Welcome to the September meeting of our support group for audio junkies. This article is going to focus on what some of you consider to be the Dark Side, i.e., video, but in this era of home theater, all of us are being dragged in that direction by The Force and I've just evaluated a piece of equipment which will radically change your perception of video viewing.
Before we get into that though, because of last month's review product AA Chapter 82, the APC S-15 Power Conditioner, my system's line conditioning has been significantly simplified. Except for specialty power cords, one by one, the previously used conditioners, including the Nordost Thor, and Exact Power units, have been removed without any deleterious effects, and I'm not so sure the specialty power cords are necessary. Several of the expensive cords have been replaced with 14 gauge standard IEC types with no degradation in the audio that this writer can perceive. This unit has proven over the past month to be a true winner. It's not that the other conditioners weren't superior in their own right, but the APC unit does everything they did and more.
Placing an oscilloscope on the input and output of the unit showed that the S-15 has cleaned up the power to the point where the sine wave looks almost perfect, without the normal jaggies of noise riding on it. Except for a slight flattening at the top of the wave, due probably to resistance or loss at the transformer outside the house, which is also improved by the unit from the input's form, it's the best sine wave I've seen from any device I've had here. The sound from my system over the past two months has been the best ever, and as previously stated, most of the fixes that were originally being kept, have been removed without deleterious effect.
Interestingly, two weeks ago, I was invited to North Billerica, Ma., about 35 miles from my house, where the design and research facilities of APC is located, by Patrick Donovan, their product manager, where I was shown around by Michael Schenk, who was on the development team for the home heater division. My arrival interrupted a cookout that the plant was having but Michael was very happy to give me a tour anyway.
The engineering being done there is amazing. Their design team has recently developed a 20 KVA UPS that fits into a cabinet about the size of my 2 KVA Toshiba unit of four years ago, and their 50 KVA units were only bookshelf cabinet size. There were several demonstrations of other equipment, which I'm not allowed to divulge. At the end they took me to the testing facility for their home theater equipment, the S-15 being the first of several designs to come out in the near future, where they demonstrated several of the tests performed on the units for quality control. One was a test for longevity of the voltage regulation system. Interestingly one of the units being tested failed while I was standing there. Not the least bit flustered, Michael pointed out that the unit was somewhere above 2.5 million cycles before the failure occurred. Other tests showed how the unit responds in milliseconds to voltage fluctuations, and the ability of the units to block out line noise up to the gigahertz range.
They also demoed their soon to be available H-15 units which will do just about everything the S-15 does for line conditioning, just not have battery backup and not be able to do the same amount of voltage adjustment, for probably less than $500. It has the same circuit boards for noise reduction as the S-15. By the way these boards are superbly constructed, and they even are built to high-end standards in that they have two layers of noise reduction for the video and digital circuits for isolation of digital noise from the analog side, and only single noise reduction for the analog amp and preamp circuits to allow better current flow. All grounding and circuit paths are made as direct as possible with larger wiring and circuit traces than necessary to decrease resistance and noise.
It turned out Michael is a high-ender with tube amps and Klipsch Cornwall horn loudspeakers, and was very in tune with audiophile's wants in the line conditioning department. No wonder their S-15 unit works so well in high-end audio/video systems.
Vantage HQV Home Theater Scaler
Now on to this month's major topic, probably the biggest advance in video in the past several years, at least for this reviewer. When I bought my Electrohome 9500LC projector several years ago when HDTV was just getting started, the salesman demonstrated the projector's capabilities using a Teranex video processor, a professional unit, which was, at the time, and still is, the best video line multiplier-noise reducer available. Unhappily it needed a case the size of a large amplifier, weighed almost as much, and had about 40 controls on the front, and cost north of $60,000.
Shortly after that, Teranex was bought by Silicon Optix, a designer and producer of video imaging and processing integrated circuits. They have since designed a chip, the Realta, which gets the majority of the Teranex's functions on a single piece of silicon.
They call the process "Hollywood Quality Video," or HQV for short, and combine Teranex's trillion operation per second broadcast quality video processing with Silicon Optix's scaling technology to produce the first consumer priced ability to scale full 1080I to the maximum HDTV standard of 1080P. Until now, all consume and most pro video processors, including those from Crystalio, Key Digital, and DVDO which have been evaluated here, have actually thrown away half of the two fields of normal interlaced television, thus quadrupling the 540 lines of a single frame to get the 1080 progressive lines. This was necessary as scaling processors up to this unit didn't have enough computing power to do all of the deinterlacing and interpolation of motion artifacts necessary to come up with a jaggies-free picture.
In their own words the chip does the following functions:
HQV True 1080i to 1080p/QXGA De-interlacing HQV technology uses the full four-field processing window for HD video de-interlacing and cadence detection, preserving details in HD imagery. As stated above, this is the first processor under mega-bucks that has the ability to use all of the video information in the 1080I or 720P high definition video signal and process it to the highest 1080P video standard. All other processors available to this point threw away half of the signal by taking only one of the two interlaced windows, thus taking the 1080I signal, converting it to a 540I signal, then multiplying it to the 1080P. While this does away with the so-called jaggies or stair-stepped lines usually seen with the low-grade processors, it decreases significantly the quality of the image. In audio terms, this would be like taking a 24-bit/96kHz or SACD signal, degrading it to 16-bit/48kHz, and then reprocessing it to 24-bit/192kHz. While the end product may sound better than 16/48, it certainly wouldn't come up to the original 24/96 standard, never mind the 24/192.
This is important, as the future of television is the high definition 720 and 1080 signals while standard definition 480I of regular off the air television and DVD will be around for quite a while, it will be completely replaced sooner or later, and thus all other processors available today will become obsolete.Happily not those using the Realta chip.
HQV SD/HD Multi-Direction Diagonal Filter (MDDF) A true 10-bit diagonal interpolator that removes any "jaggies" and/or stair-stepping artifacts from de-interlaced video sources without blurring the image. Nomal processors use 8 bit interpolation to remove artifacts from the standard definition video signal, while the HQV oversamples to 10 bits. This is equivalent to using a 20 or 24 bit DAC to process 16 bit audio. Enough said.
HQV Noise Reduction A fully automatic per-pixel adaptive software algorithm that adds a new dimension of pixel-by-pixel noise and motion measurement, detecting and reducing the analog and MPEG noise that currently plagues DVD and broadcast sources while maintaining full image fidelity. Interpolation is done on every bit of information rather than averaging several bits. Similar to what is done with high grade DACS.At the same time it recognizes dropped bits or noise interference and removes the false information.
HQV Detail Enhancement Watching standard-definition (SD) images on HD displays often produces a blurring effect resulting in a disappointing visual experience. HQV detail enhancement improves the image detail on a pixel-by-pixel basis, delivering SD that approaches HD quality. Similar to taking a 16/44 signal and producing a 24/96 with narrower stairsteps.
HQV Automatic Film Mode Cadence Processing A quantum improvement in automatic handling of film and video sources such as 3:2 and 2:2 sequences common to broadcast and DVD. HQV processing provides industry-first support for "Vari-Speed" cadences such as 3:2:3:2:2 commonly used for movies broadcast on television, as well as 5:5, 6:4, and 8:7, cadences used for the many different styles of animation. HQV cadence processing ensures that users will always be viewing film and video sources in the original format without loss of resolution. HQV technology is first to offer 3:2 insertion at HD, an important requirement of the new HD Blu-Ray and HD-DVD formats coming soon to the consumer market. This is a problem due to the fact that film is usually recorded at multiples of 24 frames per second, while video is done at multiples of 30 frames, and most televisions process at 59.994 frames per second in the US and 50 frames per second in Europe. This is similar to audio that is recorded at 44, 48,88,and 96 KHz. needing to be reprocessed to one of the other rates. While there are several DACS that will do this in audio, only a few do an excellent job. Old fashioned CRT projectors don't have a problem with this as they'll accept 24 or 30 or any multiples of them, but most newer set require that the 24 be converted to 30. Most processors only do a fair job at this.
HQV Automatic Per Pixel Video/Film Detection Rather than making frame level decisions for video vs. film processing, typically causing severe artifacts to occur in sequences such as video titles and movie credits over film backgrounds, HQV delivers cinema-like quality by making pixel-level decisions, thus precisely processing film pixels as film and video pixels as video. Unhappily, when movies are processed for TV or DVD, sometimes the frame rate will change back and forth for the two standards, thus making it difficult for processors to rapidly make the switch on the fly.
HQV 16 to 1024-Tap Adaptive Scaling Resolution up and down-scaling requires a large set of image samples to prevent the introduction of visually unacceptable artifacts. Realta delivers unprecedented image scaling quality by providing the industry's first 16 to 1024-tap adaptive over-sampling scaling engine to maintain the highest image quality. Oversampling. Enough said.
Also included are: true 10-bit processing, equal quality two-channel processing and optional eWARP-2 geometry processing. So what does the chip give that no other processor at this point does? No planned obsolesce. Within a couple of years all the other processors on the market that can't do true 1080I to 1080P will need to be replaced. While the chip has been around for a couple of years, it's implementation has been somewhat problematic. Several companies have been promising processors for a while, Denon came out with a DVD player that uses some of the chip's functions for processing the 480I DVD standard to 1080I output, and one company came out with a processor which was quickly removed from the market due to problems.
Enter Callibre U.K., a company specializing in professional video processors and LCD television products, which has been the first out of the gate with a scaler that includes the Realta chip. The processor chip has been built into a black box with dimensions of about 16 x 3.5 x 10 inches, weighing about 4 pounds with a moderate sized wall wart giving 5 volt, 7 amps of power.
At present, there are two HDMI, two composite, two component or RGBS, two S-video and one VGA video inputs with four stereo analog and two SPDIF optical and 2 RCA digital audio inputs. Outputs are one HDMI, one VGA or component video, one analog stereo and one optical and one RCA digital audio output. There is an additional expansion slot that will allow for two additional HDMI or SDI inputs in the near future. The audio and video inputs can be mixed and matched in such a way that any video can be matched to any audio input desired.
There is also an RS232 port for control by computer or home system, and one USB input. As the unit is purely software controlled, any updates will require only downloading it by internet onto a USB flash drive, then passing it through a supplied cord to the USB input of the unit. I have done this once with success.
The Vantage also adds several extras to what the chip can do:
Accepts NTSC, PAL and SECAM signals.
Timing adjustment of the audio to the video signal. Most processors only do the video side and just pass through the audio. As it takes some time for the unit to do the calculations necessary for the video conversions, the video would normally lag the audio by a few milliseconds. The unit has a built-in time delay for the audio, allowing one to adjust it for perfect synchronization of voice to picture.
Built-in DAC and ADC. While not mentioned in their literature, these are built into the unit so that one can send out all of the input audio signals as either SPDIF digital through the optical or RCA SPDIF outputs or through the HDMI cord, or as two-channel analog.
Both optical and electrical digital audio output. Thus one can run either to your processor or both.
Adjustments for Brightness, Contrast and Gamma. These allow one to set up the gray scale perfectly for all known projectors. Interestingly, the Vantage doesn't list CRT projectors as a possible option, probably because they are as outmoded as vinyl, but like vinyl, still beat the hell out of digital sets. Thus, the adjustments for gamma are not fine enough for CRT, but this will be fixed in a later download.
Adjustments for Keystone, Position and Size.
Adjustments for Color Saturation and Hue. This is great, as most processors do not allow for this with digital signals.
Adjustments for MPEG, Plasma and LCD picture anomalies.
Picture in Picture. One can watch two programs at once. Actually, if one already has PIP with their monitor, one could watch three programs at once, as the unit allows one to move the PIP around the screen. There is one caveat here. When the main screen is run at 1080P, when one tries to switch smaller with the larger, the unit freezes up. The company is working on a fix for this now.
The only other two anomalies found by me, but which won't be a problem with most of you out there are:
Won't support optical DVI cables. My Electrohome 9500 LC CRT projector has a DVI input card with a 45 foot run to the inputs. This was somewhat long for an electrical DVI cable, the DVI standard not supporting long runs without signal loss. Thus my system uses an optical DVI cable that converts the electrical signal to light for the run through a fiberoptic cable. Normally the electricity for this conversion is supplied by the DVI output of most players, processors, etc. HDMI doesn't require this, so the Vantage puts out too low an amperage signal to run the converter, and just shuts down the power to the cord rather than damaging the supply. Happily, I have a DVI switcher that will pass the electrical signal from each input, so the optical line can be run by the output of my Denon DVD player. You'll probably not have this problem!
HDMI audio still not reliable. This is not a problem with the unit but with the HDMI standard. As usual with most TV standards, the audio is the poor stepbrother and is usually an afterthought. Unhappily, the passthrough of digital audio is not the best with the present HDMI standard, so it is recommended that you run a separate digital line to the audio processor rather than using the HDMI cable. Since my system doesn't have a pre-pro with HDMI capability, this is not a problem here.
Only two HDMI inputs. While most systems probably don't require more, my system has at present three digital video sources with at least one more on the way. Happily there will be an expansion card with either one SDI input for $870 or two for $1070, or an HDMI card which will be available late Fall for an unspecified price. Since one can buy manual HDMI switching boxes for less than $100, and remote controlled ones for about $300, whther to get the HDMI expansion card or not will depend on its final price.
Other than the above, the Vantage works flawlessly. You may be asking at this point why you'd require the Vantage if your monitor has built-in scaling to its optimal resolution. The answer is that it gives by far the best video ever seen in my home theater on the world's top rated projector, and far superior to what the best monitors and video sources can do. VCR and off the air standard televisions look very good when optimized by the Vantage, and even the picture from my Denon 5900 DVD player through its DVI output scaled to 1080I, listed as the best available out there at less than $5000, is no match for the Vantage using the Denon's s-video 480I output.
Laserdiscs are still a prime source here, at least of classical concerts, not up until now for the picture, which while better than standard VCR or off the air is no match for DVD, but for the 16/44 audio which beats the heck out of DVD's low bit rate Dolby Digital or even DTS. Now the picture can be superior to the best standard definition television signals, and rivals that of low bit rate HDTV that DirecTV does when they upsample some of their broadcasts probably using the Faroudja system.
For me the biggest advantage for the Vantage (no pun intended) is that the best 1080I off the air HDTV can look three-dimensional when processed and output as 1080P. Even Clark Johnsen, audio reviewer for Positive Feedback, and a Harvard trained optical engineer who was a manager for the first Viking Mars Digital camera, finds the picture to be exemplary. Before, he always complained about some artifact or other.
In addition, the unit will accept and pass through true 1080P when it is available in the next iteration of the new high definition videodiscs from Blu-ray and Toshiba. This is the highest resolution now available from the HDTV standard. While some of the Japanese companies are designing units that will do more, these are way off in the future and probably won't be available to the home consumer for a decade or more.
When the unit first boots up, it automatically goes into its lowest resolution of 640x480P, which is a doubling of the 480I of standard television. One then resets this to the optimal resolution of the monitor, up to the maximum HDTV standard of 1080P, and even to 1920x1200 for computer screens. One then adjusts the frame rate to the American 60 Hz. or European 50 Hz. and then sets the gamma for the optimum for the monitor type. If using a projector, the unit is adjusted for keystone and whether the unit is on the floor or ceiling and rightside up or upside down.
One then goes to the next menu, which sets up which audio and video inputs are active, which are associated with each other, and may give each input a name and a number on the remote. Each input is then adjusted for brightness, contrast, sharpness color, and hue, and for inputs with less or more difference between brightness and contrast than the video standard, there are several enhancement levels to stretch or narrow the band.
Next, there are video filters for standard definition inputs for cross chrominance suppression, chroma upsampling error, interlace chroma problems, temporal noise reduction for composite and S-video inputs, and removal of MPEG specific artifacts from satellite and DVD sources.
Finally, there are adjustments of color temperature for 6500, 7200 and 9300 degrees Kelvin, overscan, position, size, and 0 or 7.5 IRE black level. When one is done with all of the above for each input, there are also adjustments for the picture in picture (PIP) to allow a secondary source to be projected. While setup sounds complicated, it is significantly easier than that of most of the pre-pro's I've used. Once done, you can either leave it as "set and forget", or tweak till the cows come home for each source, as getting into and out of the various menus is very simple using the remote. The remote is small and comfortable for either left or right handers, and will allow for adjustment of brightness, contrast, PIP input and position, main screen input source, and aspect ration for 4:3 sources projected onto a 16:9 screen to wither full fill the screen but lose the top and bottom of the image or stretch it to fill the screen but distort the picture a little.
So Is There Anything This Unit Is Lacking?
A set of adjustments for analog projectors. I know, the CRT is dead, and digital rules. But there are still a lot of high enders out there using CRT analog projectors, and these units would actually benefit more from the Vantage than most digital projectors as they don't have internal scalers. This could be produced through at least the analog outputs, but also through the digital, as several DVI cards are now available for CRT projectors. Also these individuals tend to be quality fanatics who'll spend more money for the ultimate.
So what would this set of adjustments be for CRTs? The first would be finer gamma adjustments. The average CRT while putting out the blackest blacks of any projector has a problem with the dark end of the gray scale. The finest gamma adjustment on the Vantage is 1.5. Adjustments between 1.1 and 1.5 would be great. While the unit is superb at decoding the 24 frame movie rate to the 60 video standard, to which digital sets are bound, CRT projectors can do frame rates that are multiples of the 24 rate, such as 48 and 72 Hz. Anybody who's seen a 72Hz scan rate of a DVD from a computer has difficulty going back to the lower rates as the smoothness and loss of judder is habituating. I would love to see what sort of movie picture this unit could do with a 72Hz rate. These changes should be fairly easy software changes if the chip has sufficient computing power.
Price of the unit is $2899, with several US dealers. While sounding expensive, the price is actually on a par with other units out there using older and significantly poorer technology. While there will surely be more products in the future using the Realta or some other equally impressive chip, this unit is available now, does the best job of video decoding available short of five digits, and will be up there with the best for the foreseeable future. There's no planned obsolescence here. Highly Recommended.
I bought the review sample.
Now A Word From Pauline Jarrett At Calibre
Both myself and our CEO Tim Brooksbank have read the review and feel it is quite good and very accurate. It is nice to find a reviewer who actually understands about high-end video technology.
In the time since you've reviewed the unit, we have introduced a new model, the Vantage HD2, with several improvements that address many of the issues you identified.
First, Calibre has eliminated system fan noise in the HD2 with an innovative aluminum-alloy CPU heatsink. The processor is now completely silent, making it ideal for flat-panel display installations where the sources and gear are typically in the same room as the display.
To enhance the "smoothness and fluidity" of 1080p high definition film-based content on Blu-Ray players we've added support for 24Hz and 48Hz 1080p input signals. And finally, consumers can get double the HDMI inputs (four total) with our new HDMI 1.3 expansion card.
From us all here at Calibre, thanks again for a great evaluation.