Do Fleas Bite?

In this guest blog, contributor Steven Stone looks at the Algolith Flea, a $995 outboard video noise reduction box. In the blog entry following this one, I take a look at the $2995 Mosquito, Algolith's most sophisticated video noise reduction device.

Steven's piece is on the original analog version of the Flea. Before the completion of this report, Algolith added HDMI to the product, at the same price as the old one. The photo shows the new model, but from this angle the only visible change from the older version is the HDMI designation on the front. The analog only version is no longer available, but we would expect the performance of the new unit to be essentially the same, apart from the added digital video capability. We have not evaluated this new model.— TJN

At CEDIA almost every booth has a fishbowl for tossing in cards. Most also have some sort of prize if your card is the lucky one pulled at the end of the show. Since I'm human I toss in my card, too. Usually I don't win, but this year I won an Algolith Flea. Since I had no idea what a Flea was, I looked on the Algolith website and discovered it was a very compact analog video noise reduction device. Since I currently use only micro-mirror digital displays with DVI or HDMI inputs, and DVI or HDMI equipped sources, coupled together via DVI or HDMI scalers, I wondered, “What use will I have for an analog video noise device?”

I thought about it awhile and concluded, what the heck, maybe I can use the Flea to improve the output from my VCR, since that's the only analog output legacy device left in either of my home theater systems. Last time I tried to watch laser disks they looked so bad that I packed the player up and put it in the garage.

When the Flea arrived I read the introductory letter that listed the product's attributes and then I looked at the picture on the box. Cute. The Flea certainly accepts a lot of different inputs including component at 480i/60, 480p/60, 576i/50, 576p/50, 720p/60, 1080i/60 and S-video interlaced SD/HD at 480i/60 and 576i/50, but it does NOT take any composite inputs. This is too bad, since many legacy VCRs are composite output only.

The Flea can work in conjunction with any scaler or switcher that accepts analog sources and converts them to digital. You could use it in front of the analog video inputs on a receiver or A/V processor. I tried it with two scalers, the DVDO iScan VP-30 and the Lumagen Vision HDP. During tests I used both scalers in pass-through mode so their own noise reduction circuits wouldn't affect my tests. The iScan VP30 has its own special add-on board just for analog sources that serves many of the same functions as the Flea.

So does it work? Yes. Do you need one? Maybe. The Flea's 3D-MNR mosquito noise reduction, Gaussian noise reduction, block artifact reduction, and detail enhancement circuits do work, but first you need to have a source that is sufficiently cruddy to need them. NTSC stations from Direct-TV can benefit from the Flea, but you can only use it if you hook the Flea up to a Direct-TV receiver's analog component outputs. If you are using a direct digital video stream via the Direct-TV receiver's DVI or HDMI outputs, there's no easy way to insert the Flea into the signal chain. A VCR's output also benefits from the Flea's ministrations. As long as the VCR has an S-video output you can simply insert the Flea between the VCR and your scaler.

You can also use the Flea to massage your DVD player's analog output. Here the improvements are less obvious. The older and cheaper your DVD player, the more likely the Flea may do some good. On the DVD players I had in-house: The Lexicon RT-20, Meridian 800, Oppo DV-970, Oppo DV-981HD, and Oppo DV971H, hooking the Flea up to their analog outputs made no noticeable improvement with my reference discs except on the Oppo DV971H, which is known for having an inferior analog output to begin with. But even on this player I preferred its DVI output to its analog signal running through the Flea. Naturally, your mileage may vary.

Using Algolith's supplied demo disc the Flea jumped ahead of every player's digital output in terms of reduced noise. It was especially effective cleaning up the snow and specs on a short selection from Woody Allen's Annie Hall . Although the noise and artifacts were lower though the Flea than through the digital stream, the digital stream was sharper. But during the demo I kept asking myself, “Do any of my DVDs have this much noise?" Frankly, they don't. If I had an extensive library of Chinese-made pirated discs, I suppose the Flea would be a lifesaver, but I don't. Do you?

I really have to wonder about how large the market is for this $995 analog video device. If you are already using DVI or HDMI digital display devices and primarily digital sources I don't see that you would spend enough time viewing legacy analog sources to warrant its cost. Only someone with an extensive library of poor quality discs or videotapes will benefit from using the Flea in a home theater with an all-digital video signal chain.

But, if you are still using an all-analog video stream to a CRT projector I can see where the Flea would be worth owning. According to Algolith they are currently selling all the Fleas they can make, so someone, somewhere, has found them eminently useful. Even this digital video convert can see that the Flea's noise circuits clean up analog video signals very effectively.