Roundup Review: Looking at Sub-$2,000 Hardware H.264 Encoders
For the last decade, I’ve used a variety of H.264 encoders for livestreaming events, typically conference events that involve one or more presenters and one or more computer screen inputs. The single biggest factor for my workflow is the available bandwidth on site at the event venue. I need an H.264 that will get the best possible quality over a limited outbound pipe of 1–3Mbps sustained bandwidth. My goal for this article was to find the best encoder on the market for a wide range of live-streaming content, from relatively minor movement such as talking heads to fast-paced sports. I could not identify a single “winner” across all categories, but I could get repeatable results that you can use in your own research and comparisons for these and other encoders on the market.
My typical pipeline uses a first-generation Teradek Cube 255, which has held up very well and served my requirements over the past 5 years. As we have entered the dawn of HEVC/H.265 technology—with very few economically priced encoders on the market—I thought now was a great time to compare the current stock of H.264 encoders that are available for under $2,000. There are certainly encoders that are much more expensive, but most of my clients need portability and lower costs to add livestreaming to their existing pipelines.
Among the wide variety of encoders available in the testing period for this evaluation, I picked one encoder from four different vendors, each meeting the following minimum criteria:
- 3G-SDI and HDMI inputs
- Ethernet/LAN connectivity
- AVC/H.264 encoder
- Web-configurable interface
- Retail cost under USD$2,000, before applicable taxes and shipping costs
Here’s a brief overview of each encoder, from least expensive to most expensive.
AJA HELO ($1,295)
This much-anticipated entry to the H.264 encoder arena by AJA had some initial shipping delays, but was finally released in February 2017. This encoder has a very simple and compact design. While its form factor was the second-largest in this roundup, the HELO is not designed to be camera-mounted. Its rack-mountable design makes it a compact addition to an existing footprint for a more permanent A/V rack. All of the input and output jacks for video, audio, network, and power are on the back side of the chassis, while more user-friendly push controls to enable recording and streaming and USB/ SD card recording media are on the front side. You can also store multiple presets and profiles for the encoder, making it faster to change from one configuration to another. While the HELO doesn’t have a form factor designed for portability or mounting as nicely onto a camera as the Teradek Cube 655, you can purchase separate power adapters to run the HELO from popular battery types.
Discoverability of the HELO on the network is relatively simple. If you’re using a Mac or Bonjour-enabled device, the HELO’s address will be announced and available over Bonjour. If you have Safari, you can enable Bonjour discovery and quickly navigate to the web configuration page for the HELO. If you don’t have a Bonjour-enabled device or browser, you’ll need to use the AJA eMini-Setup application on a laptop or desktop computer to discover the HELO. This application will report the IP of the HELO so you can configure the device in a web browser.
The drawbacks of the HELO are few, but notable. The HELO requires all configuration to be done within a web browser user interface; there is no display and/or input control on the unit itself. As such, you need to make sure all your configuration data is in place before you start to stream, unless you have a laptop on hand to connect to the same network as the HELO. The silver lining, though, is that the HELO’s web interface is incredibly fast. Changes are near-instantaneous without laborious reboots of the hardware.
The current firmware doesn’t seem to support B-frame encoding (available in Main and High profiles of AVC/H.264) very well, at least for typical RTMP pushes to streaming media servers. Lastly, the output audio sampling rate is fixed at 48KHz; there is no option for using a different output sampling rate.
MATROX MONARCH HDX ($1,995)
I’ve been familiar with Matrox’s Monarch line for quite some time now, and have used the HDMI-only version of the Monarch HDX for many engagements. Matrox has several Monarch models. The HDX came in just below the $2k price point, and it features both SDI and HDMI inputs. Like the AJA HELO, the Monarch HDX is designed to be installed in a more semi-permanent A/V rack system for routine and regular streaming in a venue.
On the Monarch HDX’s back panel, you’ll find all A/V inputs and a plug for the unit’s power cable. On the front, you’ll find controls for starting and stopping streaming, as well as two USB ports and one SD slot for recording media.
Discoverability of the Monarch HDX requires the Matrox Monarch HDX Utils application, which reports the IP address, device name, serial number, firmware version, and status of each Monarch HDX on your network. Once you know the IP address of the Monarch HDX, you can use that address in a web browser to log in and configure your streams.
The Monarch HDX, like the AJA HELO, can only be configured with a web browser and not with a built-in menu display and option controls. The Monarch’s web interface is slower to update the unit with new settings than the HELO’s. The HDX is the only unit tested that has an audible fan running anytime the unit is powered on.
OSPREY TALON G2 CONTRIBUTION ENCODER ($1,890)
This roundup provided my first opportunity to test an Osprey H.264 encoder, and my research started just as the second generation, or G2, Talon was in pre-release. The form factor of the Talon G2, is like that of Teradek’s Cube family. While there’s no tripod or camera mount on the Talon G2, the form factor is small enough to fit in a camera bag. This unit was the only one that could also encode from an older RCA-style video input/signal, in addition to HDMI and SDI terminals.
Because the Talon G2 has a built-in touchscreen that displays the unit’s acquired IP address after booting, there’s no need for a discovery tool to configure the device. The Talon G2’s web configuration is not as quick and responsive as the HELO’s, but all of the necessary video and audio compression settings are available.
TERADEK CUBE 655 ($1,990)
The last unit tested in this roundup, and the most expensive, is the Teradek Cube 655. Teradek was one of the first “disruptors” to introduce lower-cost H.264 encoding hardware, and the Cube 655 improved on earlier models such as the Cube 255. The Cube 655 is designed for portable use; accessories allow you to mount the Cube directly onto a camera’s hot shoe or a tripod screw. While the Cube 655 doesn’t have an internal battery source, you can purchase adapters that enable you to power it with popular battery types from Canon, Sony, JVC, Panasonic, and Anton/Bauer.
Like the AJA HELO, the Cube 655’s web configuration page can be auto-discovered by Bonjour-enabled browsers such as Safari. The best feature of the Cube 655 is the built-in display and joystick, which can be used to configure nearly every option that’s also available in the Cube’s web configuration pages. The Cube’s display can tell you the IP address of the encoder if you want to configure the unit with a web browser. If you want the flexibility of changing encoding or network options without the need for a device that’s connected to the same network, the Cube 655 may be the right choice for you.
Testing Process and Methodology
It’s relatively straightforward to run qualitative metrics against various renditions of a video-on-demand (VOD) file. To do so, you simply take a high-quality source file, encode it with different compression settings, and compare the results. With live streams, however, the process is a bit more complicated. Each H.264 hardware encoder needs to receive the same input signal and record the compressed output to a file. Because not all the encoders tested can record to a locally attached storage drive, I had to come up with a system that recorded outbound compressed streams over the network.
To reduce network variables, I set up Wowza Streaming Engine on my MacBook Pro, which has a solid state drive (SSD) that easily records live streams without any disk I/O issues. On the same local network, I attached each of the H.264 encoders. For source content, I downloaded high-quality 4K content from 4ksamples.com and downsized to Apple ProRes HQ 1080p 29.97 fps. Using Telestream Switch and Blackmagic Design UltraStudio Mini Monitor, I output the ProRes versions over SDI to a Convergent Design Odyssey7Q+. With the content recorded at high production quality, I could replay the same clip over SDI consistently to each encoder.
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