Split and Switch

You're got two displays; perhaps a plasma on the wall for day-to-day viewing and a projection screen that drops down in front of it for serious movie watching. Or you want to feed HDMI video to a small screen on your equipment rack as a monitor. Or…whatever. Up to now, it's been difficult to find an affordable device that will split an HDMI source in two. There are a number of such products on the market from companies like Gefen, Key Digital, and PureLink, but they tend to be expensive solutions to a relatively basic problem, often providing more flexibility than you need.

A few new high-end A/V receivers and pre-pros offer dual HDMI outputs, but often they can't output the signal from both HDMI ports at the same time. If you need to do this, they're not a solution—even apart from the issue of having to buy a new, expensive receiver you might not need.

Into the breach charges Accell, a company that was new to me last fall when I heard about its one-in, two-out UltraAV HDMI (1.2a) Splitter ($119.99). It's a small device: bigger than a postage stamp, smaller than a CD case. The single input and two outputs are located on three of its four sides. An LED for each output illuminates when a video display is connected to it. Power comes from a small wall-wart transformer. It has no controls of any kind.

It works well—or at least most of the time. Of the several displays I tried it with, only the Panasonic TH-58PX750U plasma sometimes refused to display an image. I suspect this was an HDMI handshake issue. HDMI has been both good-cop and bad-cop in its performance with various displays, sources, and switchers (with the good-cop behavior prevalent in my experience), so I would never claim any product such as this will unequivocally work with any and all sources and displays. But there's a better than even chance that it will.

I did discover one particularly bizarre example in which the Accell splitter actually went beyond its intended function to overcome HDMI's sometimes-fickle nature. I was reviewing a NuVision Lucidium 52" LCD for Home Theater magazine. For some as yet unexplained reason, the set refused to play HDMI sound on its internal audio system from two different Blu-ray players. But when I put the Accell splitter in the circuit, there was sound! I'm not claiming that the splitter might be a cure for HDMI blues in addition to its splitter chores (nor does Accell), but you never know.

One thing that the Accell splitter's HDMI 1.2a design will not do is pass the new high-resolution audio formats in bitstream form, specifically Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio. Or at least it would not do so with my Integra DTC-9.8 pre-pro. For that reason, I don't recommend positioning it upstream of an A/V receiver or pre-pro. But that's an unlikely location for a splitter; you're most apt to use it downstream, between the receiver and the displays and after the HDMI has already passed through the receiver and the sound retrieved.

With respect to picture quality, the Accell was transparent on the displays I tried it with, including a Pioneer PRO-150FD plasma and a JVC RS-1 projector together with a 78" wide Stewart Studiotek 130 screen. I saw no loss of detail and no color problems. The black and white levels were undisturbed.

The only downside here is the splitter's physical configuration. While small and inconspicuous by itself, the HDMI cables on three of its sides do make for a somewhat ungainly overall package. But that's unlikely to matter since you're probably going to hide it behind your equipment rack.

If all you need is a simple two-in, one-out switcher, Accell has you covered there as well with its UltraAV HDMI (1.3a) Switch ($99.99). Unlike the larger splitter, the switcher is self-powered by the input signal—no wall-wart is required. There's an LED for each input, and while there are no controls on the unit itself, it comes with a small (easy to use, easy to loose) two-button remote.

There's nothing much more to say about the switcher. It performs every bit as well as the splitter. In fact, I even cascaded the two together to form a relatively inexpensive two-in, two-out switcher-splitter—but remember that the combination will share the splitter's limitations with bitstream high-resolution audio. The combination is also rather clunky, what with HDMI cables sprouting out every which way. And the switcher can't be easily hidden if you want it to respond to the IR remote. But it works, and the price—for either device or both—is definitely right.

Accell Corporation (www.accellcables.com) also offers other larger, more conventionally configured, and more complex and expensive HDMI switcher/splitters.