Oppo HM-31 Advanced 3x1 HDMI Switch
Release Date: November 2007
In A/V circles, Oppo is known for making very inexpensive budget components of good quality — foremost, a line of up-converting DVD players. Note: In A/V circles, "very inexpensive" and "budget" are relative terms; if you did not as a college student sell your own blood daily just to get in on the ground floor with NAD separates and Rega turntables, at current retail prices, you'd likely call Oppo's budget, quality DVD line "outrageously overpriced." But trust me, I still remember long days fighting stupefying anemia: Based upon the features and quality of the components, Oppo's DVD decks are a steal.
Oppo's newer product, a three-input/one-output HDMI switch is, however, a steal by almost anyone's standards; those of you with HDMI-capable equipment may have noticed that in large electronics chain outlets, devices of the same kind, some complete trash, sell for at least the HM-31's $100 price tag, if not half again as much, complete with fewer standards certifications, poor quality parts and a subset of the Oppo switch's features. (By the way, that economy-model $89 HDMI cable you bought for HDTV, because you couldn't bear spending a penny more on a cable, you'll be glad to know that "economy" cable the electronics store clerk made you feel like a neophyte for even considering, that cable probably cost the chain a whopping $1.47, wholesale. I hope you got a Coach leather carrying case with that cable.)
First of all, the why, at some length, because the why is a constant annoyance for those gamers jumping into HD A/V, nary a toe-dip to test the waters. As a contrary example back, Intel did an outstanding job leading computer consumers to the new USB computer serial interface, quickly winning over much of the personal computer industry to design, build and support USB devices. The implementation of USB as a new, better peripheral connection scheme was about as good as it gets in rapid, widespread and relatively user-friendly standards transition.
HDMI hasn't gone as well. Purely on its own merits, HDMI is an outstanding A/V interface standard, finally bringing the sophisticated features of quality, higher-end components within the configuration abilities of casual consumers. In fact, HDMI is so nice, everyone is sticking an HDMI interface on their components, from the most inexpensive discount-store brand DVD players to top-end Blu-ray or HD DVD high-def video decks, not to mention games consoles, cable boxes and some digital entertainment units like AppleTV.
There are, however, lots of problems with HDMI support. For one, as mentioned, at most stores the HDMI cables cost so much they practically run afoul of price-gouging laws. They're new, they're gee-whiz: You can always count on bilking the public out of hard-earned cash for latest hot product. The fact is that there is potentially a difference between a $3 mail-order HDMI cable of a given length and a $90 cable of the same length, simply on quality of materials and manufacturing. But, between a reputably branded $35 cable and a $90 cable from a so-called "premium" manufacturer, the only benefit you're likely get is somewhat hardier plastic cable sleeve, meaning if you have a dog, and this dog likes chewing your equipment cables, the more expensive cable might stand up to your canine a week or so longer.
It's no help that HDTV manufacturers — or even makers of expensive, superior-quality brands — seem to think you need but one HDMI input on your display. Granted, right at this very moment and some ways into the future, you don't really need HDMI. On quality HD displays, hardly the most expensive models, component connections often yield the comparable visual quality right out of the box; if not, a small amount of fiddling with your HDTV's image configuration, and you'll match an HDMI link. Pair your component cabled affair with an optical connection to a discrete-channel digital A/V receiver, and you have just about HDMI without actually having HDMI. However, HDMI is so easy to use, it nearly demands you take advantage of it. HDMI is very close to truly "zero-configuration" connections, the industry term meaning that you plug it in, the devices negotiate the best settings for one another, and off you go. There are a couple of user-definable HDMI options, but if you don't know about them, you'll never notice whether or not you're using them.
Another issue making rapid, thorough adoption of HDMI difficult is the advent of reasonably priced 7.1 digital sound, HDMI-capable receivers. The problem with these affordable HDMI-equipped A/V receivers with the attractive but, at present, mostly useless 7.1 digital decoder is that HDMI inputs on appealingly priced models are switched, pass-through only. For your apparently reasonable $500, you don't get an HDMI A/V receiver that separates mutli-channel digital audio signal from its HDMI connections, passing on the video to the appropriate device while itself decoding the audio; you're buying a mere switch that does nothing more than pass on the entire HDMI signal. Optical or coaxial digital connections are still required for true digital multichannel sound. What you're wanting, full single-cable HDMI video switching and digital audio processing, those HDMI A/V receivers will set you back at least twice as much. If you're perfectly happy with your existing, quality, reasonably powered 5.1 A/V receiver — and you should be if you consider the dearth of 7.1 audio content, the square-footage you need for seven channels to matter and the fact that the triple-digit watts-per-channel you want, or more likely were told you wanted, will only in your viewing space distort an otherwise finely produced recording — for $500 you get, minus a couple of the HM-31's features, just what the Oppo delivers for $100.
The HM-31 provides three additional HDMI inputs, which you connect via one HDMI output to a single HDMI input on your target component, in most cases an HDTV, perhaps a PC display. Oppo's switch supports resolutions up to 1080p, the current HD-standard ceiling, and PC display resolutions up to 1920x1200; it's designed for HDMI 1.3 compliance and has also passed the HDMI 1.3 certification test — in HDMI switches, the former manufacturer's claim does not always confer the latter official blessing. Along with HDMI 1.3 compliance, the switch supports HDCP, of course. HDCP is a scheme for copy-protecting HD content: for example, the sort of content you find on Blu-ray or HD DVD video discs. At present, HDCP is not implemented in consumer products — until one of the two HD standards "wins," it's probable no single-standard backer wishes to encumber potential single-standard adopters more than absolutely necessary. However, should any studio begin using HDCP for its video releases, all your HDMI HD devices involved with playing back those movies must support HDCP. The Oppo HM-31 does, and therefore should HDCP-restricted media become commonplace, it won't require replacement — as will some junky switches sold at chain electronics and games stores — unless the studios wildly violate the existing HDCP specification.
Further, the Oppo HM-31 HDMI switch doesn't even require you have an HDMI input on your HDTV or other HD display. It supports the DVI standard: If you own an outstanding but slightly older model HDTV topping out at DVI in the digital interface category, for the price of an HM-31 and a HDMI-DVI converter cable — again, a moderately priced product will perfectly serve — you've not only added HDMI support to your display, but you've also added three HDMI inputs.
Oppo includes a small, four-button remote: a button for each HDMI input, plus a button to cycle through all the inputs, one after another. The remote is handily small, but it could have been much, much smaller — ergonomically, this would have been a mistake, and the not-too-tiny remote included with the HM-31 is not nearly as easy to lose as some of the micro-models shipped with similar devices. The cycling switch is duplicated on the front panel of the HM-31, should you misplace the remote after all. A small front-panel light glows red to prove power status, and there are equally small, unobtrusive blue lights indicating which input source is active. There are ports for both an external infrared sensor, potentially useful as a range-extender. It's an option that, in my experience, few will need unless they are trying to control the HM-31 from outside their homes, perhaps through a window; for maximum infrared remote signal reception, there's even a second IR receiver on top of the unit, suited to wall-mounted HM-31s. And, a strictly esoteric feature, Oppo includes an RS-232 port for integrating into high-end universal A/V environment control and triggering systems. If you know what these are, well, you already know and you know whether or not this feature will ever matter to you. If you don't know what that RS-232 port does, just ignore it; these feature-rich remote systems sometimes cost more than every decent consumer-level A/V component you've ever owned, combined. Even with this special-use port, at the HM-31's price you're certainly not paying any premium for a feature you'll never use.
As mentioned, the HM-31 can be wall-mounted, although it's so small and of such an inconspicuous design there's no reason it can't rest on available space in your A/V component rack or shelving unit. The HM-31 is powered by a trim AC adapter of horizontal design, meaning it will nicely fit any outlet buried deep behind your mammoth mahogany entertainment center, or on that last open outlet on the most tightly packed power-strips. Often devices of this kind, devices for which there is no rational reason for high heat emissions, they feel like small furnaces while powered — and this Oppo is powered all the time. But to the touch, the outside of the unit never rises above ambient room temperature.
Should your home A/V system include an HDMI (or DVI) display and more than one HDMI-capable component device, and you're presently resorting to alternative outputs — for example, component video — or, God forbid, manually switching cables when you change active components, the Oppo HM-31 is worth twice the asking price in quality and convenience. Even if you find good A/V systems of only casual interest or you're presently short just one additional HDMI input, the HM-31 is an affordable, indispensable addition to your home component inventory.