Kaleidescape Strato Review
By Chris Heinonen on
Kaleidescape is a name familiar to many as they’ve been producing high-end movie servers for a number of years. Over the past decade, the home movie experience has changed drastically with a shift to streaming over physical media. Kaleidescape has changed along with this as the Strato no longer rips and store your collection but instead offer downloads that offer the same quality as the physical discs. In some cases, the Strato offers disc-quality downloads of titles in 4K that aren’t available on disc yet. Combined with a user interface that still offers a better movie watching experience than anything else we’ve used the Kaleidescape experience is a wonderful one but comes at a high price with more competition than before.
For people that haven’t followed Kaleidescape recently, the lack of a disc drive slot in the front will be surprising. After all, Kaleidescape for years was built around the concept of keeping your physical discs in vaults, and a copy of them on a hard drive for instant access free of loading times, menus, or previews you cannot skip. As everyone else has moved away from physical media and to streaming titles, Kaleidescape has done the same but without the loss in quality that you associate with streaming. Instead, you get full 4K UltraHD Blu-ray versions of the film including bonus features, scene selections, lossless soundtracks, and higher video bitrates. Don’t worry about your Blu-ray or DVD collections, as Kaleidescape still offers disc vaults to store them but downloads are what the future holds.
The Strato packs the features you expect in an UltraHD source: support for HDR and WCG at frame rates up to 60Hz, support for Dolby Atmos and other lossless formats, and upscaling for all your existing titles. One feature that is missing is support for Dolby Vision. While only a small number of 4K titles today are Dolby Vision that number is steadily increasing, so the lack of support for it might bother those with displays that can handle the format.
Kaleidescape Strato In-Use
Where Kaleidescape has always set itself apart from the crowd is in the movie watching experience. That starts with their full-screen user interface, which is just a joy to use. For comparison, I’ll look at how the recent Apple TV 4K movie library experience compares. Most people using a Strato will probably use the movie cover experience, which displays the cover art for all your titles. As you hover over a title, the screen will rearrange itself. The description of the selected title comes up and the titles around it are now similar titles. If you select Rogue One, then other Star Wars titles in your library will appear next to it, while selecting a concert film will then show other music titles. If you just watched a movie and want something similar, it makes it easy to find something like that.
If you don’t like the cover view, you can also choose to view your titles listed alphabetically or in groupings that can be customized. Browsing a list of all your 4K titles, or comedies or kids is easy to do. For all these titles you get a list of scenes, letting you jump right into a part of the film and watch it. While great for a reviewer since I can go back to scenes for comparison, the feature works best with music discs. You can jump right to a song you want to hear and not have to deal with buffering, ads, or warning messages before it starts. It is an ideal viewing experience.
Browsing my streaming library of around 150 titles on my AppleTV 4K, I simply get a list of titles from A-Z. I can’t filter them based on 4K or HDR, or on if they’re a comedy or drama. When I highlight a title, it doesn’t offer me recommendations for another movie to watch that’s similar. The one thing it does offer than Kaleidescape does not yet is voice search. I can tell Siri that I want to watch a Teen Comedy from the 1990’s and get results, and it can even pull from online sources. The Strato is oriented around movies that you own and have locally, so integration with Netflix or other services is unlikely to happen.
Watching films, once you choose something from the menus, is a delight on the Strato. My review unit was loaded with a lot of titles, including Rise of the Planet of the Apes that I had bought on 4K Blu-ray but hadn’t gotten around to watching yet. Since the version on the Strato is identical in quality to the disc, I started it up and watched. As I mentioned earlier, the movie started with no trailers or warning screens, it just went straight into the film. The film itself looks fantastic with 4K and HDR, along with an Atmos soundtrack that is fantastic. If you stop the movie and come back later, the Strato will resume right where you left off.
A new addition to the Strato experience, which is still in beta as I tested it, is a store for purchasing titles directly from the interface. Currently to purchase a title you need to use the web store, but soon it will available directly from the player. Here you can browse the films, see what special features they offer, and their Rotten Tomatoes ratings. You can’t currently view trailers for them, which was the first thing I looked for, but I gave Kaleidescape this feedback so hopefully, it will be an option in the future.
The titles you download, being the same as the physical disc, are quite large with an average around 50-60GB in size. If you have a fast Internet connection the download will only take a few hours, but you can’t just buy a movie and start watching it. If you have an Internet Service Provider that has a bandwidth cap, you’ll want to keep that in mind as well since a few movie downloads can easily exceed any cap. While most studios are available to download right now, Disney and Lionsgate are notable exceptions.
One final feature of the Strato that I didn’t test this time but have with previous Kaleidescape players is the kids remote. It’s a specialized remote designed just for kids that is very basic and controls the user interface. Only age appropriate titles are shown once a button on it is pressed, so you can easily leave your kids with it to watch movies and not worry what else in your collection them might come across.
Using the Kaleidescape Strato is a joy, but there are things about it that could be improved when you look at the competition. The major downside is the lack of Dolby Vision support. A Strato player is far more expensive than any 4K Blu-ray player on the market, and while it does more, you expect it to do everything a 4K player can. Only three players that are out now, or announced at this time, can play Dolby Vision but it means support is out there, and more DV titles are being released all the time. The Strato feels less future-proof than it would be with this omission.
Kaleidescape is focused on local media and includes no support for streaming, but I’d love to see some sort of integration like Roon does with audio. Roon is a good comparison since it makes browsing and enjoying your music collection easy just as the Strato does with movies, and is a premium product. It also offers integration with Tidal, so my local music library can seamlessly integrate with albums I like on Tidal, and it makes it easy to find new music. Adding this sort of deep integration for streaming content is unlikely to happen, but seeing Stranger Things and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in my library and offering recommendations would be wonderful.
Kaleidescape Strato Conclusions
The Strato offers the best movie watching experience for the home that I’ve used, but of course, this comes at a cost. The Strato is expensive, and you are buying your movies from the Kaleidescape store, which locks you into their pricing model. You might be able to find a 4K Blu-ray title on sale, but how much Kaleidescape will track those prices we do not know. It also doesn’t support any streaming services or Dolby Vision, which will cause some people to pass as well. I imagine the stiffest competition for the Strato will be the AppleTV 4K which offers free 4K movie updates, Dolby Vision, and integrated streaming with voice support into a $200 box.
While a better value, the experience of the Apple TV doesn’t compare to that of the Kaleidescape. The image and audio quality are worse and the user interface is worse. For the movie buff that wants the best experience, the Kaleidescape Strato offers it, but it is a premium product with pricing to match.
Unparalleled movie watching experience makes it easy to watch your library, the integrated store makes purchases easier, HDR and 4K content look fantastic.
Expensive, no Dolby Vision support, tied to their movie store and its pricing.
The Kaleidescape Strato makes watching movies in your library wonderful and far ahead of the competition, but it is expensive and you're locked into using them as your content source. It offers better audio and video quality than streaming services, but for most people the price makes it just something to marvel at.