Review: Kaleidescape Strato The Best 4K Player We’ve Tested
If you are a videophile looking for the best Ultra HD Blu-ray player the industry has to offer, you might not want an optical disc player at all, but, rather, a movie player based on hard drive storage.
We say this after recently testing the Kaleidescape Strato hard-drive-based set-top box designed to store and play hundreds of purchased movies and programs in up to full Ultra HD Blu-ray quality with HDR and advanced lossless audio including: Dolby TrueHD (including object-based Dolby Atmos), DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS:X, and PCM.
Movies are downloaded, stored and cataloged on the unit’s internal hard drives and can be quickly accessed through an elaborate and attractive graphical user interface, which provides information not only on the content, but on the technology in which it’s presented. Users need only press a button to see if they are listening to Dolby Atmos, or watching true 4K Ultra HD video with HDR.
However, if you have one of the latest-and-greatest 4K Ultra HDTVs with HDR support, the picture and sound quality will be fairly obvious without the need for additional visual aids.
Read more of our review of the Kaleidescape 4K Strato server and movie player after the jump:
History and Challenge
The Strato was first shown by Kaleidescape more than a year ago, and in that time the company ran into some financial difficulties. It was forced to shut its doors and layoff, temporarily, the majority of its staff, after failing to acquire a necessary capital infusion in time.
But in the last year, the company has come back fighting, refusing to so quickly kill off one of the best playback source devices the industry has to offer.
Founder and current chairman Michael Malcom and co-founder and current CEO Cheena Srinivasan helped guide Kaleidescape through the settlement of a contract dispute with the DVD CCA three years ago. Between 2004 and 2014, the company had to fight this life-threatening lawsuit from various Hollywood interests concerned that the Kaleidescape system of essentially cloning DVDs to a hard drive would open the floodgates to a product category that would promote rent, rip and return practices from other low-cost manufacturers that didn’t care as much about licensing the necessary technologies, including the DRM, as Kaleidescape had done.
Kaleidescape argued that its system didn’t break the copy control technology, but rather transferred a digital version of the whole disc intact along with the anti-copy system onto the hard drive, preventing the title from being copied illicitly on the internet or onto physical media discs. Instead of creating illegal copies, the system allowed purchased discs to be used with a new class of home video servers relying on users’ fair-use rights to a title that has been properly purchased. After all, content couldn’t be sold or shared with others.
Post settlement, systems sold after November 2014 no longer imported DVDs. Instead they recognize a purchased disc and catalog it in the user interface. Later, with Blu-ray technology, the company implemented a different system – one that had to comply with a different copy protection technology called AACS. With Blu-ray Discs copied on to the movie server, playback required ownership of a physical copy of the discs to be present in a disc vault.
The legal disputes carried on for nearly a decade, and in the intervening years Kaleidescape was able to develop a digital download system that content producers and Hollywood studios embraced. Through digital downloading, content could be downloaded and stored locally from a cloud-based store in a range of resolution levels and audio formats including 4K Ultra HD with UHD Blu-ray-like 100 Mbps bit rates. This includes 3840×2160 pixel resolution, up to Rec. 2020 color gamut support (when available) and with HDR10 high dynamic range metadata. Going forward, Srinivasan said the company will consider adding Dolby Vision HDR support and possibly others.
Kaleidescape Movie Store
The Movie Store, which has now effectively replaced the disc-purchase and cateloging (or cloning) processes of older Blu-ray and DVD-based Kaleidescape systems, also offers titles besides 4K, including DVD quality SD and Blu-ray quality HD. Blu-ray quality content can include Atmos and DTS:X as well.
Kaleidescape has license agreements with 22 of the top Hollywood movie distributors in the U.S. to keep the Movie Store well stocked with the latest home video releases and catalog content. Studios that now license movies for sale through the Store include the following:
Warner Brothers, including New Line Home Video
Lionsgate, including Miramax Films, Summit Entertainment, Starz, and Anchor Bay Entertainment
NBCUniversal, including Focus Features
Sony Pictures, including Sony Pictures Classics, Cohen Media, and eOne
Disney, including Disney•Pixar and Marvel
20th Century Fox, including Fox Searchlight Pictures and DreamWorks Animation
RLJ Entertainment, including Acorn
Music Box Films
Eagle Rock Entertainment
Cinedigm Entertainment, including New Video Group and Docurama Films
Kino Lorber, including Zeitgeist Films
The store’s assortment of 4K titles is expected to reach 270 by the end of the summer, and growing. About 120 of those 4K titles include HDR10 support.
The Strato is part of the company’s 4K-capable Encore line, and is one of a series of Kaleidescape premium digital media players, servers, and storage devices that tap into the Kaleidescape Movie Store.
The Strato is the company’s most advanced player and it isn’t cheap. Targeted at users with premium home theater systems the 6 TB version of the Strato starts at $4,495 and runs up to $5,995 for a 10 TB version that will handle up to 180 Ultra HD Blu-ray quality movies or 1,500 DVD-quality titles.
If more movies and storage are desired, the Strato can link to a separate Terra movie server or to another Strato movie player to playback the titles stored on those components’ hard drives.
The Terra Movie Server (pictured above) can store up to 40 TBs of movies and serves them to various Kaleidescape players including the Strato, Strato C and Alto players in the home network. Up to 10 Strato/Strato C players can play 4K movies simultaneously from a single Terra server and up to 15 players can play Blu-ray quality movies. A system may contain multiple Terra servers, which are available in either 24 TB or 40 TB capacities.
For networking, the Strato is equipped with a 100Base-TX/1000Base-T Ethernet (RJ45 connector) and integrated 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Key connections include: an HDMI 2.0a/HDCP 2.2 output, and an HDMI 1.4 output for audio. Also included is a digital TOSLINK output and coaxial RCA output.
The target audience was and still is high-end home theater enthusiasts looking for the most convenient and enjoyable way of storing, accessing and viewing their purchased personal libraries of movies and pre-recorded video content without the need to scan massive shelves of DVDs and Blu-ray discs.
In a new business model, Kaleidescape will soon be recruiting both new Kaleidescape customers and long-time Kaleidescape system owners with a linking system.
Srinivasan said the company will soon offer a solution that unites the movie collections from both legacy DVD disc-based systems and the latest download platforms into one user interface. This will enable full access to Kaleidescape Movie Store content including 4K Ultra HD movies, and seamless access to content stored on a Premiere system.
How It Performs
For now, the Strato player we tested came pre-loaded (for review purposes) with a large library of 4K Ultra HD and Full HD 1080p movie downloads, including some of the latest 4K/HDR titles. As mentioned, the player, like Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc players, is capable of bit rates up to 100 Mbps. Kaleidescape’s Strato has so much more information to work with for both audio (lossless formats) and video (true 4K) that it delivers between 65 and 100 Mbps for video and between 10 and 24.5 Mbps in audio. In comparison, streaming 4K UHD titles from services like Netflix, Amazon and Vudu average between 10 and 25 Mbps, while Blu-ray Disc bit streams run between 82 and 128 Mbps determined by disc capacity. This rich information from downloaded content on a Strato makes images sparkle with clarity and fine detail.
To add additional movies, an Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection to a home network will enable the Strato to tap into the Kaleidescape Movie Store to select and purchase titles to download.
As anyone with a lot of experience viewing 4K streaming video will know, the resolution quality of a streamed movie varies significantly according to bandwidth, service and service provider, with some services varying resolution rates continuously throughout playback to adjust for ever-changing bandwidth usage rates.
But with a download, unimpeded by bandwidth, playback of Ultra HD titles is consistently clear and virtually absent of the in-and-out blurring, jaggies and periodic color shifts common to the variable-rate bandwidth delivery of streaming.
Images in the 4K Ultra HD/HDR version of Mad Max: Fury Road, were bright and vibrant in the sun-washed desert scenes without being washed out. On top of this, specular highlights in the flash of exploding vehicles and ignited flame throwers were bright and radiant with reddish orange. This was significantly more vibrant than the standard Blu-ray SDR version and comparable to the Ultra HD Blu-ray playback on an Oppo UDP-203 disc player.
Similarly, the dark details were visible in the muck of a German country road beneath the gutted Sherman tank, where the last surviving American hero escapes the flashlight of an SS solider in Fury.
We watched samples of these films with the Strato connected to a Samsung UN65Q7F 4K Ultra HD QLED television through Sony’s new HT-ST5000 Dolby Atmos soundbar. The combination was dynamic and compelling.
The Strato also effectively fed a similarly magical sound experience through this trio of devices playing Mad Max: Fury Road. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack made for a wide soundstage and floor shaking rumble from the roaring engines of makeshift desert ratrods. The height channels in the soundbar offered a clear vertical delivery above our heads while at the same time surrounding us from the both sides.
In almost every 4K title, we were impressed with the vibrantly detailed colors, which were made all the more realistic by the large color volume produced by the Q7 TV’s quantum dot film layer. Kaleidescape delivered the content flawlessly without impacting color accuracy or richness even in the brightest scenes.
Another major benefit of the Kaleidescape graphical content are the many layers of data that accompanies every title in addition to the ability to quickly find favorite songs that are part of each movie’s soundtrack.
Pressing a button on the remote control sporting a musical note icon brings up a menu of available songs from a variety of musically oriented movies. The Strato instantly called up a list of such available titles so we could quickly access and listen to favorite movie tunes or musically oriented scene sequences, including video accompaniment.
To get our jazz fix, we selected the “Herman’s Habit” sequence in La La Land to almost instantly call up the very funny debate about the relevance of the jazz artform as musical engagement or relaxation aide.
Similarly, pressing the button with the camera icon called up a menu of all video sequences on a selected title allowing us to jump quickly to a favorite scene.
To easily browse through massive libraries, the menu button brings up an assortment of screens listing: disc covers of each stored title, a list of movie collections, parental control settings, and a list of all available titles that is sortable. Kaleidescape sets it to sort by resolution, with 4K Ultra HD with HDR titles listed in descending order, through HD quality titles and finally SD (DVD) quality titles.
We found the title search and navigation tools among the most intuitively friendly and fun to use that we’ve seen on a video device.
In short, when it comes to movie watching, the Kaleidescape Strato is the best 4K Ultra HD source device we’ve tested. Its picture and sound quality stand up with the Oppo Ultra HD Blu-ray player UDP-203 in playback of native 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray content. As for upconversion of lower resolution content, we fed content from the Strato to Samsung’s excellent on-board processing in the QN65Q7F QLED television. The signals arriving at the display were bit-perfect and introduced no additional artifacts, banding or colorization that we could discern.
Sound quality was always clear and dynamic, with a realistic tonality for music, along with explosively moving bass and clear dialog on action scenes. It also handled Dolby Atmos as well as any disc player we’ve sampled.
Indeed, this is a high-end component for a high-end home theater enthusiast willing to pay for and get the best. You won’t find a Kaleidescape Strato on any bargain web sites. In fact, the best way to purchase one is through a custom home theater installer or A/V specialist.
But with what you might pay for a top-of-the-line LG OLED TV, Samsung QLED TV, or a high-performance 4K laser projector from Sony, Epson, DPI and the like, you are going to want the best incoming source signal available, and from what we’ve seen so far, that’s the Kaleidescape Strato.
We therefore award the Kaleidescape Strato 4K Ultra HD Player/Server five out of five hearts.
The Kaleidescape Strato player used for this review was a company loan.
By Greg Tarr
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