The corollary to the endless price erosion in consumer electronics is that as price points drop, hardware and technologies that used to be high-end become mainstream. The truth of that is self-evident. Flat panel televisions were an exotic product at upscale boutique dealers, and now can be found at Wal-mart. Home lighting control used to be the realm of control companies like Crestron and AMX, and now there are cheap RF dimmers on the shelf at Home Depot.
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On the one hand, this puts independent retailers in a tough spot. Hardware that is bread and butter one year ends up getting becoming a commodity, and it gets harder to make a living selling it. On the other hand, at the same time that technologies drop in price, new opportunities arise to reach out to new clients. Between the high-end of chichi boutiques, and the low margin bottom-end of big-box chains lies the middle ground, where both one-off and small regional chains can make a comfortable living.
One category of video product that is on its way to mainstream status are video scalers. Scalers used be super expensive (and still can be), but just like everything else that has a microprocessor in it, the price points have dwindled down over time, even as the processing power and features have gone up.
Which brings me to the Gefen Home Theatre Scaler. Gefen makes a broad range of well built switchers and signal boosters for analog video as well as DVI and HDMI. When their scaler was announced earlier this year, it piqued my curiosity. Even more curious, was the announced retail price of US$499. Prior to this, most of my professional experience with scalers was with units in the $2000 and up range, like the VP series from DVDO. Being a bargain hunter at heart, while at the same time being kind of a video snob with a preference for higher end equipment, I made a point to acquire a Gefen Home Theatre Scaler and see what it could do, or not do, as the case might be.
What does it have?
The Gefen Home Theatre Scaler comes in two configurations. One has 2 HDMI and two component video inputs. The PLUS version (which I tested) has one component video, plus one composite and one S-Video input. Both have Coax and Optical audio inputs for the HDMI, and analog L/R audio for the analog video inputs.
I’m not going to dwell on what’s under the hood, other than Gefen says that they use dual scaling engines and dual “3-D motion video adaptive de-interlacers.”
How I set it up
I opted to use the Home Theatre Scaler PLUS as a video switching hub for a Denon DVD 2200, using component video, a Motorola 6414 HD PVR, using HDMI, and a Nintendo Wii, using composite video. The display is a new Hitachi P60X901 60-inch plasma display.
The Gefen’s video menu offers an in depth amount of picture adjustments, rivaling any decent HD television. A friend and I manipulated the settings for a while, but ultimately opted to set the scaler to it’s standard factor default, and instead calibrate the plasma using the Datacolor Spyder. Since it would be redundant to calibrate both the display and the scaler it made sense to just set the display and use the scaler for it’s, um, scaling.
How it worked
With the Gefen’s output set to 1080p/60hz,the upconversion of our 480p test DVDs looked fantastic. There was an air of depth to the visuals in Planet Factory Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that my technician friend felt compelled to comment on repeatedly. The high-speed camera work in the motorcycle chase scene of Matrix Revolutions were smooth and crisp with no jagged edges.
On broadcast, I couldn’t find any programming 1080i on at the time that we tested it, but the 720p nature programming from National Geographic HD looked fantastic. The output from 480i SDTV programming varied between good and “meh,” depending on the channel. At it’s best, SD primetime programming from my PVR like ER and Bones have a soft, filmlike look to them. At worst, some daytime soaps and talk shows were still jagged and noisy looking, with obvious dropouts and jitter. I suppose that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Most impressively, the graphics from the Nintendo Wii looked superb even on the Wii’s composite output. I had bought a component video adaptor for the Wii, and experimented with switching between it and the stock composite video cable. Running through the Gefen, as opposed to straight into the TV, the graphics were indistinguishable, which led me to leave the Wii on composite and take the component adaptor back to the store. Which is a happy solution, given that the Home Theatre Scaler PLUS only has the one component input, and I would have hated to have to choose between my Wii and DVD player for that input.
What I didn’t like
The bad news is that Gefen’s IR remote doesn’t include discrete codes for input selection. This makes it impossible for the unit to be easily controlled by a programmable remote, or a control processor. For example, with a Harmony 880, for every activity, I’ve had to program a key at the top of the LCD screen to manually toggle the Gefen’s input to the right source. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s annoying, and from a custom integrator’s perspective, it means I’m unable to engineer a seamless relationship between the client and the hardware with a minimum amount of client education. Having as much of the programming hidden from the client as possible is priceless when it comes to making them happy, and not confused and frustrated.
Products like the Gefen Home Theatre Scaler PLUS are why I’m always leery about spending too much money to chase the cutting edge of video technology. At an msrp of $500, the Gefen does a remarkable job of scaling up SD content from DVD, and to a lesser extent, broadcast. It’s overall output compares favourably to the $2500 DVDO VP50.
I’m a lot less happy about the lack of discrete input selection codes for the remote, and for that reason, am hesitant to recommend the Gefen for custom install firms. As an add on sale and upgrade solution for specialty retailers, I think it would be a good choice for mid-priced consumers.
Overall Evaluation: B-