Sunday 25 August 2019

The Saturn HDMI Cable From LevelHike: Impressions & Footage

The box.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the growing number of direct-to-HDMI video cables cropping up for retro consoles recently. This Sega Saturn HDMI cable – from the new retro peripheral manufacturer LevelHike  is one of those.

The pitch is simple: it’s a single, inexpensive HDMI cable that aims to rout a serviceable RGB signal via HDMI as a convenient, no-fuss option for making our retro game consoles look less like dog shit on HDTVs. No more, no less.

Some quick disclaimer stuff: This post includes a rundown of some of my impressions of the LevelHike HDMI cable for the Sega Saturn. They sent us an early version of the cable for free ahead of distributing it and future versions will likely include some revisions. I may update this post with my thoughts based on any revisions later on, as needed. I’ve spent about a dozen hours playing various games with the LevelHike cable so far.

And some product notes: LevelHike’s Saturn cable is available on Amazon (US) and Ebay for $30. Note that LevelHike also makes cables for a variety of other platforms, including the Dreamcast, PSP, Neo Geo AES/CD, and (most interestingly), the Turbografx-16. I haven’t yet tried any of those other ones, though.

Before I get too much further, it’s also important to knock expectations down a few pegs. When it comes to connecting your Sega Saturn to an HDTV, if you’re looking for a video solution that all at once 1) has the convenience of a single, direct-to-HDMI cable, is 2) is cheap (three Alexander Hamiltons or less), and 3) rivals the quality of expensive, higher-end offerings of a (properly shielded) RGB SCART cable via a pricey upscaler like Framemeister/OSSC or an $80 (with Genesis-to-Saturn adapter) HD Retrovision component cable via a $100 RetroTINK device…there just isn’t a $30 HDMI cable that can compete with those higher-end solutions. It’s not a fair comparison. They’re not in the same ballpark, let alone playing the same sport.

As someone who cares more about #1 and #2 and doesn’t generally obsess over having the best possible video output for my retro games, I might be the kind of person these cables are geared toward. Not that great video quality isn’t nice to have but there are diminishing returns after a point. I’ve always subscribed to the idea that the best video option is anything that gets out of the way. As long as the output looks decent enough and isn’t distracting with excessive blur, color loss, or lag – and especially if I don’t have to spend much of time or money on it – sometimes good enough is good enough.

So what about the LevelHike cable? Is it good enough?

Apart from the Engrish text adorning the product’s packaging, I can’t help but be intrigued by the promise it makes as such a simple device. As a no-frills HDMI cable that aims to be cheap, convenient, and good enough, I think it largely succeeds though not without some quirks.

As much as I like my TV, it doesn’t force a 4:3 aspect ratio so I’m SOL when it comes to many retro HDMI cables and SCART-to-HDMI converters. The nifty thing about LevelHike’s cable is it has a switch to force 4:3 in case your TV can’t do the job. Alternatively, you can also set the image to 16:9 for the occasional anamorphic widescreen mode in games like NiGHTS or Panzer Dragoon Zwei. it’s a simple, albeit greatly welcome feature.

The LevelHike box handles conversion duties and is powered via a USB power cable (included). You can see the aspect ratio switch in the top-right of the unit.
Overall, the LevelHike cable’s image quality looks considerably better than I’d expect for its price point. It retains most of the clarity and color of the original RGB signal, without much noticeable input lag. In motion, there is some slight blur and occasional artifacts, which I noticed more in 2D games – and especially shmups like DoDonPachi and Shienryu – which feature constantly-scrolling backgrounds and a bevy of moving sprites and particles. That said, I don’t think these issues are overly distracting and I didn’t notice them as much with the 3D games I tried with it. Is it perfect? No. Does it look as good as the pricier video solutions? No. But it does stay out of the way.

Below is a video compilation of footage from a smattering of games I felt like playing this week. I captured it all with the LevelHike cable and aimed for a variety of genres and number of dimensions. At the very least, this footage should give you an idea of what to expect. Honestly, I feel like it might look slightly better in person than what my Elgato was able to capture but you’ll get the gist.

Capturing all of this footage was actually a lot of fun. I forgot how addicting Kyuutenkai Fantastic Pinball was. I suck at Astal but it sure looks purdy.

There are downsides, to be sure. For several games, I’ve noticed the LevelHike cable shrinks the image to varying degrees depending on the game. You may have noticed it in my footage compilation above. It seems a bit random and I’m wondering if it has to do with the cable struggling to retain divisibility with the original 240p resolution in certain games.

The most nagging flaw is with the cable’s audio. Now, the sound quality itself is solid; I’ve noticed no distortion and the full richness and range of the audio seems in tact. Unfortunately, the LevelHike cable actually swaps the right and left stereo audio channels. This is a more glaring issue in 3D games where directional audio is crucial for reinforcing the player's spatial positioning relative to everything else in the environment. The severity of this ranges. In Sega Rally, it’s only mildly distracting – if even a bit amusing – when careening into a wall elicits a satisfying crunch from the opposite side of the car. However, this issue is compounded in 3D shooters like Power Slave, where I rely on the stereo audio cues to determine which direction enemies are coming from.

Digging into the issue a bit further, it seems this channel-swap issue is likely carried over from an error in the most widely-available Saturn A/V port schematics floating around online. The schematics incorrectly flip their depictions of the audio pins so many would-be cable manufacturers who reference it are also duplicating the error in their own products. I suppose this underscores the importance of the timeless adage: don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

To LevelHike’s credit, they’ve acknowledged the issue and are updating subsequent batches of cables to correct the audio channel issue. If this is a deal breaker for you, I’d recommend waiting a bit. In the meantime, I’ve reverted to playing most games with mono audio, which works fine for now.

And that’s about all I have to say about the LevelHike HDMI cable for now. Given the device’s emphasis on simplicity, convenience and affordability, the video quality is surprising solid, all things considered. Not that it’s an apples-to-apples comparison but I do see the LevelHike as a noticeable step up from similar direct-to-HDMI cables I’ve used on other platforms from established manufacturers like Pound and Hyperkin, which often take a larger hit in color quality and can run noticeably darker or more saturated.

As a simple and affordable solution for connecting your Saturn to an HDTV, I’m mostly impressed by LevelHike’s first Saturn offering and I look forward to seeing how it improves going forward. It’s obviously not in the same league as higher-end video solutions but for what it is, it’s plenty good enough.

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