|DVDO by Anchor Bay iScan VP50 Video Processor|
|Home Theater Video Processors & Switchers Video Processors|
|Written by Kevin Miller|
|Friday, 01 June 2007|
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Anchor Bay Technologies, makers of DVDO system products offers a full line of video processors that deliver great performance at extremely competitive prices. Last year, I gave the company’s second from top-of-the-line processor, the iScan VP30, very high marks for the price performance ratio with really only one serious caveat or downside, which was how it handled de-interlacing of 1080i HDTV sources. Since then, I have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of their latest flagship processor, the iScan VP50, which purportedly solved the above issue. I have now been living with the VP50 in my system for about a month, have used it with several 1080p resolution projectors, and have it driving my reference Samsung SP-H710AE one-chip DLP projector. Anchor Bay’s VP50 is an extremely impressive video processor in terms of video performance and system set-up flexibility.
Some might suggest that, at $2,995, a VP50 is probably overkill for most consumer TVs like DLP and LCoS rear-projection HDTVs, many of which are now selling for a lot less than this processor. In the real world, it is with more expensive front-projection systems and some of the larger plasma TVs in the market that the VP50 will make the most fiscal sense. There are a few good reasons to mate a processor like the VP50 with your display, the most obvious of which is to improve video performance. Reducing artifacts and video noise are at the top of the list of remedies you can expect from the VP50. It does a particularly excellent job of this with standard-definition cable and satellite sources, which are typically riddled with these kinds of artifacts. Another key area of performance that the VP50 is likely to enhance is color decoding. Many displays have inaccurate color decoding that incorrectly accentuate red, which is something we refer to as “Red Push.” This is obvious when color is set correctly with a color bar test pattern and people’s faces appear to be heavily sunburned. Of course, the VP50’s color decoding is spot-on for both SD and HD sources, and the result is very natural-looking color and simultaneously good color saturation.
Many A/V systems are designed to switch the audio and video sources through an A/V receiver, and then they route the video signal out to one input on the TV. This can degrade high-resolution video sources, particularly HDTV sources, depending on the quality of the receiver. The VP50 is a good solution for A/V source routing, as it will not degrade audio or video performance. On the video side, it also gives you independent memories for each source, so you can optimize all your video sources to the TV. The audio inputs on the VP50 can also be used to switch your audio if you choose. It also offers a lip sync feature to help reduce sync issues, which have become a problem with a lot of source components (cable and satellite receivers in particular), especially when run via their HDMI outputs.
The design of the VP50 is quite basic. In fact, it is physically identical to the VP30. It is a standard one rack high A/V component with an all black anodized finish. The remote control is a well-designed unit, but unfortunately missing backlighting completely, although the keys have glow-in-the-dark illumination. Just put the remote underneath a bright light for a few minutes, and the keys will glow enough for you to see them in the dark for a period of time. Many of the key function buttons are available as direct access keys. This includes all inputs, aspect ratios, output set-up, configuration, picture control and input adjust, to name some of the most important ones. Custom installers will appreciate this flexibility, as it makes their job of programming some of this functionality into a touch panel remote system, like a Crestron or an AMX, much easier. The internal menu system or GUI (Graphical User Interface) is a vertically arrayed design that is relatively easy and straightforward to manage.
Connectivity options on the VP50 are quite comprehensive. The four HDMI inputs are the most important video connections; four is more than are offered by any TV I know of, and should be more than enough to accommodate most home theater needs today. There are also two component video inputs, two S-Video and two composite video inputs. A set of RGBHV inputs (all BNC connectors) can also double as a third component video input if configured that way. Two coaxial and two optical audio inputs are on board, and there are one coaxial and one optical digital audio output as well. You can output the video to the display either via HDMI or a component or RGBHV output. Of course, it is preferable to output via the HDMI output for all digital displays. The RGBHV or component video output would be best suited to a CRT-based projector. I find the VP50’s connectivity to be extremely generous when compared to most other video processors. It should be more than ample even for the most sophisticated home theater applications.
Very few video processors give you the set-up flexibility that the feature-packed VP50 does. The A/V Lipsync feature gives you the ability to dial out any lip sync issues you might encounter with your system. This is a relatively prevalent issue with satellite and cable HD set-top boxes, especially when using the digital HDMI outputs. This feature will save you the $250 to $400 it would cost for an outboard lip sync box. A Y/C delay feature gives you the ability to adjust the video signal so that color and black and white signals reach the screen at the same time. Scan rate output resolutions cover the entire gamut from VGA (640x480), 480p all the way up to 1080p. Under Input Aspect Ratio, if you have a 16:9 display, the Frame Aspect Ratio should be set to 16:9, and the Active Aspect Ratio should be set to 1.78:1. It also has a Custom setting that allows you to create an aspect ratio ranging from 1:01:1 to 3.00:1. An overscan feature allows you to overscan the picture to eliminate compression lines that typically occur with standard-definition channels on cable and satellite systems. This is a must-have feature when watching standard-definition sources, and it is input-dependent, which means you won’t have to use it for DVDs where there should be no compression issues.
Every test pattern a technician like me needs for professional calibration is on board the VP50, including full color fields for all the primary and secondary colors. Gamma correction for red, green and blue is also available for displays with problematic gamma curves. I would still like to see Anchor Bay actually give us grayscale controls, so that a professional could fine-tune the grayscale of a display with the processor’s controls. Although a company representative had told me that RGB grayscale controls would be added to the next generation of the VP30 and its step-up model the VP50, I did not find them in my review sample. The VP50 also has frame-rate choices of 24 Hz, 25Hz, 50 Hz and 60Hz. The 24Hz frame rate will be useful for some Blu-ray players that output 24Hz, and does a nice job of eliminating judder, an artifact preserved with film sources by 2:3 pull-down. Of course, 25Hz and 50 Hz are useful for the European video standards PAL and SECAM. A Border feature allows you to adjust the black bars at the top and bottom of a widescreen movie to gray in a variety of shades. This can be a useful feature to reduce or eliminate image retention on plasma TVs. There are many more features than I have the space in the review to discuss, but these should cover the most useful ones the VP50 has to offer.
I evaluated the VP50 with a variety of 1080p digital projectors, including the Benq W10000 one-chip DLP projector and the Epson Pro Cinema 1080p LCD projector. Video performance for standard-definition sources like cable TV, satellite and DVD is nothing short of outstanding. Color decoding is dead-on accurate for both SD (REC 601) and HD (REC 709) sources. I was quite impressed with how much improvement there was with standard-definition channels on my Time Warner Cable system. The VP50 cleaned up much of the noise and artifacts that were clearly visible on both the Benq and the Epson. The Benq does not de-interlace 1080i properly, but the VP50 pulls off the feat flawlessly. The best test for this is the new HQV HD DVD Benchmark test DVD. A Video Resolution Loss Test pattern will show you if your HDTV is de-interlacing the source properly or not. Making sure you have the output of your HD DVD or Blu-ray player set to 1080i, select Video Resolution Loss Test in the menu. The moving bar on the pattern should be clean, with no jaggies on the edge, and the horizontal and vertical line squares at all four corners should be fully resolved. If either or both parts of that pattern are not showing up nice and clean, then chances are that the video processing is bobbing and not weaving the two interlaced frames together, which results in a loss of up to 50 percent of the vertical resolution in a 1080i source. Of course, since Blu-ray and HD DVD now both output 1080p, this is really only applicable to broadcast HD sources like cable, satellite and off-air.
2:3 pull-down is also an essential part of any video processing scheme, whether it’s an onboard processor that comes with all HDTVs or in an outboard solution such as the VP50. It is important to note that not all 2:3 pull-down detection is created equal. Some processing schemes will catch it a little bit slowly, so you can see the artifacts initially, and then suddenly it cleans up right before your eyes, which means the 2:3 detection is slow. This is most definitely not the case with the VP50. The best movie material to test this with is the opening sequence of “Star Trek: Insurrection (Paramount Home Entertainment). In this scene, you need to look at the railing on the bridge, the canoes near the garden and the rooftops of all the buildings. When I hooked up the VP50 and set levels for the DVD input, this sequence was rendered pristinely by comparison with either the Benq’s or the Epson’s internal video processing. It detected the presence of film-based material extremely quickly, with no lag time whatsoever.
I tested component 480i from my older Panasonic RP91 DVD player run into the VP50’s component input, and then observed the unit's transcoding from component video to HDMI. It was done superbly well, which is more than I can say for a lot of the new upper-end A/V receivers, many of which add a lot of noise and artifacts in the process. The rest of my DVD watching was all HD, mostly from my Toshiba HD DVD player and a few Blu-ray titles on a new Sony Blu-ray player. As of the time of writing this feature, I still find that HD DVD titles for the most part look better than Blu-ray, which accounts for my bias there. Chapters 13 and 25 from the awesome HD DVD transfer of Seabiscuit (Universal Studios Home Video) both looked exceptional. Color saturation was excellent, and skin tones looked exceptionally natural. Chapter 13 is a great sequence for looking at color. When the horses and their riders are all getting into the stalls readying for the start of the race, all the primary and secondary colors are suddenly in the same scene. This is fun to observe, especially when the display’s color is really accurate.
Batman Begins (Warner Home Video) also looked excellent. Chapter 25 is a good action chapter that can challenge a video processor, because of the speed of the action, and it is also a good black level torture test for displays as well as processors. The VP50 handled this scene with aplomb. Crank (Lionsgate Home Entertainment), a Blu-ray title, is another really fast-moving flick with lots of kinetically charged camera pans and edits, which should prove to be a challenge to many processors and displays alike. Take a look at Chapter 3 for some eye-popping action that literally moves a hundred miles an hour. Again, the VP50 did a fine job of handling this video.
HDTV channels from my Time Warner Cable feed were a little less inspiring, thanks to the heavy compression on my cable system, which in no way reflects negatively on the VP50. The best HD DVD and Blu-ray discs are far superior to any of the content on cable or satellite providers today, because unlike cable and some satellite, movies and TV aren’t compressed to death to save bandwidth. Acknowledging this, I have to say the best of Time Warner: Discovery HD and HDNET looked quite good on both the Benq and Epson projectors using the VP50. For my permanent reference system, I have the VP50 outputting 720p to my Samsung SP-H710AE, which believe it or not outperforms all of the 1080p projectors I have yet tested in my theater. This is because of the Samsung’s awesome contrast ratio and superior gamma and color accuracy.