Review: Pioneer PRV-LX1 DVD Recorder
Posted Jul 1, 2003

Because it does direct-to-disc recording and so much more, Pioneer's PRV-LX1 ($3995) is a natural. It has professional I/O, can do pro-level encoding straight from an NLE, camcorder or field deck, and can add custom menus on projects, and its straightforwardness is huge. Even an unpolished first-generation user interface can't stop the LX1 from making DVD authoring unusually facile. As either a gateway to DVD-Video for professional print-to-tapers or a down and not-so-dirty get 'em out the door offloading system for experienced DVD authors, look for the LX1 to burn a blazing trail.

July 2003|To video professionals accustomed to outputting finished projects to tape, "authoring" can sound as foreign as writing a book, or at least as bothersome as writing the narration-track text to a corporate promo piece. Or perhaps "authoring" foreshadows the burden of learning a new and potentially complicated skill set just to deliver something as polished as a tape master. Refreshingly, Pioneer's new PRV-LX1—a standalone MPEG-2 encoder and DVD authoring box posing as a video tape recorder (VTR)—may yet assuage those fears by bringing fast and easy DVD disc creation, complete with elegant menus, to tape-centric, nose-to-the-grindstone video producers.

We tested a Beta version of the PRV-LX1 (due to ship in June 2003) to find out if its warm debut reception in April at NAB was the result of sharp images and efficient burning or just smoke and mirrors. At just $3,995, the prospect of high-quality, real-time encoding combined with almost pain-free authoring has obvious appeal, but can "authoring" ever be as easy as printing to tape? The LX1 comes tantalizingly close. Apple won't be hiring any LX1 user interface designers, but not even haphazard UI organization can make building DVDs much harder than designing labels for old VHS window dubs. Make space in your rack; digital delivery just got a lot easier.

Built to Blend in
Our test unit was a Beta version, but Pioneer asserts that its features were 99% finalized, save the addition of a full User's Manual that we did not have to critique. Physically, the chassis was as it will be; a BetacamSP-sized (only lighter!), rack-mountable, deck-like device with backlit buttons (Play, Stop, Pause, Fast Forward, Reverse, Scan, and Record) and LED readouts on the front and standard video I/O on the back. It makes a clear statement that the LX1 is ready to fit into your current workflow.

The LX1 has the standard fare for connections: 3X BNC component (in/out), S-Video (in/out), and BNC composite (in/out), as well as both balanced and unbalanced audio jacks (in/out). There's Black Burst (in/out), and LTC in and RS-422 for external control and ECL batch support. For digital input, Pioneer includes a DV via 4-pin FireWire and is planning an SDI/AES EBU option for later this year.

Less familiarly, there are four USB ports (two in both the front and back) for connecting a mouse and keyboard, a VGA port, and a couple of other I/O surprises. First, the inputs feed an MPEG-2 hardware encoder, while the outputs show the decoded MPEG-2 files with a four-second delay (latency is to be expected for MPEG encode/decode, but that's very long). Therefore, an otherwise straightforward incoming source pass-through would require an internal DA and a second set of outputs and doesn't exist on the LX1, save with composite source. That's only a problem if your source doesn't have a monitor attached to it. Secondly, the video output toggles between the MPEG decode and the LX1's user interface. That VGA port is only for service repair or programming, rather than for a dedicated UI monitor. It would be nice to have that option, but Pioneer deserves credit for streamlining the minimum configuration.

Instead of a tape drive, the LX1's front has two drive bays for Pioneer DVR-A05 DVD-R/RW burners and there's a 120GB hard drive inside. In the standard one-burner configuration, the right bay will have just a faceplate. The two-burner version (add $495) supports simultaneous burning if, for example, you regularly burn a delivery copy and an archival copy at one time. It can also copy a non-copy-protected DVD disc. The LX1 supports encoding directly to one or both recorders or to the hard drive, or even to the HDD and one burner simultaneously. Wherever you encode, you'll still have the ability to add a custom menu to the project after you've finished recording the media: a tremendous feature for real-time archival and/or distribution of presentations, digital dailies, and just the fast pace of production work. (See Geoff Daily's "Daily Planet," www.emedialive.com/r18/2003/daily0603.html, pp. 18-25 for more on digital dailies and DVD.)

How do you record video and audio to the LX1? Same as with a deck: hit the Record button on the front. (You can actually configure "Record" for direct recording or to Standby-Record where the first touch engages Standby mode and the second touch of Record starts it.) Naturally, with an encoder rather than a tape deck, there are set-up parameters—such as input, bit rate, set-up level, Audio (Dolby or PCM), etc.—and all are accessed through the UI by familiar DVD navigation arrows and Enter, also on the unit's front. Or you can use the USB keyboard and mouse.

And that interface? It has a utilitarian flair that evokes an engineer who sat down with a list of features that wasn't really in any order. The layout makes more sense if you appreciate the limitations of navigation arrows. With a mouse, there is an awkward collection of single clicks, double clicks, and even a keyboard "Enter" in one place to avoid not saving choices. Still, there's little that's intuitive. Four main hierarchical groups are almost meaninglessly labeled "Edit," "App," "Set-up," and "Status." Set-up parameters are dispersed among Edit, Set-up, and Status, and because the interface changes so much as you drill down, it's hard to know where you are, especially because the entire Status group is positioned as if it were a subdirectory. And "Edit" what? There's no clip-trimming in the LX1, it's menu creation and DVD project set-up. "App" is a disc-copying utility and batch capture conveniently(?) grouped together. Bluntly put, there is no visual workflow. There are also several setting annoyances like a First Play default of "do nothing" rather than "play menu" or first title, so you have to set it each time.

Even so, there's not enough here to cause serious confusion and once you've learned it, by rote if necessary, the process is mercifully fast. If there were a Wizard, and there should be, it would be as simple as Name/Open project, Configure the encoder, Choose a target drive or drives, Record, and Build a menu. Menus are as simple as scrolling through a series of stock backgrounds/button templates. Based on the number of clips, or "titles" in DVD terms, the LX1 automatically places the right number of buttons (using either picons or clip name text) on your background. With that, you're ready to finalize the disc if you've encoded straight to a burner, or burn from HDD to DVD at 4X speed.

The LX1 has no complex authoring and supports just one menu per project with simple end actions of "return" or "play next" (no Loop, and that's an oversight). Actually, if you have several titles on a disc, the LX1 will create a Next button linked to a second main menu; however, there is no submenu support. A project's menu can either be a Title Menu or a Chapter Menu, placing a button for each "title" or complete video clip in the project or a button for each chapter in a one-title project, though again, not both. Chapter marks are set during encode either manually or automatically at three, five, or ten-minute intervals.

Would adding greater submenu support and greater navigation be a plus? Sure, but doing so would risk complicating the product where Pioneer's main goal is deck-like simplicity, and we can't argue, at least not in the first version. Because the LX1 is built on an embedded Linux OS—perhaps the biggest single advance over the earlier PRV-9000, in that it gives them virtually limitless opportunities for firmware upgrades—it's reasonable to predict future enhancements once Pioneer and users gain experience.

Finally—though extremely important for "polish"—the LX1 can upload custom JPEGs for menu backgrounds via an Ethernet port with DHCP IP and manual addressing or by copying files off a CD or DVD disc. What's more, Pioneer is preparing a Windows utility for creating custom background and button templates, although it was not ready at the time of our testing. Awkwardly, while you can upload these files, there is no way to delete them other than with a networked computer. Fortunately, audio and video files are deleted automatically when you delete their project, but the LX1 needs disc management.

Built to Encode
Pioneer hasn't been terribly aggressive about trumpeting the LX1's MPEG-2 encoding capabilities, save support for 32 bit rates up to 9.3Mbps, and that's too bad. We were pleasantly surprised by the encoding quality after scrutinizing a variety of source material at bit rates from 2.5-9Mbps and comparing the quality to boards that alone cost $4,000 or more. At the highest bit rates, we'd expect good pictures with few visible compromises. Encoding at low bit rates, however, is where encoders show their mettle, and while we were certainly able to get the LX1 to struggle and show artifacts, it held its own comparatively.

The LX1 also was comparable to other boards when the source was MiniDV, and that's less good. We'd have loved it had Pioneer's 15-step Noise Reduction filter solved that common DV problem, but in that respect it really proved no better than the norm. Going from sharp 4:1:1 DV to 4:2:0 MPEG-2 is a challenge for encoders and often exposes severe artifacts. With the LX1, as is common, we ultimately preferred the relative softness of S-Video from the DV source.

The success of Pioneer's 18-month-old PRV-9000—despite its consumer-like chassis and lack of true authoring—proves there's a substantial demand for just getting video to disc. And because it does that and so much more, the LX1 is a natural. It has professional I/O, can encode straight from an NLE, camcorder or field deck, and can add custom menus on projects, and its straightforwardness is huge. Even an unpolished first-generation user interface can't stop the LX1 from making DVD authoring unusually facile. As either a gateway to DVD-Video for professional print-to-tapers or a down and not-so-dirty get'em out the door offloading system for experienced DVD authors, look for the LX1 to burn a blazing trail.

Note: EMedia would like to thank Glen Holton and Ian McDermott from Video Transfer for their assistance in testing.