I have an irrational mistrust of internet-only products. You can't audition them before purchase. They often come from far-flung countries, so returns are difficult to arrange. And they rarely look or behave as the respective website claims. I also have an irrational mistrust of clowns, but that's not as relevant.
However, sometimes t'internet can throw up a few surprises and the Helios H4000 is one of them. It is, seemingly, an advanced DVD player at a bargain price point; its slim exterior belies a box of tricks that David Copperfield would be proud of.
It's certainly no looker. Horizontally-challenged, to use a politically-correct term, the H4000 would better suit a bedroom than the living room stack. And while its casing appears fairly robust, the disc tray is made of a black-plastic equivalent of lettuce. Further aesthetic woes are inflicted by a remote control that owes more to Fisher Price than Crestron. I would describe it as the electronic equivalent of a tracksuit-sporting chav.
Or at least, it would be had its interior been full of fluff. Instead, it's a munter with a brain. And there's no skimping on connectivity either: There's HDMI, component and VGA (PC) outputs for upscaling duties, while S-video and composite video outs are supplied for the standard def brigade.
There's no Scart output, RGB or otherwise, but considering the amount of sockets in comparison to the extremely limited space, the connections that are available more than make up for it. Sound is catered-for via stereo analogue, optical and coaxial digital and a full set of 5.1 jacks for direct analogue hook-up to an amplifier.
Compatibility is another of the Helios' strong points. As well as being capable of spinning and upscaling conventional DVDs (including home movies and recorded media on DVD-R/RW and DVD R/RW formats) it's fine with CD, VCD, SVCD, HDCD (a Chinese HD format) and MP3. The deck can also play most of the common MPEG-4 file formats (XviD and all forms of DivX) you care to chuck at it.
The latter would only play on our test sample in 480p or 576p without some weird screen positioning issues, although a firmware patch promises to fix this. At least a start menu lists the file details, such as resolution and video and audio codecs.
And if it's Dolby Digital 5.1, it will, refreshingly, confuse your receiver into thinking that it's a legitimate mix.
Most impressive in its arsenal is its ability to upscale to 1080p through component as well as HDMI. There are a lot of DVD players able to upconvert video, with some around the same price point, but there's none that I can think of that so flagrantly dismisses HDCP in order to provide 720p, 1080i and 1080p pictures through component outputs as the H4000.
And that's not all. Through its VGA output, the Helios is able to output and convert video to 1024 x 768 and 1280 x 1024 resolutions. Basically, if your display has an HD resolution but lacks the connectivity to be 'HD Ready' then this is the DVD player for you!
To be honest, I was rather underwhelmed by the quality of the upscaling. When compared to cutting-edge upscalers from Samsung and Toshiba, it is clearly not in the same class.
Indeed, I'd find it difficult to see any improvement in the H4000's 1080p pictures over a Denon (or equivalent's) standard progressive scan. I also discovered some weird scanning issues when running the machine in 1080i mode, although that may be a compatibility caveat with my display.
Standard-def pictures can be considered very good from the deck. Colours are superb and details sharp.
Home cinema sound is excellent, with the player being compatible with DTS and Dolby Digital and, when run through its own 5.1 speaker outs, it holds a decent mix, with dialogue remaining clear throughout.
There was one strange glitch that I encountered occasionally; on some discs, when the second layer was accessed, the audio stuttered and came back a touch out of sync.
This also happened when I had paused footage. In both cases I had to reverse the video a small amount and everything was corrected. CD playback is best appreciated via the digital outputs. The analogue outs suffer from a high level of jitter.
The H4000 is an interesting addition to the Helios range. It's affordable, and there are some unique aspects that some may find irresistible, but its 'net exclusivity, build quality, and average images may well frustrate.