Welcome fellow tweakers to the 60th meeting of Audiolics Anonymous. That's five years of having to read my tomes, but its also five years of www.enjoythemusic.com, one of the best web audio magazines out there, and all for free. What more can you ask for? As this is my 60th column, which should make me immune to criticism from my editor and since many audiophiles are getting into video, I've decided to branch out a little and discuss, in addition to an audio tweak, a couple of video products which have come my way for review and which I find to be of excellent value.
Clark Johnsen put me on to this stuff through an email he sent several weeks ago asking if anybody had heard of or used it. Being a tweaker at heart, I emailed Herr Dipl. Eng. Altmann, owner of AltmannMicroMachines of Germany, and he was kind enough to send a tube for review. The material is claimed to change the overtone structure of the components such that their solid state signature becomes more tube-like, possibly by adjusting the relative values of the odd and even harmonics produced by the component.
What I received was about 0.5cc's of a quick drying suspension of very fine black particles which is to be applied to the top surface of plastic encapsulated parts such as op- amps, transistors, D/A and A/D converters. It costs 59 Euro (about $75), which sounds like a lot for the amount, but I've used it on three pieces of equipment and there is still plenty left. From my email to receiving the product took only one week.
The lacquer is very sticky and rapid drying, and if I had to guess the particles almost look like graphite, but that's Herr Altmann's secret. Once dry, it is electrically non- conductive, but try to keep it just on the top of the above components. I used a fine brush that came with a stylus cleaning kit. One needs to shake the contents thoroughly as it is a suspension, then apply, directly to the preferably turned off component.
First up was my EAD Theatermaster pre-pro, as all signals, except for my vinyl, route through it. I decided to coat all of the plastic parts rather than trying them one at a time as I wanted to be sure that I could hear a change. Its supposed to be easily removed if you don't like the result, and it takes 20 days for the material to break in so I didn't want to have to experiment for months. This was taking a chance, as even Herr Altmann states that some parts react poorly to the coating and may cause a "dumb sound that will make you feel sick" (his words, not mine). But no second thoughts occurred on this tweaker's part. Application took only five minutes, most of that trying to get the suspension onto some chips on a board under another one.
So what was the result? After allowing about two hours for the material to dry, on went a CD, and guess what: the unit produced a "dumb sound that made me feel ill that made me think "what have I done to my $6,800 pre-pro?" Luckily for my ulcers and pocket book, after 24 hours the dullness went away and was replaced with a somewhat muffled sound that gradually lessened over the next several days. By the 10th day the sound had improved to the point where the dullness was gone, but also gone was a high frequency irritation that cannot be pinpointed but probably gives rise to some of the problems associated with 16-bit/44kHz recordings. I have to agree that the sound became more tube-like, and wish that my instrumentation were sufficient enough to look at the frequency spectrum to see what had been done. All in all there was a distinct improvement to the sound. If I were to guess, the odd order harmonics had been decreased but Herr Altmann will have to answer that one.
Next up was my Denon 5900 universal player and M-Audio 1010 D/A and A/D multi-channel computer card. In each case the same changes were heard over a similar time period. Interestingly, even DVD-Audio and SACD playback improved a significant amount. I don't know how or why it works, but who cares. For $75, experiment a little.
A reply from Herr Altmann:
I'm happy that you like the tube-o-lator stuff. I have no exact idea why it works and what is happening. Due to the relatively long drying period (and the weird sound during drying) I think it is a combined electrical and mechanical effect and high frequency energy is absorbed in the lacquer, maybe transferred to tiny movement respectively heat. I have once seen the changed overtone spectrum on a Audio-Precision (I think it was System Two). But I don't own this device, and the FFT measurement on my computer's ADC is seem to be unable to repeat this measurement, maybe due to lack of precision. Most people don't know the stuff and call it snake-oil. Only those few who tried it out, know that it works and can successfully be used in several applications.
Thanks for testing,
Crystalio Video Processor VPS2300
While this is supposed to be primarily an audiophile magazine, most of us are also into high-end video (videophiles). Thus, I've reviewed video components in the past and will continue to do so in the future, especially those products that are high value for the price. A processor is the pre-pro of the video side, doing D/A (digital to analog) and A/D (analog to digital) conversions, adjusting brightness and contrasts (voltage amplitude difference), digitally manipulating the signal by upsampling (changing from interlaced to progressive then changing the resolution or pixel density and frame rate), equalization (color and hue and gamma), and controlling jitter. It my also handle digital signal manipulation for jitter, adjustment of interlace artifacts, sharpness etc. Finally, it acts as an amplifier by sending the proper voltage to the set. While television, like audio, is heading into the high definition realm, the majority of programming now is still low definition NTSC or low resolution digital. Most of us therefore need a way of scaling the 480I image up to whatever is the optimal resolution our TV sets, whether they be projectors, CRT's, LCD or plasma.
Most of the new sets either rely on an external or built-in scalers, which are afterthoughts, and not of the best quality. The highest resolution formats out there now and for the future are 1080I or 720P (except for Windows Media Video DVD's that can do 1080P) but the best projectors can do 1080P. Also, the vast majority of high definition sets out there have odd resolutions that are not perfect multiples of the sent image. While there are line doublers (480I to 480P), triplers (720P) and quadruplers (960P) out there in all different price ranges, one really needs a scaler that can accept multiple different input types, including composite, component, s-video, SDI, DVI, etc., and produce the optimal output lines of resolution for your TV. With the various resolutions of sets on the market today, one really needs an infinitely variable scaler to match each set's resolution perfectly, otherwise you'll be buying a new scaler each time you get a new TV. It is also of value for that scaler to be able to also do some signal manipulation to go from the old interlaced to a progressive signal, to maximize the sets abilities for brightness, contrast and color, and to optimize the signal for transmission to the set. In the past, a really good line multiplier, such as those from Faroudja, with most of the above functions would cost in the $10,000 to 20,000 range, or one could use a home theater computer at least for DVD and NTSC and HDTV broadcast signals, but with the release of a relatively inexpensive chip by Faroudja, and with some smarts by some companies, the price of the best processors have come down into a reasonable range.
Enter PMS Video Limited of Hong Kongmakers of the Crystalio unit, the first of this new level of video scaler. Discussion of the unit on the AVS Forum had been very positive, with only a couple of gripers, which is unusual, so I contacted Mr. Nelson Choi and asked for a sample. He was somewhat reluctant to send one to an audio magazine and reviewer, but was gracious enough to oblige. The unit comes with a small front LCD screen which lists all of the menus and functions, so one doesn't need to look at the TV when programming, which is a big advantage. Plus, all of the controls necessary for programming are also on the front, so one doesn't need to use either of the two supplied remotes for setup or in the future if they are lost.
It has a standard 15-amp IEC female plug, so one can play with AC cords, although the instructions state that they want you to use the one supplied. Inputs include three SDI, two s-video, two standard definition component, one with BNC plugs, one composite, one DVI-D and one VGA which can be used for high definition RGBHV or component input. There are also a USB and Ethernet port and a RS-232 port for programming. Outputs include one RGBHV and one DVI-D. As with all equipment, there are a few problems with the unit, at least for the US market.
First, the selection of inputs. Three SDI - While this is probably the best way to get video data in digital form, there are very few non-professional units in the US with this type of output, and the majority of them are modded DVD players and a few satellite receivers. I doubt that more than a very few videophiles out there have more than one piece of equipment with a SDI output. PMS Video produces several SDI output mods for their Hong Kong buyers, so that may be the reason for three.
Second, while it would normally not be a problem to have excess SDI inputs, the Crystalio has only one DVI, one VGA for HDTV RGBHV or Component, and two standard definition component inputs, which is clearly insufficient for the US market. While RGBHV may be dying out as a transmission method for the home, most video sources in the US now require either component or DVI output with HDCP compliance. And most of the equipment that will be coming out in the next few years will be for HDTV, and neither Crystalio component input will accept a 1080I, or 720P signal. The next series of Crystalio's will have more of these, but I am not sure they could be added to the present unit. Thus if you have more than one of each you'll need some sort of switching box.
"So what!" you may ask. This is a component primarily used for scaling of NTSC video. My problem is that this is really a high end product that will do 1080P output, the maximum of the HDTV resolutions, and scale perfectly to any LCD or plasma screen out there, thus this unit is ideal for transposing 720P or 1080I signals to the native resolution of your monitor, except that with the present inputs, you'll only be able to do it for two pieces of equipment, one VGA and one DVI-D. Again, they are planning more with the next unit, and there is a slot on the back that could accept more inputs, but who knows whether that will occur.
Third, the DVI-D input in not HDCP compliant, although Mr Choi has told me that this will be available in the future, and should be just a software change. This is not discussed in the manual, and I spent over an hour trying to get the DVI-HDCP outputs of my Denon 5900 DVD player and VOOM receiver to work with the unit but only a rapidly rolling picture could be obtained.
Enough gripes. On to the reasons this unit is being reviewed.
One, it produces the best upsampled picture from NTSC video that I've ever seen. My IEV Turboscan line quadrupler, a professional unit which put out 960P, and was top of the line two years ago, can't match the 1080P output of the Crystalio for clarity, color and lack of interlace artifacts. It also at least compares to the best of the Faroudja, TAW and Leeza units I've seen demonstrated at shows, and at a significantly lower price. It accomplishes this by using the latest Faroudja DCDi chip that does on-board scaling, removal of interlaced jaggies artifacts to one pixel precision, and sharpness enhancement without the usual overaccentuation of edges, and by some very clever software.
Two, their Pixel Magic software will upsample to any aspect ratio from 480I to 1080P, and I mean any. One can adjust by one pixel either the vertical or horizontal lines of resolution, so it can accommodate any monitor out there today or into the foreseeable future. Thus no planned obsolescence.
Three, it will take any aspect ratio given it and change it to any output ratio.
Fourth, the unit can change the frame rate frequency from 24 (film) or 30 (video) Hz. up to 60 or 72 per second, thus allowing doubling or tripling of the number of times the picture is projected onto the monitor. This allows for more fluid motion and loss of jitter secondary to the difference between video and film scan rates.
While other scalers can do some or most of the above, the Crystalio does them superbly and can also do the following:
1.Motion Adaptive Noise Reduction - Gets rid of motion artifacts from NTSC signals.
2.Chroma Filter masking of the so-called Red Chroma bug of most DVD players.
3.Color Saturation control.
4. Software upgradeable by either Ethernet or USB from your computer and the web. Thus, no changing out or waiting for eproms. While I had the unit, there was one of these downloads into my computer and it went without a hitch. It improved but did not eradicate the rolling I was getting from the DVI input.
5. Ability to process DVI signals and output RGB or the opposite. This is a boon to those of us still using old fashioned CRT projectors, which still produce the best picture in my opinion. Whether this will continue once they get HDCP approval is questionable, but I certainly hope.
6. 1080P upsampling and output of 1080I or 720P signals. While very few monitors can use 1080P right now, only 9-inch CRT's and the new Sony Qualia projector, this will be the standard in the not too distant future once DLP and LCD projectors catch up.
Okay, on to the operation of the unit. First, the directions are adequate, and actually quite good for a product out of the Far East. No Pidgin English here, just very clear concise directions. There were a couple of things I didn't understand in setup, but through email service that is available to each user, my problems were cleared up. The two remotes supplied are very good, one of them being programmable for multiple units. Setup, once I figured out the little hiccups in the directions, was straight forward for each input. I couldn't test the SDI ins as I don't have any SDI sources, and was a little miffed that the directions didn't state that the component inputs were only for 480I, but once figured out, setup for 1080P, 60Hz or 72Hz. output to my projector went without a hitch. As stated above, the upsampled picture from composite and s-video inputs was the best I've seen from a scaler. Colors were spot on and very vivid, and for the first time I could not discern any movement artifacts in the progressive picture. Also, the red chroma bug disappeared.
DVD's using my Denon 5900 component outputs outmatched the quality I get in DVD playback using my home theater computer using a direct digital signal at 1080P/72 HZ. I just wish I had been able to use the DVI output of the Denon with the Crystalio to see the various performance qualities of using the Crystalio as the scaler vs. the Denon. Maybe with the next software edition. All in all, for the price, this is the best scaler that I've seen out there for less than $10,000. Except for the lack of sufficient high definition inputs, the unit is pretty future-proof with its ability to scale to the best resolution possible, is ruggedly built and reasonably easy to use once it's set up properly. If I had the cash right now, I'd buy it and put my IEV out to pasture, but that will have to wait until my end of year bonus.
A very short reply from Mr. Choi:
Thanks. Unfortunately you don't have Denon 5900 SDI mod DVDP to do comparison with 5900 DVI. However, you may find your Denon 5900 DVI wouldn't output 4:3 aspect ratio and can't lock 2:2 pulldown as Crystalio can.
HI-REZ Electrohome LVPS Mods
I realize that few of you would be interested in this mod, as few are videolics and even fewer have Electrohome projectors, but it is a great value and does significantly improve these units. Hi-Rez run by Gary Guidiand Joel Cohen,is a dealer and restorer of high end CRT video projectors, primarily Electrohomes. They are also the licensed repair facility for Madrigal, Vidikron, Runco, Panasonic, Harmon, Zenith, etc., and own CrystalView hi end Electrohome modded projectors. I have upgraded with them several times starting with an Electrohome ECP and finally ending with my 9500LC top of the line. They are a great company to deal with, always being fair with trade-ins, and have each time done superb set-up for my new projector. Thus, I was happy to hear that with all of their expertise, they have gotten into modding the Electrohome boards.
The Electrohome series were the best built professional projectors available, and over the years several companies, including Runco, Vidikron, and Madrigal, improved their electronics and sold them as their own. As Hi-Rez has bought the rights to several of these projectors, they have taken the information gleaned and have started to take the best mods and incorporate them into the rebuilt projectors they sell. Now they have decided to start selling the modded individual boards for self-installation by Electrohome owners.
The first board to come out of their factory is the low voltage power supply, which can be found on all Marquee level projectors. Located in the front of the projector, it supplies a stable voltage for the various boards and filaments. It also has a set of two fans that run air through both it and the high voltage power supply. These fans are fairly loud and tend to beat against one another, thus making up a significant amount of the noise coming from the projector. While this may not bother the high decibel movie crowd, it certainly can affect audiophiles. I had previously had the double fans modded by another company, and this did lower the noise by about 3dB, but it was still somewhat obtrusive while listening to music videos.
Hi-Rez has done two mods on it that have significantly improved the unit. First, they have taken away the double fans, and placed a single larger low speed low noise fan on a large plenum which approximates it to the high voltage power supply. The new fan pushes the same amount of air but supposedly gives better and quieter air flow through both the low and high voltage supplies. Happily, the fan noise at my listening position has been reduced by about 6dB, for a total of 9dB less than an unmodded projector as the previously modded fan had dropped 3dB of noise. Second, the noise has changed in frequency such that it is a lower and constant pitch, thus less noticeable than the drop would suggest. For audio enthusiasts, this is a great improvement., even better than the isolation booth I built around the projector. They also claim that both power supplies are kept cooler, thus prolonging their lives. This is important as the high voltage power supply costs almost $2,000 to replace, and I've had to do that once.
In addition, they have changed the voltage regulator circuit incorporating a pre-regulator that prevents damage to the tubes by failure of the circuit, very important for tubes that cost several thousand dollars to replace. It also sets the voltage at 6.3 volts and keeps it rock steady no matter the line voltage and heat build-up, thus prolonging tube life. They have also added low and high frequency filtering that decreases RF produced by the unit. This has sharpened up the beam and the scan lines such that the picture takes on a more 3 dimensional quality with full 1080P resolution, the highest available from video systems at present. They also will give a five year tube replacement warranty due to damage from filament overvoltage. At $3,000 for a set of tubes, this could save you a big bill.
Cost is $295 for either the fan or electronics mod, or $590 total with shipment included in the continental US. If you have both done at the same time, total cost is only $395. Such a deal.That's it for this column. Next month I'll get back to audio with a discussion of an updated pre-pro and new amps.