Toshiba HD-XA1HD DVD Player Page 4
In direct comparison to the Dolby Digital track on the standard DVD of Serenity, the DD+ from the HD DVD has more bass, more detail and more overall dynamic crunch and frankly, it wouldn't surprise me if the HD DVD were a "sweetened" remaster that's remixed and EQ'd for more impact at home. Still, the score unequivocally paints a warmer, fuller and more detailed rendering via the HD DVD. It's just better.
While I don't want to pretend that audio deserves a backseat with these new formats, because that's not the case, I'm obviously not writing as much about sound as video in this review. Part of that is that I'll have more to say once I get the controller with multichannel analog pass through set up and running in my system. At that time I'll offer a full evaluation of the sound from the player's analog outputs with both Dolby Digtal Plus and redbook CDs.
In the future we'll undoubtedly hear tracks with even higher bitrates, and indeed, Warner's Phantom of the Opera, Constantine, and The Perfect Storm are encoded with lossless 5.1-channel Dolby TrueHD tracks that are just waiting for a player that can decode them. Second generation player anyone? So, look for more on the audio front later after I've been able to experiment more.
Throughout this review I used the HD-XA1 via HDMI, but also checked in on the component video output as well. As you'll read below, and in the "Tests" section, 1080i looked best with both HDMI and component. The 1080i component feed was just slightly softer, and less detailed than the 1080i HDMI feed but was still spectacular on the VP-11S1. Those with only component video inputs on their displays needn't be concerned- you'll see glorious HD from the component outputs of this player.
Oh yeah, the HD-XA1 plays back standard DVDs too. And it does a job that's commensurate with the other mass-market players I've seen in its price range and is clearly capable of revealing all the information on standard def DVDs. Via the HDMI output it's just a touch less three-dimensional on my front projection system than Ayre's non-pareil but hideously expensive DX-7e. But it still can't be described as less than excellent although like the HD-A1 it does not display information encoded below the video black threshold (but does show above white).
The HD-XA1 also distinguished itself with upconverting DVDs to 720p and especially 1080i. While this is all the rage these days, I've more often than not seen a better picture with most players set to 480p output rather than 720p or 1080i. Not here. In fact, going into Marantz's 1080p DLP projector, the VP-11S1, I saw a clearly sharper, less noisy picture from 720p and 1080i than 480p over HDMI and component video. Test patterns upconverted from DVD showed full bandwidth from black and white and color patterns, with no serious artifacts. This is atypical, and excellent. All in all this is one of the finest upconverting players I've yet seen.
Toshiba has clearly made a strong marketing pitch with this player in that it is a step-up in pure performance as a standard DVD player from many players on the market and many sold in past generations in particular. If you player is long in the tooth, why not replace it with a player that will also play HD DVDs?
The downsides with this theory are two-fold. First, there's Blu-ray. The Samsung Blu-ray player has just been introduced and we'll report on it within the next two weeks. Also, PlayStation3 is coming later this year and not only will it be a DVD and Blu-ray player, but an SACD player and gaming console to boot.
The second problem here is that while the HD-XA1 might represent an upgrade from your current player in pure performance it almost certainly doesn't in usage and ergonomics. There's no getting around the clunkiness of this player- it's frustrating on a day-to-day basis in ways that you won't get used to.
Here's the eight hundred dollar question: Do I recommend this player and by extension this format for purchase? The answer is that this format and these players give both the early adopters and the skeptics who prefer to wait out the war plenty of reasons to take the action that each camp is most inclined to take by nature.
HD DVD's picture and sound is spectacular enough that the early adopter will freak out, and every new release Tuesday will feel like Christmas. The format offers by far the best film-based audio and video I've yet experienced in my home theater.
On the other hand, the viewpoints of those inclined to wait (or even hate) are bolstered by the players' significant ergonomic issues, the lack of features that second-gen players will undoubtedly include, the lack of studio support (apart from Warner and Universal) for HD DVD, and the format war in general. I can't deny or downplay any of that. It's all real and legit.
I'd certainly prefer that these players didn't sacrifice compatibility with some of the key technologies that we know will be part of both formats in order to beat Blu-ray to market. In particular, the Toshiba players would be a better buy if they were to output the native 1080p video on HD DVDs and if they decoded multichannel Dolby TrueHD. Neither of these are pie in the sky—they're on HD DVDs that are available for sale to consumers right now.
But let me say this to those naysayers who are calling the HD DVD launch and the players a total disaster. Where were you in 1997? In terms of pure performance, features and capability these HD DVD players and discs are far beyond those early DVD players and discs, and they're also cheaper than some early DVD players were nearly ten years ago. Some early DVD players didn't have component outputs, DTS was coming but wasn't available in first gen players, and progressive scan players didn't come until years later. Expecting HD DVD (or Blu-ray) to have every wrinkle ironed out in the first-gen players is something that can only come from being spoiled by so mature a technology as DVD is now. HD DVD is great now in many meaningful ways and will only get better.
Getting back to the Toshiba players, $300 separates the HD-XA1 and the cheaper HD-A1. They're far more alike than different, so why not minimize the financial risk? With the $800 HD-XA1 I like the remote marginally better, and I like the cool drop down door, but I don't like it $300 more in this format war climate. The HD-A1 is unequivocally an easier recommendation at $500. This is $100 more than a current 60GB iPod, which is something of an impulse buy for many, judging by the millions of iPods Apple has sold.
My biggest hesitation in unconditionally recommending HD DVD is in Blu-ray's currently greater studio support, not anything relating to the format's picture and sound or interactivity. If even one more major studio jumps on board, consider my recommendation that much stronger.
So, my final take is this: My name is Shane, and I'm an admitted compulsive early adopter. I'm going to buy this review sample and I'll be here watching HD DVDs as they're released.
That's the call I'm making, and that's who I am. Who you are and what you do with the information and opinions I've presented is between you and your potentially disposable $500.
Highs and Lows
• Best HD image quality available on any format
• Sound quality is a big step beyond current DVD
• Excellent build quality
• Slowest, clunkiest optical disc player, ever
• Not compatible with 1080p output or multichannel Dolby TrueHD
• Poor remote