Of course, DVD did turn out to be transformational. High definition movie discs soon followed, after a brief format war, resulting in the adoption of Blu-ray Disc. And now the most discerning home theater enthusiasts have embraced an even higher quality movie experience on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.
But there remains a problem with this picture, one that film enthusiasts cannot afford to ignore: While DVD quickly became the most successful home entertainment format of all time, each successive movie disc format has captured a smaller share of the market. Only about 40% of DVD fans eventually embraced Blu-ray. And less than 10% of Blu-ray fans have likewise upgraded to 4K Ultra HD.
There are lots of reasons for this—cost, budgets strained by multiple recessions, less inclination by younger consumers towards ownership, the advent of Digital streaming, and sheer market saturation. (How many times is a person willing to rebuy the same films in new formats?) But whatever the reason, the result is clear: Movie discs are on the decline.
There’s now just one major replicator of physical media in all of North America (down from six at the height of DVD). The enthusiast favorite player manufacturer—Oppo Digital—has abandoned the market. So too has Samsung, once a major player in the space. The indie movie distributor Twilight Time is no more… and they certainly won’t be the last such company to fold in the years ahead. And prior to the recent pandemic (which caused a brief spike in all home entertainment spending, but is now depressing disc spending due to a lack of new titles in stores), physical movie disc sales had dropped by double-digit percentages three years in a row (18% in 2019, 14.6% in 2018, and 14.1% in 2017 per the Digital Entertainment Group)—a precipitous decline.
This is a problem for fans of movies on physical 4K Ultra HD in particular. It means that there are many films enthusiasts would love to buy that will never be available on 4K disc. Don’t believe me? Multiple services now have 4K Digital versions of Die Hard 2, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Live Free or Die Hard, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Silence of the Lambs, Rocky, The Princess Bride, Edge of Tomorrow, Looper, District 9, Elysium, Spaceballs, Red Heat, Easy Rider, Pretty in Pink, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tropic Thunder, Airplane, Flashdance, Deep Impact, Nashville, Escape from L.A., Vanilla Sky, The Firm, The War of the Worlds (1953), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Hurt Locker, The Running Man, every classic James Bond film, The Limey, Beverly Hills Cop, Beverly Hills Cop II, Beverly Hills Cop III, Dirty Dancing, The Cotton Club: Encore, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, The Guns of Navarone—none of these are (as yet) available on disc in the US. That’s just a quick survey; more such titles are added every day. And based upon the trends I’ve just described, there’s no reason to believe the situation is going to improve going forward.
Houston, We Have a Problem
One of the best aspects about the evolution of movies on disc is that it’s resulted in a dramatic improvement in the quality of the home entertainment experience as compared to theaters. You don’t have to sit through TV commercials rebranded to seem like “infotainment.” No longer must you endure a lengthy barrage of trailers for other movies that make you forget which one you’re there to see. The cost of popcorn, soda, and other snacks for your family needs no longer to reach $50 an outing. And you never have to deal with that guy who’s always explaining the plot of the movie out loud to his neighbor, or that other guy who’s surfing his brightly-lit smartphone right next to you.
With a modest investment in hardware (displays, sound system, etc.) you can also now enjoy, in the comfort of your own home, picture and sound that equals—even rivals—that of many actual movie theaters. This is especially true if you’ve upgraded to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. Theaters equipped with digital projectors exhibit movies in DCP (Digital Cinema Package) format, which can deliver a 4K resolution image (but is often only 2K). And theatrical audio is typically 24-bit and uncompressed in PCM, DTS:X, or Dolby Atmos format; essentially the same mixes are included on 4K discs, simply optimized for home theater speaker configurations.
The “Golden Age of Discs,” as many enthusiasts call it, also heralded an era of unprecedented access to a vast and growing array of movie and TV content. Gone are the days of being stuck with only those new and classic Hollywood films that someone else decided were worthy of showing at your local theater or on pay cable—you can now curate your own viewing choices from essentially the entire world’s cinema and television programming.
But while streaming services like Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Netflix, Disney+, Roku, Vudu, the Criterion Channel, and others do offer access to a tremendous variety of content, there are some key downsides. For casual movie viewers, some of whom are quite happy watching their content on a tablet or smartphone, they’re not a significant issue. But for serious movie enthusiasts—the kind of people who’ve invested their hard-earned money in mid-priced but lovingly-calibrated home theater displays and sound systems—they’re a deal-breaker.
For one thing, due to the byzantine nature of content distribution rights and dealmaking—and the advent of original programming produced by the streaming services themselves for exhibition to only their own customers—it’s become very hard to one-stop shop for content. Some movies are available on multiple services, some are limited to just one, and many (especially older classic and foreign films) simply aren’t available at all. In addition, as these deals expire or get renegotiated, titles that were available on one service can suddenly disappear and later show up on another. If there’s a film you’d really love to watch on the spur of the moment—particularly one that isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster—you don’t want to have to search multiple streaming catalogs just to find it.
Changing times can also mean that a particular film is suddenly no longer considered politically correct or commercially acceptable. Streaming services, concerned with the risk of offending their customers, might decide to make that film unavailable (for better or worse) without warning. In addition, if a director or studio makes a change or an edit to a film, the original version of that film too can simply disappear.
And while a few of these services do offer streamed movie content in 4K resolution, the higher compression and variable bit rates required to make streaming delivery work over Internet connections of varying speeds means that there’s just no comparison—in terms of sheer image and sound quality, the physical 4K Ultra HD disc experience has always been superior.
But if Digital is the future, all of this represents a real concern for 4K enthusiasts. How do we maintain the level of quality we’ve come to expect on disc in a world where the disc itself eventually goes away?
Well… it turns out there is a product that could show the way.
For the last couple of months, I’ve had the opportunity to demo a Kaleidescape Strato movie player. And it’s been an eye-opening experience.
Serious A/V enthusiasts, and those familiar with the high-end home theater installation world, will likely already know of Kaleidescape. But for most of you—those that are film enthusiasts first and foremost—this may be your first exposure to them.
Essentially, Kaleidescape is a company dedicated to delivering a luxury home theater experience. Their goal is to provide the absolute best quality movie viewing option that’s possible in the home. And since the company’s founding in 2001, they’ve focused on developing the trust within the film industry—and the custom and robust technical engineering on the hardware side—required to achieve that goal.
Kaleidescape starts by obtaining the very best source material possible: the Hollywood studio “mezzanine” files for each film. Using a proprietary process they’ve developed in-house, they create a master-quality digital version of that film that’s designed—bit for bit—to preserve the maximum picture and sound fidelity. That film then becomes available on Kaleidescape’s online movie store (you can see it here), where customers can purchase access to it in perpetuity (for prices that are roughly comparable to the corresponding disc version). But once purchased, rather than streaming that film in a highly compressed format, the movie file is downloaded in its entirety to Kaleidescape’s Strato movie player (or Terra movie server).
The Strato is a disc-less movie player, a sleek-looking silver and black hard drive that fits neatly into your home theater. It currently comes in two sizes, one with a 6 terabyte (TB) hard drive and one with 12 TB. To give you an idea of what that means, the 12 TB player can typically store between 180 and 360 movies depending on your particular mix of SD, HD, and 4K. If you decide you want more storage locally, you can add a Terra movie server to your system (in 24 TB or 40 TB versions). But you needn’t worry about storing all of the films you’ve purchased from Kaleidescape locally—they exist in the company’s online cloud as well. Every movie purchase you make is always available in your account, accessible for download at any time.
I’ll have more to say about the technical ins and outs of the Strato movie player in a future article here on The Bits. What I want to stress for now is this: The experience of watching movies in 4K Ultra HD from Kaleidescape not only equals the quality of disc-based content, it often exceeds the 4K disc experience. And color me surprised—that’s not something I ever expected to find myself saying.
Remember, this isn’t a streaming experience. You download the movie directly to your unit. So when you play it back, you’re doing so at the full bit rate—up to 100 Mbps (compared to 20-25 Mbps for Netflix 4K, for example). Compared to streaming, Kaleidescape delivers 3-12 times more video data and 10-50 times more audio data to your movie player’s processors. An SD movie from Kaleidescape represents bit-for-bit DVD quality. An HD movie is bit-for-bit Blu-ray quality. But here’s the kicker: A 4K movie from Kaleidescape is at least bit-for-bit 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray quality and often better. Keep in mind, while physical 4K discs are limited to 50 GB, 66 GB, and 100 GB configurations, Kaleidescape has no such restrictions. So when they’re able to do so, the company maxes out their movie file sizes.
Let me give you some real-world examples:
Disney’s physical Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker 4K release comes on a 66 GB disc. The Kaleidescape 4K download is 80.8 GB. Disney’s Avengers: Infinity War 4K comes on a 66 GB disc. The Kaleidescape 4K download is 86.3 GB. And Disney’s Avengers: Endgame 4K comes on a 66 GB disc. The Kaleidescape 4K download is a whopping 103.3 GB!
The difference is readily apparent to anyone attuned to high-end video quality. The added video data improves the color and dimensionality of the image considerably. And the added audio data improves the robustness and spaciousness of the soundstage. I evaluate video quality for a living—and have been looking at video professionally for over thirty years now. Trust me when I say, this is the first time I have ever experienced anything better than a 4K disc in my home theater.
The sheer volume of 4K content available from Kaleidescape is impressive—many more movies are available there in 4K than you can currently buy on physical Ultra HD Blu-ray discs (at least 350 more titles and counting, in fact, at the time of this writing—including all of those titles I mentioned earlier). And in truth, direct playback access to the digital movie file (as compared to streaming or even a laser reading a disc) has advantages of its own. There are no glitches, no Internet bandwidth hiccups, no laser jitter, no disc/firmware incompatibilities, and no read errors caused by scratches or fingerprints. The movie just plays perfectly every time. Better still, you never have to deal with disc exchange programs again (caused by mistakes in the authoring process that studio QC didn’t catch—a problem that’s gotten more common in recent years as the studios have tightened their budgets.)
The movie download times are also surprisingly speedy, provided you have a good Internet connection. My typical experience is that a full 4K film takes less than an hour to download. And Kaleidescape currently has content deals with 45 studios, including all of the majors. So they have a vast and growing library of available movie and TV content. (In fact, the complete Studio Ghibli animation library was added to their online store in HD quality during my demo period with the Strato.)
There is certainly much upside to Kaleidescape.
On the other hand, I’d be remiss if I neglected point out that Kaleidescape is still a niche product, one that’s too expensive for mainstream movie enthusiasts (even some 4K Ultra HD enthusiasts). The 6 TB Strato S—essentially their entry model—runs about $5,995 MSRP.
There are still a few titles available on 4K disc that you can’t find in 4K on Kaleidescape, among them The Martian: Extended Edition from Fox (only the theatrical cut is available in 4K), Universal’s Waterworld, and some Studio Canal titles. And while extras are often available, they must be downloaded separately.
Kaleidescape currently offers only HDR10 high dynamic range. That’s because high end enthusiasts tend to prefer 4K home theater projectors, which thus far do not support Dolby Vision or HDR10+ (and with adaptive tone mapping and properly dark viewing environments, they don’t need to). Still, mainstream and budget-minded 4K enthusiasts tend to go with flat panels—Dolby Vision and HDR10+ can make a real difference on those.
Some 4K movies have Dolby Atmos or DTS:X soundtracks on disc, but are limited to 5.1 on Kaleidescape (Fox’s Ford v Ferrari is a recent example). Or the object-based audio might be available on the HD version but not 4K. This is due to inconsistencies in studio workflows and the good news is that it’s already being addressed. (Kaleidescape also notifies its customers when a title update is available.)
Finally, Kaleidescape currently offers movie purchases only. Were they to add a time-limited rental option—perhaps with the ability to upgrade to a full purchase—casual viewers would be more likely to try new titles.
But most of these things can be easily addressed going forward. Kaleidescape has already done the hard part; they’ve engineered a system capable of delivering terrific quality, and created a first-rate ecosystem to support it. That is no small achievement.
Toward a Better Disc-Less Future
After spending quality time with a Kaleidescape Strato, kicking the tires, watching movies, and comparing the 4K experience to what I’m getting in my home theater on Ultra HD Blu-rays, I have to say this: I’m really impressed—as one certainly should be when trying a premium, luxury product. But the surprising thing is, Kaleidescape has made me reconsider the possibilities for a future without discs.
I’ve come to think of Kaleidescape in much the same way I think of Tesla. When the electric car maker first began selling cars back in 2008, their initial offering was a luxury supercar, the Roadster convertible. Then came Models S and X in 2012 and 2015, premium-priced sedans and SUVs that nevertheless greatly expanded the company’s “early adopter” base. And now, Tesla has released the Model 3 and Model Y, lowering the sedan and SUV cost to the point that they’re close to becoming mass market products. At each step, the technology and user experience improved, while the price became more affordable.
So now let’s apply that thinking to the future of watching movies at home.
For those of you already involved in the high-end home theater space (or who may be considering upgrading your existing home theaters to that level and can afford to do so), Kaleidescape is well worth considering now.
But for the rest of you, imagine a future where Kaleidescape releases an entry-level movie player priced comparably to Oppo’s no longer available (but enthusiast favorite) UDP-205 audiophile 4K disc player, or Panasonic’s current reference class DP-UB9000 player, or Sony’s premium UBP-X11000ES player. Imagine too, that the company continues to expand its online content library while adding additional features of greater appeal to mainstream film enthusiasts (as opposed to just high-end A/V enthusiasts). Were those things to happen, Kaleidescape would suddenly become a serious and attractive option for many 4K and Blu-ray movie disc fans—people like you and me—who are incredibly passionate about film, who have lovingly assembled great but affordable home theater systems, and who demand as much value as quality for every dollar they spend.
It would prove that the disc-less future doesn’t have to mean low-quality streaming—a future I find far more appealing.
To be sure, there will always be those who are quite happy to enjoy their HD and 4K content via streaming on a Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire Stick, or mobile device app, just as there were consumers who preferred renting movies on VHS or DVD rather than buying them.
But again, as someone who cares passionately about the ability to watch movies at home in the highest possible quality, I’m very intrigued by any product that’s going to give me a “disc or better” 4K viewing experience, without all the compromises of streaming, at a price point that’s similar to discs, and with a larger 4K library than is likely ever to be available on disc.
And keep in mind, I say this as someone who has championed movie discs for more than twenty years now. No one has fought harder than I have for the ability of fans to enjoy their favorite films on disc at home in the best possible quality. But while I hate the idea that discs are eventually going to go away… they are. I named this website The Digital Bits for a reason: Hollywood has firmly set its sights on a Digital future. This is true for cost reasons, for efficiency reasons, for control reasons, even for environmental reasons. Discs might stick around for 10 more years, maybe even 20 at the outside. But what you will start to see much sooner—if current downward sales trends continue—is fewer titles released on disc and more indie distributors throwing in the towel. And one day, the major studios will stop producing discs altogether.
4K Ultra HD Blu-ray is very likely to be the last physical home entertainment format.
Given all of this, if you were to ask me what a best possible disc-less future looks like for watching movies at home… well, it looks an awful lot like Kaleidescape.
So you can bet we’ll be watching the company closely here at The Bits, and that we’ll have more to say about them in the months and years ahead. In the meantime, you can visit their website (at this link) to learn more.
That’s all for now. As always, stay tuned...
- Bill Hunt