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Review: Epiphan Pearl Nano

Epiphan's Pearl Nano ($1,495) provides an outstanding feature set in a polished hardware and software package, and it should be a strong candidate for those who are seeking a hardware encoder for lecture or interview capture or any of the other use cases the product supports.

Epiphan’s Pearl Nano ($1,495) provides an outstanding feature set in a polished hardware and software package. I tested two use cases: with two inputs for use for lecture or interview capture and as a pure streaming encoder/recorder. All was good until I tested output quality, where I encountered a significant bug that’s known to Epiphan and should be fixed via a free firmware update by the time you read this review. When fixed, Pearl Nano should be a strong candidate for those who are seeking a hardware encoder for either of these roles or any of the other use cases the product supports.

The Pearl Nano hardware is about the size of a thick paperback novel, at about 10"×7"×2.5". On the front (Figure 1, below), is a headphone jack, an SD-card slot, an almost 2" (diagonal) LCD monitor with menu controls and video preview, and Record and Stream buttons.

Figure 1. The front panel of the Pearl Nano

Pearl Nano I/O

Most I/O is accessed on the back of the unit, as shown in Figure 2 (below). Starting from the left, the back panel contains the power supply input, although the unit can also run on Power over Ethernet (PoE) if you have a switch that can deliver power to it. The USB drive can be used as an audio source, but not a video source, and you can connect an external storage drive or a keyboard/mouse to drive the unit directly.

Figure 2. Most I/O is on the Pearl Nano’s back side. 

The HDMI out is essentially the program stream, which is useful if you’re creating a picture-in-picture effect from your two inputs, as I’ll describe later in this review. The PoE+ Ethernet switch is next, and the unit must be connected via cable as there is no Wi-Fi support. A wired connection is certainly the best practice for live-event streaming, but the lack of Wi-Fi may limit deployability for some users.

Next is the SDI input, followed by the HDMI pass-through and HDMI-in. As the name suggests, the pass-through is a real-time signal from the HDMI input for local projection or similar use.

The unit can also input video via Ethernet using either Real-Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP) or SRT (push), although I didn’t test these capabilities. As tested, both the SDI and HDMI inputs were limited to 1080p, but the hardware is 4K-capable via 12G SDI and HDMI 2.0, and Epiphan will unlock this functionality in the future for an additional fee. 

The RCA connectors accept consumer line-level -10 dBV input, while the XLR connectors accept pro line level (+4.0 dBu) up to 12.3 VRMS, +24 dBu. The XLR connectors don’t supply phantom power, so you can’t connect most microphones directly to the unit; they’re for connecting to an audio mixer or soundboard with line-level output. As mentioned, the unit can also input audio from the USB port and accept audio via RTSP or SRT.

Configuration and Control

While you can drive some functions from the front panel, you’ll do most of the configuration-related heavy lifting from the browserbased user interface. As explained in the Quick Start guide Epiphan provides to Pearl Nano purchasers, once you power up and connect your unit via Ethernet, you can access the unit’s IP address in the LCD menu system and quickly log in from any computer with access to that IP address (i.e., within the firewall).

The Pearl Nano has a very extensive feature set, with some that are of general interest, like streaming and recording, and others that are important but probably not critical for most buyers, like SRT contribution. In this review, I’ll focus on three core functions: combining two inputs into a composite screen and streaming or recording that output.

You create and manage all Pearl Nano productions through the channel shown on the top left of Figure 3 (below). Beneath the Status window, the controls roughly follow the typical production workflow. First, in the Layout window, you configure your shot or choose your input. Then, in the Encoding tab, you configure your encoding settings. Since Pearl Nano only has a single encoder, you set your encoding parameters once, and they are applied to both streaming and recording, each of which has separate controls that I’ll explore later.

Figure 3. Creating a composite shot 

Figure 3 also shows the Layout options. What you see is a talking headshot coming in via the SDI channel from a Panasonic camcorder, with the PowerPoint coming in via HDMI from a Mac Mini. In the background is a blue image I downloaded from the internet and input into the Pearl Nano.

You build the shot by adding items via the menu control on the bottom left of the preview. To create the small picture in picture, I first scaled the image to 640x360 in the SDI input (found under the Inputs tab beneath Channel) and then used the cropping controls in the Layout window to crop and position the shot as shown. It would have been nice to have had scaling and cropping/positioning in the same window, but the controls are straightforward, and I created this layout in about 5 minutes. Then, you configure your audio input, and you’re ready to go.

Like all of the settings I’ll discuss, you can store all layout configurations in a preset file using the Maintenance option in the Configuration tab (bottom left). So, if you produce multiple productions with different configurations/target outputs, it’s simple to configure the production, save the preset, and then recall it for subsequent productions.

If you were using Pearl Nano as an on-site encoder for a single camera or video mixer output, you would simply choose the single input as your source, and you’d be ready to go. The Pearl Nano is cheap enough to serve as a simple on-site encoder, and the LCD monitor is convenient for production staffers.

Encoding and Streaming

Figure 4 (below) shows the encoding controls, which are straightforward and, as mentioned, are applied to streaming and recording. I’ll detail my output quality-related findings later.

Figure 4. Pearl Nano’s encoding controls are simple to use. 

Pearl Nano’s streaming controls are powerful and comprehensive. First, as shown in Figure 5 (below), you can stream to two or more locations simultaneously— bandwidth permitting, of course. In my tests, Stream 1 was the RTMP test stream that I sent to YouTube Live, which worked as expected. As you can see on the bottom left, Pearl Nano supports a range of streaming protocols, including MPEG-TS UDP push, SRT push, HLS (HTTP Live Streaming) push, and DASH push.

Figure 5. Pearl Nano supports a variety of outputs and can stream to multiple destinations simultaneously

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Epiphan's George Herbert describes how Epiphan uses SRT (Secure Reliable Transport) and remote contribution encoders with multiple remote guests to upgrade streaming quality substantially over what Zoom provides in this clip from his presentation at Streaming Media Connect 2021.