They say ignorance is bliss, and there's a part of me that remembers with some fondness the old days when watching television was a lot less complicated. It hardly seems very long ago that, so long as your VCR was plugged into the TV with a simple RF coaxial cable (the type with the pointy spike on the end), you were pretty much good to go. If the picture didn't look right, fiddling with the obscurely-labeled knobs on the set's front panel was about all there was to be done about it. Then I think about the dreadful quality those old TVs offered and my nostalgia fades away.
These days, the quality of television imagery has reached an entirely different plane of existence. A good HDTV can produce a picture of breathtaking vibrancy and clarity, but only when set up correctly. The downside to the march of technology is the added complexity that comes along with it. Today's HDTV buyer is expected to understand not only how to choose the right set, but also what video sources to hook up to it, what cable types to use, and how to adjust the myriad of settings properly. A good calibration disc such as Digital Video Essentials can help with the basic picture controls such as color, brightness, and contrast. Unfortunately, it doesn't address the advanced image processing features found in modern HDTVs, video disc players, or A/V receivers. For those, the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark comes into play.
The HQV Benchmark is not a general purpose calibration tool and cannot be expected to replace discs like Digital Video Essentials. It's a very specialized application designed expressly to assess the quality of deinterlacing, noise reduction, and so-called "detail enhancement". Depending on the equipment used, these functions may be applied inside the HDTV, in the disc player, or sometimes in intermediary devices such as video processors and A/V receivers. In many cases, these controls may not be adjustable by the end user. As such, the HQV Benchmark is used less for calibration than for simple evaluation. It's a handy reference to have around when deciding whether to purchase a new piece of equipment, or whether to replace an old one.
The DVD edition opens with a brief 2-minute video introduction defining the difference between Standard Definition and High Definition, and how the former is scaled for viewing on an HDTV screen. This is followed by another 10 minutes of explanations for the tests to follow. The narrator speaks very quickly and gives only a skimming overview of the technology that may be confusing for those viewers not technically-inclined. Once you get to them, the tests may be either selected individually or played in an automated loop.
This review is not the proper space to go into comprehensive explanations for the concepts of deinterlacing, scaling, noise reduction, or detail enhancement. The basic ideas are addressed in at least a cursory fashion on the HQV disc itself. For greater coverage, I recommend reading some reference articles on the Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity web site. In brief, to view interlaced 480i Standard Definition content on an progressive scan HDTV screen, the video must first be deinterlaced (reassembling the individual fields into whole video frames) and then scaled to the native resolution of the set. Depending on the material, the processes of each can be very complicated, and if not done well may leave you with a picture filled with jagged edges or pixelation artifacts. The tests on the HQV disc will help to determine whether your equipment does that job properly.
The next functions would be better classified as "tweaks" to make a video image more pleasing to watch. Excessive noise or grain can be cleaned up with a quality noise reduction filter, but if applied too heavily real picture detail may be erased and the picture left soft or smeary. Likewise, a soft picture can be made to seem sharper through "detail enhancement", which is actually an artificial electronic process that makes the boundaries of objects edges more defined. If done poorly, such enhancement often adds distracting electronic halos around objects and (like turning the Sharpness control on the TV too high) makes the picture look harsh and edgy.
It should be noted that Silicon Optix is the manufacturer of processing chips used in many brands of television, video processor, disc player, and A/V receiver. The tests on the HQV Benchmark were specifically designed for the purpose of showing off the quality of the company's technology, so if viewing on HQV-equipped hardware, it stands to reason that the tests will be passed with flying colors. Different tests from an objective outside source might reveal other flaws in the HQV processing. However, the disc is still a good reference point, and is also useful when evaluating equipment from other brands.
The Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark has been released on the DVD format from Silicon Optix directly and can be purchased on their web site in your choice of NTSC or PAL formats. HD DVD and Blu-ray editions (featuring newly-shot High Definition video content) are also available.
On the Standard Definition disc, all of the introduction and explanatory material is provided in 4:3 video. In fact, the entire disc is flagged as 4:3, despite the fact that many of the test patterns should actually be viewed in 16:9 widescreen. This is problematic on many upscaling DVD players that will automatically pillarbox 4:3 content into the center of a 16:9 TV, in that case leaving no way to view the patterns in their original widescreen aspect ratio, negatively affecting the results on some of them. Fortunately, this shouldn't be a problem on all DVD players. The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 in a simple stereo mix. There's a small amount of music and narration, and it sounds fine, but this simply isn't an audio test program.
The disc offers no subtitles, alternate languages, or bonus features, but it does come packaged with a printed scorecard to track your test results.
Since it wasn't designed for general calibration purposes, the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark won't be needed by every viewer, but it does contain some useful information and makes a valuable reference when evaluating HDTV and DVD hardware. Recommended.
Silicon Optix HQV HD Benchmark (Blu-ray)
Silicon Optix HQV HD Benchmark (HD DVD)
Digital Video Essentials - High Definition (HD DVD)