Top Gun: Maverick

A couple weeks ago I explored a different way of experiencing movies at home — one that doesn’t involve spinning 4K Blu-ray discs or streaming movies from Netflix and other services. I’m talking about the server-based movie system Kaleidescape introduced way back in 2001. The system, which is available only through custom integrators, has evolved over the years yet I never had the opportunity to experience it firsthand until recently when Kaleidescape offered to loan me the company’s Strato C Movie Player with a companion server, the 48-terabyte Terra. (You can read my impressions of the system in A Marriage Made in Movie Heaven.) To further explore the Kaleidescape ecosystem, Sound & Vision agreed to run bi-monthly blog where I review titles available from the Kaleidescape store. Here is the first installment.

Kaleidescape Scenes
Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is back in the pilot’s seat after spending the past 30 years as a topnotch test pilot, but his days as a fighter pilot aren’t over yet. When an overseas adversary decides to enrich uranium at a secret installation, Maverick is called back to Top Gun to train the latest generation of fighter pilots for the dangerous mission. Does he have what it takes to teach or is he still a “doer?”

This film doesn’t break much new ground from the first. In fact, it’s essentially the same movie set 35 years in the future but with much better execution. The story is a bit more refined around the edges, the acting is better, and the aeriel photography is a sight to see.

It’s fitting that this is the first movie to be reviewed in this new blog since Top Gun: Maverick is the No. 1 movie in the world. As of September 26, the film had grossed over $711 million in the U.S. and Canada and an additional $760 million in other territories for a grand total of $1.454 billion — the highest-grossing film of Cruise’s career. In fact, Cruise deserves credit for holding firm on keeping this film in the vault until theaters fully reopened since the film is best seen on the big screen with a first-rate sound system, not on a 50-inch LCD and a soundbar — just sayin’.

One of the many benefits of the Kaleidescape system is access to films when they are released digitally. But unlike Movies Anywhere, Apple TV, or Vudu, with Kaleidescape you get both full bandwidth audio and video, ensuring that you get disc-based quality, and you gain access to the movie well before Blu-ray discs hit Amazon or Best Buy. In fact, this film was released to digital on August 23, 2022 and won’t hit stores until November 1 — that’s a really long time!

When I downloaded the movie from the Kaleidescape Store, it included these eight bookmarked “Kaleidescape Scenes”:

“Mach 10”
“Training Begins”
“A Visit with an Old Friend”
“Dogfight Football”
“A Close Call”
“2 Minutes, 15 Seconds”
“The Mission”
“It’s Not the Plane, It’s the Pilot”

My favorite of the bunch is a toss-up between “Mach 10” and “2 Minutes, 15 Seconds” — you can’t go wrong adding either of those scenes to your own custom demo script. The only is “A Visit with an Old Friend,” which is a pivotal scene in the movie, but not one that showcases the film’s stellar sound and visuals.

As I fully expected after seeing the film in theaters, the Dolby Atmos track is a demo showpiece from beginning to end. Imaging was excellent with discrete pans moving convincingly about the room, and if you like LFE — and I love LFE — you will not be disappointed. The use of low-frequency effects is right up there with the best Kaleidescape (or 4K UHD) has to offer, but be sure to batten down any loose items in your entertainment space: The soundtrack’s LFE channel dips below 20Hz when the afterburners on those fighter jets kick in!

The 4K UHD presentation is nearly as impressive and my only real gripe is the variable aspect ratio provided. Kaleidescape lists the aspect ratio as 1.85:1 but a lot of segments are displayed in 2.40:1. While it’s great to get the added height of those IMAX “scope” sequences, you really lose the width of the image when those scenes come into play. I’ve watched the film twice on the system: once with a fixed 1.85:1 aspect ratio and once with a 2.40:1 image on my 110-inch (diagonal) scope screen, with internal masking applied in my JVC RS-2000 projector to “hide” any of the image above and below the screen when the ratio changes. Frankly, both were a compromise. I had guests over to watch the fixed 1.85:1 presentation and they wondered why the entire screen wasn’t filled all the time. Thank goodness these variable aspect movies are the exception rather than the rule.

Aspect ratio aside, the video presentation was excellent with appropriately saturated colors, inky blacks, and a great use of high dynamic range (HDR). In one of the dogfight scenes, Maverick’s F-18 goes ballistic and heads toward the sun to evade another plane. As the camera moved toward the sun, I found myself shading my eyes due to the brightness of the image. Now that’s what I call a lifelike presentation!

I was fortunate to receive a review copy of the 4K UHD Blu-ray shortly before submitting this review, so I decided to compare the physical disc with the Kaleidescape download. I compared three scenes — the opening flight test, the first scene in the Hard Deck bar, and the funeral. Going back and forth between each version, I couldn’t tell any difference with the video quality. Both are teeming with detail in the foreground and background and there was no banding to speak of. There was a lot of movement in the bar scene with plenty of detail in the background yet I didn’t detect any loss when switching between the disc and Kaleidescape.

For fun, I decided to check out the digital copy on Vudu and here the differences were much easier to spot. The foreground was quite sharp but the background lost some of its detail and depth. Granted, if I wasn’t going back and forth between the two 4K presentations, I probably wouldn’t have been as aware of the differences. On the other hand, it was really easy to distinguish differences in the Dolby Atmos audio track: audio from the streamed version paled in comparison to what I heard through Kaleidescape. Even with the volume matched, the streamed audio presentation lacked the richness and heft of Kaleidescape’s lossless presentation. Until streaming services can figure out a way to incorporate lossless audio in their offerings, I’ll stick with the Kaleidescape and physical discs, thank you very much.

Some may gripe about the lack of originality in the Top Gun: Maverick story, but I‘m not one of them. It’s easy to see why this film is the year’s top box office performer. It’s rare that I come across a film that I can watch from beginning to end three times in the span of four months without getting bored. My last two viewings were seven days apart and I can’t wait to have some more friends over to watch it again. Yes, it’s that entertaining. If you want to show off your A/V system, you really can’t go wrong here. Highly recommended.

Studio: Paramount
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Download Size: 68.2GB (4K UHD)
HDR Format: HDR10
Audio Format: Dolby Atmos
Length: 131 mins
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Bashir Salahuddin, Jon Hamm

Billy's picture

For the price of the K-System, I will buy a whole lot of discs. Thank you very much. What you say, too long to load due to DRM? That makes the trust fund baby system better? I rip all my discs for quick assess. Again I will say, the K-System is truly magnificent, but the pricing is way over the top. More about status then anything else. If I hit the Powerball this week, not sure that even then I would buy one, just out of principle.

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