For nearly two decades now, enthusiasts and installers alike have turned to Lumagen for the absolute best in video processing, calibration control, and systems integration. But in the wake of new Ultra HD and HDR video standards, Lumagen had to return to the drawing board to create a new video processing solution that could take advantage of the improvements in image quality these new standards have to offer. And after years of development, the Radiance Pro is Lumagen’s answer.
The Radiance Pro offers complete processing of current HDR10 and HLG HDR video formats at common resolutions up to 4K, in both 2D and 3D. For calibration, owners will be happy to find a 4,913-point, 17x17x17 3D LUT-based color management system, as well as extensive white balance adjustment and gamma controls. Other stand out features include Lumagen’s proprietary NoRing video scaling and a high-performance, real-time dynamic HDR tonemapping solution.
You may be wondering who in 2020 needs a standalone video processor of this sort. The way I see it, the Radiance Pro is a useful tool for two camps of people in a Venn diagram with a good bit of overlap. One camp is looking for state-of-the-art video processing features and calibration control, especially those with dedicated theater spaces where a projector and screen are being used. The other camp is simply looking for a more efficient way to manage complex or outdated home theater systems.
Part of the appeal of the Radiance Pro is that it can turn a home theater with equipment spanning decades of technological advancement into a seamless, state-of-the-art, press-and-play experience, no matter which source component, display, or video standard is being used. Believe it or not, some people still switch between their 15-year-old VHS/DVD combo player, last-generation gaming console, HD cable set-top box, and brand-new Ultra HD Blu-ray player and want all of these sources to look their best in a modern home theater system. And for many, this type of easy and efficient functionality is worth every penny.
The Radiance Pro also offers anamorphic aspect ratio support with sources up to 4K (with and without an anamorphic lens), non-linear image scaling, per-pixel video deinterlacing for both SD and HD sources, DARBEE smart sharpening for sources up to 2K, vertical keystone correction, and optional picture-in-picture and picture-outside-picture functionality.
The Radiance Pro’s connectivity is highly configurable based upon the end user’s input and output needs and comes in several SKUs to accommodate different installation scenarios. For this review, Lumagen provided their 4446+ variant ($7,499) of the Radiance Pro, which is one of the more tricked-out versions currently available. No matter which version you go with, though, they all ship with the same 1U rack-mountable matte black chassis and all come with the same video processing features enabled.
The front panel is a pretty basic affair, with some logos, an infrared receiver for the remote, and a pair of LEDs to indicate power or standby state. Around back, the 4446+ features six 18Gbps HDMI ports and a pair of 9Gbps HDMI ports for video input, along with single 18Gbps and 9Gbps HDMI outputs, and a pair of audio-only HDMI outs.
Why the mix-match of HDMI ports? It’s all about compatibility. Some legacy equipment doesn’t play nice with HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 protocols, so Lumagen offers ports with different data throughput rates and allows all HDMI ports to be independently configured to current or legacy HDCP and HDMI standards depending on your system needs. Combine this with mature software that’s been in development for nearly two decades, which fixes a plethora of HDMI compatibility problems along the way, and the Radiance Pro should be compatible with the vast majority of HDMI-based consumer hardware.
If your system doesn’t need legacy HDMI support, or if you simply don’t need this many HDMI ports, you can opt for one of the scaled-down versions, saving you some cash along the way. Lumagen or your installer can point you in the right direction if you aren’t sure which version of the processor you need.
Other connectivity includes a single RS-232, a 3.5-millimeter infrared port, and two 12-volt triggers for system control; a type-B USB input for system updates; and a DC power port for connecting the included external power supply. The included remote is backlit and offers direct control for regularly used commands such as input selection, various scaling modes, and common calibration options.
On the inside, the Radiance Pro rocks a powerful field-programmable gate-array (FPGA) processor. Using an FPGA is helpful because, as its name implies, it allows for an extremely modular and custom form of computing. Unlike purpose-built system-on-a-chip video processors that you typically find in consumer electronics, which are fairly locked down in terms of functionality, an FPGA allows Lumagen to configure the processor, devoting as much compute power as they’d like, to accomplish specific video processing tasks. This means the Radiance Pro can offer some of the best video processing features and performance currently available today, but can also be reconfigured down the road if new video standards or improvements in video processing emerge.
For physical setup, Lumagen recommends placing the Radiance Pro in your AV chain just after your source device(s). From there, they recommend using one of the audio-only HDMI outputs to feed your AV receiver or preamp and one of the normal HDMI outputs to feed your display directly. The logic here is that this method takes your AVR or SSP out of the video processing equation to avoid degradation in image quality. It also reduces the opportunities for handshaking or EDID issues to creep into the equation.
Once you have the Radiance Pro installed and open up the menu system for the first time, you’ll notice that all inputs and outputs have their own memory settings. These memories are broken down even further into custom controls dependent upon the input signal’s resolution and if the signal is 2D, 3D, SDR, or HDR.
You or your installer will probably spend most of the time initially within the CMS submenu. This is where you’ll find access to most of the calibration settings. If you’re considering purchasing this processor, chances are good that you have a fairly high-end display with its own calibration suite. Generally speaking, though, calibration controls found in most displays, even on the higher-end models, don’t offer the kind of granularity in picture control that the Radiance Pro offers. The 4,913-point 3D LUT-based color management system and the 21-point parametric gamma and greyscale controls are particularly impressive and straightforward to use. For best results, I’d recommend hiring a professional calibrator familiar with Lumagen products.
Another powerful tool you’ll find on the Radiance Pro is its scaling capabilities. The scaling modes are scattered throughout the menu system, depending on the type of effect you’re looking to accomplish. There’s your typical run-of-the-mill video upscaling and downscaling options, useful for scaling 1080p to Ultra HD or vice versa. But you’ll also find vertical stretch modes for use with an anamorphic lens and non-linear stretch options to fill your entire screen with picture information, regardless of the content’s aspect ratio.
Another useful feature is the color space control tool. By default, this is set to Auto, which means the Radiance Pro will match the detected input color space and keep it this way for output. But, if you’re like me and like to keep your projector or television in a single picture mode to simplify things, you can let the processor remap the input color points. In my case, I’ve calibrated my projector to REC2020 standards and have the output color space on the Radiance Pro set to always output as such. This means all other input color spaces, such as REC709 or DCI-P3, will be converted to approximated color correct points within REC2020. So, when switching between SDR and HDR content, I don’t need to change picture modes to get an accurate image.
Additionally, I have the Radiance Pro set up to dynamically tonemap HDR10 content for my JVC DLA-NX9 projector into a gamma-based SDR container to keep things as simple as possible from a calibration and control standpoint. However, Lumagen gives owners the option to output the tonemapped content into an EOTF-based HDR container if they prefer.
To get best results from the tonemapper, you’ll need to measure your display’s peak-nit white level and choose the closest corresponding menu option in the DTM (Dynamic Tone Mapping) submenu. This ensures that the amount of dynamic range present in the HDR source material is reduced enough to match the capabilities of your connected display. You should also be aware that the tonemapper assumes your display has already been calibrated to a linear 2.4 gamma or to SMPTE 2084 EOTF standards if you decide to go with the EOTF output option instead.
Lumagen states that the remaining default settings found in the DTM submenu are an excellent starting point and should yield great results overall for the vast majority of HDR10 content currently out there. However, if you’re intimately familiar with HDR and tonemapping, or are looking for a specific end result, Lumagen allows you to adjust things like the amount of dynamic range padding and dynamic desaturation to avoid clipping. There are even controls to adjust the shape of the gamma curve used for the tonemap. For most of my testing, I left these settings at default and achieved excellent results, as advertised.
Some of the remaining menu options worth touching on include source-dependent A/V delay to fix lip-sync problems, a game mode for reduced input lag, custom EDID and timing modes, and options to set a fixed output resolution and frame rate to avoid blackouts caused by HDMI handshaking. Also, there is digital masking functionality that could be particularly useful for people with anamorphic aspect ratio screens when playing content that switches aspect ratios (like you see on some IMAX Enhanced Blu-ray discs) and, if you’ve opted for 12-volt triggers, options to enable or disable connected hardware.
How Does the Lumagen Radiance Pro Perform?
Because Lumagen has released numerous software updates since this product launched a few years ago, the Radiance Pro can be viewed as a mature product. Because of this, I was expecting a smooth and efficient software experience with nothing less than top-tier video processing performance across the board and that’s exactly what I experienced day-in and day-out with the Radiance Pro installed in my home theater system.
For those considering this product, it’s also important to note that this level of continued software development is pretty rare in the consumer electronics space and should be viewed as a huge post-purchase bonus. These software updates mean you can expect the level of performance offered by this hardware to continue to improve over time.
In my opinion, the Radiance Pro’s most exciting feature is its dynamic tonemapping solution. While DTM can still be a useful tool for today’s high-nit flat panel displays, I want to stress that this is a far more important and useful feature for projector owners. It all comes down to a lack of image brightness relative to other current display technologies on the market.
With HDR10, dynamic range within the video is presented through something called an electro-optical transfer function (EOTF). Unlike the gamma-based video standards of old (think DVD and 1080p Blu-ray), which allow any display to faithfully recreate content as long as it has a base level of contrast and picture controls available to it, EOTF-based video requires very specific levels of pixel brightness in order to faithfully recreate the video content. For HDR10, pixel brightness can be encoded as zero nits, i.e. completely black, but also can be encoded as bright as 4,000 nits. Most displays, even the brightest LED-backlit LCD panels, currently lack the peak-nit brightness to render this kind of dynamic range, but high-contrast home theater projectors in particular struggle the most and therefore need the most help.
With numbers like this, you can begin to see how a projector like my JVC DLA-NX9, with 125 nits of peak image brightness coming off my screen, might be off to a bad start. Fear not, though. Getting great HDR image quality on a projector isn’t as bleak as these numbers suggest. That’s partly because a large portion of video information found in your average HDR10 image is actually encoded at or below 100 nits. It’s the so-called specular highlights past the limit of what a display can render in brightness (and sometimes color) that need to be compressed down into a range the display is actually capable of showing, otherwise you’ll lose this picture information to clipping. And, at its heart, that’s exactly what tonemapping can be considered: a form of digital dynamic range compression.
Most displays available today, even flat panels, employ something called a static tonemap to compress dynamic range. These solutions typically look at metadata sent along with the HDR video that tells your display the peak and average nit levels for the entire length of the video. But using this information to tonemap can be problematic for a couple of reasons. For starters, a lot of HDR content either doesn’t have this metadata or what’s provided is flat-out wrong. Secondly, a static tonemap is often set to try and render the peak nit level specified in the metadata. This high brightness pixel information may only be present for just a few frames throughout the entire movie. This means all the other frames won’t have an appropriate tonemap applied. For projector owners especially, this often means that the dynamic range wasn’t reduced anywhere near enough for the remaining frames, so you end up with an overly dark image that’s subjectively lacking in brightness, pop, and color vibrancy. Flat panels are generally less afflicted under these same circumstances because they often have more dynamic range in terms of pixel brightness to work with.
This is where the Radiance Pro’s DTM solution comes in handy. Instead of looking at metadata for tonemap guidance, it can look at each individual frame in real time to measure the peak and average nit level, among other things. Then, a corresponding tonemap can be applied to fully maximize apparent dynamic range and color saturation for each frame, often to the limits in performance that your display is capable of achieving. In a nutshell, you can almost think of DTM as a way to regrade each HDR frame on the fly to maximize the real-world performance of any connected display.
So, how does it perform? In a word, marvelously. The maturity of Lumagen’s tonemapping software really shines, especially when compared to a normal static tonemapping solution. The issues associated with this approach are no longer there. All of the HDR10 video content I watched was adapted on the fly to reveal a bright, color-intense image with lots of three-dimensional pop and subjective image accuracy.
Even when looking at torture-test type video content, like scenes from the movie Mad Max: Fury Road on Ultra HD Blu-ray, the Lumagen didn’t disappoint. The iconic sand-storm chase scene in this movie is particularly difficult for any tonemapping solution due to the use of extreme dynamic range encoded into the video. The lightning strikes and explosions can create issues with clipping through less effective tonemapping solutions and have a tendency to render the color of these picture elements incorrectly. But that wasn’t the case with the Lumagen Pro. You could clearly make out details within these specular high-nit portions of the image. The intensity and color shades appeared tonally correct, as if this was how the scene was originally mastered.
Another area of performance I was excited to check out was the Radiance Pro’s proprietary NoRing scaling solution. Unlike most of the video processors built into modern displays, which purposefully employ edge enhancement as a way to increase perceived resolution and fine image detail, the Radiance Pro does not. Edge enhancement boosts contrast gradients found on hard edges within an image. This contrast-boosting makes these edges stand out more, which our brains perceive as a subjective increase in sharpness and resolution. Taken at face value, this may seem like a good thing. However, when used in excess, it can give the image an unnatural, over-processed look. A consequence of using edge enhancement is a ring artifact that surrounds these hard edges. And in a high-performance video system, especially when an image is projected on a large screen, ringing artifacts should be avoided at all costs because of how easy they are to see.
Test patterns revealed excellent upscaling performance from a consumer-level video processor, and with real-world video content, Lumagen’s NoRing scaling solution affords the image a natural and relaxed appearance overall.
A case in point was the Minas Tirith chapter from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King on Blu-ray. Among other things, this sequence has a lot of closeups of actors’ faces and their clothing. Through lesser-performing scaling solutions, fine image detail can get lost or the image can appear over-processed, resulting in skin and clothing that appears unnatural to the eye. Again, that wasn’t the case with the Radiance Pro.
Compared to the upscaling solution found inside my JVC DLA-NX9 projector, the Radiance Pro did a much better job at keeping these elements of the image fully resolved, with no apparent loss of fine image detail. And, of course, I witnessed no issues with ringing artifacts, as advertised. Additionally, the image had no issues with aliasing artifacts, which I routinely see when opting to use the NX9 for video upscaling.
The naturalness of the upscaled image and lack of artifacts associated with the Radiance Pro’s scaling solution gives viewers the impression that the image hasn’t been scaled at all. As counterintuitive as that sounds, in the world of video scaling, this is actually a good thing. Lumagen’s less-is-more approach is a breath of fresh air in a world dominated by built-in video processing solutions that routinely employ detrimental edge enhancement, excessive noise filtering, and frame interpolation by default out of the box.
One of the main drawbacks of using the Radiance Pro is that it takes a fairly knowledgeable person to configure it successfully. In particular, the calibration controls and dynamic tonemapping software will require someone who knows how to measure and calibrate properly, but also someone who understands HDR, and how tonemapping works. If that description doesn’t fit you, hiring a professional calibrator to set it up will add to the installed cost of the Radiance Pro.
Currently, the only competition of which I’m aware for the Radiance Pro is a piece of free computer software called madVR. Like the Radiance Pro, madVR allows you to calibrate a display, scale video, and even tonemap HDR content in a similar fashion. But because this solution is software-based, and thus reliant on a Windows computer without an HDMI input, this option may be a nonstarter for many. However, it’s important to note the huge cost savings madVR possesses over the Radiance Pro. A custom-built computer for around $1,000 should be powerful enough to run the software. With that said, maxing out some of the video quality settings will require a more expensive computer. If the Radiance Pro is outside your budget, madVR could be a good option, as long as you’re okay with dealing with the box of worms a Windows PC brings to the table.
Without having a mastering monitor here to show me how an HDR10 image is supposed to look without tonemapping applied, something consumer-level displays cannot do, it’s nearly impossible for me to make a blanket statement on which solution delivers objectively superior tonemapping. So I reached out to Jon Thompson of Picture Worx Films. Jon does post production for Hollywood films and, apart from using reference-grade mastering monitors and a top-of-the-line Dolby Vision projector to grade video, he’s had the opportunity to look at the dynamic tonemapping performance of madVR and the Radiance Pro and compare both to unadulterated HDR and SDR studio masters.
Jon’s take on the matter is that it’s no contest: the Radiance Pro does a better job overall at tonemapping. He says madVR often struggles with darker content, which can result in reduced shadow detail and crushed blacks. And with brighter content, he says madVR produces color errors on occasion. Because of these issues, Jon feels the Radiance Pro offers a far more natural-looking image.
He’s also had the opportunity to test the scaling performance offered by both solutions through a $200,000 Tektronix HDMI tester. The results revealed a small lead in upscaling performance for the Radiance Pro. However, Jon did note that madVR has a more noticeable lead in video downscaling for those who need this functionality.
Despite these performance differences, Jon made it clear that he’s still very impressed with the level of performance madVR offers, especially when you consider that it’s free software.
My own subjective thoughts on the matter mimic the objective tests that Jon has performed. The Radiance Pro is currently in a class of its own for upscaling and tonemapping. However, it’s worth noting that software updates down the road from madVR may change these results.
The Radiance Pro is definitely a niche product, and its asking price means that it’s not the best fit for every home theater system. However, if you’re an enthusiast with a high-performance home theater system equipped with a projector and screen or are looking to install one in the near future, the Radiance Pro has the potential to adapt video to fit the performance capabilities of your projector in a way that no other video processing solution I’m aware of currently offers. The feature-set, level of picture control, and overall performance put this video processor in a class of its own.