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Toshiba HD-A20 HD DVD Player Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 August 2007
Article Index
Toshiba HD-A20 HD DVD Player
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Movies And Music
I started my evaluation with the HD-A20 with a brief two-channel demo, largely in part because my old XA-1 (despite the manufacturer’s claims) never played standard CDs. I cued up one of Michael Jackson’s later albums, Dangerous (Sony), and started with the first track, “Jam.” This track opens with the vivid sounds of shattering glass, followed by an aggressive bass line, which was realistically portrayed and extremely natural-sounding through the HD-A20, with tremendous air and decay throughout the treble, and good heft and impact in the bass. Michael’s vocals were very well defined and natural, held firmly in place by the HD-A20’s strong center image. The midrange was warm and a tad rounder-sounding overall compared to other players I had on hand which aided the HD-A20’s smooth sonic character. The soundstage was incredibly impressive, not only in terms of width and depth, but also in terms of resolution, allowing for all of the musical elements to exist independently of one another without fear of sonic smearing. Switching tracks to “In the Closet,” the HD-A20’s dynamic prowess impressed me most. When the chorus kicks in, it is heralded by a loud and snappy “digital” rim shot, which was extremely punchy and free from any sort of perceivable compression through the HD-A20. The vocals were again very natural-sounding, with a good sense of weight and presence, as though the performers were in the room. The bass was taut and incredibly deep without excess bloat. Honestly, from a two-channel-only perspective, the HD-A20 is no slouch and performed well beyond what you’d expect from a player geared more toward high-definition film reproduction than audiophile fare.

I decided to switch gears and focus on multi-channel music, opting for the DVD-A release of R.E.M.’s In Time: The Best of R.E.M. (WEA). Starting with my personal favorite “All the Way to Reno,” the surround sound performance, in both Dolby Digital and DTS formats, was excellent. The sheer sense of scale and space the HD-A20 brought to the presentation was exceptional. The cymbals hung effortlessly in space, with a good sense of air and decay, all the while sounding natural and lifelike in their scale and placement within the soundstage. Michael Stipe’s vocals retained their raspy quality without sounding overtly compressed and had just a tinge of warmth, which I found to be a welcome addition. The snare drum was snappy and I could hear the skins vibrating after each impact of the sticks. On the track “Electrolite,” the piano was room-filling and ever so slightly larger than life, aided by the track’s slight reverberation. The round tones of the piano itself were rife with air and remained extremely resolute even with the recorded reverberation, allowing me to hear each chord change and keystroke cleanly, with no signs of slurring. The accompanying string quartet was beautifully rendered through the HD-A20, with enough detail that I could feel the bows quivering along the strings. The midrange was a bit more pure and neutral-sounding when compared to the HD-A20’s two-channel performance, especially when it came to the track’s vocals. The bass, while not incredibly deep in this particular track, was well-defined and complimented the rest of the musical spectrum nicely without overpowering it. Again, like its two-channel performance, the sheer musicality of the HD-A20 with multi-channel music was a quite welcome surprise.

Next, I fired up the Christian Bale sci-fi action thriller Equilibrium (Dimension Home Entertainment) on DVD. As this is a slightly older DVD, I thought Equilibrium would be a good test of the HD-A20’s upscaling prowess, and what a test it was. Ignoring the audio presentation for a moment, the video quality of Equilibrium through the HD-A20 defied belief. While the film itself is mostly desaturated, with deep blacks, it was the dimensionality, sharpness and smooth motion throughout that impressed me most. As I watched Equilibrium, I found myself scratching my head, thinking I had somehow obtained a copy of the film in HD – the edge fidelity, motion tracking and overall crispness were that good. The actors appeared as if they were somehow standing in a three-dimensional space, rather than being projected onto the two-dimensional surface of my Screen Research screen. The black levels were incredibly impressive both in their depth and in the amount of perceivable detail I could see throughout, even in the most dimly lit scenes. White levels too, were quite good, appearing very natural with zero signs of blooming. Skin tones, while muted (with the exception of Emily Watson), were incredibly well-defined and textured without appearing excessively glossy or, worse, porous. When color was finally introduced to the film, it was extremely punchy, vibrant and natural in its overall saturation and clarity. During the climatic fight between Christian Bale and “Father,” their ballet-like sparring match was rendered without a single trace of motion artifacts or “jaggies” as their bodies continually crossed in front of and around stark vertical and horizontal architectural elements. The HD-A20’s presentation of Equilibrium was the best example I’ve seen of upsampled standard-definition content this side of the five grand mark. Sonically, the HD-A20 didn’t disappoint one bit. The surround sound presentation was larger than life, filling my reference room with all the atmosphere and action I could handle. The gunshots, of which there are many, were incredibly dynamic and detailed, with a good amount of both treble and bass information unlike the plodding “boom” sounds you hear in most films. Dialogue was clear and intelligible, even when the actors themselves were doing their best to keep secrets.

I ended my evaluation of the HD-A20 with the HD DVD presentation of Children of Men starring Clive Owen (Universal Studios Home Video). Children of Men, while not a pick-me-up sort of film, is incredibly well-produced and features some spectacular visuals, along with some very interesting surround sound mastering. That said, the HD-A20’s presentation of Children of Men was magnificent. Visually, the HD-A20’s image was as good as it gets for HD DVD. The image was crystal clear, incredibly sharp with no signs of excess grain or pixilation throughout the frame. Edge fidelity was excellent and well-defined, giving the image even more of that three-dimensional feel I saw with standard DVDs. The sheer depth displayed in the images themselves was awe-inspiring, seemingly going on for days. In terms of an overall sense of scale and “being there” quality, the HD-A20’s image is as good as any I’ve seen, regardless of price. The colors were incredibly accurate and lifelike and complimented beautifully by the HD-A20’s terrific black levels, which made even the most muted colors appear to pop off the screen. Skin tones, while cold in nature, were rendered truthfully and had a real sense of dimension to them that helped draw me in to the emotions of the characters on the screen. During the climatic battle in the refugee camp, the rapid action, debris and war-torn village proved little concern for the HD-A20’s internal chipsets, as each and every detail was rendered without incident. I could detect no signs of floating in the blacks during rapid pans or complex shots, nor was there any stair-stepping in the image, even when it was presented with the often difficult task of displaying mini-blinds in windows. The motion, be it the camera or action on screen, was very lifelike and smooth. Sonically, the HD-A20’s surround sound presentation was just as amazing. The sheer scope to the sonic landscape was not only room-filling, but also room-transporting, as even the minutest sounds couldn’t escape the HD-A20’s grasp. The treble was pristine, smooth and free from glare or harshness, even at insane volumes. The midrange, particularly the vocals, was warm and inviting and extremely articulate. Often, actors with lower, more baritone voices can sound a bit garbled as your source components and speakers work out the delicate balance between the bass and midrange drivers. This was not the case with the HD-A20’s uncompressed HDMI audio signal, as every voice, high or low, sounded very natural. Speaking of bass, the thundering explosions that rock most of the last 15 minutes of the film were tremendously deep, with the system all the while remaining in complete control. Children of Men, as played through the HD-A20, has to go down in history as one of the best overall HD DVD demos I’ve ever seen, and it was in my house. How cool.

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