Although the Matrox MXO has a few tricks up it’s sleeve and carries out a few different functions, I’m going to concentrate on the Colour Grading Monitor aspect.
More and more people are now shooting in some High Definition format or another such as HDV, DVCPro50, XDCAM HD, HDCAM for example. No matter what HD format we are shooting in, we all have one thing in common, and that’s the need for a decent post-production HD monitoring solution that doesn’t cost the earth. Any professional grader/colourist will tell you that a decent HD edit suite monitor will cost upwards of £15,000, which is very true. These monitors are not only very expensive, but they are very heavy CRT affairs that require two strong guys to lift one onto the desk. Unfortunately, this is the kind of money you have to spend if you care about how the ‘Colour’ will look in your final edit; or is it? Roll the Matrox MXO and an Apple 23” flat panel Cinema Display.
Built for Mac
First up, the Matrox MXO is an Apple Mac only product and was built/designed/calibrated with Apple’s 23” Cinema computer display in mind. This proves that Matrox have set out to build a professional HD monitoring device for a professional editing system e.g. Apple’s Final Cut Pro, and not a money making product. If money was the name of the game, Matrox would have build something for the mass PC market, but they didn’t. It is for this reason that I raised an eyebrow when I first heard about the MXO.
The MXO cost £695 inc vat, and the Apple 23” Cinema Display cost £599 inc vat. You’ve probably worked out already that this combo cost just £1,294 inc vat. Approximately £14,000 cheaper than your average professional 22” CRT grading monitor. But does it do the same thing? Matrox seem to hint that it does.
This is the part where all the professional Soho editors and graders jump up and shout, “yeah right, professional HD colour monitoring for under £1,500, that’s a hoot!” and they would be totally forgiven for thinking this way. I must admit to similar thoughts echoing around my mind too, but hold on guys, not so fast, read on.
What it does
The MXO has been built and designed to basically turn an Apple Mac 23” Cinema computer display into a high-end professional HD colour grading monitor. Until now the only choices have been very expensive Grade 1 monitors, mediocre grading monitors for around £3,995, standard definition monitors with a device in-line to downscale your HD footage out, or a regular computer monitor with very inaccurate results as far as colour, contrast, latitude and the like go. Enter the MXO, which is now here to put all this behind us.
How does it do it?
I must admit that the MXO’s reliance on the Mac’s DVI output to generate a true YUV output gave me cause for concern. I assumed that the DVI’s output signal would have to be converted from RGB to YUV by the MXO for output to the monitor. Since the signal has already been converted by the Mac’s graphics card from YUV to RGB, this could theoretically lead to some significant color shifts. Dedicated video capture and output cards such as the Decklink and Kona cards don’t have the same issues as they work exclusively in the YUV space from the start. Having said all that, the Matrox engineers have skillfully avoided color space conversions by tapping directly into the Mac’s graphics card before the YUV signal is converted to RGB, so the MXO performs in exactly the same was as a dedicated video card would. The signal taken from the DVI output into the MXO is a true genlocked YUV PAL (or NTSC) colour broadcast signal. This means you can output HD or HDV in real-time to a wide variety of HD or Analog formats. The DVI output colour space is fed though the MXO and into your Apple 23” Cinema Display. Without the MXO in-line between your Mac’s DVI port and the Apple Cinema display, the Cinema display would simply look like a regular LCD computer display. But with the MXO in-line the Cinema Display takes on a whole new look; a professional broadcast colour grading monitor look that plays back interlaced and progressive HD and SD footage with the correct ‘motion’ characteristics and the correct ‘look’.
When I first took delivery of the MXO and unpacked it I was a little surprised to find a tiny little lightweight silver/grey box, how can this be worth £695 I thought. Although the MXO has a very small footprint of just 16x13.5cm and is just 4.5cm high and is incredibly light too, it is in fact made out of tough metal and is designed cosmetically so it integrates well with any Mac Pro set up. It has the same metal grated front as the Mac Pro computers in pretty much the same shade too; Apple couldn’t have designed it better themselves. I especially liked the funky blue light that shines though the grated metal front; it looks pretty cool.
It’s obvious from the physical design of the MXO that the design team at Matrox have been hanging around lots of Apple Mac Pro and Apple Cinema displays. This is good news, I like it when a company builds something that not only works with the project it was designed for, but looks good sitting next to it too; well done Matrox.
So I’ve established that the MXO looks good and is built like a cricket ball, but what about the practical usability of the MXO? The front top and sides are free of anything, apart from the word Matrox etched onto the top. The base of the MXO simply has four rubber feet to prevent it scratching any surface you decide to place it on.
On the rear is where it all happens, there are sockets for Y/Video, Pb/Y, Pr/C, REF in, R and L Audio out, DVI in and out for connection to computer and monitor, SDI, power and a USB for connection to your computer.
The sockets are nicely laid out and are clearly marked. You can’t go wrong connecting this up, I didn’t even need the manual. The MXO comes with a very high quality multi-cable that has DVI and USB on one end, and DVI, USB, mini jack audio (male) and mini jack audio (female) on the other. The DVI and USB plug into the MXO, whilst the rest on the other end of the cable plug into your Mac. The female mini jack can have you somewhat confused and you could be forgiven for thinking this is where you then plug in your audio monitor system. This is not the case, you plug your audio monitors into the MXO directly via it’s two phono sockets. My personal audio monitoring system is a Bose Companion, which is made up of two desktop mid-range/tweater speakers, and a sub/bass unit that sits on the floor. If you have a similar system to this, which has a single stereo mini-jack from the sub/bass unit straight to your Mac, you’ll have to buy a short patch-lead with two male phono sockets on one end and a single female stereo mini-jack on the other. If you leave your audio speakers plugged directly into the Mac you will experience audio/video sync issues during monitoring. To insure perfect sync it is best to plug your speaker system into the MXO’s two phono sockets directly.
Setting up and installation
It only takes about10 minutes to connect the MXO up to your Mac and install the software that comes on the CD. The product is very straightforward in terms of its socketry. Once the software is installed it is then accessed via the Mac’s System Preferences on the Dock. Under ‘Other’ you will be presented with the new MXO icon, this is where monitor calibration is carried out.
Matrox have recently released version 2 of the firmware for the MXO and among the many new features is a software-based monitor calibration interface that allows you to calibrate your monitor; secondary computer monitor that is. This feature was not in previous versions of the firmware simply because Matrox designed the MXO for Mac only and it was designed, set up, tuned and calibrated to an Apple Cinema display. In other words, it was set up to perfection out of the box; sort of. However, Matrox have realized that people may need to tweak the calibration of the monitor themselves.
It’s important to turn on your Apple Cinema display and leave it on for at least 20 minutes to warm up before carrying out the calibration. The calibration settings are software based and once installed they are found in the Mac’s System Preferences pain on the dock under ‘Other’. There are settings for Hue, Chroma, Brightness, Contrast and even a ‘Blue Only’, everything a big boy needs for perfect HD monitor calibration. On top of this, Matrox include some SD and HD ‘bars’ QuickTime clips so you don’t even need to launch Final Cut Pro to calibrate your Apple Cinema Display. Once you have calibrated it, you can then save it as a default setting. Although there are instructions on how to carry out the monitor calibration, the manual is flawed with some glaring errors, if you follow them you will end up with a seriously naff picture; read on.
I must warn any potential purchasers of the MXO that there are a few nasty flaws in the printed manual on the pages that explain how to calibrate the monitor. They caught me out and will probably catch you out too. For some reason the chap who wrote up the manual assumes for some very strange reason that we PAL users in Britain don’t need to adjust the ‘Brightness’ setting when calibrating a monitor. The manual quite literally states “If you’re working with PAL color bars, proceed to the next step”. Of course if you chose to follow this advice you won’t be doing any Brightness adjustment during monitor calibration. Due to the default setting in the MXO’s software for Brightness, this will leave your monitor looking very flat, milky, glazed over and generally very washed out and rather naff looking. The manual also tells PAL users to ignore the Hue setting and again states “If you’re working with PAL color bars, proceed to the next step”. So, PAL users, take it from me, DO NOT proceed to the next step as the manual instructs, but go ahead with the instruction for NTSC users and calibrate the Brightness and Hue settings or the MXO will make the picture 50 times worse than if it simply wasn’t there to start with. I’ve since informed Wayne Andrews at Matrox in Canada about these terrible errors and he is on it for future manuals, but don’t expect this change to be in the box if you buy one next week. However, it might be worth checking the Matrox web site for a recent instruction manual download.
Connecting the MXO up to your Mac is a breeze, so is creating a calibrated colour profile on the Mac, and then calibrating the monitor. Chances are you’ve used the Mac’s colour calibration software already, in the System Prefs/Displays, then clicking on the Color tab and selecting the Calibrate button. This is not too dissimilar and the included manual explains how to do this. Once I’d set this up and calibrated the monitor it was time to feed it some footage from the timeline in Final Cut Pro to see if this little device does what Matrox say it does.
I decided to go for it with some native Sony XDCAM HD footage of 1440x1080 resolution. This is why Matrox recommend the Apple 23” Cinema display as it has a native resolution of 1920x1200, XDCAM HD footage, like HDV footage plays out at 1920x1080 so the Cinema Display is perfect. The MXO will do both 1-to-1 pixel or scale-to-fit. I’d recommend the exact 1-to-1 pixel method as it retains the exact resolution of your HD footage and won’t stretch it to fit the screen. As long as you are using HD or HDV footage of 1080i/1080p the Apple Cinema display will only have a tiny letterbox across the top/bottom as it’s resolution is 1200 and not 1080, in other words you will get the difference in the letter box i.e. 60 pixels at the top and 60 pixels at the bottom; I think this looks quite good and gives a more cinematic look to the footage presented to your Apple Cinema display.
In Final Cut Pro, the MXO instantly adds a ton of new output options to the View/Video Playback dropdown menu. This huge array of presets should accommodate every conceivable combination of aspect ratio and codec.
The MXO also has the ability to output your Final Cut Pro sequence to SD or HD on the fly without having to transcode your footage. If you are working with HDV the MXO will perform a down-res or up-res of your HDV footage. Full HD uses a picture size of 1920x1080 with a color sampling of 4:2:2. HDV records at 1280x720 or 1440x1080 using a color sampling of 4:1:1. The Matrox MXO will either up-res HDV, DVCPRO HD and the like, or Dynamic RT segments to full output resolution or down-res your HD sequence to SD.
The MXO will solve annoying formatting issues that have been the bane of desktop video editors for as long as I care to remember. For example, the MXO can reformat widescreen HD content into SD formats (letterboxed, anamorphic or center crop) in real time, as playback occurs from the editorial timeline. It’s all done in hardware via the MXO. Not only does the MXO allow you to calibrate your secondary computer monitor, but it also keeps things playing smoothly, with no flicker, at broadcast quality, without any issues whatsoever.
I decided to take my Sony PDW-F350 XDCAM HD camera and shoot some footage in my back garden. Now this might not seem very exotic, but I did this for a very good reason; which I’ll explain all in good time. I shot in both 1080i interlace as well as 1080p progressive. I shot various sequences in the garden, which included the shed and perimeter fence panels, both of which are painted with a rusty-red coloured creosote, the light beige concrete path, plumb coloured pebbles, flowers and other foliage. I then dragged these files from the XDCAM camcorder directly into Final Cut Pro and played them back in the timeline and checked the ‘look’ out on the newly calibrated monitor that was hooked up to the MXO.
My first impressions were quite simply WOW!!! What had happened to my 23” Apple Cinema Display? It been turned into one seriously professional looking Grade 1 monitor. I kid you now, the Apple Cinama Display now looked like a £12,000 grading monitor; yes really!!
The colours where absolutely spot on and the ‘motion’ of the image in both interlace and progressive was exactly how it should be.
Since the MXO can be bypassed via software, there’s no need to disconnect it when it’s not needed. This also means you can quickly change the timeline output from MXO to regular desktop preview i.e. by-passing the MXO. This comes in handy for checking to see what the MXO is actually doing. Without the MXO the rusty-red creosote job on my garden shed turns into a gaudy vomit red monstrosity with more bleeding than a Tarantino movie; I mean it was horrible.
Without the MXO the colours are wildly exaggerated with chronic colour bleed in vibrant red areas and they are way off the mark and totally inaccurate; pretty much useless for colour grading on any level. The reason I shot footage in my back garden is because my edit suite room window overlooks it. So 10 minutes after shooting it I was playing it back via the timeline in Final Cut Pro, and whilst it was playing back I could look out of the window at the same scene to check the colours of the monitor with the real-life scene. I was amazed at how identical they were. The red brickwork on nearby houses, natural light coloured timber fencing, rusty red fencing and shed, green trees, plants and foliage, light stone coloured path, vibrant blue BMW… all of them looked spot on when comparing the monitor with the outside view. The MXO brings absolutely nothing to the party, it simply reproduces the colours in the most natural way possible, which is what you need for serious colour grading.
As for the motion. Well I’ve been shooting in progressive for over a year now; I decided to leave the interlaced world behind and am heading for the future. The MXO/Apple Cinema Display combo plays back progressively shot footage perfectly, with beautiful movement, just as it should. However, it is when you come to view interlaced footage that you are in for a real treat. If you are shooting 1080i from a Z1 or the like, you will be in seventh heaven. Interlaced footage actually plays back and looks just like interlaced footage. This totally blew me away, it is just like watching the news on TV; it looks so real. If you switch-out (or take away) the MXO the same interlace footage turns into a stuttering travesty with more field-tearing interlaced artefacts than you can shake a stick at. As for edge definition, without the MXO it has more steps than St.Pauls Cathedral.
I don’t know what sort of scientific hardware/software wizardry the MXO is performing, but it is certainly doing all the right things to produce perfect monitoring from your Macs second DVI port to a secondary Apple Cinema Display.
The picture on the Apple Cinema Display is so sharp with it’s native HD resolution that it was like looking through a window; well pretty damn close anyway. I’d even say the Apple Cinema Display is actually sharper than a Grade 1 CRT grading monitor, the latter don’t have the same resolution.
I know a couple of high-end professional colour graders in the USA who are now using the MXO/Apple Cinema Display combo instead of their $20,000 Grade 1 monitors because the colour reproduction is identical, but the MXO/Apple combo is actually sharper; pin sharp. My good friend Ged Yeates from the Isle of Lewis has recently invested heavily in an Apple Mac Final Cut Pro system, with the MXO as part of it. You might know of Ged as he has written a few articles for DVuser in the past, but more importantly he is a full-time cameraman who is constantly working for BBC Scotland. Ged is one of the fussiest cameramen I know; especially when it comes to monitors and post-production grading. I’m happy to report that Ged is very impressed with the MXO, here is a cut/paste of part of recent email to me from Ged:
“I’ve been tweaking mine quite a bit and I have surprisingly squeezed quite a bit more range out of it. I now have pretty decent blacks and the highlights are not too bad. I’ve been attempting to match the colour to my Sony Grade 2 EBU phosphors CRT monitor utilising its SDI input and the 23 inch Sony LCD fed with the MXO is getting quite close. I did do some tweaks on the Sony LCD’s menu to adjust the red and blue slightly as the LCD display is a touch more yellow than the CRT which is a bit warmer.
I am talking marginal stuff here but the CRT still exhibits a bit more punch in the whites but I think I would be confident to grade now on the LCD which is of course very nice in HD. I do like the way the MXO can display interlace footage without field tearing. It does a better job than the Blackmagic HD link.
Getting the settings for replay is crucial though and I have begun to get the feel for it now and am now enjoying hassle free playback from Final Cut Pro 6.”
Although the above might not sound as enthusiastic as my own personal views of the MXO, as I’ve explained, Ged is one very difficult customer to please so I for one take his words as a firm seal of approval. I would feel totally confident grading tropical fish with this set up, that’s how good it is.
The MXO is a well-behaved peripheral. When your Mac goes to sleep, the MXO goes to sleep. When the Mac wakes, the MXO wakes. And when you shut down Final Cut Pro the MXO is bypassed and your secondary display goes back to a regular secondary display as the MXO says Au Revoir.
Matrox also advise users to monitor the MXO’s temperature periodically. The MXO will automatically shut down if it ever exceeds the recommended maximum operating temperature of 158 degrees Fahrenheit. After a days testing I found the operating temperature never crept above 130 degrees on my unit. However, it is important to keep the front of the MXO unobstructed as it acts as an air intake.
DVD Studio Pro
The MXO can also be used with Apple’s DVD Studio Pro. Here it is just as versatile as it is with Final Cut Pro. By selecting ‘Digital Cinema Desktop Preview’ in the DVD Studio Pro Preferences (as opposed to ‘Simulator Window’), DVD Studio Pro will route the simulator display through the secondary desktop where the MXO will display it in real time on your Apple monitor in full YUV PAL broadcast colour space. Many people forget the need to actually ‘colour grade’ their DVD menus also. If you are putting in text links etc in the DVD menus they will need checking on a grading monitor, especially if you use gaudy red coloured text fonts as you could be in for bleed. If you are creating your own DVD menus in a programme like Photoshop, After FX, Motion etc, again, you’ll need to check the colours are all legal and okay via a monitor. The MXO allows you to check the colours of your DVD Studio Pro project menus for colour bleed and general colour grading; nice one Matrox!
The MXO’s video output is from DVD Studio Pro is smooth, flickerless and beautiful. Before I would simply preview my DVD Studio Pro projects in the ‘Simulator Window’ within DVD Studio Pro’s interface, which was okay for basic checks, but no good for any colour adjustments. Now I have the DVD play out onto the secondary Mac monitor in all it’s glory; just like viewing it on a proper TV. It really does look stunning – especially in HD – there is no way I could go back to working with that little simulator window in DVDSP. This is one massive bonus of the MXO, it really does have to be used to be believed. A proper PAL video preview has been missing from DVD Studio Pro for a while, but by adding the MXO to your Mac DVD authoring workflow will give you this much needed feature. For me, the MXO is worth the money for this single function alone.
Although the MXO has been designed as a device to turn an Apple Cinema Display into a professional colour-grading monitor; there is also a bit more to it. The MXO can also be used in ‘presentation mode’ which displays the output of the secondary monitor to a PAL or HD monitor. This can be a useful feature for PowerPoint and Keynote presentations. It also allows you to record the output of your Mac’s desktop to pretty much any video recording deck such as a dedicated HDV, DVCAM, XDCAM, Digibeta, DVCPRO, whatever. This works like a regular scan-converter; great for making training DVD on computer software programmes. When used in presentation mode, the MXO can also feed the Mac’s audio output to the recording device via stereo RCA outputs.
It was very tempting to say that the MXO is a bit on the pricy side at the thick end of £700. After all, the components that make up the MXO are no more expensive to produce than those that make up a £20 transistor radio. However, unlike the transistor radio, the MXO is not a cheap mass-produced pile of unreliable junk made in China. The MXO is built in Canada, and to a very high standard. Another way of looking at it is to compare the MXO’s price to a professional colour grading monitor. Even a Kona card equivalent to the MXO will cost three times as much and the professional grading monitor will cost twenty times as much. So with this in mind, the MXO is a real bargain, in fact I’d go so far as quoting Tom’s famous line in the movie Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, where he is selling Nick the Greek the Hi-Fi amplifier and he says “It’s a deal, it’s a steal. It’s the sale of the f**king century”.
The MXO is perfect in every way. Brilliant colour grading at a pittance compared to a Grade 1 monitor, beautifully reproduced motion; especially interlaced footage which needs it the most on computer displays, which are progressive by nature. Easy to set up and use and keep updated via future firmware updates. The only negative I can think of is the manual. If you follow the manual you will think the MXO is a crap product. Matrox need to fix the manual before UK purchasers start sending the box back for a refund.
©2007 Nigel Cooper
Product: Colour monitoring device
Reviewed by: Nigel Cooper
Review Date: 05-08-2007