Canon XL H1 Review
In The Beginning
Cast your mind back seven years to 1999 when the DV revolution was in its infancy, the VX1000 was Sonyís consumer flagship camcorder and had leapt the fence to take the Broadcast and Professional world by storm. Sonyís BVW400 full size analogue Betacam camcorder was taking a pasting by this young whippersnapper. The VX1000 was Ďdigitalí and had something called flame-cable, some sort of digital connector Ė it would never catch on!
Whilst all this was happening Canon were sitting back with a concealed smile on their face, humming quietly to themselves and trying not to attract attention as they were plotting something really quite fiendish. Then they struck. The Canon XL1 was definitely the first camera styled after a watering can, no wait, it also looked like a small chainsaw. Whatever it was it was most certainly visually striking.
The XL1 started something quite remarkable, literally overnight the DV indie scene grew immensely. XL1 websites popped up by the dozen and suddenly the VX1000 lost its throne. The XL1 was the new kid on the block. If you were shooting on DV then you had to do it with style. How on earth could you be expected to look windswept and interesting whilst brandishing a VX1000 Ė which looked like a mere toy in comparison. As the months passed the XL1ís reputation grew and more users were buying into it. With more cameras out there more people were starting to discover faults, problems with backfocus, limitations of the lens and an interesting issue where the XL1 would cause interference with the MA100 XLR adapter.
At this time a UK company called Optex (now closed down) released a manual lens based on a Fujinon 14x. The modification removed the 1/3-inch lens mount and in its place bolted a Canon Xl mount. The XLPRO lens won the best of show award at NAB, it featured a back focus adjustment and both focus and zoom gear rings. The lens was a roaring success both in the USA and here in the UK with many hundreds of units being sold. A short time later Canon released their own manual lens, which over the years has developed into the 16x Manual lens that they sell today. The manual lens wasnít Canonís only development.
In 2001 Canon was preparing to release the XL1ís replacement, much speculation bounced around internet chat rooms. What will it look like, what will it offer over the current XL1, itís going to be spectacular. When the XL1S was launched, to be fair it was somewhat of a non-event. In my humble opinion the XL1S looked too much like the XL1 (it was identical) and as such wasnít going to cause the stir Canon had hoped for. Despite this, operators wanting to purchase the XL1 bought into the XL1S and a number of diehard fanatics upgraded their XL1ís to the XL1S almost straight away.
In 2004 Canon showed they had been listening and brought the world what we had been asking for, an XL2. The XL2 had built in XLR connectors, a gorgeous large viewfinder/LCD unit, real 16:9 and much more. But Canon still had a small problem Ė everybody was now buying Sony HDV camcorders.
At the time I ran some tests between a Canon XL2 and a Sony DSR500. Considering the difference in price the resultant images produced by the XL2 were dangerously good. But in the back of my mind was the new Sony Z1 HDV camcorder that I had seen at IBC. The quality was simply outstanding. Why would I go out and buy an SD only camcorder? I was not alone in this thinking and many people online were arguing over the merits of DV and HDV. At one stage a rumour surfaced that the XL2 could be switched to HDV by software at Canon service centres Ė rubbish! Canon were aware of this, they knew you wanted a HDV capable XL2 and less than a year after its UK launch at Pinewood, Canon have quietly wheeled out the XL2ís big brother the new XLH1.
The All-New XLH1 Ė In Black
The first thing that will hit you about the XLH1 is its colour, Canon now realise that Black is the new White. The playful white body has given way to a hammerite like black finish that shouts business. To avoid the XLH1 looking somewhat like a zebra Canon have wisely decided to supply it with a black lens.
Now, Iím not an expert on paint but Iím betting someone at Canon was tasked with finding the right colour for the XLH1. For days, maybe weeks Canonís Director of Paints and Finishings spent hours with his team sweating over a desk full of Dulux sample strips and miniature testers until they got the colour, look and feel that they were after. Can black paint be heavier then white paint? It certainly feels that way; Canonís own take on Darth Vader certainly has the force. Otherwise the XLH1 appears to be the same as the XL2, but with a few notable exceptions.
Canon have introduced Ďproperí connections in the form of SD and HD SDI connectors, Genlock, TC in and TC out. These four BNC connectors are what Canon refer to as the Jack Pack, sounds like a bad cartoon to me. The jack pack lives on the side of the shoulder pad. Also gone is the red accent by the main mode control wheel. The XLH1 looks sophisticated with an understated black and silver finish. Iím still loving that paint finish.
The XLH1 has several new features worth mentioning. Some thought has gone into this camera. The supplied microphone may, to the untrained eye, look identical to that supplied on the XL1, XL1s and XL2, but now has a cunning switch to allow you the choice of Stereo or Mono function. The microphone sits on a shock absorbing mount Ė no more lens servo or handling noise. Canon has also taken a positive step back to the XL1 with a body located iris wheel not a push up/down switch, which was dreadful. Adjusting the aperture on the XLH1, although not as perfect as an old-fashioned ring on the lens, has improved tenfold. Well done Canon!
The shooting mode select switch has grown an extra position and is lit with a natty blue LED ring when shooting in HDV mode. Two other positions offers you SD 4:3 and SD16:9. This switch is easily accessible and not hidden away below X number of onscreen menus. Some may say (and have done so) that this switch can be easily knocked during operation. Well youíll be happy to know whilst you are recording this switch stops working Ė even if you knock it from HDV to SD 4:3 by accident.
The XLH1 takes its formats very seriously, offering you the full monty of standard DV 4:3 and 16:9, HDV and even a 2.35:1 frameline generator allowing you to frame your next cinematic treat before cropping in post.
Unfortunately, because the model I received to test wasnít a 100% final production model, it would be unfair of me to discuss the image quality, but if it is anything like the XL2 you wonít be disappointed. Canon have done a great job with their latest XL camcorder, they are so close to getting it right. In my opinion the auto lens is the last fly that remains in Canonís ointment. Every serious XL user I know wants a fully manual lens with end stops, back focus and marked scales.
To many, the XL series of camcorders are reminiscent of Marmite in the respect that you either love them or hate them. Personally I think Marmite is great, as is the new Canon XLH1.
The Canon XLH1 should be out in the early part of 2006 and is expected to be priced around £5,800 inc VAT.
About The Reviewer
Simonís career in production equipment sales started when he left school at the age of sixteen. Fourteen years later Simon has his own equipment sales company, Production Gear Ltd. He enjoys filming, editing and flying power kites. Simon is married and lives and works in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire.
Product: HDV Camcorder
Model: XL H1
Reviewed by: Simon Beer
Review Date: 10-01-2006