Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD Player Reviewed

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toshiba_HD-XA1_hd_dvd_player.gifToshiba's HD-XA1 HD DVD Player came out a month later than they promised, but so what? Get over it. High-definition disc-viewing is a reality, so let's forget about the "format wars" and dive right in.

This ain't no slim-jim either--at 20 pounds, it's hefty and deep like an amplifier, though not quite so tall, and in fact, the shelf holding my standard DVD player was too small for it. The front is very clean because the majority of controls and the disc tray are hidden below the display window, inside a motorized door. This also includes two USB ports, which they say will let you use special controllers designed for it--it's really for future use, so hello and goodbye to that for now.

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Besides the door, this "big brother" of the HD-A1 (Toshiba's lesser priced HD DVD player) has a better quality "build" and larger "feet," and it also has a motion-activated illuminated remote and an RS-232C port for use with home-automation systems. But that motorized door is a problem. I'd turn on the player and press for the tray to open, only to see the display flashing "opening," even as the motorized door opened and closed, but the disc tray didn't eject. When I told the door to open first, and then pressed Open for the tray, the door would close, and "Opening" would appear again on the display. And again, no disc tray.
As it turns out, you really have to take your time when you first turn this machine on--it's really more of a computer than one of the DVD players we are now used to. It works fine when you turn it on and wait a bit, let the door open by itself, and then tell the tray to eject--and it continues to do so until you turn it off. Frankly, I could do without the door, as it's just another problem to deal with, but I guess there are some who find it appealing. (In comparison, the HD-A1 model I had purchased and received near the end of this review never had this problem--but then it doesn't have a door, either.) One thing I did find with all of the players is that you have to get used to waiting around a minute or so before the video begins. Chalk it up to first-generation tech and the fact that a whole lot of electronics are firing up to provide for video and audio.

The first user-control thing to do is to select the output and resolution (480i/p, 720p, or 1080i). HDMI is HDCP-compliant, so your display must be too. (Toshiba recommended that I set the resolution to that of the disc, not the player, and since they were all 1080p, I used the 1080i setting.) The other video ports are Component, S-Video, and Composite, and of course, you should select the machine output for your best choice. Audio gives you the choice of using a coaxial or Toslink optical, and there are also sets of stereo and 5.1 RCA outs.

There's also an Ethernet port on the back for getting content related to specific discs, which the player can store in its own memory. This requires broadband Internet access. Used in conjunction with a router and home network, the auto-configure process is fairly easy to do, although a manual setup will be more challenging. In my case, the router for the wired network is close enough to my home theater that I was able to run a cable. Others might want to try using wireless, but as always, when dealing with broadband, it is important that the signal stays constant so there are no dropouts.

Of course, this is all moot since none of the discs I had on hand had any hooks for online use. However, I was able to check whether the firmware needed updating-it did, and through the maintanance setting, I was able to follow the steps to take care of it (The Bourne Supremacy showed up in time for me to try and succeed at accessing its picture in picture video streaming).

Tweaking the Controls
The setup menu is similar to those found in conventional DVD players: screen aspect ratios, boosting sharpness, altering contrast, etc. I tend to turn off all enhancements, with the exception of black level, when using my front projector, which is what I used first. Playing a standard-definition test disc to conform this player to your display is always a good idea--although you might end up redoing it all, eyeballing it to play an HD DVD disc.

Seeing in SD
Inside is a Pickup head containing three different laser diodes: these three handle CD, DVD, and HD DVD. The beams for all three of these are focused through the same objective lens in a seamless fashion, as far as we users are concerned. There's also compatibility with recordable DVD-R/RW and DVD-RAM, plus CDs and MP3 and WMA audio.

Upconverting the SD discs via HDMI to 720p, scales it to my Optoma front projector's native resolution, but this shouldn't be confused with making it high-def. I will say that the quality of the SD discs looks as good as what I had been getting from my standard-def DVD player. If anything, the overall sharpness seems to be a bit better; for example, there was improved sharpness in Independence Day's massive amount of special effects, ranging from spaceship scenes to live action crowds to that crowd favorite--the White House going boom (still, it doesn't take the place of a standalone video scaler).

As far as standard DVD compatibility, I tried 20 discs at random--movies, TV shows, music concerts, some recently released and some not so recent. Only one failed, stuttering and freezing. I had to stop and eject the disc.

I even ran 1973's The Seven-Ups (best car chase scenes since Bullitt), and while it showed its age with a bit of grain, that just added to the grittiness--and what a blast to see the old New York I used to live in. But as good as all these discs appear to be, I'm still hoping to be blown away when I switch to HD.

So Get to the HD Discs Already
An HDMI cable is provided, but if you take this home without picking up an HD DVD movie, expect to turn right around and head back to the store. All the titles I have to view right now are from the first wave and listed as being in 1080p--so what does that mean? I spent a few days working out my conspiracy theories before going to Toshiba, who told me that while there are quite a few TVs out there today that say they are "1080p," very few can actually take and send such a signal directly to the display. I was also told that, 1) since the overwhelming majority of "1080p" sets can only accept 1080i or lower, then the TV converts that 1080i to 1080p for display, and 2) Toshiba decided that since the number of 1080p sets is so limited, they would limit the first-generation set to 1080i. I was also told that this decision is, in part, what allowed HD DVD players to be delivered so early--with the plan being that all subsequent models would be capable of sending a 1080p signal. And as often happens to an early adopter, these current players cannot be modified to provide a 1080p output.

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HTR Product Rating for Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD Player

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Really, Get to Those HD Discs
With that out of the way, I started off with Toshiba's HD DVD sample disc. There are fairly long film trailers not yet out, so I compared them to SD versions on hand. Batman Begins, for example, displays greater detail in the chase scene where the Batmobile is "flying" over the rooftops (the roofing and sides of buildings that were mostly blurs now have distinct form and shape). Also, there isn't the blockiness or artifacting that usually joins up when it's dark. Another trailer shows, in excruciating detail, the faces of those Oompa Loompas from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I really got pounded by the colors that Tim Burton seems to love so much. There's also more depth to the shading and the "film-like" look. It was the same when I compared Burton's Corpse Bride: the shades of gray composing characters and scenery look as good as when I saw it in the theater. There's also a creamy texture to the snow and a rough-hewed harshness to the gnarled wood of the forest. I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on this one.

I switched over to a 58-inch HP 1080p DLP display (reviewed in the June/July issue) and inserted the HD DVD of Apollo 13. The high-def does more than just enhance the overall picture--it removes that thin edge of "disbelief" that SD causes, especially when watching movies where there's a lot of minute detail. Here, where so much of the camerawork is claustrophobic and close-up, the detail now adds an intimacy that was once the province of the movie theater alone--pretty impressive results for a film from the mid-1990s. I also played the more recent Swordfish: Halle Berry's sleekness is worth eyeballing, although it's the nasty fun of the action scenes that most shows off the HD quality.

The navigation menu, by the way, is a real hoot. In general, it's partially translucent as you access chapters while the movie is running, and do things like picture-in-picture, place bookmarks, and such. The overall effect is like one of those heads-up displays jet fighters use, and particular functions and physical placement depend upon the studio: as Apollo 13 is from Universal Studios, all appears to be moving in from the left side. I thought it would be distracting, but it's easy to get used to. The video is able to continue running, or stay paused as well, while you search the menu. (Warner Bros. places their menu at the bottom, and when it's activated, the selection choices pop up to occupy about half of the screen.)

The extras are all in standard definition, and the difference in resolution hits you like a frying pan. I recommend turning off the remote's backlight--it eats up battery life far too fast. Also, the response was a bit sluggish on more than one occasion, sometimes even ignoring when I pushed down on the direction pad. This didn't seem to be a result of battery drain, as the same occurred when I used the non-backlit HD-A1 remote (whose lack of a backlight or even glow-in-the-dark makes finding/using the smallish buttons a real pain). Another quick call to Toshiba revealed that while the remote's cosmetic beauty may be nice, it's too easy to think you're pressing down on the direction pad, when you're actually moving your finger at an angle. As a result, the player goes "Huh?" and doesn't do anything. There's also a betraying double-click, but who can hear that during a film? That's my excuse anyway. That and big fingers. The solution: take more care to ensure which buttons I press (and redesign the remote for the next generation).

Sound, Anyone?
It's not that I'm ignoring the audio--Dolby Digital Plus processes up to seven channels and is included on this, as well as all the other discs on hand. Getting the full advantage of Plus requires either using an HDMI output or the analog 5.1's output. When I went through the coaxial or optical out, my Denon amp registered it as dts 5.1 (more on why the Toshiba does this in our Dolby report next month). Not that the sound was disappointing--Apollo 13 sounded as good as ever on my matched set of Polk speakers and surrounds.

When I went to the analog output, I could hear a difference in the audio (still 5.1). Using the analogs also allows for speaker/bass management control in the Toshiba for adjusting volume between speakers or in conjunction with test tones coming from the amplifier instead.

It will be a while before more features are released for the video part of the disc, and it will also take time for the enhanced abilities of the new audio technology to become a mainstream part of the experience. But at least no one is denied going to the party because they have older audio equipment.

I did notice that the volume levels of the Warner discs were a bit softer in comparison to their SD DVD counterparts. I had also heard that there were some audio delays involved with a few of these "first-wave" Warner discs, but those I played using the optical outs didn't display this problem, so it could be a case-by-case sort of thing. Just part of the "early adopter" fun, I guess.

In the Final Analysis
I have a Dish HD receiver/recorder, so I'm no stranger to watching movies in HD. But HD DVD looks clearer as it's the full strength of the resolution, without any possible breakups in the picture due to transmission glitches. The new menu structure also makes for an enjoyable experience, and the additions of interactivity and multi-view video will add value to the discs for a long time to come.

Now, does this mean tossing out the old standard DVD player you've used up till now? Not hardly. For all its abilities, the HD-XA1 doesn't play DVD-Audio or SACD (standard CDs, yes), so listeners of these formats will still need a compatible DVD player--but using the 5.1 outputs could usurp your other DVD player. Nor does the Toshiba display JPEG/picture files or handle those exotic standard-definition file formats you can burn from a computer (i.e., DivX and AVI files). What the HD-XA1 does do easily offsets these few negatives: it plays HD, and it plays it well. Sure there are some first-generation "bugs" to work out, but it's the real deal when it comes to playing high-definition movies in your home.

HD-XA1 HD DVD Player
216 MHz/11-bit video D/A converter
HDMI selectable 720p/1080i output
HDMI selectable 720p/1080i video upconversion
Coaxial and Optical digital audio outputs
Stereo and 5.1-channel audio outputs
Multichannel 192 kHz/24-bit audio D/A converters
Dimensions: 4.33" (H) x 17.72" (W) x 13.39" (D)
Weight: 20 lbs.
MSRP: $799

HD-A1 HD DVD Player ($499)

The first thing you'd notice in comparing Toshiba's entry model to its costlier brother is the color: there's a mostly silver body that is matched by a silver and black faceplate. On the left is a large Power switch button; Open/Close is on the right, and smaller play controls run horizontally along the bottom (the two USB ports are concealed behind a spring-loaded door below the Power button). Connections on the back are similar to the HD-XA1, with the exception that there is no RS-232C. It's the same remote but without backlighting, and the buttons don't glow in the dark. This makes for difficult use in low-light situations, until you've memorized the button placement. As regards disc playback and other electronics, the HD-A1 functions similarly to the other Toshiba: discs previously played on the HD-XA1 look the same when played on the HD-A1. That includes using Component, which looked quite good--one can "see" a difference in comparison to HDMI, but frankly, I think that is because you are aware of it. Providing you've a quality display, it's no insult to be using Component as your output if HDMI is denied to you. This may be considered the "entry-level" model, but it does everything it needs to, and frankly, I think it will outsell the other because the price point is right on. [A firmware update just became available-initial tests seem to indicate that disc-loading time has been shortened.]

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