darbee-darblet

The DarbeeVision Darblet – Home Theater’s Magic Bullet?

We home theater enthusiasts have a tendency to be obsessive tinkerers, constantly upgrading our equipment, recalibrating and adding new devices to eke just a smidge better performance out of our audio and video gear. Over the years, many companies have attempted to capitalize on this by marketing (typically expensive) gizmos and doodads that claim almost magical abilities to solve problems we may not have even known that we had. My first instinct is to approach such things with inherent skepticism. Recently, a company by the name of Darbee Visual Presence entered the fray with a device called the DarbeeVision Darblet, which is said to instantly and decidedly improve the image quality of any video source on a high-definition display. What’s more, the Darblet is very simple to install and use, and isn’t terribly expensive. Could this be the real deal? I decided to try one and find out.

What Is It?

The DarbeeVision Darblet is an in-line video processor with one HDMI input and one HDMI output. It’s a small device that measures just five inches long and has a stangely-styled translucent case. The input and output are located on the right and left sides of the unit respectively, which may make placement in a signal chain needlessly awkward. (Putting the HDMI connections on the back panel, like almost every other piece of home theater gear, would have made more sense.) The Darblet comes with a power cord and a credit card-sized remote control, but no HDMI cables. You’ll have to supply those yourself.

Aside from the questionable design issues, installation is exceedingly simple. Plug your video source into the HDMI input, and connect the HDMI output to your HDTV or display, then turn it on with the remote. That’s all there is to it. The company recommends that this be the last item in your signal chain prior to the display. If you currently switch multiple video sources through an A/V receiver, for example, you’ll want to connect the receiver’s output to the Darblet, and the Darblet to your TV or projector.

darbee darblet2 The DarbeeVision Darblet – Home Theaters Magic Bullet?

Out of the box, the unit comes programmed with some annoying functions, such as automatically displaying a Darbee logo in the corner of the video screen. You can turn this off in the setup menu. It’s also set by default to 100% strength, which you’ll want to reduce immediately.

The remote has eight intuitive buttons. “On/Off” and “Menu” are self-explanatory. “Up” and “Down” are also labeled as “More Darbee” and “Less Darbee,” because they increase or decrease the processing strength. Finally, there are four pre-programmed video modes: Hi Def, Gaming, Full Pop and Demo. The latter enables side-by-side comparisons.

The Darblet can accept and process any video resolution up to 1080p, including 3D.

What It Does

According to the literature available on the company’s web site, the Darblet will “embed real depth cues in digital images, causing enhanced perception of object shape and ultra clarity.” That’s a fancy way of saying that it adjusts the contrast, luminance and chrominance in a video signal to make the image appear sharper and more detailed.

As I said earlier, I’m inherently skeptical of most home theater tweaks. Many of these – such as the obscenely-priced power cords and cables, or resonance-absorbing stones sold to self-proclaimed “audiophiles” – are pure snake oil, and can actually make our video and audio quality worse, if they do anything at all (which they usually don’t). We’ve seen what happens when home video studios attempt to digitally manipulate Blu-ray transfers to clean them up with Digital Noise Reduction or sharpen them with Edge Enhancement, and the results are rarely pretty. The detail and contrast boosting features available in most modern HDTVs and projectors (or external video processors) may seem to superficially improve one aspect of picture quality, but always at the expense of adding harmful and unwanted artifacts elsewhere. I make sure to turn all these functions off in my equipment. So, why would I want to add a new device that does some variation on the same concept?

In most cases, I wouldn’t. However, the wave of rave reviews for the Darblet from early adopters caught my attention. I was curious to find out if there was actually something to the hype for this device.

The Results

Darblet remote The DarbeeVision Darblet – Home Theaters Magic Bullet?I’ll be honest. Upon first installing the Darblet, I had mixed feelings. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the unit is programmed for the 100% setting out of the box. (Oddly, all of the modes go up to 120%.) While this certainly made the picture on my screen (I currently use a JVC DLA-RS40 D-ILA projector) look sharper, it also gave the image a very “processed” and artificial appearance. This was consistent with most of the before-and-after comparison images on the Darbee web site, which must have been created at high strength settings. I didn’t care much for it at first.

With that said, after finding the right compromise and settling in with the Darblet for a few weeks, I have to say that I’m now a believer. What works for me is the “Hi Def” mode at 45%. (Different equipment may result in different optimal settings.) Depending on the quality of the input signal, I could probably go a little higher than that on some content, but the higher settings are usually too aggressive and harsh-looking, and the “Gaming” and “Full Pop” modes crush some shadow detail. I’ve found that Hi Def 45% is a sweet spot that works for everything.

What’s so good about it? Basically, turning on the Darblet has the effect of lifting a veil from the image and resolving all the fine details better. The Darblet cannot add detail that isn’t present in the source. A soft (or, sadly, DNR’ed) picture will still look soft if that’s its inherent nature. What the Darblet does is make the detail that is there slightly clearer and more distinct. The more high-frequency detail available in the source, the better the results. The picture seems to snap into focus when the Darblet is on, and slip slightly out of focus when it’s off.

Yet, at the right setting, the image doesn’t look unnatural or processed, or have any unwanted artifacts like edge ringing, noise or contrast clipping. It works equally well with color footage, black & white, 2D or 3D – both in paused still frames and in motion. On images with grainy photography, the film grain appears slightly crisper, but not excessively noisy.

To see how the Darblet really works, I ran it through a bevy of test patterns on the ‘Spears & Munsil High Definition Benchmark‘ calibration disc. Unlike Edge Enhancement filters, I found that it added no visible edge ringing. Only on the Luma Zone Plate and Chroma Zone Plate did I find that the Darblet visibly distorted the patterns. These are clearly the parts of the video signal that the unit manipulates during its processing. But this is only visible on the test patterns, and not in any real viewing content.

I’ve left the Darblet engaged in my system for the past three weeks, on everything that I’ve watched: HD cable broadcasts, Blu-ray, VUDU, even DVD. Put simply, the Darblet makes everything look better, and has almost no downside unless you turn it up too high. I know that this sounds like an extraordinary claim. I could hardly believe it myself, but in my experience, the Darblet honestly does what it claims to do.

One Small Glitch

At present, the first generation of Darblet units have an HDMI handshaking issue that interacts with some equipment (including my own), which will force the device to convert the color space of a video signal to RGB regardless of what’s been input. For example, I’ve placed the Darblet after my Lumagen video processor in my signal chain. The Lumagen is programmed to output color in YCbCr 4:2:2 format. The Darblet changes this to RGB before it goes to my projector. A Darbee representative has confirmed that this is an error. The device is supposed to output the same color format that it takes in, and the company is working on a firmware update to correct this.

Honestly, this has not had any noticeable consequences in the video image on my screen. Still, all things considered, I’d prefer to keep everything in the original YCbCr format.

Unfortunately, the Darblet firmware cannot be upgraded by an end user. When Darbee Visual finishes the new firmware, owners will need to ship their units to the company to be updated. This is a nuisance, to be sure. Interested shoppers may wish to hold off on ordering a new Darblet until the next wave of units with corrected firmware is available. (In fact, this may be a moot point. The unit is currently backordered at all authorized retailers. By the time it comes back in stock, I believe that you should receive the updated version.)

A Reviewer’s Dilemma

As someone whose job it is to occasionally review Blu-ray discs, a device like the Darblet presents an interesting philosophical dilemma. Is it fair to evaluate the video quality of a Blu-ray disc with something like the Darblet engaged, when the very nature of the device is seemingly to alter the video signal?

After giving this a lot of thought and using the unit extensively, I’ve come to the determination that the Darblet doesn’t actually add anything that isn’t inherently present in whatever video I happen to watch. It simply helps the display to resolve the picture better. I would equate this to upgrading the display to a better model. The Darblet doesn’t change the picture so much as it improves the playback of what’s there.

If I were to upgrade my projector to a newer model with improved contrast specs and higher-quality optics that could focus the image tighter on my screen, would I say that the new projector altered the picture on the Blu-ray disc? Of course not. I should expect a better projector to improve the quality of whatever I watch. From what I’ve seen, that’s the sort of effect that the Darblet provides. I like it, and I’ve decided to leave it on full time.

How Much Will This Set Me Back?

Darbee Visual Presence has set the price of the Darblet at $269 regardless of where you purchase it. A list of authorized retailers can be found on the Darbee web site. I recommend AV Science, which offers free shipping and has a good return policy in case you decide that you don’t like it. (Because the item is currently backordered, it’s better to call a sales rep there. The AV Science web store won’t let you place an order until it comes back in stock, but the sales team will put you on the waiting list.)

Despite my initial skepticism, I was eventually won over by the DarbeeVision Darblet. Considering the amount of money that I’ve spent over the years upgrading my projectors and video processors and other assorted home theater equipment for optimal picture and sound quality, the $269 Darblet is a tremendous bargain for a device that has provided a clearly discernable improvement to the video quality of everything I watch, with no real drawbacks.

You may need to see this thing in action to believe it. But once you do, I bet you’ll be as impressed as I have been.

49 comments

  1. Drew

    I’ve been using one for about a month. I do find the results annoying, at times, but as Josh said, the performance is extremely impressive. I have always been a skeptic of anything similar to this, but this is one time where I was proven wrong. I’m in shock at how much bettet this can make some content look.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      It should have an effect on any display, but the larger your screen, the more evident the results. I did test it on a 32″ LCD, yes.

  2. Drew

    I’ve tested it using my projector, my 65″ VT50 plasma, and a 55″ Sony LED-LCD. The size of the screen doesn’t really dictate the performance in this case. It creates a discernible improvement, regardless of screen size. At least that’s my experience.

  3. Jason

    hmmm… interesting… I don’t know that I need to “improve” upon my Epson 5010 but I’m definitely curious what the results would be.

  4. I use one with my JVC RS65 and it even improves the image on this amazing projector! This small devise is well with the small outlay.

  5. I am going to stay skeptical for now.
    I would like to see someone in the professional field use one of these, then with it off, calibrate the various settings on a tv display to try to match it. There are just so many settings you can mess with on a typical modern tv nowadays. I am thinking an inline box is not substitute for a properly calibrated display.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      The Darblet is not meant to replace proper calibration. You should calibrate your display to the best of its ability, and then add the Darblet as a last step for a little extra boost.

      If you read through the thread for this device on AVSForum, many users have attempted to duplicate the Darblet’s results with settings in their displays, and all have failed. The closest approximation is the “MPC” mode in JVC’s latest generation of 4k projectors with e-Shift. But even that doesn’t do quite the same thing, and consensus is that the Darblet and MPC are best used in conjunction with each other. They provide the best result when combined together, rather than one trying to substitute for the other.

      Believe me, I understand the skepticism. But this is a case where seeing is believing.

  6. I would love to see some “before and after” shots, with a few different settings. An HD Youtube or Vimeo video would be nice. $269 is still a sizable investment for the casual home user. Not sure if I am quite ready for that plunge yet.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      William, the Darbee web site has before and after comparisons. Most of them are at too high a setting for my liking, but they should give you a general sense of what the device does.

      • William Henley

        Um, yeah, those settings are really high. I think I understand what its doing, but those screenshots really do not sell the device to me. Let me know if you find screenshots anywhere with a more realistic setting.

        If you don’t mind processing your movies, you could probably get the same effect by applying a few filters in video editing software. The filters they are using remind me of a combination of Sharpen More and Neat Video.

        http://www.neatvideo.com/examples.html

        Of course, that would mean rendering through a computer, which takes time, and then buying the filters (and the program if you don’t already own it, although you can use it with Virtual dub).

        Anyways, I am almost convinced on this, but would still like to see some screenshots wtih some more realistic settings on it.

  7. It is good to have a review like this from someone we can trust. Thank you Josh, I trust you and will try to get one for myself (a “little” problem is that I live in Brazil, it is often frustating to keep seeing this kind of stuff being sold in USA and not being able to get it).

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      I’m told that the retailer Smarthome will ship internationally. Unfortunately, I have never shopped there myself and don’t know how much shipping to Brazil would be.

    • I have a couple of questions though. I saw in the website that the remote is infrared based. This means the device must be kept “in sight”. Isn’t that annoying? I would not like to see this hangling somewhere in my rack.
      But this concern is not important if, once the device is kept turned on all times, it does not waste energy if there’s no signal being transmitted to it. When you said you left it on full time, it is actually turned on full time?

      • Josh Zyber
        Author

        João, I consider this a “set it and forget it” device. Once you find the optimal setting for your equipment (mine is Hi Def 45%), you can just leave it there and hide the Darblet out of sight. It will retain your last setting even if you disconnect it from power.

        I forgot to mention in the review that you can also dim or turn off all the LED lights on the unit from the set-up menu. Out of the box, the LEDs are very bright and obnoxious, and will illuminate your whole room like a Christmas tree. You’ll want to adjust that right away.

        The Darblet does appear to draw some minimal amount of power in Standby mode. A couple of its LEDs remain lit unless you specifically turn them all off. Personally, I keep all my home theater equipment plugged into a power strip that I shut off when not in use.

  8. paulb

    The video and images on their site are terrible. This video they have for comparison took very good images and turned sharpness to 11 and blew out the contrast. The fact that it is screwing up any of the demo’s in the disc you tested means it is doing something wrong. Turning up the sharpness can always seem like more detail but it isn’t a more correct image.
    http://darbeevision.com/view_news/id/24/title/DarbeeVision_Video_Demo

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      As I said, the comparisons on the web site are set too high. Properly dialed down, the effects are much more subtle, and do not look like traditional artificial sharpening or contrast boosting. It looks like the device removes a haze from the image. If your video screen is a window onto the content you’re watching, the Darblet cleans that window.

      • paulb

        Perhaps, but I have trouble trusting video processing to a company who puts these images up as proof of their product as it calls into serious question their real credentials. Kinda like turning in a resume with serious spelling, formatting and grammar errors for a writing job. Maybe you can do well but I can’t trust it if this is what you put forth as the best evidence of capability.

        • Josh Zyber
          Author

          I hear you on that, but I’ve also used the product and can tell you that what I see looks vastly better than those web site images once you dial it down properly.

  9. Matt

    This sounds like a very interesting little device. It sounds like something that I would not want to buy, but after reading what Josh had to say it sounds intriguing. The block in the road for me is the price. I can’t justify getting this device right now. I had my Panasonic VT25 plasma calibrated by a certified ISF tech last year which ran me $300. One thing I would worry about is this device throwing off the calibration a bit. I almost would need the calibrator to come back and just tweak this device to dial it in correctly without the expense of adding anything artificial to the picture. I am not sure if I can trust myself to do this because of my worries of throwing off the calibration that was already done on my plasma. I will strongly consider getting one of these devices in the future when I am able to get my career going and move out. At that point I would have to buy a new TV, speakers, receiver, etc.

    With all that said, if I were to buy this device today, would I be able to dial in the settings on this device easily without the expense of throwing the calibration off?

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      Matt, the Darblet will not throw your calibration off. The intention is that you should have your display calibrated, and then add the Darblet after that. It does not affect color, grayscale or other attributes of that nature. It just makes the picture appear better focused.

      I wrote the following on another forum in response to someone’s question about the Darblet altering calibration values. I think it applies here as well:


      I understand the skepticism 100%. However, at the end of the day, if your eyes don’t see a difference in colors from your calibrated settings, does it really matter what a machine tells you?

      From the whitepaper on the Darbee site:

      “By deriving algorithms inspired by the neuro-biologic models of human vision, monoscopic images can now take on new and profound properties of depth and realism. Now we can embed real depth cues in digital images, causing enhanced perception of object shape and ultra clarity. Such approaches move beyond the limitations of fidelity by leveraging principles of how the brain intercepts images.”

      In other words, yes, the Darblet manipulates the video image to fool our brains into seeing sharpness and depth that weren’t previously there. That’s not in dispute. You are no longer getting a “pure” signal of exactly what’s encoded on the disc. But, when done properly, it produces an image that looks “better” to our brain without sacrificing the other qualities that we desire from a calibrated picture.

      I went into this with as much skepticism as you. Personally, I found this to be a case of “seeing is believing.” Yet unlike others, I wasn’t immediately won over. It took a little time to find the right setting and settle in with it before I grudgingly accepted that the thing really works. At a moderate setting, it makes everything look better. Even if a spectrometer were to tell me that some value is slightly off now, that’s not going to change what I see.

      As with anything, YMMV.

      I find it kind of amusing that I’ve turned into a cheerleader for this device. I never would have expected that, given previous experiences with other products that promised miraculous results. Anyone remember Toshiba’s “XDE” super DVD upconversion? Ugh. What a sad joke that was.

      • Matt

        Thanks for the info Josh. I may have to pick myself up one of these in the foreseeable future.

  10. JM

    I read that the darblet mostly improves the flaws of digital tv, and soft projectors like d-ila and lcos.

    Most action movies have lots of blurry camera work, does this work best for content shot with slower camera movements?

      • JM

        The guy who reviewed it with his Sony 4K projector said blu-rays didn’t look any different until he cranked it up to 80%.

        Maybe Sony’s upscaling engine boosts sharpness, but not contrast?

        I’m starting to lean towards getting myself one of these for my birthday.

        • Josh Zyber
          Author

          80% is far too high. He must have a greater tolerance for the “processed” appearance than I do.

          The effect at lower settings can be subtle, but I consider this a good thing. If you push it too far, the picture looks very artificial. The cleaner and higher quality the source material, the higher you can bump the settings before the picture starts to look too harsh (you can get away with “Full Pop” mode on CG animation or Avatar), but I personally think that 45% is as far as I would go, no matter what I’m watching.

          Different strokes and all that, though.

  11. A really fucking neat write up, Josh. When I read what it did, I was like…wait, then review with it? is that fair?

    I personally may look at one down the line, when more people have them so it isn’t some luxury item that other users 99.5% don’t have.

    Also: the name of the unit seriously sucks.

    “hey guys, check out my new Darblet!”
    “dude, just flush it. I don’t want to see that shit!”

  12. JM

    How soon until studios start authoring blu-rays with darblet processing cranked up to 110?

    $20 says Michael Bay does it first.

    DarbeeVision better get to work on an anti-darblet!

    • William Henley

      If Lucus ever decides to make another movie, $20 says that he will use it on the file that gets sent to theaters. In fact, he may require the device itself to be installed on all digital projectors at theaters.

      • JM

        I bet George Lucas had a darblet installed in his chin to enhance his perception of his own work.

  13. Niea Vickstrøm

    This is just a hardware based edge enhancement filter. You can get similar results from open source solutions for free (ffdshow).

    The white paper throws a bunch of fancy words to basically say “we wrote an algorithm of doing edge enhancement”. It doesn’t really explain the mathematics involved, so you don’t really have an idea of what’s going on aside from “algorithms inspired by the neuro-biologic models of human vision, monoscopic images can now take on new and profound properties of depth and realism.”

    Let’s translate that statement in to something that’s just as accurate, yet doesn’t sound nearly as flashy to the layperson “image modification based on understandings of how brains process visual stimuli can produce edge enhancement which endows 2D images with a perception of sharpening where there is none.”

    “Features like millions of pixels and billions of colors will no longer determine the ultimate quality and realism of the image. High performance computation… enhance the quality of our digital imaging and more importantly, the experience that we have. This is analogous to the advances made in audio processing, beginning with Dolby.”

    What??? This makes no sense at all! High pixel counts and a sizable selection of colors with an equally equitable amount of bits are paramount towards realism of the image. So is motion resolution, lack of noise and encoding artifacts, high dynamic range potential in display technology, fidelity to input signals (e.g. proper calibration to ensure accurate colors and such). Oversharpening images IS NOT paramount to image quality. And similar in the audio field, over processing results in low-fidelity audiosignals relative to what was actually recorded… Dynamic range compression + clipping is a perfect example: sounds louder only because the quiet parts are made loud as well; image looks sharper because rings of darkness are added around bright objects while bright rings are added around dark objects.

    The comparison to Dolby is a joke because Dolby started with noise reduction which worked in a way to make tape hiss inaudible with no negative affecting of the content (not different aside from lack of noise). Then they moved in to multichannel digital encoding which used algorithms to present digital audio with out audible compression artifacts (compression necessary due to limited bandwidth). Does this device add any content to the image? Is it a delivery system for an image format with more content (higher fps, better 3d, more pixels, more colors, etc) and uses unnoticeable compression to fit current bandwidth concerns? No that’s what h.264/blu-ray was.

    I admit I haven’t tried the product but in my defence I do a good amount of amateur audio and image editing, in addition to being obsessive about image quality/audio quality. I do not apply a sharpener to every image I edit, for not every image needs or nor not every part of an image needs it. I do not leave the treble and bass dials on my receiver dialed up because it not every song or film needs that.

    If one cares about image quality, quality being faithful reproduction of the input signal, one wouldn’t purchase this product. If one cares about sharping up media to bring out the most in them, they should be using photoshop or other professional editing program and do it right, or if you care about increasing the immersiveness of our audio-visual mediums, go work at Dolby and invent “the next AC3″.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      Niea, this is not just some simple edge enhancement filter. The results look nothing at all like edge enhancement. Users with ffdshow and similar programs have attempted to mimic the Darblet and failed. When you actually see what the product does, you are free to dislike it. Until then, your outrage is misplaced.

      I will agree with you, however, that the whitepaper is not particularly informative. It was clearly written by a marketing person, not a technical person.

  14. Michael

    Josh

    Thanks for the review. Quick question regarding your preferred settings. You indicate that you use a 45% setting when the device is used with your projector. I also saw that you hooked it up to a television. Did you adjust your setting in any direction when using the TV or did the “sweet spot” stay at 45%?

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      Right now, I only have the Darblet connected to the projector, because I can only connect it to one of my video processor’s two outputs. I didn’t play around with it much on the TV, beyond verifying that I could still see it doing its thing. Based on what I saw, however, I would probably bump the Darblet settings up a little. That’s mostly a factor of the TV being a smaller size, so it’s harder to see subtle differences in the image. I think it’s fair to say that the exact settings you want to use on the Darblet will vary depending on how it interacts with your specific equipment. So don’t necessarily take my preference for 45% as gospel.

  15. James Hardaway

    Josh,

    I can’t find anything about how the Darblet deals with 1080p24 content? Does it pass it through at 24 frames per second or does it convert it to 60? Thanks!

  16. Toe

    Great review Josh, thanks! I am even more tempted after reading your review and checking out the website for the Darblet. Once the new FW version hits, I might take the plunge.

    Thanks again.