Review: Kaleidescape Strato 4K/UHD HDR Movie Server

Kaleidescape has long been the gold standard of movie servers, in terms of both quality and price. From DVD to Blu-ray to UHD Blu-ray, Kaleidescape servers play digital files that are bit-for-bit identical to the corresponding discs. So it is with the company’s latest server, the Kaleidescape Strato.

Features

Some years ago, Kaleidescape got into licensing hot water over users copying, or “ripping,” DVDs to its servers, thus circumventing the discs’ copy protection, even after licensing the copy-protection technology. So, when 1080p became the norm, the company’s Blu-ray servers required the physical disc to be loaded into any device in a Kaleidescape system, even though the server played a digital copy from a hard drive, in order to comply with the DRM requirement for Blu-ray called AACS. This was designed to prevent misuse; the user had to have the actual disc in order to play the digital copy of the movie on a Kaleidescape system.

With the Kaleidescape Strato, the company changed its strategy again. Instead of requiring a disc to be physically present in the system, Strato users download movies and TV shows from the Kaleidescape Movie Store. In fact, the Strato cannot play physical discs at all, only downloads.

These are not rentals; you own the titles, just as you would a physical disc, and you can play them as many times as you like. You can also select specific scenes and play any available bonus features. However, only scenes that you bookmark are available for direct, random access; there is no chapter-selection menu as with physical discs. Kaleidescape has pre-selected certain scenes to be sort of a “highlight” reel for each movie, and you can add to them as you wish.

Over 11,000 movies (240 in UHD HDR) and 2000 TV seasons are available in the US, with smaller selections in the UK and Canada. HD titles typically cost around $10 to $20, while UHD/HDR titles cost roughly $25 to $35 each. Unfortunately, as of this writing, there are no UHD titles from Lionsgate or Disney, though Kaleidescape is working on those deals.

As with previous Kaleidescape systems, these files are bit-for-bit identical with the corresponding discs. The Strato supports bit rates up to 100 Mbps (about the same as a UHD Blu-ray player and way more than streaming), frame rates up to 60 fps, and HDR10 high dynamic range (not Dolby Vision). And because it plays files from a local hard disk, there are no issues with startup delays, buffering, or drops in quality as there are with streaming. The unit’s video processor upscales Blu-ray and DVD content to UHD resolution.

On the audio side, the Kaleidescape Strato supports lossless multichannel audio, including Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, DTS:X, and DTS-HD Master Audio. Currently, the Kaleidescape Store has no titles with Auro 3D immersive audio.

Of course, the time it takes to download a title depends on your Internet bandwidth and the size of the file. According to Kaleidescape, with a downstream bandwidth of 25 Mbps, the average SD/DVD title (6.7 GB) will take 36 minutes, the average HD/Blu-ray title (37 GB) will take 3.5 hours, and the average UHD title (55 GB) will take 5 hours. If you’re lucky enough to have 100 Mbps service, the average SD/DVD title will take 9 minutes, the average HD/Blu-ray title will take 49 minutes, and the average UHD title will take 73 minutes.

The Strato is equipped with 6 or 10 TB of internal hard-disk storage at a price of $4495 or $5995, respectively. With a 6 TB hard disk, it can store up to 100 4K/UHD movies, 200 Blu-ray-quality movies, or 900 DVD-quality movies. With 10 TB, those numbers increase to 180 4K/UHD movies, 330 Blu-ray-quality movies, or 1500 DVD-quality movies.

Kaleidescape products are designed to be integrated into a multi-device, multi-room system, though some—including the Strato—can also be used by themselves. The Strato is part of the company’s Encore line, which also includes the Terra server with 24 or 40 TB of storage ($7995 and $12,995, respectively), the Strato C player ($3500) with no internal storage, the Alto Blu-ray disc player/server ($3295, 6 TB), and the Disc Server ($4995), which holds up to 320 Blu-rays and DVDs.

Any number of these components can be combined in an Encore system, and they communicate over the home’s local-area network (LAN) via Ethernet, not Wi-Fi. The Strato does have Wi-Fi, which is intended to make it easy for someone with a single unit to get guide updates and download movies without having to pull wires.

But with multiple Encore units, hard-wired gigabit Ethernet is a must, since 4K/UHD content can reach and even exceed 100 Mbps. Up to 10 Strato/Strato C players can simultaneously play different UHD/HDR content from a single Terra server, and up to 15 players can simultaneously play Blu-ray quality titles.

Interestingly, the Strato cannot inherently access content on products in the older Premiere system—the M300 Movie Player, M500 Movie Player, 1U+ Movie Server, and Disc Vault. At CEDIA 2017, Kaleidescape introduced the Co-Star ($500), which bridges the gap between the two systems and allows the Strato to access and integrate the content on Premiere components into its menu system.

Ergonomics

To see what titles are on the Strato’s hard drive, you can select between a list view and a graphical array of cover art. The list view can be sorted alphabetically by title, genre, cast, or director. In cover-art mode, you can scroll up, down, right, or left. Once you stop on a title, a description appears to its left and other similar titles move in to surround it in a cool animation.

Each item identifies the best available quality for that title, from SD (DVD) to HD (Blu-ray) to UHD HDR. In many cases, lower-quality versions are also available; if so, they are included in the purchase price.

Cover-art mode is presented in 4K/UHD resolution, and it’s beautiful. But I found it difficult to find what I wanted. List mode is alphabetical, making it much easier to find a title, genre, cast, or director.

A third option is to browse by collections. These include all 4K/UHD titles, favorites you’ve designated, new releases, extra bonus features, songs from musicals, and scene selection.

As of this writing, you access the Kaleidescape Movie Store from a web browser, but soon, you will be able to access it directly from the Strato. I tried a beta version of this feature, and it worked very well. Titles are organized into various groups, such as new releases, movies and TV shows of various genres, nature and wildlife, and 4K UHD. You can also search for titles, actors, etc.

The Settings menu is quite simple. It provides access to things like Wi-Fi and network settings, language and subtitles, parental controls, etc. Other Settings include audio and video, linking and unlinking other components, and disc-server settings. However, these are available only from a web browser on a computer or mobile device.

To access these controls, you enter the IP address of the Strato—which you can find in the network settings—into the URL field of the browser. From there, you can see much more info about the unit, including available disc space, a list of movies on the server, and a history of download activity. You also have access to many more controls for video, audio, network, and control protocols. This is a perfect application for a tablet.

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The browser-based interface provides access to many settings and status indicators. From this home screen, you can open many other windows of controls and information.

For some reason, I could not access the browser-based settings when the Strato was connected to my network via Ethernet. I was able to access the settings when it was connected via Wi-Fi. The Ethernet connection went through a switcher/hub, so I suppose it’s possible that the computer didn’t recognize the Strato on the same network. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to fully troubleshoot this.

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The remote is straightforward, with a fairly intuitive layout. The buttons are easy to find by feel. Also, the top half is illuminated bright blue; it should be red so that your adapted vision is not affected.

Setup

For this review, I had only one Strato, so setup was a snap. The back panel is very simple; all I had to do is connect the power cord and HDMI output. At first, I used Wi-Fi to connect to my home network, and the Strato automatically guided me through the process of logging in. When it came time to download a movie, I connected an Ethernet cable so the download would proceed faster, and the unit automatically disabled Wi-Fi.

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In addition to the power connector and HDMI output, the back panel provides three digital-audio outputs—optical, coax, and HDMI—as well as a USB port, Ethernet port, IR control input, and micro-USB service port.

To make sure I had maximum bandwidth from the Strato to the Sony 65A1E OLED TV, I connected a 6′ Cable Matters HDMI cable certified for 18 Gbps from the server to my Denon AVR-X6200W. I connected the HDMI output of the AVR to the TV with a 10-meter Fibber Ultra Pro fiber-optical HDMI cable, which is also known to support 18 Gbps. I used the HDMI 3 input on the TV and made sure it was set to Enhanced, which enables 18 Gbps.

Performance

I started with Passengers in 4K/UHD HDR. It looked and sounded wonderful, just like the UHD Blu-ray. The overall audio level was fairly low, leading me to crank the volume more than with most content. Also, the audio dynamic range was quite wide, forcing me to ride the volume sometimes. I assume this is a characteristic of the soundtrack, since it wasn’t a problem with other titles.

Unfortunately, the audio occasionally dropped out for a moment, and the entire signal dropped out once in a while as well. The screen went black for a second or two, after which the image returned with the message, “Secure connection to the display restored; resuming playback.”

After that happened half a dozen times or so, I checked the Sony’s HDMI Enhanced setting—which was correct—then went back to the movie. After that, the problems did not recur. I asked Kaleidescape about it, and they are investigating, but as of this writing, we don’t know why it happened. It didn’t happen with any other movie I played, and it didn’t happen when I played Passengers again.

I wanted to see how long it would take to download a movie, so I chose a long one—Blade Runner 2049, which has a run time of 2 hours and 44 minutes. It’s not cheap—the 4K HDR version is $37, the Blu-ray version is $28, and the DVD version is $22. I assume the prices are fairly high because it’s a recent and popular release.

The 4K/UHD HDR version is 87.6 GB, which took 2 hours and 21 minutes to download with my downstream bandwidth of 114 Mbps (measured using Speedtest.net just before starting the download with no other online activity in my home). The Strato History page revealed that the effective data rate was actually 82.0 Mbps.

The video and audio quality was exceptional. The low frequencies are really emphasized, just as they were in the theater. It was a truly beautiful presentation.

Next, I wanted to try an older title in HD, so I took a look at Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The opening Columbia logo was super-grainy, but the movie itself looked great. The Strato upscaled the HD image to UHD, and I saw no ill effects.

Finally, I wondered how a standard-definition DVD title would look. Kaleidescape recommended that I download the original Blade Runner in SD, HD, and UHD HDR to compare. As expected, the DVD version looked somewhat soft, but not too bad. The Blu-ray version looked sharper, while the UHD/HDR version was way better in both detail and dynamic range. The moral of the story is, watch the highest-quality version you can.

Customer Support

One of the movies that came with the review unit was Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. It’s the only UHD/HDR movie I know of with a frame rate of 60 fps, so I was eager to check it out. When I started playing it, I pressed the TV’s Display button, which shows what it’s receiving. It reported 1080p. What? How can that be?

I rechecked the Sony’s HDMI Enhanced setting, and it was correct. I tried connecting the Strato’s video HDMI output directly to the TV with a fiber-optic cable and its audio HDMI output to the AVR, with the same result. I also tried moving the Strato closer to the TV and using a shorter HDMI cable certified to carry 18 Gbps, still with the same result.

I looked at the Strato’s video settings in the browser, which include HDMI status based on the display’s capabilities as reported by its EDID (Extended Display ID). It showed that the Strato thought the TV couldn’t handle 2160p at 60 fps, so it was downshifting the signal to 1080p, though it was still HDR at 60 fps.

I was stumped, so I called Kaleidescape customer support for help. Long-time customer-support guru Rusty Johnson remotely connected to my Strato and started to troubleshoot. He set the Strato to output 13.5 Gbps (which an end user can do as well in the browser-based controls), but it still downshifted to 1080p.

Rusty suggested I recheck the HDMI setting in the TV one more time, and to my shock, it was set to Standard! I know I hadn’t changed it, so it must have switched on its own for some reason. (Sony says that shouldn’t happen.) Once I switched it back to Enhanced, the Strato sent 2160p HDR at 60 fps to the TV.

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This is the HDMI Status screen of the Strato while it was playing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—after the mysterious downshift to 1080p had been solved.

I give lots of kudos to Rusty Johnson and Kaleidescape customer support. I’ve worked as a customer-support tech myself, and I was very impressed! I was assured that any customer could expect this level of help—and at these prices, they should. I’m glad to report that the company’s customer support matches the quality of its product.

Conclusion

The Kaleidescape Strato is an exceptional piece of home-theater gear. It duplicates the physical-disc experience almost perfectly without the hassle of dealing with physical discs. (The only exception is the absence of a chapter-selection menu.) The video and audio quality are identical to what you get playing physical discs. I know of no other download service that does that. Plus, it can be incorporated into a larger system that delivers the same top-quality experience to any room in your home. All of which leads me to bestow the AVS Forum Top Choice award on the Strato.

However, that level of quality does not come cheap. A Strato with 6 TB of storage costs nearly $4500, and additional components to expand the system are similarly expensive. And titles from the Kaleidescape store are relatively pricey, though not completely out of line with their disc-based counterparts. Also, UHD titles from Lionsgate and Disney are not available, though Kaleidescape is working on those deals.

The user interface is generally excellent and intuitive. I had a few problems during the review period, but I was able to resolve most of them. When I couldn’t, Kaleidescape customer support was top-notch.

Clearly, the Strato and the rest of the Kaleidescape system is meant for the well-to-do. If that includes you, consider it a smart investment in your entertainment future.


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