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Popcorn Hour A-500 Media Player Review

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As good as it gets for file-type support?

by Mark Hodgkinson Jun 17, 2016

  • SRP: £189.00

    What is the Popcorn Hour A-500?

    The Popcorn Hour A-500 is a Linux based media streamer and a follow up to the company’s VTEN device which, in itself, was the latest in a long line of media players, given that manufacturer Cloud Media (formally Syabas) have been in this product sector almost since the beginning. The product reviewed here is not to be confused with the A-500 Pro, which recently came to market on the back of Kickstarter campaign although they do share many of the same credentials. On paper, the A-500 is a near holy grail of a product for those that like to stream their locally stored media collections with support for 4K and 3D video, including menus and subtitles, HD audio passthrough and gapless hi-res audio playback among the feature set. All of that functionality comes at a price, of course, with the Popcorn Hour A-500 available for around £168 - so it’s not the cheapest - but if it does all that it says on the spec sheet, it’s a sure fire winner and a more plug 'n' play alternative to boxes using KODI as a media player and organiser. Let’s see how it fares.

    Design, Connections & Control

    The build quality of the A-500 is excellent with its brushed, black aluminium casing both looking and feeling the part. There’s a ‘quick docking’ SATA hard drive bay to the right, which can be locked in place, and can accommodate 2.5- and 3.5-inch drives. Below that is a full-sized SD Card slot and to its right a USB 2.0 port. Around the rear we have a USB 3.0 slave port, which might come in handy for transferring large amounts of data between the A-500 and a PC, or to hook up to an external optical drive although we currently have no details on driver support. Next to that is a Gigabit LAN port; note, the A-500 doesn’t have built-in Wi-Fi but you can buy a wireless AC module should you wish. That’s not a problem for us as we only use wired connections for media playback but it will be an issue for some. There’s a further USB 2.0 port at the rear next to the HDMI 1.4 connection which neighbours the component video outputs and a pair of stereo out jacks. Finally, there are both Coaxial and Toslink digital audio outputs next to a hard power button.

    Popcorn Hour A-500
    The supplied remote is, again, a cut above what we would normally expect from a network media streaming device and certainly much larger than most. A big plus is that it has a backlight so it’s easy to use in the dark and the most used buttons are fairly centrally placed. The alpha-numeric buttons at the top can be used to skip to predefined points of a video - 1=10%, 2=20% etc – while the colour buttons call up the various media types – Video, Music, Photo or All. In the centre are the navigational and Enter buttons while below those are the volume and playback transport controls. If you’re unfamiliar with Popcorn Hour's products, the remote takes some getting to know but it’s worth the time and effort as it has some very useful functions.
    Popcorn Hour A-500
    

    User Interface & Features

    As with the remote, it takes a little while to get to grips with navigating around the Popcorn Hour A-500 but you could say that about most products and it’s simple enough once you’re au fait. You actually have the choice of two ‘Home Launcher’ screens with either Media Home or Music Home as options. As we’re primarily testing the video performance we went with Media. You can further customise the launcher by choosing which Widgets to show at the bottom of the screen with options such as Networked Media, Apps Market, Local Media and Recently Played available. Speaking of the Apps Market, there’s a fairly limited number on offer but there’s a ‘Leanback’ YouTube app, one for PLEX, tunein radio and SoundCloud among the highlights. If you’re after a TV box with loads of apps, go with an Apple TV, Fire TV, Roku or a Windows/Android device as really the A-500 is all about media playback.

    The A-500 has a number of video options that merit further attention, including the VXP picture engine which applies ‘Darbee’ like processing to ‘enhance’ images with adaptive contrast tricks. There’s no doubt that both the Shadow and Highlight options do work but if you prefer to see your rips unmolested we’d advise switching those off; you can always turn the processing on for individual files if you want to see what it does and there’s a demo mode too. Something else we’d advise you to do is to enter the Video settings to ensure the Framerate Sync is on for all content, labelled as NTSC/PAL/24p in the menu.
    Popcorn Hour A-500 User Interface & Features
    Popcorn Hour A-500 User Interface & Features

    On initial set up of the Popcorn Hour you’ll probably want to scan your networked, local and attached drives for content to create your ‘Jukebox’ video wall. Depending on how many files you have, the process could take some considerable time so you might want to leave it running overnight. You can then view the interface in file explorer style with just a simple list of your stored files but that’s not really going to cut it in 2016. For testing purposes, we scanned a network directory containing approximately 60 films, of which only 80% returned posters and art, which was a bit disappointing, especially since there was nothing obscure among them. Those grey thumbnails in a sea of posters really stick out (like a sore thumbnail?) and ruin the aesthetic. We’re not sure where the information and images are being scraped from but there’s definite room for improvement here compared to the likes of KODI or PLEX. It is possible to manually edit and add the art yourself but it still feels lacking in this regard.

    Video & Audio Performance

    Before we begin, if you just wanted the potted version of the results, we’ll start by saying that the Popcorn Hour A-500 produced the best set of results we’ve seen since our current testing regime was put in place. It has its flaws, with the notable absence of an HDMI 2.0(a) output and no support for HDR, whatsoever, but as things stand they’re not necessarily a big loss although that could change in the near future.

    Testing was carried out via a NAS over a wired Gigabit network, as well as from a USB 3.0 hard drive and an internally mounted Western Digital 750GB SATA drive on a Sony KD-55XD93 via a Yamaha RXV-679 AV Receiver.

    Beginning with the 4K Ultra HD tests...

    4K Tests

    Internal Player

    3840 x 2160/AVC/MP4/23.976fps
    3840 x 2160/AVC/MP4/24.000fps
    3840 x 2160/AVC/MP4/25.000fps
    3840 x 2160/AVC/MP4/29.970fps
    3840 x 2160/AVC/MKV/59.940fps
    3840 x 2160/AVC/MP4/23.976fps
    3840 x 2160/HEVC/MP4/29.970fps
    3840 x 2160/AVC/MP4/59.940fps
    10-bit 3840 x 2160/HEVC/TS/59.940fps
    Some stuttering
    10-bit 3840 x 2160/HEVC/TS/23.976fps

    3840 x 2160/AVC/MP4/50.00fps

    4096 x 2160/AVC/MP4/24fps
    Played as 3840 x 2160

    We were genuinely surprised how well the A-500 handled Ultra HD content, especially the 10-bit HEVC files. There was no indication from the specs that the Popcorn Hour would be able to handle those, at all, albeit at a maximum screen refresh rate of 30Hz but it would output UHD video at up to 60 frames per second with no problems. For the foreseeable future, Ultra HD Blu-ray titles will only be at 24 frames per second so the A-500 is in pretty reasonable shape if the format is ever cracked.

    We expected no problems with lesser resolutions and that’s precisely what we got.

    SD/HD/Interlaced

    Internal Player

    720 x 576/MP2/mpg/25.000fps - Interlaced
    1280 x 720/AVC/MP4/29.970fps
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/25.00fps - Interlaced
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/23.976fps
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/24.000fps
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/25.000fps
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/29.970fps
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/30.000fps
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/59.970fps
    1920 x 1080/HEVC/ISO/23.976fps
    1920 x 1080/HEVC/MKV/23.976fps
    1920 x 1080/VC-1/MKV/23.976fps
    1920 x 1080/VC-1/MKV/29.970fps

    The quality of deinterlacing could have been better from the VXP engine, especially with standard definition material but that’s certainly only of minor consequence to most. More importantly, the A-500 had no issues in detecting a variety of film cadences and was able to output them at the appropriate refresh rate via the HDMI port.

    We tested the Popcorn Hour’s ability to handle very high bitrate content over wired LAN, from an internal drive and via the USB connection with uniform results. We will comment that the device got excellent throughput over a wired internet connection, even where powerline adapters were involved.

    High Bitrate

    Internal Player

    1920 x 1080/AVC/M2TS/23.976fps & 90mbps
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/23.976fps @ 100mbps
    1920 x 1080/HEVC/MKV/23.976fps @ 110mbps

    3480 x 2160/H264/MKV/23.976fps @ 120mbps
    10-bit 3840 x 2160/HEVC/MKV/23.976fps @ 120mbps


    3840x 2160/H264/MKV/23.976fps @ 140mbps
    10-bit 3840x2160/HEVC/MKV/23.976fps @ 140mbps


    3840x 2160/H264/MKV/23.976fps @ 200mbps
    Stuttering playback form HDD and NAS
    10-bit 3840x 2160/HEVC/MKV/23.976fps @ 200mbps
    Stuttering playback from HDD and NAS


    The processor of the player is fine right up to around 150Mbps but runs out of capability thereafter. For reference, Full HD Blu-ray rips tend to top out at 40Mbps and Ultra HD Blu-ray is about three times that, so there are no foreseeable issues with the A-500 at this time in this facet of performance.

    One of the major stumbling blocks with the bulk of media streamers out there is the output of 3D content but this is a very strong area for the Popcorn Hour. In fact, we can’t fault it at all and that includes the handling of subtitles which can sometimes trip up suitably capable players from displaying 3D at all.

    3D

    Internal Player

    1920 x 1080/AVC/ISO/23.976fps Frame Packed

    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/23.976fps Frame Packed

    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/23.976fps Side by Side

    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/23.976fps Top & Bottom


    On first playing back a 3D ISO, we did need to hit the setup button on the Remote control to enable 3D output but thereafter it automatically switched and engaged the relevant output of the TV – even when output resolution was set at 3840 x 2160.

    Audio compatibility is another very strong area of performance for the Popcorn Hour A-500 with every major codec used for discs handled superbly.

    Audio

    Internal Player

    AAC (Dolby Digital) 5.1
    AC3 (DTS) 5.1
    Dolby Digital Plus 7.1
    Dolby True HD 5.1
    Dolby True HD 7.1
    DTS HD-MA 5.1
    DTS HD-HR 7.1
    DTS HD-MA 7.1
    LPCM 7.1

    In fact, the A-500 put in another spotless performance here but, not only that, it is also very capable with those used in pure audio form, i.e. music, as well. We tested with DSD files (used in SACD), FLAC, MP3 and WAV with everything playing back very nicely. The A-500 also has its own built in DAC (ESS SABRE ES9023P) which while not up to the standards of an audiophile dedicated solution, certainly should be more than adequate for most.

    Video Review


    How future-proof is this video streamer?

    4K Ultra HD playback up to 60 frames per second
    HEVC decoding Full HD
    HEVC decoding Ultra HD
    7 Channel HD Audio pass-through
    Netflix HD/4K
    3D ISO playback
    HDMI 2.0
    Over The Air (OTA) Software Updates

    Conclusion

    8
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10

    Pros

    • Great build quality
    • Nice, back-lit remote
    • Extremely comprehensive file type support
    • Built-in HDD bay

    Cons

    • Only HDMI 1.4 output
    • Quite a lot of fan art & posters not scraped
    • No built-in Wi-Fi
    You own this Total 0
    You want this Total 0
    You had this Total 1

    Popcorn Hour A-500 Media Player Review

    Should I buy the Popcorn Hour A-500?

    As an all-in-one solution for your locally stored media playback, the Popcorn Hour A-500 is an excellent, if slightly expensive, solution with just a few limitations. The build quality is truly excellent and the brushed metal design is both attractive and unobtrusive. Connectivity options are pretty decent, including the ability to insert a SATA hard drive but the fact that the HDMI output is version 1.4 limits the future scope of the player as a vehicle for Ultra HD/HDR video. The menu system and user interface aren’t the prettiest, or easiest, either but then again they are far from bad. The supplied remote also takes some getting used to if you want to learn its full functionality but it’s worth the trouble and we really like the fact it’s back-lit, making it ideal for home cinema lighting conditions.

    When it comes to compatibility with video and audio formats, there are few to touch the Popcorn Hour A-500 at this time. It might not quite handle everything but it’s pretty close, including support for all the most used HD audio codecs, 3D video – including menus and subtitles, hi-res audio files and support for Ultra HD video output at up to 30Hz. We did find the Networked Media Jukebox functionality a little bit disappointing, however, with some popular movies not returning poster and fan art which definitely reduces the visual impact of the video wall design; it is possible to manually edit in the art but, still, we'd expect better scraping. In fact, having come from a KODI set-up, where you can tailor pretty much every aspect of the user interface to your heart's content, the lack of flexibility in this closed environment is probably the biggest hurdle we’d need to overcome in switching to this little player. That said, for its combination of sterling build quality, reasonable ease of use and superb file-type support we’ve no hesitation in recommending the Popcorn Hour A-500.

    What else is there?

    The most like-for-like alternative we’ve reviewed would certainly be the Zappiti 4K Player. We’d say the Zappiti trumps the Popcorn Hour for media organisation and the Magic Pixel technology is more pleasing than the VXP engine inside the A-500 but the Popcorn Hour wins out for overall support of different media files by a whisker. A Windows 10 (8.1) mini-PC with the ‘right’ chipset, running one of the development builds of KODI, is also another option and gives more flexibility than both, although HD audio pass-through can be an issue. If 3D video is of only minor concern and you see 4K as more important, both the NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV and Minix U1 are great choices; you could also check out the Wetek Core as another great all-rounder receiving solid manufacturer support. Also watch out for our HiMedia Q10 Pro review which will be coming soon as it’s another player with great promise.


    The Rundown

    Build Quality

    9

    Performance

    9

    Networking, Internet, Streaming quality

    8

    Features

    8

    Set up, Menus, Remote

    7

    Value for Money

    8

    Verdict

    8

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