Kaleidescape Strato 4K Ultra HD Movie Player Review
AT A GLANCE
Unrivaled user interface
Terrific image quality including HDR10
Fast access times with no buffering
Excellent HDMI handling
Limited to content bought from Kaleidescape store
No Dolby Vision support
Strato serves up gorgeous, full UHD images using Kaleidescape’s unparalleled interface, with content delivered from the company’s store.
One of my biggest takeaways from the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show was that 1080p TVs are rapidly going extinct, replaced in nearly every size from 40 to 80 inches by 4K Ultra HD models. This was confirmed at this year’s show, where the only non-4K TVs were outliers in the 90-inch-and-beyond region…or the 8K “visions of the future” that manufacturers displayed to prove they aren’t resting on their laurels.
The problem with 4K, however, remains content. Now that you can get a pretty sweet 55-inch 4K TV in the vicinity of $1,000, what are you going to watch on it? Sure, there’s a smattering of titles on Netflix and Amazon, but streaming 4K isn’t without its own challenges—or compromises, including rather massive data compression. Dish and DirecTV are looking to roll out 4K coverage (DirecTV had the world’s first 4K broadcast of the Masters golf tournament this year) and offer a small amount of pay-per-view content, but this also involves significant compression and very limited selection. Ultra HD Blu-ray is making its way onto the scene, but while picture quality has been mostly hailed as terrific, the current selection of titles has been mostly meh, and many people have sworn off adopting another form of physical media. Furthermore, Ultra HD Blu-ray still comes with all the traditional limitations of disc-based media— the required shelf space, the usual get-up-and-put-it-in-the-player routine, etc. For those looking for the ultimate in picture quality, features, and luxury movie theater performance, Kaleidescape submits the new Strato for approval.
If you’ve been an avid Sound & Vision reader for any length of time, or even just a casual A/V aficionado, you’re probably familiar with the Kaleidescape name. It’s the company that literally invented the movie server category.
Back when DVDs were king, Kaleidescape’s first movie server (which I reviewed when it was introduced in 2003) would import DVD fare onto a series of hard drives, utilize the company’s Movie Guide database to identify and sort your films in a variety of ways, and then present your collection in a glorious, onscreen user interface. The system was revolutionary, but it didn’t come cheap: Early models cost upwards of $30,000.
As Blu-rays came onto the scene, Kaleidescape updated their technology with Blu-ray drives and greater hard-disk capacities, so that their servers would remain the ultimate portal for movie lovers. Kaleidescape unveiled their online Movie Store in December 2012, a development that paved the way for this latest generation of product. Here, customers could purchase and download films directly to their machines in full disc quality. All the digital convenience with none of the compromise.
With Strato, Kaleidescape is completely abandoning the discdependent system that the company was founded on, instead relying 100 percent on their Movie Store to provide content. To be clear, Strato doesn’t play any discs; all content must be downloaded from the Kaleidescape store.
Visit the Store
Since Kaleidescape’s online store is so integral to Strato’s operation, it demands a bit of discussion. Cheena Srinivasan, the company’s co-founder and CEO, told me back in 2003 that Kaleidescape wanted to be “more than just a media management company. We want to eventually get into content delivery.” That dream is now fully realized in the Kaleidescape Movie Store, which you can browse by visiting store.kaleidescape.com.
The store has licensed 11,000 DVD- and Blu-ray-quality movies for download, plus 1,500 TV seasons. And it claims the largest selection of UHD titles available anywhere. The vast majority of UHD films you’d want to own (and you’ve actually heard of) come from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, though Kaleidescape also has UHD distribution agreements with The Orchard, K2 Communications, Moving Art, 4K Universe, and Twentieth Century Fox (with Fox UHD titles scheduled to appear this fall). Although the company won’t speculate about who else might be added later, they’re constantly in talks to acquire new content and have existing agreements in place for HD content from Disney, Lionsgate, Magnolia, Marvel, Pixar, Warner Bros., Gravitas Ventures, and Sony Music. So it isn’t difficult to imagine that these studios might be added to the UHD mix at some point as content becomes available.
Pricing for new releases like Concussion, The Brothers Grimsby, and Pride + Prejudice + Zombies is comparable to buying an Ultra HD Blu-ray at $29.99, while indie studio titles range from $15.99 to $24.99. Because your Strato player is linked to your store account, the store “knows” what films you own, helping to prevent you from re-buying anything. It can also present opportunities to upgrade from SD to HD to UHD, and if a movie supports disc-to-digital UltraViolet rights, you can upgrade to the UHD version for considerably less. For example, since I own Air Force One and The Walk on Blu-ray, I could download those movies in UHD for only $13.99 each. Because I own The Fifth Element and Men in Black II on DVD, I could upgrade those to UHD for $17.99 each.
Once you buy a movie, it downloads in its entirety to your Strato before you can watch it. Kaleidescape supports download speeds of more than 100 megabits per second, and your results will definitely vary based on your ISP and network. UHD movies are massive—most are around 60 to 75 gigabytes, with Lawrence of Arabia clocking in at a whopping 111.3 GB!—so downloading over a 20-Mbps connection will take several hours. One bonus is that purchasing a film in UHD also gets you download rights for the HD and SD versions, something that can be important in housewide streaming (see below). And UHD titles featuring HDR10 high dynamic range are on the way; more on that later.
Kaleidescape’s store is certainly easy to navigate, and it offers a lot of options for sorting and filtering content, such as just displaying new UHD releases. Once you’ve linked your player to your store account, purchasing is a breeze, and downloads start almost immediately. There are also some handy options like setting a maximum download speed (so the store doesn’t decimate your bandwidth) and creating a schedule (so downloads occur only during certain hours).
Choose Your Strato
Strato can be ordered one of two ways: with or without internal storage. I received the model with 6 terabytes of internal storage ($4,495), which is capable of accommodating approximately 100 UHD-, 200 Blu-ray-, or 900 DVD-quality movies, or any comparably sized combination of the three. The non-storage version is $1,000 less and either streams from another Strato with internal storage or pairs with Kaleidescape’s Terra Movie Server, which is available in capacities of 12 TB ($5,995) and 24 TB ($7,995).
Kaleidescape offers some interesting options for housewide video distribution, allowing you to share and enjoy a single, unified library around the home. All A/V signals are sent over a home’s existing hard-wired network (Wi-Fi is only supported for standalone players; see below). Up to four players with internal storage (either Strato or the company’s non-4K Alto) can be on one system, giving a maximum storage of 24 TB. There is no limit to the number of players without storage that can be on a system; however, only two simultaneous streams are possible. For homes where more than two streams are needed, the Terra features more powerful computing and caching services and can handle up to seven 4K streams or 15 Blu-ray streams.
Alto can stream all non-4K content from Strato (or Terra)—an example of why you might want to download both the UHD and HD versions of a film—and Strato can stream all content from an Alto with storage.
Included in the box are a shielded Ethernet cable, HDMI cable, AC adapter, remote control, and batteries. The first thing I noticed when unboxing Strato was its weight. At nearly 14 pounds, Strato feels really solid and well built. I was also impressed by its fit and finish, featuring a slick, completely buttonless, gloss-black front panel, a top and a bottom in brushed aluminum, and rounded edges and sides. This is a definite departure from Kaleidescape’s industrial design, as previous components all featured distinctive gloss-white finishes. While technically insignificant, my unit was serial number 007. Cool.