Hands On: Kaleidescape Cinema One HD Movie Server

The movie system that makes your home theater complete.

It’s a safe guess that every Electronic House reader has a digitized collection of music in their possession. Whether that collection is housed on racked terabyte drives or an iPod Nano, the result is the same. Your music, at least some of which once existed on a CD, is saved with masses of other music so you can easily find and enjoy it. The same thing can’t be said for our movie collections.

Well, unless you have a Kaleidescape system, that is. Kaleidescape makes movie systems for storing and accessing your DVDs and Blu-rays (and CDs too) for your home theater in a way that is as convenient as an iPod is for music. Until just recently, joining the Kaleidescape member’s club would cost about $15,000 plus professional installtion. With the introduction of the Cinema One system, that price has dropped to a more reasonable $3,995, which is still a lot of money considering that a decent home theater projector can bought for under $3K, but it’s a big step nonetheless.

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Read my previous review of a Kaleidescape 1U Server and Disc Vault here.

So what does that $4K get you? When talking about the Cinema One, you have to talk about both what it is and what it isn’t, because mistaken comparisons are bound to happen.

First, the Cinema One is a media server with a hard drive that can hold about 100 Blu-rays or 600 DVDs with all their bonus features in tact. It can download both Blu-ray and DVD quality movies from Kaleidescape’s online movie store. It also has one of the coolest and easiest-to-use on-screen menu system you’ve ever seen.

How the Cinema One differs from a movie streaming service is pretty significant, especially if you’ve got a good home theater that you’ve sunk a lot of money into. Streaming video services, such as Netflix, Amazon and VUDU have come a long way in a few years toward delivering reasonably high-quality video over a broadband network. But if you’ve ever compared the streamed version of a movie to the Blu-ray version, you don’t need to be a video expert to see the difference. Compression kills streamed content, but the Cinema One isn’t subject to that particular oppression. Kaleidescape stores and serves full bit-for-digital-bit duplicate copies of whatever you put in it. If you’re a 1080p purist, then streaming just won’t cut it.

Along with all that praise, there’s a catch. While the Cinema One will import your DVDs from the moment you take it out of the box, to store your existing Blu-ray collection you need to add a DV700 Disc Vault which is basically a big carousel that holds 320 Blu-ray discs. As per the terms of Kaleidescape’s AACS license, Hollywood lawyers need to know you actually own the Blu-ray that you want to record on the Cinema One. The only way they know how to do that is to make sure your disc is in the Disc Vault which is connected to the Cinema One by an Ethernet cable. The Disc Vault cost $5,495. That’s more than the Cinema One costs, and it basically does nothing more than to act as a house arrest ankle bracelet for your discs.

Now don’t think I’m beating up on Kaleidescape. This isn’t the company’s fault. It’s actually the only legal way you can get what Kaleidescape offers. If anyone, you should blame all the torrent users who’ve put such a scare into movie studio execs that this is the only solution they’ll grudgingly agree too.

End of rant. Back to the product.

Hooking up the Cinema One is crazy simple. This is significant because for the first time you don’t need a professional integrator to install a Kaleidescape system. It hooks up just like any Blu-ray player. Plug in the HDMI and Ethernet cables, and then turn it on. That’s about it (if you have two Cinema Ones you can network them and share the content between two rooms). There’s also a Wi-Fi dongle, but I recommend a wired connection for the best bandwidth.

My system showed up with a bunch of movies already loaded, and since my daughters were in the room, they took the remote and proceeded to watch movies for the rest of the evening with no instructions from me. I went to my computer to try out the Kaleidescape movie store.

The online store is accessed only from a computer (or tablet browser); you can’t browse the movie store from the Cinema One itself. Currently the store only includes titles from Warner, which includes a lot of excellent movies, but it’s just one studio.

One big difference between the experience of downloading a movie and streaming it from Netflix, is that downloading takes a while. With my Verizon FiOS connection, it took about four hours to download the three hour Cloud Atlas at 24Mbps. While that may seem slow, remember it’s the full 1080p movie in DTS-HD with all the Blu-ray disc bonus features. If you plan on watching a movie in the evening, you should buy it during the day, and it will be waiting for you by the time you pour your after-dinner drinks.

If you have DVDs in your collection and you want to upgrade them to a high-definition download version, you can (provided they’re in the Kaleidescape store) for $6.99 a title. Also, every movie you buy through the Kaleidescape store gets added to your online UltraViolet account, which can be viewed on a tablet or computer through services like Flixter and VUDU.

I also tried adding some of my own DVDs. Each one took about 20 minutes or less to load.

A few days after I’d received it, I finally found an evening when my kids weren’t around to hog up the system. When you turn it on, the guide presents you with a wall of movie covers that you can scroll through left and right or up and down. When you pause the cursor over a movie, the whole grid reorients itself to show you similar or related movies. There’s also an old-fashioned alphabetical list view.

When you select a movie, you can read some metadata on the title, select scenes or bonus features or jump right into the movie—that’s the neat part; Kaleidescape never makes you sit through any commercials or INTERPOL warnings. The movie just starts.

Video quality for your stored movies, whether they’re downloads or movies you’ve physically loaded yourself, is stellar. You don’t have to put up with buffering or loading messages like you get with Netflix. The movie won’t pause because there’s heavy network activity on your street. It just plays perfectly. Cloud Atlas is a visually dynamic movie, and it was pristine on my 120-inch screen lit up with an Epson 5020 projector. I’d previously watched that movie in its Amazon streamed format, and there’s just no comparison, especially when you’re viewing it on a large screen.

I’m sure at this point there are people thinking that they could build a high-definition movie server for a lot less money. And they’re right. I could build a meth lab too, but that doesn’t mean the law would smile on me. Like it or not, there are rules of usage governing our digital media, and to date, Kaleidescape offers the only system in which you can legally copy and store DVDs and Blu-rays. Of course it can also play Blu-rays and DVDs directly from it’s own disc drive, so you won’t need a separate player in your system unless you want 3D–the Cinema One does not play 3D movies.

If you’re a serious movie collector, the Cinema One is definitely worth considering. It’s not perfect though. For one thing, the company really needs to add more studios to the movie store. I’m told that’s in the works, so I hope for some news soon (UPDATE: Kaleidescape Adds Over 2,000 Movies from Lionsgate to Online Store). I also believe the price of the Disc Vault is a little out of sync with the price of the Cinema One, considering the fact that it does almost nothing—but I suppose that AACS license is expensive.

The Cinema One an easy way for home theater enthusiasts to begin to organize and add to their movie collections, and it offers good expansion options as those collections grow.

Kaleidescape Cinema One
$3,995

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