Kaleidescape Strato 4K Movie Player Reviewed

Kaleidescape Strato 4K Movie Player Reviewed

Kaleidescape has had a very eventful existence. The company that has become synonymous with the high-end movie server spent its early years battling the movie studios over its DVD-based server systems. The two sides eventually made peace, which then evolved...

Kaleidescape has had a very eventful existence. The company that has become synonymous with the high-end movie server spent its early years battling the movie studios over its DVD-based server systems. The two sides eventually made peace, which then evolved into partnerships that have proven to be mutually beneficial.

About five years ago, Kaleidescape opened its Movie Store, which allowed customers to download bit-for-bit Blu-ray copies of movies to play back on the company’s line of Internet-connected movie players. They began to make deals with the major movie studios to offer content through the store. The studios were happy because it took the disc (and thus the disc copying) out of the equation, and customers were happy because the downloads offered the quality of Blu-ray, with uncompressed Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA soundtracks.

In 2015, Kaleidescape launched the flagship Encore line of 4K-compatible movie players and servers, including the top-shelf Strato 4K movie player, which supports HDR10 playback, and began adding 4K content for download through the Movie Store. Things seemed to be rolling along.

Suddenly, in August 2016, we were all pretty shocked to hear that the company had to close its doors due to a lack of funding. A few weeks later, we were happy to hear that they had secured new funding and were back in business.

Since then, things have been fairly quiet on the public front, but Kaleidescape has continued to build up its Movie Store. The company has now secured deals with all the major studios, and the store features quite an extensive amount of 4K content. The company also has continued to enhance the functionality of its line of movie players. Kaleidescape recently sent me a sample of the Strato as it prepares for a major software update that will bring some desirable new features to the experience.



Kaleidescape is very careful to call the Strato a “movie player,” not a media player. The Strato is a disc-less playback device–the only way to add content to it is to download titles from the Movie Store to the device’s hard drive. The box is available in two versions; a 6TB version for $4,495 and a 10TB version for $5,995. If that’s not enough storage, you can add the Terra 4K server, available in 24TB or 40TB form. Multiple Terras can be linked together, too.

The Encore line also includes the Strato C, a smaller movie player with no hard drive that costs $3,495 but must be mated to a Terra server to store content. Those who want to continue to access their own collection of BDs and DVDs can go with the Alto movie player ($2,495), which has a Blu-ray disc drive and supports HD-quality downloads from the store, as well as the Disc Server that holds 320 discs.

Okay, now that we’re all caught up on the company’s activities and product lineup, it’s time to really dig into the Strato.

The Hookup
As one would expect from a high-end product, the Strato is built like a tank, with a thick, brushed aluminum shell around the top, bottom, and sides. The current box is bigger and heavier than any UHD Blu-ray player I’ve auditioned, including the best built of the bunch: the Oppo UDP-203, which weighs 9.5 pounds. The Strato measures 17 inches wide by 3.1 wide by 10 deep and weighs a hefty 13.7 pounds. (For the record, as I write this, Kaleidescape intends to introduce a new Strato box design with a smaller form factor, but I don’t expect the overall build quality to diminish any.)

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The front panel is just a strip of glossy black with the Kaleidescape logo in the center, which illuminates white when you power up the device. Around back you’ll find one HDMI 2.0a output to send up to 4K/60p HDR to your AV receiver or display device, plus an audio-only HDMI 1.4 connector and both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs to mate with older audio components. You also get an Ethernet port, and the box has built-in 802.11ac Wi-Fi. One USB 3.0 port is available, which is just listed as “reserved” on the spec sheet; you can’t connect an external USB drive for media playback.

The back panel has an IR port but no RS-232. However, the Strato does support IP control, and drivers are available for major control platforms like Crestron, Control4, AMX, and Savant. The package includes an IR-based remote control with an intuitive button layout and a nice rubberized texture. Much of the front face is backlit with bright blue backlighting. Only the number panel and color keys lack backlighting, but you really aren’t gonna use those much.

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Kaleidescape also offers a free iOS app for iPad only, not iPhone. The app will find and connect you to any Strato on the same network, and through it you can issue remote commands, browse your movie collection, adjust settings, or automatically launch Safari to access the Movie Store and browse/buy content.

Speaking of which, is this the moment to mention one of the big changes coming through the latest software update? … Nah, we’ll get to that in a minute.

Kaleidescape products are primarily sold through custom channels, so all of the initial setup and authorization of the box, as well as linking it to the Movie Store, will likely be handled by a professional installer. My review sample came preconfigured and preloaded with over 80 movies in both HD and UHD quality, but I did test the downloading process, which I’ll discus in the Performance section below.

My primary test system consisted of the LG 65EF9500 HDR10-capable 4K TV and the Onkyo TX-RZ900 AV receiver, with an RBH surround sound system. I also tested the Strato with the Optoma UHD65 HDR-friendly 4K DLP projector and an older, non-HDR-capable Samsung 4K TV. My sample was correctly set up out of the box to output 4K/HDR to compatible TVs, as well as bitstream audio output to my receiver–so I didn’t have to do anything but plug it in, connect it to my network, and start browsing.



Performance
In the server/player market, be it music or movies, performance is first and foremast about the user experience. If you’ve read a Kaleidescape review or used the product yourself, then you know that the user interface and user experience are simply first-rate. You won’t find a better combination of attractiveness and intuitiveness.

You can browse your movies in three ways: by list, covers, or collections. The “List” view simply provides an alphabetical list of your titles, which you can scroll through very quickly (in the iPad app, you can also jump to a certain letter). You can reorganize the list by genre, cast, director, year, time, or rating–all details that are provided on the main List page.

The “Covers” view is probably the most fun. It simply lays out a grid of bright, colorful, 4K cover art–and each one is very clearly labeled HD, UHD, or HDR. When you highlight a certain title, the grid automatically rearranges itself to position similar titles around it. For instance, when I highlighted Finding Nemo (yes, Kaleidescape has a partnership with Disney), the grid positioned the following titles around it: Finding Dory, Frozen, Toy Story, Up, The Incredibles, Inside Out, and Moana.

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I then popped on over to Doctor Strange, and the grid reorganized to display Avengers, Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Rogue One, and Spider-man in the spots closest to it. Animation and Marvel are pretty clear-cut categories; highlight a more general comedy like My Best Friend’s Wedding, and the results aren’t necessarily as specific: I got Hitch, La La Land, Dracula, Frozen, and The Other Guys. Of course, the results will also depend on what you own in your collection that’s similar in genre.

The “Collections” view is where you’re given a level of customization that you don’t get elsewhere. The page includes default Collections like 4K Ultra HD, New, Watch Soon, Favorites, and Paused, which keeps a list of all the movies you’ve started but not finished and lets you pick up right where you left off. Two Kaleidescape-curated Collections are called Scenes and Songs. Scenes lets you instantly access great scenes from films in your library, while Songs lets you pull up the musical numbers in movies like La La Land, Frozen, and Mary Poppins. Plus, you can create your own collections based on whatever parameters you want.

Once you’ve selected a title, a new pop-up screen provides a movie synopsis, cast/crew info, technical specs, and lots of playback options–play the movie, play the trailer, play the scenes you’ve flagged, play bonus content, add the movie to a collection, or go to the Movie Store and see a list of similar movies to buy.

That’s right, I said “go to the Movie Store.” Now is the time to talk about the best addition to the new Kaleidescape operating system: the ability to directly access the Movie Store from the Strato itself. Up to now, you could only access the store through a Web browser, but the new interface lets you browse and buy content right from the screen, so you don’t have to get up and go find your iPad/laptop when you want to order a movie. (The new OS will feature lots of other tweaks to speed up and enhance the navigation experience.)

Now let’s talk about the Movie Store. The interface has a similarly attractive yet simple design, with cover art grouped into different categories like Featured, New Releases, Movies or Television (sub-categorized into genres), Pre-order, Recommended for You (based on past purchases), and of course 4K Ultra HD. You can also input text to search for a title (I would love to see Kaleidescape add simple voice search to look up a movie in your library or the store). The Web-browser interface adds even more categories and lets you get a little more specific in a search, like being able to specifically search for 4K HDR content. The nice part about using the Web interface is that you can browse and buy new movies and get the download process started without interrupting the title that’s playing on the screen.

By my count, the Movie Store had over 360 4K HDR titles at the time of this writing, including marquee new releases like Thor Ragnarok, Coco, and The Post. (The store also had many other 4K titles that were not available in HDR, as well as thousands of HD titles.) The cost is basically the same as buying an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc–$33.99 for many new releases–and that includes the bonus content that was produced for the disc.



What distinguishes the Kaleidescape Movie Store from other VOD services is that you are downloading a copy of the movie that is virtually identical to UHD Blu-ray or Blu-ray. Yes, there is some video compression, but it’s to a similar degree as you get in the disc format, which is much, much less than what’s applied to streamed content from the likes of Apple, Vudu, Google, Amazon, et al. You also get uncompressed multichannel soundtracks, including Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. In the streaming world, most titles are Dolby Digital Plus at best–a few services do offer limited Atmos support, but it’s a compressed form of Atmos built on top of Dolby Digital Plus. Through the Strato, you can enjoy fully uncompressed audio.

Of course, the catch with downloading versus streaming is that you have to be a little patient when you order a movie. You don’t get instant video startup. Download times will vary based on your broadband speed. To test this, I purchased a copy of Coco in 4K HDR. My broadband speed is over 100 Mbps, and I used a wired Ethernet connection to the Strato. I purchased Coco at nine in the morning and went to run some errands; when I returned at 10:30 a.m., the download was complete.


To put the Strato’s video quality to the test, I performed some direct A/B video comparisons between Kaleidescape movie downloads and the same content on UHD Blu-ray, played through the Sony UDP-X800 and OPPO UDP-203 players–first on the LG OLED TV and then through the Optoma UHD65 on a 100-inch-screen. I compared 4K HDR scenes from Blade Runner: The Final Cut, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Batman vs. Superman, and The Great Gatsby–and I could not see any difference, in either detail or noise/compression artifacts, between the download and the disc. In contrast, when I performed the same kind of test between Apple’s 4K HDR content and UHD discs, I could easily see the step down in detail in the Apple version, even on a 65-inch screen.

I don’t have an Atmos/DTS:X sound system, but every title I played came with either a Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD MA soundtrack that passed to my Onkyo receiver without issue.

The act of performing those A/B comparisons highlighted perhaps the Strato’s greatest strength: its ability, as a server, to give you instant access to your movies, once they’ve loaded to the hard drive. To switch discs for each A/B comparison, I had to get up, go get the disc, loaded it into the player, wait through the copyright warning, bypass the trailers, start the movie, then jump to whatever scene I wanted. The Great Gatsby UHD disc wouldn’t load in my OPPO player; it froze up the machine a couple times. I inspected the disc and wiped off some fingerprints, then it worked fine.

With the Strato, meanwhile, I just scrolled to the movie and hit play, and it played immediately, with no warnings and no trailers. It also played reliably … every time. No freezes. No reboots. No buffering. Even the best streaming media players act up from time to time, and performance is subject to the reliability of your network at any given moment. With the Strato, that wasn’t an issue. It just worked … and looked/sounded great while doing so.

The Downside
The biggest downside to the Strato is that it does not currently support Dolby Vision HDR content. When the player originally came out, Dolby Vision wasn’t widely available on either the hardware or software side, but the format has gained a lot of steam over the past year–although I will add that, right now, there are still no Dolby Vision-capable front projectors. So, if you plan to use the Strato as the heart of a true big-screen home theater system, its HDR10 support has you covered. Nevertheless, Kaleidescape reps have said in the past that they are considering adding Dolby Vision, and this needs to happen soon to ensure that this premium player is compatible with all the latest and greatest formats in the UHD space.

kaleidescape-remote.jpgI’m sure, for some, the absence of a built-in disc player (UHD or otherwise) is a downside–but that’s simply not Kaleidescape’s business model anymore. The company is looking ahead to a disc-less future, and can you blame them? I mean, OPPO Digital, the king of physical discs players in the enthusiast space, recently announced that it’s closing its doors. Kaleidescape does provide a path to incorporate your older disc-based movie collection into the Strato user experience; you need an Alto movie player (or an older player from the Premiere system) and the Co-Star switch that the company introduced at last year’s CEDIA Expo. But, when it comes to UHD content, the new business model is download-only.



Finally, I do have to address the elephant in the room: streaming services. Kaleidescape has opted not to integrate streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Video into this box. For them, the Strato is meant to be a high-end box designed for enthusiasts who want to build a movie collection, not just rent or stream the occasional flick. It’s a replacement for that wall of discs that used to represent the true theaterphile. I get that, and I’m happy to get my streaming services elsewhere–I also own a gaming console, and it has all the streaming services I need. That being said, it would nice if there were some path for renting UHD-quality movies through the Strato–either through the Movie Store itself or in partnership with a VOD service like VUDU or FandangoNOW. I know it’s a pipe dream, but a partnership with Apple would be pretty spectacular.

The IR window on the supplied remote is a little narrow. You have to point it pretty much right at the Strato. Then again, I suspect that most people in the market for a $4,495 movie player will be using some other method of control … and the iPad app works great.

Comparison & Competition
There really isn’t a direct competitor to the Strato movie player. For one thing, there’s just not a lot of movie servers out there anymore. Sure, companies like Mozaex still exist, but they aren’t operating in the UHD space, nor do they have a movie store that gives you such high-quality downloads–with the full blessing of the movie studios.

In considering possible competition, you either have to move way, way up in price to something more exclusive like the Bel-Air Circuit day-and-date movie service that’s reserved solely for one-tenth-of-one-percenters (and up) who also invest movie productions–or you have to move way, way down in price to streaming media players from Apple, Roku, NVIDIA, etc.–and I think I’ve pretty much covered how they are different from what Kaleidescape delivers.

Conclusion
It’s fair to say that Kaleidescape’s Strato 4K movie player isn’t for everyone. In this era of little $100 boxes that do a gazillion things, some people will instantly scoff at such a highly specialized high-end product like the Strato that does one thing–but does it really, really well. If you’re just looking for a casual way to rent and stream 4K content to your big-screen TV, then there are plenty of other lower-priced options out there for you. If, on the other hand, you consider yourself the ultimate movie/home theater enthusiast looking to build the ultimate 4K movie collection for a new disc-less era, the Strato is mighty enticing. It combines the best of both worlds: the AV quality of Ultra HD Blu-ray with the convenience of digital downloads, tied together with a fantastic interface that’s a pleasure to use.

Additional Resources
• Visit the Kaleidescape website for more product information.
Read The Complicated Choice Between Streaming and Downloading at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Read Kaleidescape Receives New Investments, Resumes Operations at HomeTheaterReview.com.

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