as part of your complete catalog (it's grayed out when the disc is not physically present), and you can still enjoy all the benefits of the Kaleidescape user experience, which we'll discuss in the Performance section.
You can't access the Kaleidescape Store directly through the Cinema One; you have to use a Web browser or the company's iPad app. The store is cleanly laid out and easy to navigate; you can search directly by title or person and browse titles via HD, SD, or both. Browsing options include by genre or by Collections, such as "Academy Award Nominees," "Best of Blu-ray Quality," "Date Night," and "Leonard Maltin Recommends." You can sort results via title, most watched, top seller, year, or Rotten Tomatoes rating. You can show or hide the titles that are already on your hard drive. Blu-ray-quality movie purchases range in price from $9.99 to $26.99; the bonus content that comes on the physical disc is part of your purchase. I purchased an HD copy of the movie Cloud Atlas for $23.99, and the download of this 172-minute film (43.5 GB with bonus content) took about five-and-a-half hours. How long it takes in your home will depend entirely on your broadband speed; my latest connection speed test showed a download speed of about nine Mbps. The end result was a bit-for-bit digital copy with 1080p/24 video and a DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack. Within the Cinema One's setup menu, you can designate a maximum download speed between one and 100 Mbps. Finally, you can link your Kaleidescape Store account to your UltraViolet account to access copies of your purchased content via any UltraViolet-compatible service, like VUDU or CinemaNow.
The System menu includes a helpful Status section where you can keep track of anything that's being imported or downloaded, with an estimate of time remaining. You can import and download content simultaneously.
Read about the Performance, Comparison and Competition and Conclusion . . .
Even though the Cinema One's user experience and features are similar to those of Premiere products that we've already reviewed, I'm going to cover them again here from my perspective, as somebody who is digging into a Kaleidescape system for the first time. Sure, I've seen lots of demos at trade shows, but this is the first time I've had the opportunity to spend time with a system in my own home.
The user interface has always been the heart and strength of the Kaleidescape service. It consists of clean, colorful HD menus, with separate sections for movies and music. Two small buttons on the remote, one with a camera and one with music notes, make it easy to jump directly to each section. When you insert a disc in the drive, Kaleidescape will retrieve all available information from its system and create a menu page that includes a variety of playback options, a breakdown of all pertinent technical specs, a synopsis, cast/artist info, trailers (if available), and any bonus content that downloaded alongside the movie (if you bought it through the Store). Within the movie and music sections, you can choose to view your library in list form or as a grid of cover art that fills the entire screen. The list mode first organizes titles alphabetically, but you can easily switch to organize by genre, cast, director, year, or rating with the click of a button. The cover art mode is certainly the more attractive of the two, but my initial, left-brain reaction to the cover-art layout was, "It's not alphabetical. It's just random chaos!" Upon closer inspection, I discovered the subtle form of organization that exists. Highlight a certain title, linger there for a moment, and all of the covers will float around the screen to rearrange themselves; then you'll notice that the surrounding titles are similar in genre or theme. I highlighted The Natural, for instance, and it was soon surrounded by Remember the Titans, Field of Dreams, Friday Night Lights, Miracle, and Hoosiers. When I highlighted Iron Man, I got the Bourne movies, the Dark Knight series, Indiana Jones, and the like. The music section works the same way. When I paused on the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed, I soon saw albums covers for the Who, Santana, the Eagles, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan. It's a subtle but clever way of recommending similar content.
Another organization option is to create and view Collections. Certain collections have been created by default, including "Blu-ray and HD," "Favorites," "New," "Paused," and "Child." If you have children in the house, you can buy a $39 child-friendly remote with only a few big, colorful buttons. When the Cinema One senses that the child remote is being used, it only shows the titles in the Child collection, so your kids are free to browse and play their movies and TV shows without you having to worry that they'll stumble upon a movie that they shouldn't watch. You can also create your own Collections based on any parameters you choose and group titles into multiple Collections.
Once a disc has been imported, you can begin playback of the film or TV episode immediately, bypassing all of the menu layers and warning screens. That applies to Blu-ray imports, too. Even though the disc must be in the machine, the Cinema One will access the imported copy for immediate playback. Another nice feature is the ability to create scene bookmarks; we home theater types do love our demos, and the "Create Scenes" feature is a very easy way to bookmark our favorites and quickly cue them up. Many titles in the Kaleidescape Movie Guide metadata system already have bookmarks in place that you can keep or delete as desired.
Since Kaleidescape claims bit-for-bit copies, I did a few A/B tests between titles stored on the Cinema One server and DVD/BD versions played through my OPPO BDP-103, using a Panasonic TC-P60VT60 plasma TV. I compared the DVD version of Gladiator and the BD versions of Kingdom of Heaven and The Corpse Bride and could see no meaningful difference in the amount of detail or compression artifacts. I also tested the Cinema One's processing as I would any Blu-ray disc player, and it performed very well. It passed all the processing tests on the HQV Benchmark DVD and BD discs, and it cleanly rendered my favorite 480i torture tests from Gladiator and The Bourne Identity. On the Spears & Munsil BD, it seemed to create a bit of combing in some processing tests, but I did not notice any evidence of this with real-world content. The player loaded discs quickly and reliably; however, because it adds the step of assembling metadata and creating a menu page, the experience is obviously different than just popping in a disc and waiting for the main menu to appear or the music to start.
All of the content you purchase through the Store is backed up in the Cloud, should you experience a problem with your Cinema One. However, you would have to reimport any content that you originally imported through the disc drive. The Cinema One comes with a three-year warranty that can be extended.
My only complaints about the user interface are that you can't access the Kaleidescape Store directly on the Cinema One (at least not yet) and there's no way to type in text to search for a specific title on your hard drive. The scrolling function is very fast, and the remote's channel up/down buttons work as page up/down. As you fill the hard drive with more and more content, it could get cumbersome to find a specific title. If you own an iPad, the control app actually addresses both of these concerns: the app includes a button to take you to the Store and browse/buy content, and you can use the virtual keyboard to type in the first letter of a title to jump to that part of the library list. The company does not yet offer a similar app for iPhone or Android.
The Cinema One's primary function is as a movie server. However, since it's also a Blu-ray player, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the absence of features that you can find in other Blu-ray players - namely, 3D playback, SACD/DVD-Audio playback, internal high-resolution audio decoding with multi-channel analog outputs for compatibility with older electronics, and access to Web-based video- and music-streaming services like Netflix, VUDU, Hulu Plus, Pandora, etc. If you want any of these features, you'll have to add them through other devices, which means the Cinema One can't serve as the sole media-playback device in your system.
At this time, adding a second Cinema One is the only way to add multi-room functionality. This server is not compatible with the M500 and M300 zone players in Kaleidescape's Premiere line.
The need to keep a Blu-ray disc in the tray after importing it will probably be an annoyance to some people, and the disc vault is an expensive add-on. With new releases, you can bypass the disc route altogether and buy digital copies from the Kaleidescape Store, but that doesn't help with older titles you've already purchased in the Blu-ray format. I'd love to see the company introduce its own form of disc-to-digital service where you can download free or at least discounted copies of Blu-ray discs you already own, rather than import them (I'm sure that would be a licensing nightmare, but a girl can drea.) (Editor's Note: Since the completion of this review, Kaleidescape has launched its own disc-to-digital service where you can download digital copies of Blu-ray discs you already own for $1.99 a piece. Since the review was completed before this launch, there was not a chance to test it out.) Kaleidescape also allows you to upgrade your DVD titles to full HD-quality for $5.99, as long as the company has an HD version available in its Store catalog. Within the Store, there's a place under "Your Library" where you can see which DVD titles are available for upgrade.
Comparison and Competition
There's not enough space here to delve into all the different options in the do-it-yourself movie server category, so we'll instead mention some of the other companies that sell dedicated BD/DVD movie servers: Vidabox, Mozaex, and Fusion Research, to name a few. These companies offer a variety of servers with different levels of functionality and storage. They also do not require the disc vault to store Blu-ray discs, and the debate rages over the legality of that approach. Naturally, the companies themselves insist that their approach is legal; Kaleidescape disagrees. It's best to do your own research into the matter before making a purchase.
When you invest in Kaleidescape product like the Cinema One, you're investing less in the functionality than in the experience. As I've already said, you can get basic movie-server functionality through less-expensive means, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a simpler, more intuitive, more attractive user experience that the one Kaleidescape has created. I was sad to box up my review sample and send it on its way, especially because I know that I will likely never exist in an income bracket where I can spend $4,000 on a source component. I will go the DIY route simply by necessity. If you have the means, however, the Cinema One is an easy and enthusiastic recommendation, transforming that static collection of disc cases on your wall into an engaging, interactive experience of the music and movies that are the foundation of this hobby we love so much.