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AUDIOPHILE AUDITION - web magazine for music, audio & home theater
 



No. 2 [No. 1] [3]   •   October 2004



Focus Enhancements CenterStage-2 (CS-2) Video Scaler
SRP: $2495
 

Focus Enhancements, Inc.
1370 Dell Ave.
Campbell, CA 95008
408 866-8300 (voice)
408 866-4859 (fax)
focusinfo.com/products/centerstage/centerstage.htm

Basic Description

The CS-2 is a variable line rate video processor capable of outputting up to 1080P. Due to its adjustability, this product will work with all types of digital televisions including LCD/CRT/DILA/DLP/plasma. The unit features infrared remote control, on-screen display, downloadable resolutions and/or software upgrades, and RS-232 control. Inputs include: VGA (DB-15) with RGBS support, progressive RGB/YPrPb (BNC) input, DVI, (2x) interlaced RGB/YPrPb (BNC), (2x) composite (BNC), and (2x) s-video (mini DIN). Outputs: DVI and VGA (DB15). IEC detachable line cord, hard power switch, 12V screen trigger on a miniplug jack, and an LCD display (on the front) are standard. The CS series has an ambient light sensor to dim the display and buttons in a dark room. Processing allows for video noise reduction, 3:2/2:2 pulldown detection, picture adjustments (contrast, brightness, color, tint, sharpness), and supports 4:3, 16:9, and letterboxed (in 4:3 or 16:9) aspect ratios. The CS-2 is HDCP compliant on the DVI input, has a TBC (Time Base Corrector), a SDI (Serial Digital Interface) option, and comes with rack mounts. Unit measures 19” W x 9” D x 4” H and weighs 9.5 pounds. 2 year warranty.


Associated Equipment

System 1: Barco graphics 808 projector, Barco RCVDS 800 switcher, Dish Network 4900 satellite decoder, Toshiba SD-3800 DVD player, Smart Devices line conditioner, River Cable, Accell, and Audioquest video cabling.
System 2: RCA Scenium HDLP50W151 50” DLP rear projection television, Marantz DV-8400 DVD player, Arcam DV-27A DVD player, Panamax 5300 line conditioner, Audioquest and Accell video cabling.
System 3: Fujitsu P42VHA30WS 42” Plasma monitor, Arcam DV-27A DVD player, Audioquest video cabling.



Setup

Unpacking and connecting the CS-2 was a snap. I even got a picture immediately in System 1 without any special setup. I was able to select a different resolution right from the front panel and select between composite and s-video sources. If an input is selected that has no device connected to it (or the device is not outputting a signal), a question mark will appear in the display of the processor. I ran my computer into the VGA input to test the pass-through capability and everything worked fine. This connection could be used from some HD decoders that offer this type of output, although these days most units offer DVI and component outputs exclusively. The CS-2 does not come with feet, so unless you are mounting in a rack, you will want to at least get some rubber feet to place/stick underneath the unit.

The unit I received for review was fitted with the SDI input option ($300), but I had no DVD player at the time that had this output. Aside from a few players that are modified to have this type of output, there are only a handful of players on the market that offer SDI. It is more of a professional type output, and with the advent of DVI (and/or HDMI) output on DVD players, will probably become obsolete in consumer products.

The remote control offers most of the functions of the front panel of the unit as well as direct access to the various video inputs. Each input has its own set of picture settings. The Focus Enhancements website offers remote codes for IR and RS-232, as well a file for the popular Philips/Marantz remote controls. The buttons on the remote are smallish, all the same size, and the unit is not backlit. This gave me some trouble in the dark even when I thought I knew exactly where the buttons were. The “down” and “select” buttons were always getting pressed on accident, and I’d also always hit the “Film Bias” button when I meant to hit “Menu.” Most people who purchase this product will probably use a universal remote anyway, so it will not be an issue.

There are four sections to the main menu of the CS-2: Picture Settings, Output Selections, Input Selections, and Miscellaneous. The Picture menu has the settings for brightness, contrast, sharpness, saturation, and hue with a +/- 50 range. In Output Selections you can select a resolution, aspect ratio, format, refresh rate (50/60/70/72), sync type, and output position and size in both the horizontal and vertical domain. The Input menu lets you select the input aspect ratio, source, TV system, auto gain (on/off), 4:3 Zoom (on/off), and input size and position. And the Miscellaneous menu lets you change the TBC (on/off), HDCP (auto/on), the deinterlacer (auto/film/progressive frame detection assist off), and allows for reset. There is also a setting called “split screen” that allows you to see the difference the product makes when the motion detection is engaged.

Another thing worth mentioning is the connections on the back of the unit. With the SDI connection (that I didn’t get a chance to use), there was a locking nut around the plastic post making the connection tight on the back panel. The other connections had no such nut even though physically they looked the same as the SDI connection. This meant that they had some give when pushing cables in and out. I wasn’t too worried about breaking them, it just seemed like they could have been more secure. Some cables are pretty heavy, and some connectors are very tight. I would be careful if you own these types of cables.


Viewing--Part I

System 1 setup included connecting a VGA to 5 BNC breakout cable from the CS-2 to the Barco video switcher, and then on to the projector. Take note that the processor will not convert DVI to VGA, so a DVI connection is necessary if you want to use a DVI source. I was having trouble getting some of the higher resolutions to work with this combination, so I went direct to the projector. I couldn’t get an image on input 5 at 720p, 1080i, or 1080p. I did verify these resolutions on input 4 (although the image was green!)—1080i not really giving as bright a picture as the progressive options. Another problem, when I would switch directly to a higher resolution while the projector was on input 5, the image would have an unusual amount of red and blue. Changing sources on the CS-2, changing inputs on the projector, and turning the projector on and off did not fix this. The only thing that would bring the picture back to normal was a return to the default settings in the CS-2. The image would readjust itself and look fine, and then the unit would shut off (normal for the reset procedure). When it would come back on, everything worked perfectly.

In an effort to fix this, I loaded the control software onto my computer. It works from one of the COM ports and the installation was easy. I tried a custom resolution, but was unsuccessful at getting an image. I’ll experiment more with this for comparisons that will be made next month with the DVDO Iscan HD processor.

I left the unit in the XGA mode, set the projector to output a 1.33:1 shape, and utilized the different settings in the CS-2 for different screen shape. I tried the DVD player in the 4:3 mode as well as the 16:9 mode. I preferred to utilize it in the 16:9 mode and use the Focus Enhancements to alter the image shape if necessary. This is the setting I commonly use with a HTPC with this projector, so I was able to judge it fairly well based on this setting. 720P would have offered slightly more vertical resolution, but from a fair distance I couldn’t see scan lines, and the picture had enough brightness in the 1024x768 mode.

I really like the on-screen menu. It worked regardless of what output type and resolution was selected (DVI, VGA, etc). The text is fairly small, so it didn’t interfere that much with picture adjustments. It would be even better if only the item adjusted was shown rather than the entire menu. I used the THX optimode screens on Akira to set the video options. Each source allows different settings, which is important because every source is going to vary in contrast, brightness, color, etc. (Many older TVs and processors only had global adjustments that aren’t flexible enough.)

I first watched some of the Faroudja test material on a DVD supplied by Kenwood promoting their Sovereign product line. These tests were designed to show the superiority of the Faroudja deinterlacer that is used in some DVD player models. One of the more noteworthy tests is an American flag that waves in the wind. With Faroudja chip-based products there is very little (or no) stair stepping on the edges of the flag. Products that don’t use the Faroudja chip (like this one) do a fairly good job, although there is still visible stair stepping that occurs.

Later I tried chapter 7, Eagles “New York Minute” from dts Demonstration DVD No. 3 and felt that that the CS-2 handled the video very well. I stood fairly close up to the screen and looked for obvious problems, but there were none. This disc is not widescreen enhanced, so it makes a more difficult test DVD in some ways. I viewed the entire Titanic trailer as well, and it looked good.

I viewed chapter 10 from The Fifth Element—a popular demo disc for evaluating video performance. It wasn’t the best I had seen, although color seemed good, and there was nothing I could point to that was amiss. I was hoping for greater clarity when Leeloo is in the background, but as far as motion handling and the image with close-ups, the CS-2 was hard to fault. The image was smooth and easy to watch.

I switched over to a Dish Network satellite feed via S-video. Here I expected more improvement with the image in comparison to what I was accustomed. I was not disappointed. I happened upon a beach scene in the movie Beach Party—I know, I know…surprise, surprise—a beach scene. Anyway, Annette Funicello looked better than I ever remembered! Colors and depth were much better than what I had been used to, and overall the image was impressive. It’s not ready to compete with DVD and high-definition material, but it was gaining ground with the CS-2. For many who have spent good money on expensive televisions, but have been disappointed with the video performance on lesser sources like cable, satellite, videotape, and regular TV, a component like the Focus Enhancements is worth investigating. The lower model CS-HD is under $1000!

I also tried the VGA passthrough and with the image from a computer, there was little if no degradation with XGA input. For a home theater with a bevy of components, the CS-2 can reduce problems associated with not enough inputs on the television.


Viewing--Part II

One of the advantages of the Focus product is the ability to connect digitally to a TV with a digital (DVI) input. One such television is the 50” RCA Scenium DLP rear projection set. First, I connected the DVI output from the Marantz DV8400 directly to the television. I was immediately amazed at the improvement in DVD quality compared to the component connection, however the image was bouncing up and down ever so slightly. I could not eliminate it, and it was unacceptable for long-term viewing. Fortunately, for whatever reason, when I ran the DVI cable from the DVD into the CS-2 and then to the TV, it went away. Strangely, the DVI was not just a passthrough as I was able to adjust the picture controls in the menu of the CS-2. This was good because I was able to fine tune some of the parameters and get a better image. I did, however, have strange flashing occur ever couple of minutes that could have been related to the output of the DVD player, or this TV in particular. With the DVI output from the Focus fed to the television from other, non-digital sources, this problem did not occur.

Next, I connected the interlaced component output to the CS-2, and ran the progressive output to another input on the television. The output from the CS-2 seemed to be 1080i, and I didn’t have the ability (at that time) to program it to run at the native 1280x720 offered by the set. The image did not look as good as with the DVI directly out of the Marantz DVD player, however there were no anomalies with the display either. I did not see a large difference in quality when switching between the progressive outputs from the DVD directly and the processed image from the CS-2. Part of the problem was no matter what I adjusted, I was not able to get matching color and other parameters between these two inputs on the television. I first adjusted the input on the television with just the DVD. Then I adjusted the controls on the CS-2 to match using the same THX Optimode patterns from the Akira disc. I kept playing with Tint and Color to no avail. The closest I got was by changing the color temperature on the TV. The DVI connection looked too green, and the component connection looked a little red. Although at first the DVI connection seemed cleaner with better depth, by the time I made further adjustments the differences weren’t that great. It did not look worse though, so there should be no hesitation about running the component video through the CS-2.


Viewing--Part II

For the last bit of testing I used a 42” plasma monitor with a native resolution of 853x480. You can expect differences with higher resolution panels to be more significant. Video processing in plasma televisions is usually substandard. There are many people who are instantly wowed by the impressive picture with DVD or high definition sources only to be extremely turned off by “regular” television material. People wonder why their old direct view television looks so much better in this regard. Usually, the reason is the video processing. Fujitsu’s proprietary AVM (Advanced Video Movement) circuitry has won them an academy award. It is very good. The circuitry in the CS-2 clearly bested it.

I should mention a few things up front. I was NOT able to get a pixel mapped output resolution from the CS-2 via DVI. The first thing I tried was the panel’s native resolution. All I got was an inset video image that did not fill the whole size of the screen. I tried and tried, but eventually set the output (like earlier) to 1080i. This resolution worked and the set displayed the image in the proper size and aspect ratio.

I connected the composite video output from the Arcam DVD player to the CS-2 and connected another cable directly to the composite input on the set—this was intended to simulate a lower-resolution source. The idea was to see if the processor in the monitor or the one in the CS-2 would do a better job handling the image. Like before, I calibrated the image with the Akira disc. I put on chapter 1 from the original Charlie’s Angels film. I was surprised to see how big the difference was. The colors seemed richer. The image was cleaner as if some noise was stripped away and the sharpness was turned up, even though it wasn’t. There was less shimmer, and pixelation (which was already very low), was virtually gone! You could see it in the clouds, the faces, and even in the Columbia/TriStar intro. All in all, the image was a good deal better. Now, no one would normally connect their DVD player with a composite connection in the first place, but the difference seen would translate (largely) to the differences you’d see with other sources like cable, videotape, etc.


Conclusion

Like many sophisticated products on the market, the Focus Enhancements CS-2 is flexible, but definitely requires some practice and patience to get the best performance. The more tests I did with the product, the more I thought I might want to try. And there were a few issues that I’d like to have addressed and/or explained—like the inability to get the unit to work with my projector at higher resolutions. In operation with all the sets I had working, I was very impressed with the performance, and liked the input flexibility. With more mastering of the custom resolutions, and possibly some help from technical support (I’m waiting for a return call), I’m sure I can eek out even more performance. For simpler systems (namely ones without the need for the custom resolutions or digital video), one of the less expensive CS products will more than likely fit the bill. They do not offer the time base corrector, so if you plan to use videotape as a source, you may want to opt for the better, more flexible product. Videotape is one test that I did not have the opportunity to try, however, in a future issue there will be a comparison with another video processor and possibly a direct comparison with my HTPC (Home Theater Personal Computer) that will shed more light on the capabilities of this product. Stay tuned for next time…and as for now, assuming no compatibility problems with your display, this product is definitely recommended.

-- Brian Bloom
big_brian_b@hotmail.com

On to Component Review no. 3

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