Friday, December 18, 2009

Broadcast Quality at Bargain Prices

At this point in early 2009 news of the economic slump seems everywhere. So it was of some interest when I heard that sales of "Certified Pre-Owned" Mercedes are running nearly 90% ahead of the same period last year. What this news is basically saying is that large numbers of consumers are still attracted to a top quality product, we're just looking for a smarter, more cost-effective way to obtain it. This is an obvious parallel to a new line of broadcast-quality LCD monitors and their early success in the marketplace.

Last fall the father & son team of Dan and Bram Desmet formed FSI, Flanders Scientific, Inc., a new US-based company, with US-based support and parts which, in their words, "Specializes primarily in visualization equipment for broadcast -- creating, displaying and measuring an image." The company's products are test signal generators, spectral radiometers, color analyzers and probably of the most widespread interest, an entirely new line of LCD displays.

Hardly new to the broadcast world, the Desmets had just concluded a three year relationship as TVLogic's Master Distributor for the Americas. Dan, the senior of the Desmets, began his television career in the early eighties with Barco, where he spent nearly 20 years, later moving to Tandberg Television. With a specialized degree in Color Television, Dan has been involved with SMPTE at many different levels in his 25+ years in television. The company cites his experience and depth of knowledge as part of what gives FSI both its practical and theoretical foundation upon which they have designed their products.

"This time around, instead of distributing for others, we decided to develop and brand our own products," explains Dan Desmet. "While we have no manufacturing capabilities, we have third party engineering and manufacturing companies making products to our specific designs. Given the work that we'd done over the years with other brands of monitors we realized that we had a lot of ideas that we'd never seen implemented. We thought we could create something better. "

In the fall of 2008 China's Zunzheng Digital Video Technology Company, Ltd. was selected to handle FSI's manufacturing. Already an established broadcast monitor supplier to the Chinese domestic market, Zunzheng was able to quickly adapt to FSI's requirements, and bring the four models of FSI monitors to market quickly. Desmet stresses that, although made by Zunzheng, the monitors branded with the FSI name contain technology unique to FSI and differ from those sold directly by Zunzheng.

"In Flanders Scientific products you'll find a number of new ideas and frankly, what we feel are better approaches to how things should be done." - Dan Desmet

"We don't cut corners on quality," Continued Dan Desmet. "Monitors are really seen as a commodity item so reliability and good service are essential to long term success. Performing to certain specs and meeting the expectations of professionals are our first priorities. So, in Flanders Scientific products you'll find a number of new ideas and frankly, what we feel are better approaches to how things should be done."

A demonstration of the current line of four monitors was conducted last month at Biscardi Creative Media. On hand for the presentation was Ron Anderson, Senior Colorist and Telecine Manager for Atlanta's CineFilm; Walter Biscardi, Jr., Editor and author of the COW DVD “Stop Staring and Start Color Grading" and me, a shooter/editor working primarily in industrial and corporate video.

Dan Desmet brought each of Flanders Scientific's current four models: the 17" LM-1760W, grade 1 monitor; the 21" LM-2130W and 24" LM-2430W, grade 2 monitors and their top of the line 24" LM-2450W, grade 1 monitor. So what's a "grade 1" versus a "grade 2" monitor? Desmet explained that the most visible difference is at the corners where, in dark scenes, light leakage can be noticed. In part this difference comes from the grade 2 units having four backlights illuminating the LCD versus six for the grade 1 monitors. The price difference between their 24" grade 2 and 24" grade 1 monitor is $1,500 so obviously FSI considers the difference to be significant.

For the test Walter brought up several of his own shows with which he was extremely familiar. They ranged from high key and highly saturated material to dark and moody material. Some was in 720p and some in 1080i. For comparison purposes we were able to see the same thing on each of the FSI monitors as well as on Walt's Sony PVM-L5-20/1 CRT reference monitor.

"The FSI panels handled motion well and what impressed me the most was the consistency across the product line." -Walter Biscardi, Jr.

Ron, Walter and I noted the high degree of consistency across the product line. As the room where the majority of Biscardi Creative Media's color grading is done, Walt was most critical in his viewing. "I was expecting decent but wasn't expecting them to be better than the TVLogic monitors," he stated. "The FSI panels handled motion well and what impressed me the most was the consistency across the product line -- all four of the FSI monitors looked the same... especially black reproduction and accuracy of colors. That consistency is a key consideration on whether we could put them into all three of our suites because we have jobs that move between rooms and we have to be able to see the same thing from room to room."

Desmet explained that his company's depth of theoretical and practical knowledge," comes from selling for many other monitor companies. Yet we never found all of our ideas put into a single product," He continued, "And given the present economy, we knew that pricing was going to be important, so we came up with ways of making our monitors less expensive without compromising quality. For example, most high-end monitors use a third party de-interlacing and scaling chip. We looked at this and, while there are advantages of going with existing products, they (this third party chip) give us, as the monitor manufacturer, a limited number of things that we can do and adjustments we can make. So to change basic things like color LUTs (Look Up Tables), scaling and de-interlacing, our engineers designed a huge FPGA." (FPGA is shorthand for a Field Programable Gate Array, a complex logic circuit just short of being a computer).

"Our FPGA is where everything is done: things like vectorscope, waveform, the de-interlace and the scaling, the automatic alignments. One example of why our way is smarter and better for the end user is how we are able to handle automatic alignment. Most monitors that do automatic alignment use some kind of external PC. We say why should you have to do that? We sell, as well as rent, color probes that you connect directly to the monitor," explained Desmet, citing how rather than needing a PC, the monitor's internal logic circuit is used to perform critical calibration.

"I'm looking for a more cost-effective solution, some sort of LCD or plasma." - Ron Anderson

As the most sophisticated end user in the demo, Colorist Ron Anderson's observations formed much of the early part of the meeting's direction. Ron expressed his interest in looking for alternatives to the aging and nearly extinct CRT monitors he's been using for his 28 years in the color end of the business. "We're simply not going to spend $40,000 on a monitor, " explained Ron. "I'm looking for a more cost-effective solution, some sort of LCD or plasma. Plasma seems to look better but there's the issue of their relatively short life span, again a cost-effectiveness issue."

From his high-end perspective Ron Anderson mentioned a few key issues which would determine whether or not a monitor could become his primary reference for color work. Ease of set-up and use was mentioned initially but the ability to maintain calibration and not drift is certainly critical. He also cited viewing angle as a factor. "Usually my concern is what I see, sitting directly in front of the monitor, but on supervised sessions off-axis fall off can be a major concern." Both the 17" and 24" grade 1 FSI monitors list their viewing angle at 178° horizontal and vertical. The grade 2 monitors list 170° horizontal and 160° vertical.

Having a minimal amount of artifacts was also offered by Anderson as a concern. In answer to this Walt brought up the AJA card's Ramp display, a gradation of full black on the left going to 100% white on the right. Dan Desmet smiled proudly as all of us were impressed by the smoothness of each of the FSI monitors and apparent lack of any artifacts.

At this point Desmet volunteered that the LUTs for the 24" grade 1 monitor were not yet finished and that, while what we were seeing was likely good for many uses, it was not yet up to the standard his company would offer as worthy of being the primary monitor in a high end color room. He discussed that the final touches were being made to the 3D LUT for this monitor and these were expected to be ready in time for the NAB show.

"A 3D LUT allows two dissimilar color spaces to be made to appear similar, or look the way they are supposed to." - Bram Desmet

Being the low man on the technology totem pole I sought an explanation of exactly what a 3D Look Up Table was and how it would affect the monitor's user. FSI President Bram Desmet simplified it for me, explaining, "It's all about accuracy and how color information is handled and interpreted. A 3D LUT allows two dissimilar color spaces to be made to appear similar, or look the way they are supposed to. It's the most accurate conversion from the feed being received to what the monitor can reproduce. On a monitor like our (model) 2450 with its huge, wide color space, the LUT makes sure that colors don't become neon or take on an over-saturated 'cartoon look.' This is especially important in how skin tones are handled."

"OK, that's something I can understand," I said, feeling as if I'd just dipped my toe into "High End Broadcast Monitors for Dummies."

Back at the demo Dan Desmet explained the rear input panel of the FSI monitors. "On video we have connections for DVI-Integrated, both analog as well as digital; SD and HD SDI, Composite and Component signals." Of course each monitor is auto-sensing between PAL and NTSC and 24P is also supported. 3Gbps SDI is available as an option both at purchase and as a later upgrade. Desmet also offered up, "We also can bring in the computer formats SVGA, XGA and SXGA. We have RJ-45 network connections and RS-232 and 485 inputs. There's nothing you can throw at our monitors that we can't show... except SVHS,” said Dan laughing, “We decided to skip SVHS.”

An SD input can be viewed actual size, taking a small amount of screen real estate, or up-converted so that each pixel becomes four.

Walter and I discussed briefly that in both of our businesses we occasionally have to fall back into the SD world and how this would be handled was a concern when looking at any new monitor. I had recently been reminded of this by a videographer who mentioned that frequently when he brought his HD field monitor on SD shoots the clients would complain that the image looked "soft." Flanders Scientific appears to have recognized this as an issue and addressed it head on. An SD input can be viewed actual size, taking a small amount of screen real estate, or up-converted so that each pixel becomes four and the screen is filled vertically. Unlike SD signals which I have viewed on other brands of HD monitors, the FSI is perfectly crisp. In fact, almost too crisp in showing SD shortcomings like grain and pixelization. Walter also noted that, unlike his PVM CRT monitors, the FSI panels do not need to be re-calibrated when switching between SD and HD signals.

When discussing FSI's different approach than that of competing monitors the inclusion of scopes came up. Bram Desmet pointed out to me that having the on-screen scopes function work on all inputs is fairly unique. "In fact," he stated, "Many monitors don’t come with built in scopes at all. Others only offer scopes on SDI inputs. A very few brands offer it on both analog (composite/component) and SDI inputs, but I don't know of anyone besides FSI that has built in scopes that work on all analog and SDI inputs as well as DVI-I Inputs. Further, FSI doesn't charge for the waveform / vector scope feature and on many brands it is an add on item or only available on their higher end units."

In addition to the expected luminance waveform the FSI scopes function also offers RGB Parade and YRGB peak modes and a standard vector scope. Desmet also contends, "If you ask anyone familiar with the built in waveforms on our competitors' monitors they will tell you that our scopes are much more detailed and have a more usable scale. And, by the way, this scale on the waveform monitor can be switched between Voltage, IRE, or digital levels, which is also pretty unique for built-in scopes."

By the end of our demo Walter and I were sold and Ron had agreed to re-visit the FSI LM-2450W once the new LUTs were finished. Walt bought two 2450's for his two main edit rooms and a LM-1760W for his small suite. "Three identical looking monitors, of this quality, for under $16,000 made this the the year to go LCD,” concluded Biscardi.

As an industrial shooter/editor I opted for the LM-1760W with the plan that it could do double duty as a field monitor for shoots and reference monitor back in the edit bay. After a month of putting it through its paces I couldn't be happier.

Each of the monitors has a 4 pin XLR DC power input on the back in addition to the standard AC input. On the two grade 2 monitors the DC in is what one would expect, 12 volts. What I found odd on the 17 and 24 inch grade 1 monitors was that the DC requirement had jumped to 24 volts, presumably because of the additional two backlights.

US-based support and US-based service and parts is a reality.

Here is where the strength and agility of a small entrepreneurial company comes into play. I mentioned to FSI President, Bram Desmet, "What's with 24 volts of DC? Using conventional video gear where am I supposed to get 24 volts from?" Within a couple of days Bram came up with a DC converter which takes a 12 volt battery up to the needed 24 volts. Voila! I now have a field monitor which can operate off battery power. This immediate solution to my problem also establishes that the company's idea of having US-based support and US-based service and parts is a reality.

Now about the practicalities of DC power for such a serious monitor. There is no good substitute when you need to work off a battery. But my testing of the 17" FSI monitor proved that this is, at best, a short term solution and not something for an all day shoot unless one has a surplus of otherwise un-needed batteries. A relatively new and fully charged Anton-Bauer style "brick" powered the 17" monitor for slightly less than two hours, forty five minutes. I understand that this is longer than can be obtained from the equivalent Panasonic 17" monitor, so I guess it's not so bad. But, as stated earlier, not likely to be an all day solution.

Going forward FSI will announce a 7" high definition field monitor monitor at the 2009 NAB show, with a 9" expected later this year. Flanders Scientific is off to a great start and, so far, seems likely to thrive in an environment where buyers still want a top quality product, just at a bargain price.

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