All HDMI cables are the same… aren’t they? Any reputable home theater tech guru will tell you that expensive HDMI cables promising improved picture fidelity are almost entirely snake oil scams. While that’s usually the case, the Marseille Inc. mCable delivers a real, noticeable and measurable difference to the picture quality on an HDTV or UHD screen. Whether that difference amounts to an improvement is a matter of subjective opinion, however.
Under normal circumstances, the sole purpose of an HDMI cable is to transmit a digital signal from one end to the other. Assuming that it’s working properly, the bits that go in are the same bits that come out, and the cable should not color the video or audio in any way. If the cable isn’t working properly, you’ll know it right away because you’ll get a picture filled with ugly green sparkles or possibly no picture at all. Expensive boutique cables boasting of construction from exotic materials and promising a purer or better resolved image are, in a word, lying. They do no such thing, and rely on Placebo Effect to fool you into believing you see or hear something that’s not really there.
What makes the mCable different is that it isn’t just an HDMI cable. Built into every unit is a scaling and processing chip that will upconvert the resolution of an input signal to (depending on what type of display you have) either 1080p high definition or 2160p Ultra HD, and will also apply proprietary noise reduction and sharpening algorithms to clean up grain and compression artifacts and (in the company’s words) “repaint every pixel in real time to provide you with the best image quality possible.”
To sell this, the Marseille Inc. web site is illustrated with alleged before-and-after images showing blurry, VHS-quality pictures that get miraculously transformed into stunning crystal clarity. These are obviously exaggerated and should be taken not just with a grain of salt, but an entire dump truck filled with the stuff.
Moreover, experienced home theater buffs will recognize the claims about grain reduction and detail heightening as buzzwords for DNR and edge enhancement, two forms of processing that are generally undesirable in a video image. Our reviews on this site frequently chastise studios for applying digital processing like those to Blu-ray video transfers, and advise readers to turn off similar features in their TVs, projectors, disc players, A/V receivers, or any other components that may include them. It’s fair to ask why anyone would want to pay for a fancy HDMI cable that adds such processing.
There was a time when I considered myself a staunch video purist who would eschew any sort of device like this based on principle alone. Over the years, I’ve softened on that attitude, largely due to my fondness for DarbeeVision processing, which I feel genuinely improves the video quality of most sources with virtually no drawbacks. With that in mind, I decided to reach out Marseille Inc. to get more information on the products, and the company was gracious enough to offer me a sample for review. Although I approached it with a healthy amount of skepticism, I also tried to keep an open mind. Could this be the next Darbee?
(For the record, the mCable processing is completely different than DarbeeVision, and the two can be used in conjunction with one another.)
Which mCable Is Which?
Marseille Inc. sells two flavors of mCable directly from the company web site: a Cinema Edition and a Gaming Edition. The purposes of these should be clear enough from their names. If you mostly watch movies, the Cinema Edition is the one to buy. If videogames are an important part of your home theater, the Gaming Edition reduces processing lag time. Both versions are available in 3-, 6- or 9-foot lengths at prices normally between $159.00 and $169.99. At the time of this writing, the cables are currently on sale from $89.00 to $129.00. Although perhaps pricy for a regular HDMI cable, none of these seem too outrageous considering the inclusion of a video processor, if it turns out to be any good. Over the years, I’ve paid more for other devices to eke out some marginal improvement to my home theater experience, either in audio or video.
The Cinema and Gaming Editions are the company’s 2017 models with the latest and most advanced processing algorithms. Be aware that you can also find older models selling on Amazon for as little as $47.41, but those have been criticized by some users for having inferior performance.
For this review, Marseilles sent me a 6-foot Cinema Edition cable.
Hooking It Up
In most respects, the mCable is a plug-and-play device. It has no settings to fiddle with, or even an on/off switch. Once connected, the processor is always on and only has one processing strength. It’s all-or-nothing and cannot be dialed up or down. If you don’t like what it’s doing, there’s no adjustment to be made; you should uninstall it and put in a regular HDMI cable.
Because the processing chip requires a power source, the cable actually has three connectors. One HMDI end is clearly labeled to go into your signal source and the other into the TV or display. (You must run them in the correct direction.) Additionally, a second wire branches off with a USB connector. Many modern HDTVs have a USB port on the back panel next to the HDMI inputs, which you may not have ever used or even noticed is there. Now you actually have a use for it. In my case, neither of my projectors has a USB input. Fortunately, the USB wire is long enough that I was able to run it to a nearby electrical outlet, where I plugged it into a USB charger adaptor. This may prove inconvenient if your nearest outlet is further than the length of the cable.
The cable will only work when the USB portion is plugged in. If you unplug that, the entire cable will go dead and will not pass any signal.
The mCable processor is designed to work on progressive scan input signals from 480p resolution to 1080p. Any interlaced 480i standard-def (576i if PAL) or 1080i high-def signals must be deinterlaced at the source or through an intermediary device (such as an A/V receiver) or they will merely be passed through the cable without processing.
Native 2160p Ultra HD signals from streaming or a UHD Blu-ray player will also always be passed through without processing. (In theory, a UHD source shouldn’t need any enhancement anyway.) If you do upconversion in another device before the mCable, set it for 1080p output and let the mCable finish the rest of the scaling to UHD.
This datasheet contains a chart showing what resolutions the cable will accept and what it does with them.
The cable can upconvert resolutions from 480p through 1080p24 and output them as 2160p UHD. 1080p signals either in 3D format or at frame rates higher than 24fps cannot be upconverted, but the cable will apply its noise reduction and sharpening to them.
Because both of my projectors are 1080p displays, and because I perform all scaling from standard-def in an external Lumagen video processor, I was not able to evaluate the mCable’s upconversion quality. The focus of my review is on its other processing functions.
After connecting the mCable, the first thing I immediately noticed was that my picture was brighter. Consequently, the black level was elevated and the contrast range looked flattened. I confirmed this with a test pattern on a calibration Blu-ray and was able to compensate for it by pulling the Brightness setting on my projector down two clicks. This is easy enough to fix, but I don’t see the need for it and am uncertain whether it’s an intended trait or not.
Those startling before-and-after images on the web site…? Let’s be blunt about this; they’re bullshit. I fully expected them to be bullshit, so this is neither a surprise nor a disappointment. If anything, I’m relieved that the cable’s processing is fairly subtle for the most part. Aggressive noise reduction and sharpening almost unavoidably leave the picture with a harsh, plastic appearance. Remember that shameful Ultimate Hunter Edition Blu-ray of ‘Predator’? Thankfully, this is nothing like that.
Nevertheless, a critical eye will spot the processing quickly and may not care for it. For as much as the marketing materials boast about the cable’s “contextual processing engine” that “takes every single pixel and redraws it in real time,” it’s ultimately still an edge enhancer. Perhaps it’s more sophisticated and less crude than other edge enhancement algorithms, but it will never be able to create real picture detail where none was present in the source. The following test patterns confirm that it also adds unwanted edge ringing around straight lines. That’s a big disappointment.
To be fair, what you see on a test pattern isn’t necessarily what you’ll see in normal viewing content. Indeed, for the most part, the mCable does not add egregious ringing. On a lot of content, I didn’t see any at all. However, if any ringing is already inherent in the source (such as the following image from a highly-compressed cable broadcast), the mCable’s processing usually serves to emphasize it and make it even more distracting.
I also found the noise reduction function to be a mixed bag. While the NR thankfully doesn’t sap too much real picture detail from an image (it’s pretty mild compared to the heavy DNR that mars too many Blu-ray catalog title releases), it definitely does claim a little. And it didn’t always do a very good job at its intended purpose of reducing actual noise. I watched a fair amount of crappy cable broadcasts that were filled with banding and macroblocking. The mCable may have helped some small amount on those, but not enough to be worth the effort. Worse, when I cued up a particularly grainy scene in the recent Criterion Blu-ray release of ‘Sid & Nancy‘, the mCable’s NR seemed to ignore the grain altogether and its sharpening actually made it look even noisier and uglier.
That’s not to say that the mCable is useless or a scam. On the material I tested, I found it to have the best results on the cleanest, most pristine content. When watching a high-quality source that’s already sharp and vibrant, with little to no native grain, the cable can make it pop an extra bit more, sometimes impressively so. However, the lower quality the source, the more hit-or-miss the results. It may do nothing, or may even make it look worse. I seriously doubt anyone wants to swap HDMI cables with every new piece of content they watch, especially if they don’t know what that content will look like ahead of time.
Even though the mCable may serve some benefit in boosting source material that already looks good… well, if that source material already looks good, it probably doesn’t need the boosting. After I removed the mCable and returned to straight HDMI, I honestly didn’t miss it at all.
Unlike most boutique HDMI cables that make outrageous and unsupported claims about improving your picture quality, I don’t feel that the mCable is snake oil or a rip-off. It actually does something, and I believe that the designers made a good-faith effort to implement a higher quality of noise reduction and sharpening than is typically found built into HDTVs or other home theater displays. Unfortunately, there’s a limit to what such processing can actually do. The results I got were highly variable depending on the quality of the source watched. In some movie or TV scenes, it genuinely looks great. In others, sadly, it can look awful.
In comparison, DarbeeVision processing does a better job on a wider range of content, and in my experience makes just about anything look a smidge better with negligible unwanted side effects. I still happily use Darbee in my home theater, but the mCable isn’t a keeper.
With that said, the results may look better on a smaller flat panel TV than on a large projection screen, where flaws like edge enhancement stand out more. I will also concede that opinions about this sort of processing are highly subjective, and some viewers may simply like what the mCable does better than I did. I don’t begrudge anyone for feeling that way, even if the product wasn’t for me.
For more information about mCable or to purchase the new 2017 models, visit the Marseille Inc. web site.