Sigma Designs' groundbreaking EM8620 chipset has brought us a slew of hi-def ready network- streaming products. Some, like the Pinnacle Showcenter 200 and Acer's MG3001, are purely network players, though some also handle compatible content stored on USB memory devices. Others, including the SnaZio SZ-1350 and KiSS DP-600, have DVD- ROM drives and will thus also play DVDs. NeoDigits - one of the few manufacturers to support the obscure HVD hi-def format - has now declared its interest in AV networking with the EM8620-based X3000.
As with the SnaZio, there's DVD playback - better still, the X3000 is multi- region 'out of the box'. NeoDigits love- affair with HVD appears to be over; it won't play these discs. Okay, there's not a lot of content available on HVD, but it's nevertheless a shame to see these curiosities de-listed. NeoDigits also sells the X5000, an 'upmarket' version with an additional USB port, improved audio circuitry and linear (as opposed to switch- mode) power supply. Audiophiles may well be interested in this otherwise identically-specced model.
With its black front panel and no-nonsense layout, the X3000 could easily be mistaken for a vintage CD player. The only clue to its cutting-edge nature is the exposed USB connector, which allows the unit to decode audio, video and photos from storage devices like memory 'keyrings' or external hard drives. The rear panel leaves you in no doubt that the X3000 is firmly placed in the 21st century. There's a 100Mbps LAN port for streaming, a connector for a supplied wi-fi aerial (the X3000 is capable of receiving audio and low-bandwidth video from a wireless network) and a plethora of AV outputs.
Unfortunately, there's no Scart - a notable omission for those with older standard-def TVs. The best you'll get here is S-video (composite is also supported). That said, the X3000s component output has standard-def (480 and 576i/p) output modes. It will also do 1080p; if your hi-def display draws a blank here, then you'll be pleased to learn that 720p and 1080i options are also available. These are essential for playback of networked hi-def material (owing to the data rates, wired Ethernet is essential here). The X3000 will also upscale standard-def video.
The HDMI output supports 720p, 1080i and 1080p as well as 480p and 576p. Interestingly, it benefits from a 'DVI' output mode that's, ahem, good news for those with older projectors and flatpanel TVs. As far as audio is concerned, the X3000 gives you a 5.1 output. Trying to play back DTS soundtracks yields nothing. By way of recompense, the X3000s 5.1 output pumps out full surround from the 5.1 Windows Media Pro soundtracks (Dolby Digital 5.1 is also catered for).
WM Pro soundtracks can be found on hi-def sample clips that can be downloaded from Microsoft's website. Unlike DTS, these can't be handled directly by the majority of AV gear and so there's a good argument for connecting the X3000's 5.1 output to your amp. For DTS (and, depending on how good your amp is, Dolby Digital) it makes sense to take a digital feed from the X3000; both coaxial and optical variants are supported. There's no dedicated two-channel audio output.
Setting up the X3000 poses no problems - the menus are pretty much identical to those of other EM8620-based products. Separate menus cater for system (AV settings), wired network, wi-fi , DVD-specific configuration and firmware upgrades (these can be achieved over the network, if it has an internet feed). DHCP is supported for automatic network connections; furthermore, the X3000 can stream media (photos, video and audio) from Windows Media Connect servers. I also found it to work with media server software from other parties (including SnaZio). On its website, you'll find Neodigit's own 'NeoLink' variant.
This, like most of the others, provides access to online content like internet radio stations, podcasts and websites. And all from the comfort of your armchair - no need to squint into a PC monitor (though not all websites will display properly). The superbly-chunky backlit remote is better- made than some of the handsets supplied with vastly more expensive kit, although the layout and responsiveness could be improved. It features, amongst other things, a dedicated button for switching between the various video output modes. This allows you to easily discover which gives the best results for your particular display without recourse to menu-delving.
Performance-wise, the X3000 impresses. The downside, compatibility-speaking, is playing home-made discs, something NeoDigits is aware of, and hopes to resolve soon. Occasional picture 'freezes' require you to 'power-cycle' the machine. Also, with Panasonic-recorded DVDs, the selected menu item isn't highlighted so you have to guess what you're about to play. But commercial discs are unaffected, giving excellent video quality - especially via HDMI. There's ample detail, coupled with a good contrast range and natural colours.
I recommend playing with the upscaling, because sometimes the display circuitry does a better job. On my sample, though, the HDMI output didn't function properly in 1080i mode - certainly on a 32in Sony Bravia LCD TV. However, 720p proved fine. The component output gets subjectively close to the HDMI's visual potential, but for regular tellies the X3000s SD S-video can't beat the RGB Scart of competing products. With streamed MPEG-2 files, including those ripped from DVD (unfortunately, the X3000 doesn't recognise ISO images, although HCC was told a future update would fix this), it does a commendable job.
HD also looks great, and the X3000 gave me much pleasure from 1080i transport streams after renaming them with an .mpg extension. DivX video - whether played out 'locally' or from the network - fares well, with no lip-sync 'nasties' but I noted serious lip-sync errors with some WMV-HD material.
Audio-wise, the X3000 gives creditable results from MP3s and DVD soundtracks, though the high-end X5000 is bound to outshine it.
Overall, this Helios is an interesting and versatile box of tricks - even if it doesn't offer anything radically new compared to other EM8620-based products. NeoDigits needs to address the 'home-made' DVD compatibility, HDMI bugs, and WMV-HD lip-sync problems, but this is (hopefully) where the X3000's online firmware upgradability will come into its own. Recommended.