Hardware Review: Beharbros Akura HDMI Adapter

Beharbros have a pretty solid track record when it comes to releasing display adapters for the Dreamcast. In the past, the self-styled 'artisnal retromodders' have garnered critical acclaim with a range of hand made devices that continue to keep Dreamcasts turning and burning, regardless of how much display technology accelerates away from the natural abilities of the system. The Toro, Hanzo, Kuro, Kenzei and SLR boxes all have distinct features, and while they come at a premium, they all help Dreamcast gamers achieve optimal image quality, whatever their choice of display.
The Akura is Beharbros' latest release and while it retains the familiar aesthetic of the other boxes in the catalogue, it eschews SCART and VGA connections and instead offers an all in one option for gamers who want to hook their Dreamcast up to a HDMI-equipped display. Weighing in at $85 with free worldwide shipping, the Akura requires no external power supply and connects directly to the console's AV port, delivering a native 480p image via the use of an HDMI cable that goes directly from the box to the television or monitor.
Be aware though - the Akura is not an upscaler, it simply chucks out a 480p picture through a HDMI cable (more on this later), and a series of switches on the side of the device yield a number of interesting extra features. First though, before we delve into the more technical side of the Akura and whether this is the box for your needs, lets take a look at the physical design of Beharbros' latest adapter and just what those little switches on the side are all about...

The Device
The Akura is actually a very compact little contraption. It measures 7.5cm by 7.5cm and is 1.8cm deep. It quite easily fits in the palm of the hand and weighs next to nothing. On the surface it looks very bare bones, but it is the simplicity of the design that appeals. Two sheets of smoked black perspex, with a laser-etched Akura logo house a circuit board where all the magic happens. Power is identified by a piercing blue LED that illuminates the logo - a nice touch but could be annoying if you're using a Dreamcast in a dark room. Still, that's a very minor gripe and probably not something that will bother most people.

Personally, I think its 'hella cool' as the youth of today may say. Cough. The two parts of the Akura are held together with four metal rods, which in turn are secured with Allen key/hex head bolts further bolstering the air of quality exuded by Beharbros products. This 'open' case design may not be to everyone's taste and undoubtedly means that the internal circuitry is open to the elements and dust; but the remedy to this is to clean your house and vacuum more often you filthy urchin.
The Akura attaches to the Dreamcast by means of a braided cable that has a standard AV connector on one end and a bespoke multi-orificed female connector on the other. This in turn connects to the Akura through a similar, ten pin male plug. The fit is good, but it can become dislodged with some ease if you don't lay the short cable out flat behind the Dreamcast - bear this in mind if your console is housed in a display case or cabinet of some kind, as you'll need to pull the console out away from any walls or shelves in order to keep the Akura happy. On the opposite side of the Akura you find a standard metal HDMI socket, and this affords a nice snug fit for your cable of choice.
I find it curious that the Akura isn't actually hardwired to the Console connector, but I suppose this helps if the bundled cable (which as mentioned is a high quality braided one) breaks. However, I wonder how you would go about replacing this bespoke item should you lose it, break it or in many years to come Beharbros no longer produces them. Again, a minor and quite fanciful thing to even mention, but worth considering if you plan - like me - to still be playing on Dreamcasts for at least another 20 years. That said, the build quality on this device (like all of Beharbros products) is exceptional so I wouldn't worry about things like this and neither should you.
The Akura, like other adapters in this family has a range of curious switches along one side and while they aren't actually labelled very clearly (the functions are printed on the PCB, but aren't overly explanatory), randomly flicking them back and forth will generally give an idea as to what they do. That said, the Akura does offer the user a pretty decent range of functions and some of these are only accessible if certain switches are in certain positions. The downloadable PDF manual gives a complete rundown of all the switches and what they do when used in certain combinations, and as the Akura doesn't come with a printed manual, this document is invaluable if you want to get the best out of the device. The switches are:
  • RGB/VGA (31/15Khz) switch
  • Even/Odd Scanline Switch
  • Thick/Thin Scanline Option
  • Scanlines On/Off
In addition, a luminosity option is accessible if the scanlines even/odd switch is set to odd and scanlines are set to off. It basically just makes the screen darker, and most people probably won't need it but if you feel the need to turn the brightness down then it's nice to have the option. As a result of the previous couple of sentences, you'll no doubt be aware that the Akura is also a scanline generator and whether you use them (or the odd/even and thickness options) will be a matter of personal taste. Here's an example of how they look:
Thick scanlines
Thin scanlines
No scanlines
The RGB/VGA switch is probably the most interesting variable option when it comes to the Akura though. Basically, the Akura uses the Dreamcast's VGA output to grab that all important 480p signal, and as such it's really only usable with games that support the VGA cable. However, this particular switch allegedly allows you to flip between 31Khz and 15Khz outputs, which in theory tricks the Dreamcast into running non-VGA games through the Akura and in turn out onto you your HDMI display. It's not guaranteed to work with every non-VGA title, however with some careful manipulation of the switch and my trademark impeccable timing (not), I was able to boot Hydro Thunder and play it. The trick is to set the switch to RGB mode and then once you hear the little beep the console makes after initially reading the data on the disc, switch to VGA mode and away you go. It wasn't perfect - Hydro Thunder hiccupped and the sound would occasionally bug out, but it was playable and looked great. Here's photographic evidence of the wizardry I speak of:
If you're looking to add some authentic retro vibes to your games on a HD display then the scanline generator will really appeal, and there's some fun to be had messing around with these switches. For the most part though, I expect the vast majority of people will instead plump for the ultra crisp image sans scanlines. Another thing worth mentioning in this section of the review is the 3.5mm audio jack on the Akura. It allows you to hook up a stereo or just a pair of headphones to the device. This is a welcome addition for the audiophiles out there, but be aware that hooking up an auxiliary audio output device doesn't automatically turn off the audio going through HDMI to the display so you will have to mute that if it has built in speakers.
Finally, hidden away on the circuit board is a four pin connector labelled in the the manual as being used for firmware updates. Quite how and when these firmware updates will come, and just how users will utilise this mysterious connector isn't yet clear; but if such an update materialises we'll be sure to let you know. Update: Beharbros reached out to us and explained a little bit about this four pin connector:

"For the firmware update, we have a new one being tested now which allows 480i video output. However due to the incompatibility with most TVs and blurrier image quality, we are hesitating to offer it just yet. It requires a very cheap programmer cable which can be found on eBay or Aliexpress easily."
- Beharbros

Right then. That's the physical design of the Akura done and dusted. Now it's time to get serious and discuss just what the Akura offers in terms of picture quality - that's what you're all here for after all. Before I hand over to my learned colleague Ross O'Reilly to walk you though the minute details of what the Akura can and can't do, allow me to throw my opinions into the mix. First up, using an Akura on a HD TV will give you some pretty decent results, especially if you're used to seeing blurry images from your Dreamcast when using SCART or composite connections on a HD flat panel display. For me, it doesn't best the quality seen on a true CRT VGA computer monitor but it's pretty damn close - and remember, we're talking about using a Dreamcast on a flat screen, modern HD television or monitor here. Here's a comparison of the four images produced by the Akura, a VGA cable, RGB Scart and composite all taken using an iPhone SE held a few centimetres from my Samsung LE19C450E1W's screen - click for a much larger version:
These are all connected to a Dreamcast
Unfortunately, the Akura will not work with capture devices such as an Elgato that cannot accept 480p (or rather 640x480 480p/480i) inputs, and this is quite disappointing. However, there are workarounds if you have the technology/money. Anyway, enough from me (for now), here's Ross for what we like to call 'the science bit'...

The Science Bit
Without sounding like a boasting YouTuber displaying his latest and greatest gaming pickups, let me give you some background information to provide a bit of context to where I'm coming from. I fancy myself as a bit of a videophile when it comes to retro games, you see. What that really means is, I've spent way too much time and money in the pursuit of getting the best possible picture from retro consoles in the modern day. Arcade monitors, Sony Trinitrons, hardware mods for old consoles, emulation filters, over-priced upscalers such as the Framemeister XRGB Mini, a plethora of cables...the list goes on. I've tried it all (with the exception of broadcasting monitors such as the PVM. Someday, some day). Basically, I really care about getting the best possible picture from legacy systems, especially when it comes to my favourite console of all time - the Dreamcast.
Now, I know it's been said already but if I can get you, the reader, to remember one thing from this review, it is this: the Akura is not an upscaler! I simply cannot stress how important this it to any prospective buyer. Now, I apologise if I'm patronizing you here, but for those who aren't in the know, an upscaler converts an image from low resolution to high. Even if you don't own an external upscaler such as the Framemeister or OSSC, lower resolution images are still being upscaled by the 'built in upscaler' within your TV or monitor. These 'built in upscalers' are usually absolute rubbish, not only in the way they process the image, but also in how they add a ton of unwanted input lag. For obvious reasons, upscaling isn't high on the list of priorities for manufacturers... after all, nobody ever sold a 4K HDR curved screen television on its ability to play Master System games. So before I go on, it's vitally important to remember this and adjust expectations accordingly. Having said that, results will vary, some TV's have better upscalers than others, but very rarely do they match the quality of even the cheapest of dedicated devices, such as Tom's shitscaler:
Upon receiving my shiny new man-toy all the way from Turkey, I eagerly plugged it directly into my 4k monitor...and it looked awful. There was a strange diamond effect on the screen and some weird spotting. My 1080p monitor produced a similar distorted image. Next, I tried my 1080p plasma television, and while it didn't look nearly as bad, it was still a step down from using a cheap Chinese VGA cable combined with low quality upscaler. What's more, none of these sets let me manually adjust the Dreamcast's uncommon 640x480p image to match true 4:3 aspect ratio (for more information on this quirk, check out my previous article Future Proofing your Dreamcast).

Things weren't looking good for the Akura, but then I remembered my XRGB Mini had two HDMI inputs. I whacked that sucker in, set the aspect ratio accordingly and...boom! This is what I was looking for. I'd never seen my DC look so good. Let's take a look at some comparison footage. The first video below has been captured using the Beharbros Toro VGA box in combination with the Framemesiter XRGB Mini upscaler:


It looks great, doesn't it. And until the past month, this had been the best I'd ever seen original Dreamcast footage look. Now let's take a look at the same sequence run through the Akura and upscaled with the Framemeister XRGB Mini:


While the Toro looks great, there's definitely some bleeding of colours whereas on the Akura side, everything looks crystal clear. Look at the detail in the textures on the wooden floor and walls, everything just looks slightly murkier with the Toro. I'm so happy with the results that I might even go as far as to say this is where the road ends for me. I just can't imagine the original Dreamcast hardware ever looking better than this...at least until someone comes up with a HD mod of some sort. But even then, they now have a very high benchmark to surpass with the Akura. Is it worth buying if you already own the Toro? Probably not, but here are some comparison screenshots for you to feast your eyes upon:
Akura
Toro
Akura
Toro
Akura
Toro
Akura
Toro
Conclusion
So should you buy the Akura? Well, that's a pretty tough question to answer with a single yes or no. As discussed, there are plenty of variables that will dictate whether you need to splash out $85 on one of these devices, so we'll try to answer as best we can. From a physical standpoint, the Akura is faultless: well designed, robust, good-looking and exhibits the usual Beharbros quality marque.

As a simple, all-in-one solution for connecting a Dreamcast to a HDMI-equipped display then there's little to grumble about with the Akura. It doesn't require an external power supply and the simplistic nature means you won't have various cables and converter boxes trailing around. Simply plug your Dreamcast into the Akura and you're good to go. Don't buy this expecting to see a full HD picture though - if you're thinking you'll suddenly see current gen graphics coming out of your Dreamcast because there's a HDMI cable involved, then you're setting yourself up for disappointment. Likewise, the 480p image kicked out by the Akura won't blow your mind if you're used to using a VGA monitor, but that said it is far, far superior to using traditional analogue connections with a modern flat screen display. If you don't have the luxury of a CRT television with RGB, or a VGA-enabled device and you just want to hook your Dreamcast up to your HD TV with no nonsense, then this is a worthy purchase.

Naturally as with all strata of gaming, there will be those who require more from their displays and their consoles. If like Ross you're a stickler for optimal image quality or you want to record impeccable footage from your system for uploading to YouTube etc., then you may want to pair the Akura with a secondary upscaling device such as the Framemeister in order to get the best possible picture out of the Dreamcast. But you should also ask yourself if buying a bespoke device that will only work with a single console is something that you are happy with. If it is, then the Akura will not disappoint.

At this point it is key to remember that there are an almost limitless number of options when it comes to getting an outstanding image out of a Dreamcast with any number of different display adapters and cables and upscalers. Most of them are pretty affordable too - a cheap Chinese VGA cable ($20) with a cheap VGA to HDMI upscaler ($40) will yield similar results. If however, you already own a decent upscaler and spare no expense in the pursuit of getting the absolute best picture out of your Dreamcast then yes, again the Akura is most definitely worth considering.
Further Information
If you've still not had enough Akura-speak for one day, check out Adam Koralik's video on the device here. If you want to find out even more, or just pull the trigger and buy an Akura, then be sure to visit the Beharbros website here.

14 comments:

Henrick said...

Akiua is definitely a must for the hardcore dreamcast fan that is looking for the best possible image quality solution.

Unfortunately not everyone have the blood to purchase a framemeister xrgb-mini because of its high scale price.

Definitely will be getting this as it is much more crisp than the Toro.

Consodering the best video quality for the mighty dreamcast I still bet on the OEM VGA Box with an HD CRT Monitor.

I do own the Toro, OEM VGA Box & Framemeister xrgb-mini as well. With this said I'll be definitely picking up the Akira as it's price point is accesible.

Great review. Very explanatory.

blondejon said...

Awesome write up, well done chaps

Unknown said...

Best possible image quality with the Dreamcast is still by using a good CRT VGA Monitor. That's what I used back in the day and sporadically still do. I own an Akura and I agree with Henrick on this.
Unfortunately I don't have the room for a CRT monitor in my small apartment, so if you're like me and your only option is to hook up your Dreamcast to a flat screen, then the Akura is the next best alternative.
Regarding upscalers, I found that if the signal is clean enough like it is with VGA over HDMI, you can sometimes achieve similar or even better image quality than that of the upscaler by playing with the TV image settings such as sharpness and contrast. Of course this will vary depending on the TV you're using, but this means there is none of the artifacts or lag that sometimes come with using an upscaler. So right now, I have the Akura
directly hooked up to my TV.

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. Yes, this is by far the best option if you only have a flat screen TV as a display option. As stated, there are plenty of alternatives but not everybody has the means or the space or the time to explore them all. Akura ia a one-stop solution for those who only own a modern TV.

The 1 Ross said...

Unknown. You're ALWAYS using an upscaler of some sort, unless you're using a 480p monitor of some sort. I have no doubt that if your TV has a good internal upscaler then it will be entirely possible for you to achieve good or even better picture than with the XRGB Mini.

But even if you have the best internal upscaler in the world, there will still be at least a small (perhaps unoticeable) amount of latency added by the process.

And yes, I agree, a decent 480p CRT is still the best way to go.

Pete Closs said...

Regarding the cable, the version you have is a significantly reinforced version of their previous one that broke if removed too many times.

I’ll probably stick to my Hanzo+OSSC but the Akura looks like a great solo option.

Michael Iseard said...

I love the look of this thing, and the fact that it's soo well made makes it even more tempting. Unfortunately I can't justify the price at the moment (although I completely understand why it is expensive, being essentially hand made and everything). Great review BTW!

Robbie Martine-McEvoy said...

Now how about games you can't traditionally "trick" into VGA like Air Force Delta? I've never been able to trick that one even with my Toro.

Tom Charnock said...

They don't work

Wolff Morrow said...

Unfortunately the Framemeister adds in false contouring on the horizontal axis for 480 sources, effectively ruining attempts to get an integer scaled 'pixel perfect' image. Right now, the best experience is still getting an old VGA CRT going like a Sony monitor for example, and running the DC into that.

The 1 Ross said...

I'd absolutely agree. The best I've ever seen the Dreamcast and Naomi look is on the New Net City cabinet's 480p Toshiba Trisync monitor. Having said that, take a look at our captured video for yourself; it's a pretty good alternative for those who don't want to go the CRT route.

Scribe86 said...

Good review, I own a an Akura but I do notice it puts out a much darker image than other devices. Is it just me that notices that?

Michael Wood said...

What about someone who has a HD CRT? I have a Sony HS510, which has HD component and DVI-D. It's my understanding that I can convert the HDMI to DVI-D with a cheap passive adapter and use the stereo output to go into the DVI's stereo in for the DVI port. Is this the best solution for me? The TV does not have VGA, only Y,CB, CR and DVI-D dual link

The 1 Ross said...

I'd imagine using the Akura directly will look great. Not tried myself though.