Component Reviews, Part 2 of 3
Published on September 1, 2004
320A Kalmus Dr.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 668-0588 (voice)
(714) 668-9099 (fax)
Unit receives all free-to-air (ATSC) formats (both analog and digital). Allows 16×9 or 4×3 output format and displays 480i, 480p, 720p, or 1080i. Component, S-video, and composite video outputs and analog and coaxial digital audio output are included. Composite video and analog audio auxiliary inputs are available for PIP. IR remote controlled. RS-232 connection for upgrades. V-chip with parental control, electronic program guide, and favorite channel lists. 1 year warranty. 10.43” W x 6.89” D x 1.65” H, ~4.5 lbs.
Radio Shack VU-120 XR outdoor FM/VHF/UHF antenna (120” boom length), RCA Scenium HDLP50W151 50” DLP rear projection television, Marantz VP12S2 DLP front projector projecting on Stewart 100” 16×9 screen with Studiotek 130 material; Hughes E86 DirecTV satellite/off-air HD decoder box (for comparison), Krell Theater Amp Standard, Krell Home Theater Standard processor, Audioquest cabling (Component video, audio, speaker wire).
The HD1 comes in an unassuming, smallish box with a plastic carrying strap. The power supply is separate and although the plug looks like it fits in different orientations, it does not. My first impression of the manual is that some people may need a magnifying glass to read it, though it is fairly comprehensive. There is a troubleshooting guide in the back and a list of major cities’ HD channel lineups—it was not complete. Also, there is a glossary for HD beginners and a list of some good links on the Internet for information about antenna positioning and broadcast programming.
Right away I noticed a curious omission on the rear panel of the unit—no DVI. This will probably be a deal breaker for those with digital displays, although I haven’t seen a huge difference in picture quality myself. Note: DVI offers a direct digital video path from the source to the digital display avoiding a conversion to analog video inside the source, and then a conversion back to digital video in the display.
Since the unit is so small, the small fan on the back turns rather fast to keep the unit cool—there are vents on the side, but no vents on the top of the unit. This means it is a bit loud. I doubt you’d hear it with the sound on in a typical room, however, with the unit powered, it was noticeable from several feet away. The unit has an RS-232 jack for upgrades, but it doesn’t seem to work for system control, so the IR remote is essential. Every off-air decoder I’ve seen has an optical output for digital audio, while this unit has a coaxial output only. There is also an analog output that I didn’t really use, but will work for those without a surround decoder/processor/receiver.
Although it seems you have to connect a standard definition output cable (like s-video or composite video) to initially see the menu, it is possible to cycle through the formats via the remote. The front display of the HD1 shows what format is selected even if it doesn’t display on the screen. Aside from connecting the video and audio, all that was needed was to connect the feed from an off-air antenna.
I selected the Auto-Scan function from the Installation menu and after about 5 minutes, all the channels the box could receive were scanned and appeared in the program listing. I tried the manual-scan function to get some channels that were missing, but didn’t have any luck. If you rotate your antenna or make an adjustment and only want to try to get a single channel, the manual-scan function saves a huge amount of time.
I had already selected 1080i output from one of the menus in the setup, so I went right to channel 28-1 (KCET) and was blown away by the image. Well, just about everything they broadcast on this station is fantastic. This channel is actually 59-1, but the HD1 relocated it to 28 (which is the normal analog channel location). There is a title bar (near the bottom of the image) that appears whenever you change channels and shows program information, whether the signal is analog or digital (video), PCM/Dolby digital audio, date, time, and channel ID information. You can set it to fade out slowly over time till it disappears (which I did), and you can adjust the transparency of the menu displays as well. I especially liked this while I was playing around with the adjustments—it meant I could watch the picture in the background more clearly while still navigating the menus.
Unfortunately, the channel relocation only seemed to take place on some channels. At first I thought I wasn’t receiving KCOP only to realize it was at 66 instead of 13. By comparison, the Hughes box maps all the channels to the analog location so it is less confusing. I thought there might be a way to manually do this, but it seemed I could only add it to a favorite or lock it out in the Edit Channel area.
I anxiously tried the program guide, but it didn’t grab any information on the channels I tried. This will be dependent on what is broadcast, so this may improve as time goes by. The title bar did display the current show being broadcast when it was available. As far as channel changing goes, this unit is fairly slow. In the old days I remember people complaining about the split second delay between changing channels on cable. Then, small dish satellite came around and it was even slower. Well, the HD1 takes even longer to change between analog or digital channels. Unless you are a compulsive channel changer, this probably won’t bother you.
There is no way to manipulate the display on the HD channels for display on a 16×9 screen if the material is not in the correct aspect ratio. This used to be a problem, but all the channels/programs I watched when under review were broadcast in the correct ratio. Occasionally in the past, a 4×3 image would not be 4×3 and you could not get it back to the correct shape. But in my current testing, when material was 4×3 then it was inset in the center of the screen. If desired, you could stretch this to fit in the 16×9 screen size. The other aspect ratio choices are: wide vision (4×3 for a 4×3 screen or 16×9 for a 16×9 screen), wide view normal (16×9 letterboxed on a 4×3 screen), and normal vision (16×9 cropped on 4×3 screen).
The unit offers video and audio inputs that allow PIP! You can also do picture in picture with a sub-channel from a digital broadcast. For those not experienced with digital broadcasts, it is typical for off-air stations to have more than one broadcast at the same channel number. For instance, the Public Broadcast Station had at least 3 or 4 channels at 50-1, 50-2, 50-3, etc. You can watch one of the channels in the background while another plays in the foreground. You can also watch the auxiliary input as well.
If you don’t have a Dolby Digital decoder capable receiver or processor then you can switch between PCM and DD. I don’t really know who would have a digital input they’d use and NOT have a DD decoder these days, however the option is there. I liked the fact that the audio came through this output with no trouble even when using the analog off-air channels. Another plus was that the mute worked on the digital output.
There was no easy way to delete the channels you don’t want—for me that meant the Spanish, Korean, and some of the local access channels. The way around this is to set up a favorites list. You can just add the channels you like and use it easily from a button push on the remote. The remote worked very well, although the channel buttons are strangely located. They are below and to the left of the cursor buttons. The channel up button is to the left (although a bit above) the down button. This really doesn’t make any sense to me. Also, since they are in the middle of lower buttons, you can’t easily move your finger right to them. They are a slightly different shape, so that helps a little. They either should have been a different color, much bigger, more logically positioned, or all of the above!
There is a “text” button on the remote that will enable close captioning if it is available on the broadcast.
I did most of the viewing on the 50” DLP rear projection set. 720p was not an option on this TV (it won’t accept it), so I tried 480i, 480p, and 1080i. The 480p choice looked better than the 480i with digital standard definition broadcasts. Obviously, there would be no reason to scale down a 1080i signal when that is one of the resolutions accepted by the TV, so I used this setting exclusively with this television for HD material.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with or tried standard definition broadcasts it is important to make a few points. First, the picture is ALWAYS better than the analog equivalent no matter how good your reception is. As long as you can actually get the digital broadcast, the picture is delivered noise-free. Sometimes the color looks more natural, but mostly it is just a cleaner, better picture. When there is a different broadcast than what is on the analog channel, then you may also get a more realistic aspect ratio or a much better image. When an actual HD broadcast is on prepare to be wowed. The image will look better than any conventional DVD.
In some locations, digital broadcasts will be minimal, but in Los Angeles there are many. Only locations (hills, buildings, etc) will limit what you will be able to receive. This means that the sensitivity of the tuner will be a factor as well. In the case of digital TV it is mostly a matter of getting or not getting the signal. If reception quality is mediocre then there may be freezes, pixilation, and/or complete audio and video dropouts. I made a chart of the stations I was able to receive vs. the Hughes box. The E86 is discontinued and was introduced more than 2 years ago. The HD1 received all the same stations as the Hughes with two very important exceptions: ABC and KTLA (WB). I tried a manual channel scan and came up empty. For summer, this means losing 3 possible programs on KTLA, but for fall there are 11 shows throughout the week including shows like: Everwood, Gilmore Girls, Smallville, and Reba. ABC was more of a bummer. They have HD programming every night except for Thursday with shows like: NYPD Blue, George Lopez, Life With Bonnie, The Practice, Alias, The Wonderful World Of Disney, and The ABC Monday Night Movie. Also, ABC is the only channel broadcasting in 720p. I was jazzed about seeing an HD broadcast in 720p through the Marantz projector on a 100” screen, but wasn’t able to try it with an actual broadcast.
I did try the 720p output from the HD1 on the projector but it didn’t look significantly better than the 1080i output (as all the channels were using 1080i anyway) and the scaling down to 720p by the HD1 didn’t offer an advantage over the projector doing the same thing. Perhaps with more material a difference would manifest, but the 1080i output looked great as is.
In terms of a picture difference between the Hughes box and the Bravo HD1 on 1080i material fed to the 50” television, I did not see a significant difference. There was a difference in brightness/contrast, but it could easily have been compensated for with the TV controls. With either box the picture looked great.
Current Consumer HDTV Options
These days there are a few options when looking for a high-definition picture for the consumer:
1) D-VHS: 75 titles @$25-35, ~$600 VCR
2) WMV-HD DVD: 20 titles @$20, high power computer with Windows XP ~$700
3) HD satellite: DirecTV and Dish Network: 4-5 movie channels + CBS @~$10/mth + 4-5 pay channels (depends on other subscription) + FREE local channel ability (varies upon area), receiver ~$400
4) Voom: 35 channels(!) @$80/mth + hardware ~$500
5) HD cable (varies greatly by area): in my area– 8 channels + 5 local + cable subscription @$50-60)
6) Off-air HD: in my area– ~7 (with actual HD), tuner (in this review $350).
More detailed information for Los Angeles residents at this site:
HD monitors (especially plasma) are selling like hotcakes these days. It is an absolute shame not to take advantage of higher resolution material/programming currently available on these sets. For those in areas with huge trees, buildings, or other aerial obstructions, HD cable will be the only “broadcast” option. For those who do not have that particular issue, there will be a choice between the satellite offerings and standalone off-air tuners like the Bravo HD1. If you already have satellite and enjoy the idea of receiving NBA games, Showtime, HBO, Playboy etc. in HD then a combined satellite/off-air tuner will make the most sense. For new subscribers there are often specials that include installation. You will still be responsible for the monthly fee although you will have the off-air capability for FREE. The Bravo HD1 is for the last group who would rather make a one-time investment and take advantage of all the free HD and digital SD programming their area has to offer without a monthly fee for pay services. It’s small, unobtrusive, easy to set up, and offers a fine picture. [Actually higher definition than either cable or satellite because there is no data reduction...Ed.] If the HD1 had received all the stations, then it would be an easy recommendation, however, I was not able to receive two major channels in my particular area using the same antenna feed that worked well with the comparison HD receiver. Of course, broadcast reception varies greatly in different locales, so this may not be a problem elsewhere. [DTV OTA reception is either completely on or completely off - nothing in between as with analog! So rotating or moving an antenna just an inch could spell the difference between a signal or no signal...Ed]
– Brian Bloom