I was intrigued when I heard about a new video enhancer that claims to improve images of various video sources. How can this be? I’m normally a little sceptical anytime I hear the terms “video processor” or “video enhancement”. How could a device make a picture better than the original signal sent to it? Without question, I’m a purist that believes the video signal should not be altered to achieve the highest fidelity in a video presentation. If viewing accurate, high fidelity video is the end goal, then that statement remains true. Although I also believe that this doctrine doesn’t need to be followed all the time, in every single situation. My justification of straying from this purist point of view is because I believe we should be allowed to have some fun with video too.
When I calibrate video displays for clients, I normally turn off all sorts of video enhancement circuitry. All TVs (plasma, LCD, LED) and projectors offer these picture enhancements as selling features. Contrast enhancers, edge enhancements, black level expanders, colour expanders and other settings often congest the user video menus. Most often they are explained very vaguely in the TV’s manual. Sadly most of these enhancements are actually detrimental to the picture quality and prevent you from seeing the picture that your display is truly capable of.
When put to the test with a video generator, a TV show or movie, these enhancers can mutilate the original video beyond what’s acceptable and enjoyable. Who wants that? Some of these settings can make a picture look dim because of contrast enhancers – i.e. it might be hard to see midrange details because the black and white ends of the video signal are exaggerated. Other picture enhancements crush black details and clip the white parts of the picture (black level expanders turn dark visible details into complete blackness, while white level expanders turn subtle white details into a single shade of white). Other settings can make the picture appear too colourful or enhanced because colours are too bright or edges have white halos around them. Turn on one of these controls during a hockey game and you might see a white glow surrounding the puck.
It can be said that manufacturers have good intentions adding these controls believing that you will actually enjoy them when watching low-fi signals such as cable TV, streaming video, or even better quality sources like DVD and Blu-ray. Unfortunately in reality this is rarely the case.
The Darblet was developed to process an image using algorithms respectful of how the brain will process it when seeing the final image. In essence, it makes a 2D picture look more three dimensional without the need for extra pixels on the video display or without the false sense of sharpening using traditional edge enhancement controls. The Darblet claims to create an image with greater depth on a 2D screen, heightening the sense of realism and clarity.
The Darblet sits between your video source and your display, and is very simple to connect. Just plug in the power, HDMI in and HDMI out. That’s it. While not the prettiest flower in the garden, the Darblet is a small, translucent plastic box rounded at the corners. The internal circuitry can be seen right through the casing, along with three LEDs emitting a mesmerizing glow letting you know that it’s working. The buttons on the front panel of the device are duplicated on the included credit card-size remote control. When connected to my rather rigid HDMI cables, I had a difficult time keeping the unit flat on a surface because of its light weight. About the size of a cell phone, it’s a device I wish I could hide behind some other gear but that’s not an option if you want to use the remote control, as I did in this review. There is however an input jack for an optional IR remote control extender for those who wish to tuck it away.
“I get it.” I mean, I understand why this device could be beneficial in many cases and why it’s better than the enhancement controls found in TVs and projectors. There is an appreciable difference between watching native video and using the Darblet video enhancer. Depending on how you set it, via the remote or front panel, you can add “More Darbee” or “Less Darbee” from a range of 0 to 120%. You also have the option of selecting one of three presets, each one more aggressive than the next: High Def, Gaming, and Full Pop. High Def was my favourite because it was least obtrusive on the video while still adding perceivable depth to the picture. The Gaming and Full Pop modes made black and white levels, colour, and grain a little too aggressive for my tastes. How you choose to set it up depends on the quality of video you feed it, your tastes, and your screen size.
Before I watched any video, I put the Darbee through the ringer feeding it test patterns from my Accupel DVG-5000 video test pattern generator. I used two different displays during this review – a Panasonic TC-P60S30 60 inch plasma television and a JVC X55 projector on a 153 inch Seymour Screen Center Stage XD screen. All HDMI cables were Monster 1000HD. First I wanted to see if the Darblet reduced resolution on the multiburst pattern. To my surprise, the device caused zero loss of resolution on all resolution settings, up to 1080p. I also checked for black level crushing (loss of black level detail) and white level clipping (loss of bright white level detail). Again, the Darblet appeared faultless using the test patterns. So far, so good. When checking for edge enhancement, it was difficult to see if the Darblet added any enhanced edges at all on my 60 inch TV screen. It was only on the 153 inch projection screen where the device gave way to a tiny enhanced edge in its most aggressive modes on the sharpness patterns (with JVC’s e-shift turned off because that feature adds its own enhanced artefact). Flipping though most patterns in my video generator, I found it hard to fault the Darblet when used with two different, properly calibrated displays. The only exception was the chroma multiburst pattern where there seemed to be a slight loss in colour resolution, in the Full Pop mode.
Putting test patterns aside, I watched 2009’s Star Trek reboot Blu-ray with the Darblet in place. On the projection screen, the film looked fantastic without any video processing turned on. Activating the Darblet in High Def did give the image more perceived depth, just as advertised, and I found that most scenes benefitted from this. In one of the opening scenes, inside the Enterprise spaceship, it added more space between foreground and background layers, giving the picture a little more depth. I determined that the 30-50% range of the Darblet setting was sufficient for my enjoyment of well produced movies. On the Panasonic plasma TV, I found the differences a bit more difficult to discern, most likely because of the high quality source and smaller screen combination. I found this depth improvement to be most noticeable in well lit scenes, and not just with Star Trek but with other movies as well, in both Blu-ray and DVD formats. I paid close attention to the picture detail and sharpness with various movies but can’t say that I was able to observe any improvements in these areas.
Watching the Blu-ray documentary Pink Floyd: The Wish You Were Here Story with the Darblet in the Gaming and Full Pop modes was a bit of a different experience. I found that the video appeared a bit too processed when watching these older and very grainy video clips of the band performing. Film grain didn’t appear analogue anymore; the experience felt a little more digital, with the noise appearing a little more artificial. I watched some other Blu-ray films with a heavier grain structure, like the original Predator movie, and I observed the same results. However watching these scenes in Darblet’s High Def mode once again benefitted from perceived picture depth and looked a little bit more natural.
Following this, I used the Darblet when watching streaming video through my Apple TV. Whether it was a movie through iTunes or watching YouTube videos, the Darblet added visual presence like I hadn’t experienced before. The overall quality of these video sources is of course far from ideal, and not material I normally watch, but I can appreciate why someone would want to add a device like the Darblet to spruce things up a bit. When you’re not concerned about retaining the 100% true vision of the director, the Darblet can enhance the picture in a visually pleasing way. By this I mean that the video appeared to offer a better presence and perhaps was a little more realistic at times thanks to the added depth of the picture, depending on the quality of the video itself. In the Gaming and Full Pop modes, the Darblet gave me the impression of more on-screen contrast, where the lighter parts of the picture appeared to expand a touch more on the screen for a little more impact. In scenes that contained some dark and some light picture element, the darker parts of the picture appeared a little more expanded, giving the impression of more presence to the dark parts. During dark scenes I didn’t really notice these changes.
Given the variety of video sources out there, and the drastic variations of quality of recorded video, the Darbee Visual Presence DVP 5000 Darblet is an interesting device for those who would like to enhance their video watching experience, without having to worry about the side effects that most TV or projector enhancement features suffer from. The most noticeable enhancement that I observed is the perceived improvement in picture depth, which most sources can benefit from. The better the quality of the video source, the more of a visual impact the Darblet appeared to offer. For $319 this is a device worth trying if you’d like to have some fun with your video.
Mike Osadciw is a THX/ISF Professional Video Calibrator/Instructor with The Highest Fidelity
Darbee Visual Presence
Darbee Visual Presence DVP 5000 Darblet Video Enhancer
Available in Canada from Acoustic Technologies