Kaleidescape Tag

How Much Would You Pay for Day & Date? Pt. 2

In Part 1 of this post, I referenced comments from users of the Kaleidescape Owners Forum who answered my question, “How much would you be willing to pay for Day and Date?” I expected these luxury system owners to have no problem with paying a substantial amount for the ability to see a movie at home the day it opens in theaters. But even among this group, not a single person was willing to pay even the minimum amount—$500—Prima Cinema charged and Red Carpet Home Cinema expects to charge for day & date viewing.

 

Casting the net to a wider audience, I ran a poll on the Sound & Vision website, which caters to enthusiasts of all income levels, where I again asked what they would be willing to pay for day & date. After nearly 350 responses, it’s clear that the

How Much Would You Pay for Day & Date, Pt. 2

Table 1

How Much Would You Pay for Day & Date?, Pt. 2

Table 2

How Much Would You Pay for Day &was Date, Pt. 2

Table 3

How Much Would You Pay for Day & Date?, Pt. 2

Table 4

click on the tables to enlarge them

vast majority of people aren’t willing to pay a very high premium at all.

 

In fact, the enthusiast responses from Sound & Vision far more support the likely pricing for movies available at home a week or two after they premiere in theaters than the $500 low end of the current day & date pricing schemes (see Table 1).

 

As you can see, out of 348 answers, only 43 people (roughly 12.6%) were willing to pay $100 or more. But when you go down to the $50 to $99 range, the group jumps to over 32%. This is a pretty large crowd, and a price that might be realistic three to four weeks after a movie hits the cinema. When you get to $25 to $49, more than half the responders would bite.

 

Is this an unrealistic price? Perhaps. But consider this: The current state of the art for home video viewing is 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, most of which sell for around $20 to $35. Since this is what you now pay to own a movie and watch it as many times as you’d like, would it be so unreasonable that the movie studios would let you watch it once for $49 at some point later in the movie’s theatrical window? Maybe not . . .

 

A common theme among the Kaleidescape owners was that they want this premium rental to also come with the right to own/download the movie when it goes into mass release on home video. When asked if they’d be willing to pay more for this right, the responders were almost split in thirds (see Table 2).

 

Almost 39% said they would actually pay more. So, maybe at $125 to $150, you would get to watch the movie once while it’s still in the theater and would then be able to download it as soon as it’s in wide release. That seems like a pretty palatable choice that also wouldn’t erode the studios’ profits from traditional home releases.

 

Finally, I asked how often they would actually rent a movie if it were priced at just $50 (see Table 3). I was surprised to find that most enthusiast owners wouldn’t do it very often.

 

Slightly more than 5% would do it once a week, with about half saying they would rent a $50 movie once or more per month. Shockingly, more than 45% said they’d only do it a few times per year. And remember, these are audio/video enthusiasts responding to a hypothetical day & date price of just $50.

 

As for the necessary hardware, with Prima at $35,000, Red Carpet at $15,00, and Kaleidescape starting at $4,500, the systems required to play these movies aren’t cheap, which was another huge barrier for entry for many.

 

When asked how much they would pay for the hardware needed for day & date playback (see Table 4), more than 50% said they would only pay less than $500. Again, that seems highly unrealistic, especially when you consider the security measures that need to be employed, but it does bode well for Xcinex, which says its Venue will come to market for less than $30.

Also, these prices address the per-viewing model, which means it’s the same cost whether there are 1 or 50 people watching. The other option is the same per-viewer or per-ticket model theaters use, which is how Xcinex plans to operate. Other than the potential issues and privacy concerns with a sensor monitoring and counting viewers, it again seems difficult to believe Xcinex could come to market and offer day & date viewing at literally fractions of what the other companies are charging. But the company says it’s firmly committed to launching by the end of this year, and that it will have content and deals in place, so time will tell.

 

What impact will day & date have on your movie watching habits? And how much would you be willing to pay for the privilege?

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

How Much Would You Pay for Day & Date? Pt. 1

How Much Would You Pay for Day & Date?, Pt. 1

Wrapping up my recent series of posts on day & date, I thought I’d cut right to the heart of it: How much is day & date worth? In other words, how much would you pay for the privilege of watching a first-run film in the comfort of your own home, either on opening night or some short time later?

 

As I wrote in “Why Kaleidescape Could Own Day & Date, Pt. 2,” at the moment it appears Red Carpet Home Cinema has set the benchmark for what it will cost, at somewhere between $500 and $3,000. This is up from Prima Cinema’s $500 for each 

viewing. It could be that the Prima folks were better negotiators than Red Carpet, or that Hollywood has decided day & date is worth more now that it was a few years ago. We won’t know for sure until we see if Prima is able to return to operation.

 

But the simple truth is that, as much as we might want to be able to watch movies at home instead of going to the theater, most of us can’t afford these prices.

 

This is where I see a sliding scale coming into play. If you want to watch the movie on opening night, you’re gonna have to pay the ultra-premium price Red Carpet is demanding. But, if you’re willing to wait a week . . . or two
. . . or four, as theater audiences have slacked off to nearly nothing, the studios might allow for more affordable pricing.

 

This is why some kind of premium window for early theatrical release might be a more realistic hope for luxury home viewing than actual day & date. At least at first.

 

That conclusion was echoed by several commenters on the Kaleidescape Owners Forum when I posed the question:

 

“How much would you be willing to pay for Day and Date?” Here were some of the responses:

 

• I would like to see a sliding scale based on timing:

Week 1: $300

Week 2 to 4: $150

Week 5 to 8: $75

• I for one would also be willing to pay a premium for the privilege of watching movies at home
while they’re still out in the theater. That would be an awesome feature if it could be incorporated
into existing hardware.

 

• As for how much, it would depend upon the movie. [Star Wars]—maybe $300, other blockbusters,
maybe $150, comedies and “chick flicks” $75-100.

 

• I would pay maximum $75-$100 to watch with just my wife or kids, and maybe $200 once or twice
a year and invite friends over.

 

• With 4-8 $25 seats and a $100 fee for download etc then $200-300 on day one, week one is a
good no loss to the studio price point.

 

• I’ve said it before, I will say it again–I would pay $500 to watch any theatrical movie in my home
on opening day, even without the ability to stop/pause/rewind or be given a digital copy. Watching
Star Wars opening night on my couch is cooler than a sports car IMO.

 

• $500 for one viewing at midnight the release date. Watching [Star Wars] in my living room would
be incredible.

 

Remember, these answers all came from people who already own luxury entertainment systems, and have shown their willingness to invest in premium-price hardware like a Kaleidescape. (An entry-level Strato system—the unit most likely to support day & date—currently costs $4,500.) And none of them said they’d be willing to pay more than $500. That is why

I wonder if Red Carpet’s exorbitant pricing will be able to find traction even among the ultra-wealthy.

 

I first started thinking about what I’d be willing to pay for this experience six years ago, when I had the chance to live with the Prima Cinema system.

 

When I see a movie, it’s almost always with my wife and frequently with my 12-year-old as well. So, figure we’re in for around $30 in movie tickets. (I realize this is at the low end of the market, with many parts of the country paying upwards of twice that.) Then factor in popcorn, drinks, and snacks for another $20 to $30. Since we have a 3-year-old, figure another $20 to $30 for a babysitter. I don’t have to deal with parking (or hiring a car service), but for many this is another cost of movie-going. So, for me, a $100 movie purchase is something I would consider for many films.

 

And after my recent lackluster experience seeing Avengers: Endgame at my local cinema—where I didn’t eat or drink anything for 8 hours prior to showtime to ensure I could make it through without a bathroom break—with all of

the popcorn rustling, drink slurping, side conversations, an infant watching YouTube videos on an iPad (not kidding), and a very noticeably blown subwoofer that totally took me out of every bass-heavy moment, being able to watch at my own home almost sounds worth any price.

 

In Pt. 2, I’ll give you the surprising results of an extensive survey I conducted to find out how much home theater enthusiasts would be willing to pay for day & date.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Why Kaleidescape Could Own Day & Date, Pt. 2

How Kaleidescape Could Own Day & Date, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I gave some of the technical reasons why I think Kaleidescape is better positioned than companies like Prima Cinema and Red Carpet Home Cinema to make day & date—the ability to watch movies at home the day they debut in movie theaters—a success. Here, I’ll focus more on the logistical and strategic reasons for why I think it has the potential to be the most viable day & date provider.

 

6) CONTROLLED ROLLOUT

Sure, there are bigger companies than Kaleidescape out there—like, say, Apple or Vudu—that have a lot of studio agreements in place and are set up to handle secure transactions, but day & date isn’t going to be rolled out wide to a mass-market audience.

 

The movie studios want to release this in a very controlled manner so if there’s a problem, they can shove the genie back into the bottle as easily as possible. That just wouldn’t be possible with a $149 mass-market device like an Apple TV.

 

Even if Kaleidescape made day & date available to every one of its customers worldwide on Day One, we’re still talking thousands of systems, or a very small percentage of the movie-watching population. But day & date will probably begin in the US, which would cut the number down considerably. And, it probably wouldn’t be rolled out as a firmware update for all 

Kaleidescape users, but would likely be offered to a very select beta of 50 to 100 power users, whose systems would be updated with new firmware and then monitored during the beta period.

 

Another possibility would be for Kaleidescape to approach existing Bel Air Circuit members to become system owners (or be loaned beta-enabled systems). What group to better give day & date access to than one that already has it?

 

And, while the company won’t publicly comment on system owners, it’s pretty well known that Kaleidescape systems are already owned by many Hollywood A-listers. This 

would be another avenue for a controlled rollout, targeting a select group of influencers who could experience the system in action and become more comfortable with supporting day & date releases.

 

7) ALREADY OWNED BY MANY CINEPHILES

You know who’s going to be the most interested in buying day & date content for viewing at home at premium pricing? Luxury cinema owners who love movies. And you know what system many luxury cinema owners and movie lovers already own? Yup. Kaleidescape.

Why Kaleidescape Could Own Day & Date, Pt. 2

And for those who currently aren’t system owners but who love the idea of enjoying first-run content at home, the price of entry is far more obtainable with Kaleidescape than with Prima or Red Carpet. For under $4,500, someone could buy a Strato S 4K Ultra HD movie player (shown above) with 6 Terabytes of storage, enough to hold about 90 4K Ultra HD movies. This would be affordable for far more people than the .1% targeted by Prima and Red Carpet, and not an unreasonable amount to spend in a luxury media room costing $25,000 or more.

 

8) INTEGRATION PARTNER CHANNEL

End users aren’t going to be able to just stroll into a Best Buy, pick up a day & date system, take it home, and install and activate it themselves. Something this sophisticated and bulletproof requires professional integration and handholding.

 

While I’ve no doubt Red Carpet will be able to find a dealer base—though Prima might have a harder row to hoe should they return to operation—Kaleidescape already has an established and reputable dealer network.

 

Since its inception, Kaleidescape has worked hand-in-hand with the custom installation channel, having some of the best CEDIA and HTA-certified members in its ranks, ensuring that its hardware is properly installed and configured. Realizing that its systems are only as good and stable as their installation, Kaleidescape only sells through a network of custom installers that can handle complete installation and system integration. This also ensures that the system works with the customer’s control system and is calibrated with their video and audio system, and that the network is configured for a stable experience.

 

9) PROVEN LUXURY TECHNOLOGY

When Kaleidescape hit the market in the early 2000s, the first system sold for more than $30,000, which obviously meant only a small subset of home theater owners could afford it. Almost 20 years later, the luxury market remains Kaleidescape’s core demographic.

Kaleidescape systems also have a phenomenal reputation for bulletproof operation. Every system includes dealer tools like remote system health monitoring and automatic notifications should a system have an issue such as loss of network connectivity, overheating, or hard disc trouble. This allows dealers to address problems proactively before there’s a loss of operation.

 

Unlike other companies, which are outsourcing their hardware or software, Kaleidescape has end-to-end control over every aspect of its system. It runs its own Movie Store and handles all movie encodes (see “How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing”), and has 

dedicated engineering and tech support teams. In short, if there’s ever a problem with any aspect of a Kaleidescape system, there’s one clear route to getting it resolved.   

 

10) COULD CO-EXIST WITH OTHER PREMIUM OFFERINGS

In my conversation with Red Carpet’s Fred Rosen, he said they asked the studios, “What will it take to make this happen? You set the price and terms.” So presumably the studios feel day & date content is worth somewhere in the $500 to $3,000 range.

 

Frankly, these prices seem untenable for most Kaleidescape customers, and I question how many among even the ultra-wealthy are willing to buy a movie for viewing at such a massive premium. Or how often they would choose to do so beyond a once- or twice-a-year novelty. (Honestly, for $3,000, you could just call up a theater, buy every seat, and have your own private screening.)

 

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume Red Carpet—and even Prima, upon return—establishes this as the price for day & date viewing. Kaleidescape could then decide to establish itself as a premium video-on-demand solution for early theatrical release, offering movies just after that first week or two when most films bring in about 90% of their box-office take.

Let Red Carpet and Prima charge $500 to $3,000 for the privilege of being able to see a movie at home on opening day. Kaleidescape could then make it available after the first week for, say, $300, then maybe $200 after the second week, dropping to $100 after the first month. At these tiered prices, Kaleidescape owners could regularly consume premium theatrical content without having a significant impact of the theater owners’ bottom line.

 

Think of this as being akin to air travel. You have the money-no-object group of private jet owners who think nothing of dropping millions on the plane itself and then thousands in operational costs for each flight. That is the Bel Air Circuit crowd. Then you have those who prefer fractional jet ownership via companies like NetJets. While by no means inexpensive, this has far lower buy-in and pay-by-hour operation costs. This would be the Red Carpet and Prima customer. Then there are people who still want a luxury travel experience but don’t care to shell out the ultra-premium costs for private travel, opting to fly First Class instead. This would be the Kaleidescape customer.

 

 

When I asked Kaleidescape about possible day & date plans, the company’s official response was, “We won’t comment on any speculation or rumors.” But it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to connect the dots and realize that the company would be keenly interested in pursuing this potentially game-changing feature. In fact, one need only read the comments CEO Cheena Srinivasan gave in an interview a couple of years ago. When asked about Kaleidescape’s possible involvement with day & date, he said:

 

I believe in the concept of offering new-release movies still playing in the neighborhood theaters to luxury home cinema customers. It will become a reality.

 

According to a recent survey by MGM Resorts, watching movies in a movie theater was cited as the most popular way to be entertained, followed closely by watching movies at home. People who own a luxury home cinema have little need to go to a theater. They would rather wait until the movie is released for home viewing.

 

Since theater owners lose no revenue from people in this category, a premium-priced rental for this audience during the theatrical window won’t cannibalize the exhibitors’ revenues. For the content owners, monetizing content from this audience makes good business sense. We’re well positioned to offer such a service—it is not a technological barrier, as Kaleidescape is already regarded as a respected supplier of both products and content designed with the highest content-protection safeguards available in the market today.

 

Again, all of my comments here are just speculation and conjecture, but movies are being made available at home sooner and sooner after they’re in theaters, and premium day & date services already exist. So the big question isn’t whether day & date is going to happen, but who’s in the best position to offer it securely and reliably over the long run.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Why Kaleidescape Could Own Day & Date, Pt. 1

Why Kaleidescape Could Own Day & Date, Pt. 1

After my last two posts—”Day & Date Finally Get Real, Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2“—where I explored the current and proposed options for viewing movies at home on the day and date they’re released in theaters, I thought I’d offer a bit of speculation on why I think the best approach to this might already exist with Kaleidescape.

 

When you consider the various boxes that need to be checked to make day & date a success—something I’ll do here by comparing Kaleidescape with the existing options—it can be argued that they already have enough of the pieces in place to be the strongest contender.

As a Kaleidescape owner, reviewer, and dealer, I feel I’m in a pretty strong position to make this claim. I’ve been following the company virtually since its inception, with my first review published in Sound & Vision magazine back in 2003. Since that time, I’ve lived with or reviewed virtually every product the company has produced, been involved in beta testing, and currently own a Strato 4K HDR player along with a Premiere system with players in two locations and with two disc storage vaults managing my collection of approximately 500 movies. 

 

So here are ten reasons why I feel Kaleidescape could own the day & date market.

 

1)  STUDIO AGREEMENTS

One of Prima Cinema’s biggest initial drawbacks was the lack of studio agreements—something that could hinder Red Carpet Home Cinema as well. The number of studios on board determines the movies you can watch. In short, no studios, no movies.

 

Prima launched with only three major studios. Red Carpet is coming to market with four majors and one minor, Annapurna Pictures. (The company lists 20th Century Fox as a licensee, but it currently offers no films from them. When I asked CEO Fred Rosen if the recent Disney acquisition of Fox would affect this relationship, he coyly responded, “Only the Shadow knows . . .”) This means there is often a real shortage of content to watch. For example, you won’t be watching the blockbuster Avengers: Endgame in any Prima or Red Carpet cinema.

 

Kaleidescape, on the other hand, has agreements with 38 studios. This includes all of the majors except MGM, as well as a host of minor, independent, and foreign companies. And, yes, it includes Disney and all its properties: Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Disney Animation.

 

These existing relationships put Kaleidescape in a strong position to negotiate for day & date terms, and to have an unmatched amount of content on hand for viewing.

2)  ROBUST COPY PROTECTION

Hollywood is (rightfully) very paranoid about protecting its content. I mean, if you invested $100-million-plus in something with a potential $1 billion return, you probably would be too. So any technology that will let you watch this precious content in the privacy of your home is going to require some pretty hefty safeguards to prevent piracy.

 

When it comes to security protocols, I don’t believe any consumer electronics device in history is more locked down than Prima. Since I described those protocols in detail in “Day & Date Finally Gets Real, Pt. 1,” I won’t recount them again here. 

But Prima does do everything imaginable to ensure that no piracy takes place on its watch. 

 

They also require every installed location to have a static IP address that’s registered and white-listed with them. (Red Carpet has the same requirement.) This ensures that the system is only being used at your home. While Kaleidescape doesn’t currently require this level of security, its system doesn’t have any hardware and technology limitations that would prevent it from being implemented if the studios required it.

 

Prima and Red Carpet also employ digital watermarking, which means every presentation is uniquely tagged and can be identified back to a specific viewing session if it’s illegally recorded and released. Kaleidescape is also ready to do this, having signed a deal with Nagra to implement its NexGuard technology, called “the world’s leading forensic watermarking technology.”

 

Of course, 100% piracy prevention is impossible, as shown by the fact that Avengers: Endgame was released to Chinese Torrent sites within hours of the film’s premiere in China. But Kaleidescape has been fanatical about protecting content, securely storing movies on its servers 

for years without a single report of the system being hacked or exploited, so its proprietary hardware and software should pass Hollywood muster.

 

3)  NOT A ONE-TRICK PONY

Perhaps the biggest differentiator between Kaleidescape and systems like Prima and Red Carpet is that the latter exist solely to provide day & date content while, with Kaleidescape, day & date would just be icing on an already fully-featured and delicious cake.

 

When Prima went dark back in 2016, system owners were left with a $35,000 paperweight. Movies stopped downloading, and the system effectively ceased to function. (The company expects to make an announcement in July following a round of funding in June, so hopefully this will bring existing systems back to operational status.) Should Red Carpet fail, or the studios decide to cease support, one would assume that its $15,000 hardware would also become just another expensive conversation piece.

 

But Kaleidescape has nearly 20 years of proven service. Even if studios decided that day & date was a horrible mistake (unlikely), Kaleidescape owners would still have a system that functions 100% the way it does today, and any movies already bought and downloaded would continue to play. And instead of being limited to a single (expensive) viewing of a film or a brief viewing window, Kaleidescape owners can accumulate a library of content they can watch at any time.

 

4) EXISTING INTERFACE FOR SECURE TRANSACTIONS

While Prima’s biometric fingerprint reader for authenticating purchases might seem extreme, it does prevent your 10-year-old from firing up the theater and ordering a bunch of movies at $500 a pop. But it also means nobody else in the family can use 

the system if the enrolled fingerprint member is away.

 

Red Carpet doesn’t need fingerprint authentication for purchases, but does require customers to have a credit card on file with a limit of “at least $50,000.”

 

Kaleidescape’s Movie Store already provides a secure way to handle 

Why Kaleidescape Could Own Day & Date, Pt. 1

transactions. Customers have been buying movies online and downloading them from the Store for years, so a system for shopping, billing, and delivery is already up and running, and works.

 

With its recently introduced iOS app, Kaleidescape customers can make purchases using an iPhone or iPad that can be authenticated by a fingerprint or Face ID. This system is fast, secure, and effective. Buying movies via the onscreen interface requires just a PIN code to complete the transaction.

 

If Hollywood required customers to have a registered fingerprint reader for added security, Kaleidescape could probably easily add this feature. Every Strato player has a currently unused USB connection. With a firmware update and a sub-$100 USB fingerprint scanner, this feature—like whitelisting an IP address—should be something that could be added.

 

5)  SUPPORTS HIGHEST-QUALITY AUDIO & VIDEO

While Prima’s video was considered stellar at the time the system was introduced, delivering better-than-Blu-ray quality 10-bit 4:2:2 images, it was limited to 1080p resolution, which trails behind the premium experience available on today’s 4K Blu-ray discs. The company had plans to release updated hardware (reportedly selling for $50,000, or a $15,000 upgrade to existing owners) that would support 4K HDR video and lossless audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, but that has yet to come to fruition.

 

Red Carpet will presumably be delivering films in 4K HDR with lossless audio via Vubiquity, a premium content distributor that supports this level of delivery.

 

Meanwhile, the Kaleidescape Movie Store features hundreds of titles in 4K HDR resolution, many with lossless Dolby Atmos soundtracks. And unlike streaming content, which requires heavy compression to get through a narrow network pipe, Kaleidescape’s content is 100% downloaded to a local server, similar to how both Prima and Red Carpet operate. This already exceeds the presentation found in most commercial cinemas, and also exceeds the very best experience offered by 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays—without the storage limitations of a physical disc—and would likely be the quality provided for day & date releases.

 

 

In Part 2, I’ll talk about how, unlike services like Red Carpet and Prima, Kaleidescape already has a significant customer base with both the hardware and the financial means to support day & date in a big way right out of the gate.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

Like most of you, I’ve never put a tremendous amount of thought into the work involved in bringing a film from movie theaters to the home. Sure, I know the video needs to be compressed—more so for streaming-video services than for discs or high-bandwidth downloads, the likes of which you’d buy from the Kaleidescape store. But beyond that basic understanding, the process was a bit of a mystery to me.

 

Never one to let an interesting mystery go unsolved, I sat down with Kaleidescape’s Luke O’Brien, Director of Content Operations, and Mike Kobb, Principal Engineer, User Experience, to pick their brains about the process. I discovered that, in many ways, it’s a far more complicated undertaking than I could have imagined—mainly because there isn’t really

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

Luke O’Brien and Mike Kobb

a consistent pipeline from big screen to home screens. Much of that could probably be attributed to the fact that the home video market is ever-evolving, and that what Kaleidescape is doing—delivering high-bandwidth, pixel-perfect presentations of movies, TV shows, and documentaries—is unique in this era of highly compressed streaming.

 

In short, the files Kaleidescape receives from the various studios vary quite a bit. But they all fall under the umbrella of “mezzanine files”—and if you’ve never heard that term before, you’re probably not alone. To put it simply, mezzanine files are lightly compressed video files that 

are usually indistinguishable from fully uncompressed video. And by “lightly compressed,” I mean that your average movie might arrive in a file that’s ten times the size of a normal UHD Blu-ray disc.

 

So, how does Kaleidescape shrink that amount of data to a file small enough to be downloaded to your hard drive, but not so small that it compromises the viewing experience? How do they ensure that the image you see on your screen looks just as good as—if not better than—the master files delivered by the movie studios? That was my first question.

—Dennis Burger

 

 

Mike Kobb  I think one of the things that is a huge asset to Kaleidescape is the human element that goes into preparing this content. This is done by people who take a lot of pride and put a lot of effort into making stuff look really good and ensuring that everything is right. They sweat the details. It’s not, and I doubt that it will ever be, an operation where a digital file shows up from a studio and gets tossed into the hopper and completely automated machines grind it up and out comes the end product.

 

Dennis Burger  How long does that process take? I mean, let’s take a recent mainstream theatrical movie as an example. Let’s say, Captain Marvel, which I think it’s safe to say is being prepped for home video as we speak. How long does it take you, from the time you’re given whatever files you receive from the studio, to the point where it’s prepared and ready to be released once that digital release date hits?

 

Luke O’Brien  Well, we’re constantly doing things to try and make that process tighter and cleaner and quicker, to shorten the windows. And we have a whole toolset we’re working to go wide with this quarter, which I think will speed up this process significantly. But as it stands right now, the average title takes several business days.

 

MK  Yeah, it takes us about two business weeks to prepare a movie.

 

LO  And we’ve done it faster, in cases where we’ve needed to. And we’ve done it much slower in cases where we’ve run into problems that needed to be addressed. But if we don’t think it’s good enough, we just won’t release it. There’s a quality line we have to defend with our products. And mind you, I don’t consider anything in that state forever. There are files that we haven’t been happy where we landed with them, and I consider them to be still works in progress. And no, I’m not going to tell you what they are. But it will be a happy surprise when they show up on the service looking as great as they should when they’re on the Kaleidescape System.

 

DB  This was honestly a bit of a surprise for me, and I think it would be for many people who just assumed that in this era of 4K, Kaleidescape simply got a copy of the UHD Blu-ray disc, ripped it to your hard drives, put it on your servers, and delivered exactly the same bits that are on the disc via the internet. It’s nothing like that, though, is it?

 

LO  No. The files we get from the studios are raw files in a variety of formats, depending on the studio. Some of them are going to be ProRes files, some of them are going to be MOV files, some of them are going to be IMFs (Interoperable Mastering Format). There’s a variety of base container files they use to send those over, mostly because these files are 

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

ready wildly in advance of when disc files are ready and we’re really aggressive about making sure we’re always hitting the first possible date a digital release can be made available to our customers. So, we need to receive these files in a manner that a lot of the other places in the digital market do take them.

 

But we’re handling them differently, because obviously our delivery method isn’t to create something designed to be pumped out and compressed and uncompressed to varying degrees for streaming. We actually had to create a way to take the base files they give us and to create a Kaleidescape Container File: Something that is a beautiful package that will serve as

the movie on the customer’s system, that they would then download and have locally to watch and enjoy.

 

DB  The process obviously still involves some careful compression, though. Do you also do your own HDR grading? I ask because I’ve noticed that your HDR sometimes looks more cinematic, more subtle than what I’ve seen on other home video releases.

 

LO  We don’t do our own HDR grade. We don’t do that level of file detail correction.

 

MK  We’re not looking to make any changes to the way the filmmakers intended that movie to look. We always strive to get it to be as proper a representation of that as possible.

 

DB  So, what would account for the subtle differences I saw in, say, Incredibles 2, where other HDR home video releases seemed to focus more on stark contrasts, but the Kaleidescape HDR presentation seemed to err on the side of subtlety and richness of shadow detail?

 

LO  Well, we do have a transcode process that we take the files and run them through. And that will not be identical to what will come through when any other person puts their files together. One thing I can say is that you’re talking about a studio that’s very protective of their property, and between us and the studio there’s often an elaborate process to getting our titles qualified.

 

DB  One of the things that prompted me to want to have this conversation was the Kaleidescape presentation of Blue

Planet II. I thought your HDR presentation of that series was just utterly stunning. Does a series like that—a mini-series that was created for broadcast on BBC, rather than a theatrical presentation—go through a different process than your typical movie release?

 

LO  Oof. That one’s a little bit different, because there are a lot more pieces in the supply chain on that particular title, because it was created for UK television presentation. That was really the intended final target. So, we worked with BBC and BBC worked with some external processing houses to have a regraded, transformed file. But they work with them to make sure they’re happy with all the color corrections as everything goes through to get it to a file format that we can take and transcode and deliver to our customers. But on this end, it just goes through our normal process.

 

I love the way that particular title looks as well, and I want to give Kaleidescape credit for absolutely everything I can. But really, you have to give BBC credit for making such a beautiful, spectacular original source file. I don’t know what process it went through elsewhere, but I do think it looks stunning on our service.

 

DB  Would you say the process of something like that, which was intended for TV broadcast, ends up being more complicated or less so than your typical blockbuster movie?

 

LO  I think the important thing to consider here is that we have a human review process. So, it’s certainly more time-intensive. I don’t know if it’s more complicated, but that series is, like, the equivalent of eight movies. It’s 400 minutes of someone’s time 

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

Examples of video flaws that can appear during the transcoding process.

and a lot of Visine. 800 minutes, actually, because every episode requires two passes—because it will get an initial pass through our tools, and anything we see that we’re not happy with triggers a second pass, so it can be finalized and we can deliver it to our customers.

 

DB  What kinds of things might trigger a second pass?

 

LO  It’s all the stuff that you might imagine could conceivably bother you if you were watching this program on a reference-quality screen: Is there any sense that the black levels aren’t staying true? Is there any banding in the transitions of colors? Is the brightness fading properly when it should? Is there any macroblocking that 

shows up? And if any of that shows up, we work with proprietary tools to make sure we’re filtering out anything that’s not in the source file, that was introduced in the process of preparing it for public consumption.

 

MK  One other thing to consider, getting back to our earlier discussion about Kaleidescape versus discs: One area where we have some latitude is that the optical disc has whatever capacity it has, so when the disc is authored, they’re working with that limitation. We don’t have that limitation. We don’t have to conform our releases to something that could fit on an optical disc. We don’t have to worry about adding a second disc for bonus features. So, if a particular movie or TV series benefits from having higher-bandwidth encoding than a disc would allow, we can do that.

 

LO  Yeah, the result is that our files are big. They’re big because there’s all of that delicious, juicy information stacked up and stored in each one of those files.

 

MK  Exactly. But you know when you’re watching one of our premium movies that someone actually took the time to go over it with a fine-tooth comb and make sure that it’s right.

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Bumblebee

Bumblebee

For many viewers, myself included, the Transformers franchise jumped the shark with its fifth film, Transformers: The Last Knight, where it tried to combine robots, dinosaurs, and Arthurian lore into a mess of a film that included Sir Anthony Hopkins delivering lines that were frequently cringeworthy at best. That film was panned by critics and received the lowest audience rating of any film in the series—a meager 16% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Due to this, my expectations for Bumblebee were basically non-existent.

But the Bumblebee team decided to do some transforming of its own. This film broke the tradition of having Michael Bay at the directorial helm (though he does retain a producer credit), instead going with relative newcomer Travis Knight, whose previous directorial credit included the critically acclaimed Kubo and the Two Strings. They also went with an up-and-coming writers, Christina Hodson, for the script and story.

Those two changes made all the difference, with Bumblebee scoring big at the box office, bringing in a 93% Rotten Tomatoes rating—the highest of any film in the franchise—and resulting in a movie that has far more heart and story, and far less near-constant frenetic smash-em-up-blow-em-up action scenes. And guess what? When every scene isn’t filled with action, there is more room for story and character development, and more opportunity for the action pieces to stand out.

Also, by primarily focusing on a single robot character instead of virtually every Autobot and Decepticon still in existence, you have a chance to care more about them. Kudos to the design team that did a great job with Bumblebee’s eyes, giving him the ability to express emotion and feeling, further humanizing him.

Bumblebee

The film begins on the planet Cybertron, with the Autobots on the verge of being completely overthrown. As a last-ditch effort, Autobot leader, Optimus Prime, sends his lead fighter and scout, B-127, to the planet Earth in an escape pod to prepare a new base of operations for the Autobots to regroup. B-127 smashes into Earth right next to an Army Special Forces training exercise, and in a skirmish while attempting to escape and battling a Decepticon that followed him, B-127 is damaged, losing his ability to speak, as well as his memory of who he is and his mission. Low

on power and heavily injured, B-127 scans a nearby yellow ’67 Beetle and transforms, where he somehow ends up at a salvage yard before being discovered by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). Charlie christens B-127 “Bumblebee” because of the sound his electronic mumblings make.

There are many similarities between the storylines of Bumblebee and the original 2007 Transformers film. In both movies, the human star is an outcast, nerdy high school student. That role was played by Shia LaBeouf in 2007, but this time it’s a female played by Steinfeld. Both kids encounter the discarded and barely functional Autobot, Bumblebee, while searching for their first car, taking him home and then discovering he’s “more than meets the eye.” They both rely on friends of the opposite sex to help them survive and keep Bumblebee’s secret; the bombshell Megan Fox in the original, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. in Bumblebee. We’ve also got a strong military presence trying to track down and stop the alien invasion in the form of Agent Burns (John Cena), who is given one of the best lines with, “They literally call themselves Decepticons. That doesn’t set off any red flags?!”

Set in the late ‘80s, Bumblebee has a great soundtrack featuring many classics from bands like The Smiths, Duran Duran, Tears For Fears, and A-HA, along with several band shirts worn by Steinfeld that would have been perfectly at home on any student at my high school. Also, without the ability to speak, Bumblebee plays snippets of audio from the radio to communicate, a device that works well.

Bumblebee

Shot on ARRIRAW at 3.4K, Bumblebee is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, not uncommon for heavily effects-driven films. But the image has no shortage of detail, especially in closeups where you can see tons of detail like texture, imperfections, and scratches in Bumblebee’s paint, or individual strands of hair in Steinfeld’s eyelashes. HDR is used to good effect during the night scenes, particularly with explosions and erupting fireballs, or the vibrant green of the Decepticon transmitter near the finale.

My favorite aspect of the video was that the camera style is far more steady and stable, moving away from the near seizure-inducing, rapid blur and jerk favored by the previous Transformer films. The action scenes here are stable and in focus, letting you appreciate all of the robot’s movements and motions.

By far the standout here is Bumblebee’s reference-grade Dolby Atmos soundtrack. This movie sounds fantastic in a well-calibrated home theater, featuring an active mix that fully engages all Atmos speakers, immersing you in the action. Dialogue remains clear and intelligible throughout, no matter how many things are exploding onscreen. Home theater owners will especially love the massive amount of low-frequency impact. When heavy objects or bots crash, smash, collide, or explode, the bass is appropriately weighty, producing frequencies that will rattle your floor and slam into your chest. But far more than just one repetitive bass note, bass here is richly textured and layered, with different amounts of impact and detail according to  the scene. Excellent demo material for sure!

Bumblebee is available for download now at the Kaleidescape store, two weeks before the disc release on April 2.

John Sciacca

Bumblebee

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Home Theaters are Better Than Movie Theaters

Home Theaters are Better than Movie Theaters

Photo by JESHOOTS.com from Pexels

As John Sciacca points out in his recent article, “Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?” home entertainment spent more than half a century playing a catchup game with commercial cinemas, at least in terms of technological innovation and quality of presentation. But Wabbit Season has now pretty much undeniably become Duck Season, and home entertainment reigns supreme. Yes, commercial cinemas are making some interesting technological innovations, as John points out. But most of these are limited to a handful of theaters in major metropolitan areas.

 

For most people, a well-built, well-calibrated, well-programmed home cinema system (be it in a dedicated screening room or multi-use home entertainment space), has the potential to vastly outshine the movie-watching experience at the average local cineplex. And while much of this has to do with incredible advancements in the quality of consumer electronics in the

past few years, that’s not the whole story. There’s also a story to be told here about comfort, convenience, and customization.

 

In short, here are 10 reasons why home theaters are now better than movies theaters.

 

 

1) BETTER PICTURE

These days, even a mid-level Ultra HD (or “4K”) display, when properly calibrated and positioned, can give 

you a better and more immersive image than you’re likely to find in your local movie theater. Sure, your neighborhood megaplex has bigger screens working to its advantage, but depending on how far away you sit, a 75- to 120-inch screen at home can fill up just as much of your field of view. And displays this large are pretty close to becoming the norm for better home entertainment spaces. What’s more, you’d have to look pretty far and wide to find a movie theater screen that delivers anything close to the black levels and high dynamic range delivered by a good modern home display.

 

 

2) BETTER SOUND

At least in theory. While commercial cinemas still have the advantage in terms of channel count, let’s face it—you really don’t need 128 speakers in your living room to deliver an audio experience that’s every bit as engrossing as that of a movie theater. What’s more, theater sound has to be balanced for potentially hundreds of viewers. At home, you can tune the sound for the handful of seats that matter most. And today’s advanced room correction systems can make even a somewhat compromised space sound positively cinematic.

 

 

3) BETTER QUALITY CONTROL

Have you ever been to a commercial cinema and complained about an image that was too dim or stretched, or a screen that was soda-stained, or speakers that were blown, only to be greeted with that deer-in-headlights look? The fact is that most movie theater managers don’t care about (or even understand) quality of presentation. At home, you can either

address problems when they arise or, at worst, call your local integrator for assistance.

 

 

4) THE AV EXPERIENCE CAN BE
TWEAKED TO YOUR TASTE

Whether you like your movie sound to be played at reference listening levels, or just a bit louder or quieter than industry standards would dictate, chances are slim that you’ll ever be happy with where the volume knob is set at your local movie theater. At home, you can adjust the loudness to your liking, and even tweak it based on your mood.

 

 

5) THE “WOW” FACTOR CAN BE EVEN BETTER

Back in the day, there was an undeniable theatrical element involved in going to the movies. And yes, most of that boiled down to that highly anticipated moment when the curtains opened or widened to accommodate a Cinemascope film, but still. They used to call it “going to see a show” for a reason. The movie itself was simply the centerpiece of a larger event.

 

These days? Not so much. But home theaters can make movie-watching special in a way that commercial cinemas have long since abandoned. If you have a home automation system, you can dim the lights and draw the shades and maybe even cause the screen to drop down from the ceiling at the press of a button. If you have a Kaleidescape movie server system, these automated events can even be tied to the opening and closing credits of the movie itself—or even intermission. And you can program an entire evening’s worth of entertainment—trailers, cartoons, movies, and more—that can be launched with a single click. Simply put, movie night at home can be special in a way that bopping down to the local movie theater long ago ceased to be.

 

 

6) YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN TIMETABLE

Speaking of intermission, how many times have you missed a few minutes of a movie due to a necessary potty break? That’s not a problem when you’re watching at home. Perhaps more importantly, unless you’re itching to watch

the latest Marvel movie, which is likely to be playing on half the screens at your local multiplex, you’ll likely find that your choice of viewing times is limited to 4:25 or 9:45. At home, you can start the movie when you want.

 

 

7) THE VARIETY OF ENTERTAINMENT IS SO MUCH BETTER

As I alluded to in that last point, even at a megaplex with 16 screens, half of them are likely to be playing the same movie, which greatly limits your viewing options. These days, the rise of streaming services creating their own award-winning movies means that your options are wide open for home viewing.

Want to check out something like Bird Box or Roma? Outside of a few film festivals and a limited theatrical release aimed only at Oscar contention, the only way you’d ever see these films is at home. You could easily argue that Netflix and Amazon are the most innovative and important film studios in existence today, and their works are only available in the home for most people.

8) TWO WORDS: GOURMET POPCORN

OK, it’s entirely possible that my wife and I are weirdos in this respect, but we’re total popcorn snobs. We have our own oil popper, and when it’s time to sit down for a movie we’re likely to spend five minutes simply deciding what kind of kernels to pop. On the rare occasions when we do go to the cinema, the grease-covered cardboard they sell by the bucket is an unappetizing letdown.

 

And hey, maybe gourmet popcorn isn’t your thing. Substitute your own snack of choice and you get the point. Movie theaters have done a decent job of offering more variety in their snacks in recent years, but let’s be honest here: They’re all kinda gross unless you live in a major metropolis. At home, you can snack better, snack cheaper, and snack healthier to boot.

9) YOU GET TO DEFINE “COMFORT”

My wife recently returned from a road trip, during which she went to the movies with a friend of ours who lives up north. She came home raving about the recliners in the cinema they visited, to which I replied, “Were they as comfortable as your seat on the sofa?” The answer, of course, was a resounding, “no.” Still, it’s humorous to me that the notion of comfortable seating in a movie theater is a novelty in and of itself. What’s more, these seats have to accommodate a broad range of opinions as to what constitutes “comfortable.”


Personally, I like a firm memory foam sofa that conforms to my posterior, but isn’t so cushy that I drift off during our annual 12-hour Lord of the Rings Extended Edition marathon. Maybe your tastes lean even firmer, or maybe you’d prefer to sink into the accoutering equivalent of a marshmallow. Either way, in your home theater or multi-use entertainment space, you get to pick the seats.

 

 

10) YOU GET TO PICK THE AUDIENCE

There may yet come a day when commercial cinemas once again reclaim their technological superiority over home cinema systems en masse, but even if they do, I can’t imagine going back to the movies on the regular. And that mostly boils down to the fact that the moviegoing masses are loud, obnoxious, obtrusive, self-centered jerks. When we went to see Captain Marvel a few weeks back, I nearly sprained my shushing muscles. And outside of chains like Alamo Drafthouse, most cinema operators generally couldn’t care less if kids are swinging from the rafters.


Anyone who comes to my house to watch a movie knows they’re there to watch a movie, not gab for two hours straight or check their phones every ten minutes. And you could argue that my rules for movie-watching at home are a little strict, but you know what? Friends and family who join me on my couch for a show always come to appreciate the specialness of the experience.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet, the followup to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, is one of those rare sequels that, if not better than the original, stands equal to it. Like many modern Disney (and Pixar) films, even though it’s animated, Breaks’s story and themes are designed to appeal across a wide range of ages, and offers plenty of laughs and emotion for everyone in the family.

 

Around six years have passed since the end of the first movie, and life remains mostly unchanged in the arcade for Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who spend their days playing as characters in their video games, and their nights hanging out together, traveling to different games and throwing back root beer at Tapper’s.

 

When the steering wheel in Vanellope’s racing game, Sugar Rush, breaks, the machine is unplugged, leaving all of the characters “gameless” (i.e., homeless). Ralph and Vanellope turn to the Internet to find the part needed to repair the game, starting our heroes on their quest. But the film is really about friendship enduring as people grow and change. And the insecurity that one person feels when they are totally happy with the status quo and want nothing to change, and the other wonders what more the world has to offer and feels like they need to move on. Ultimately, your friends don’t need to be exactly like you to be your friends, and we need to let the ones we love be free to pursue their dreams, even if that means potentially losing them. Heady themes for a “kid’s” movie.

 

Ralph checked all the boxes for me; video games, nostalgia, technology, Disney, and Easter eggs aplenty, rivaling Ready Player One for things hidden in the background. (Google the license plate in the shark’s mouth for one great one!)

 

The film does a great job of visualizing how technology works—from the concept of packetizing data and sending it through a router and off to the Internet, how searches, viral videos, and pop-ups work—what causes the Internet to drop, and imagining what the Internet might look like if it were a physical place that data actually visited.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Without a doubt, the scenes at OhMyDisney.com were my favorite parts of Breaks, and quite possibly some of my favorite scenes from any movie in recent years. This area of the ‘net brings together virtually every Disney property—classic Disney, princesses, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel, hidden Mickeys —into a lengthy segment featuring some fantastic Easter eggs throughout that had me smiling until my cheeks hurt. Instead of just being a cheap franchise tie-in, this scene brings multiple franchises together in a fantastically organic and entertaining manner. And kudos to Disney for getting all of the original actors back to reprise their voice roles here. Great stuff!

 

Similar to how the first film used different animation styles to differentiate between the worlds of Fix-It Felix (Ralph’s game), Sugar Rush (Vanellope’s game), and Hero’s Duty (Calhoun’s game), Breaks has different visual looks and styles

depending on where we are in Ralph’s world: the arcade, inside different games, the Internet, or the Dark Web.

 

One of the marquee locales is Slaughter Race, a gritty, smoggy, bathed-in eternal dusty-golden-light, crime-ridden world a la Grand Theft Audio. Here we meet ultra-racer/gang leader, Shank (Gal Gadot), who ends 

Ralph Breaks the Internet

up becoming an unlikely mentor and pivotal in Vanellope’s journey as well as contributing to a big-time song-and-dance number that’s an homage to classic Hollywood pieces of old.

 

Animation generally looks fantastic in 4K HDR, and Breaks definitely doesn’t disappoint. Colors are incredibly bright and punchy, almost neon when called for, especially in the Internet. Blacks are also deep, with a lot of detail.

 

Breaks sounds as good as it looks, with an aggressive Dolby Atmos soundtrack that’s used effectively throughout, both to create environment and to add impact to the onscreen action. The overhead, ceiling speakers are smartly used to create a wonderfully immersive experience, such as the echoing, swirling sounds when Ralph and Vanellope travel into the Internet or the multiple announcements that occur throughout. The carjacking scene in Slaughter Race also sounds great, with a lot of dimensionality and solid bass accompanying the crashes.

 

While mostly family friendly, there were a couple of scenes in the film’s final act —notably Ralphzilla and Double-Dan (you’ll know him when you see him) —that were a little too intense and frightening for my almost-3-yo.

 

Definitely continue watching through the end credits for one last great Ralph meme—probably the most perfect end credits scene a movie about breaking the Internet could possibly have.

 

The 4K HDR digital download is available from the Kaleidescape store now, a full two weeks before the physical disc is released, and contains numerous making-of docs, a handful of deleted scenes, and two music videos.

 

John Sciacca

Ralph Breaks the Interner

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 2

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I wondered if you could hear any differences in Dolby Atmos surround sound on the various movie streaming services and movies downloaded from Kaleidescape, and decided to do a comparison between Vudu, Apple TV, and Kaleidescape to find out.

 

After an afternoon of listening tests, here are my results.

 

I have a pretty high-end audio system, consisting of the new Marantz AV8805 flagship preamp/processor, two Marantz seven-channel amplifiers, and a 7.2.6-channel speaker configuration that includes Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L tower

speakers, a Definitive Trinity Signature Reference sub, and an SVS SB-16Ultra sub. I watched all of the movies at the same volume setting: -15 dB.

 

For source material, I used my Kaleidescape Strato to handle the Dolby TrueHD audio on movies downloaded from the movie store, a Microsoft Xbox One S to stream content from Vudu, and an Apple TV 4K to play movies from the Apple Store.

 

I mined my movie collection to find multiple titles I owned across all three services that featured Dolby Atmos soundtracks. This allowed me to cue up the scenes on all three devices and fairly quickly listen to each scene in the different formats.

I watched a number of scenes from six films I’m familiar with: Ready Player One, Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, Gravity, Venom, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. After A-B-C’ing each scene multiple times, I can definitively say two things: 1) the TrueHD audio mix always sounded better, and 2) audio from the Apple TV 4K sounded substantially quieter and more compressed.

 

By far the most readily noticeable audio differences were in the low frequency range. Consistently, film after film, scenes with low-frequency activity were far more dynamic and impressive in TrueHD. The low end had more physical impact, producing frequencies I could feel, as well as pressure waves that rattled doors and windows.

 

The opening “Bell Bottoms” scene from Baby Driver is a perfect example, where the bass notes in the song were thin and indistinct with the Dolby Digital Plus (DD+) on Apple TV and Vudu, and the shotgun blasts had little weight. With TrueHD, the bass was articulated, and the shotgun plumbed far lower and louder.

 

The bass-heavy Blade Runner 2049 also offered multiple scenes that showcased the superiority of the TrueHD soundtrack. The pistol Deckard uses in his fight with K in old Vegas had far more impact, as did the rushing water, thunder, and air vehicles flying at the pump station. The fantastic Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer soundtrack also sounded richer, producing notes that were more musical and real, with better tone and decay.

 

Textural sounds also had far more dimension and realism with TrueHD. The first challenge race from Ready Player One was a perfect example, featuring a lot of different vehicles with unique-sounding engines. The multi-layered sounds of the engines, crashes, crunches, and explosions had more detail and separation, being less distinct in the DD+ version. The motorcycle chase in Venom exhibited this same sonic loss in DD+, as with the sounds of the drones flying, or the details of bullets striking. It was similar with the crunching and thrashing from the hippo attack in Jumanji.

 

As mentioned above, the audio levels on Apple TV were significantly lower across every film—often 10 dB or more. This was obvious on everything, but especially noticeable on Gravity, where the opening dialogue chatter between Stone and Houston was virtually inaudible, making it completely unintelligible when played at the same levels as the Vudu and Kaleidescape versions.

 

Even with volume levels raised to compensate, the Apple versions of the films just seemed far more compressed, lacking dynamic range. This was similar to what I experienced on the Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour streamed from Netflix, making me wonder if there is some issue with the way the Apple TV 4K handles Atmos audio. 

 

Now, while the TrueHD mix was definitely better, that doesn’t mean the streamed mix was bad. Just not as good. This was especially noticeable when played back to back, where the TrueHD audio had a wider, airier, more natural presentation. Outdoor scenes like in the jungles of Jumanji just felt more open and like you were in the actual environment, while the DD+ audio felt more centered on the screen.

 

For luxury cinema owners who’ve invested in getting the best experience possible, there are definite, noticeable audio improvements to be had by purchasing content in the lossless format.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

For years, audiophiles have bemoaned the lackluster quality of MP3 audio files, saying they compress the life out of the music. Yet people still buy, stream, and enjoy MP3 (or similarly compressed) music files by the billions, so are they really that bad?

 

The music analogy of lossy, compressed MP3 files versus lossless, high-resolution .WAV (or similar) files is a great starting point for discussing the audio quality of streaming movie services. Without getting too deep into the weeds, streaming sites like Vudu, Netflix, and Apple deliver an audio bitstream using Dolby Digital Plus (DD+) while Blu-ray and UltraHD discs and titles downloaded from the Kaleidescape movie store use Dolby TrueHD. (We could also have a discussion of DTS versus DTS-HD Master or DTS:X, but since no streaming services yet provide or supports these, we’ll table that for later.)

 

A lossy codec like DD+ compresses the original full-resolution file, discarding information the encoder deems the listener won’t miss or wouldn’t have heard to begin with. This significantly reduces the original file size, making it easier to stream. But a lossless format like TrueHD retains all of the original information, resulting in a much larger file, which creates a problem for streaming services but isn’t a factor for a disc or for content downloaded from Kaleidescape.

According to Dolby, “Digital Plus provides up to twice the efficiency of Dolby Digital while adding new features like 7.1-ch audio, support for descriptive video services, and support for Dolby Atmos. Dolby Digital Plus is widely used by streaming and broadcast services to deliver surround sound audio at lower bitrates. 5.1-ch audio in Dolby Digital Plus is typically encoded at bitrates between 192–256 kbps.” (My emphasis.)

 

Dolby also says, “TrueHD is a lossless audio codec used widely on HD and UHD Blu-ray Discs. Dolby TrueHD supports up to 24-bit audio and sampling rates from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz. Dolby TrueHD supports up to 7.1 audio channels as well as Dolby Atmos immersive audio. As Dolby TrueHD is a lossless audio codec, the data rate is variable. For example, Dolby TrueHD bitrates average around 6,000 kbps for Dolby Atmos at 48 kHz with peak data rates up to a maximum of 18,000 kbps for high sampling rate content.” (Again, emphasis is mine.)

 

So, what does this mean?

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

Well, if you take the highest DD+ encode rate—256 kbps—and compare it to the average for Dolby TrueHD—6,000 kbps—you’ll see that the TrueHD audio stream has more than 23 times more data allocated to it.

 

Fine. But can you actually hear and appreciate the difference? In Part 2, I’ll give you the results of my comparison of the same movies streamed on Vudu and Apple TV and downloaded from Kaleidescape.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.