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Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD Player Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 June 2006
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Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD Player
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The Player
Toshiba is the first company to release an HD DVD player, as they were with the very first DVD player, the Toshiba SD-2006, sold in March 1997 for $499.99. They also brought out a high-end model, the SD-3006, at $599.99, which thoughtfully added gold-plated connectors and a component video output, a novelty in those days. Like that first production run of DVD players, Toshiba has spent a lot of time and effort making this new player functional and aesthetically pleasing. The new HD-XA1 is a somewhat massive source component: 13.39 inches deep, 4.33 inches high, 17.72 inches wide and weighing in at nearly twenty pounds, as compared to most recent DVD players, which are little more than one-quarter rack space high and weigh about as much as a box of crackers. The less expensive sibling is about the same size at 12 by 20 by 16 inches and lighter at 12 pounds.

There is an attractive motorized front door covering the bottom front bezel of the player that discreetly hides the disc drawer, transport controls and two USB 2.0 ports for the use of future gaming controllers, keyboards and other accessories. The rear apron contains the familiar left and right audio channels, coaxial and component video connections on RCA jacks, an S-Video, a single HDMI output with HDCP encryption (as dictated by the software you are playing), and both coaxial and optical S/PDIF for full digital output of just about every previously available surround sound format, plus several new ones, to an outboard surround processor. There is also an RS-232C connector, suitable for automated control, using a touch screen or house-wide control system, and lastly an RJ-45 Ethernet port for connection to the Internet, which is also your gateway to firmware upgrades, software package add-ons such as live commentary by the producers along with the film, liner notes, games, and other after-market considerations. Only the firmware option has been tested to date, as no software is yet making use of this feature.

One of the most important outputs found on both the high and low-end players is a 5.1 analog output on RCA jacks. This will be the only way most people can actually hear the new Dolby Digital Plus (lossy), Dolby Pure HD and DTS-HD (both lossless), part of most HD DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, until manufacturers officially offer a receiver or surround processor that handles these high-resolution sources without down-rezing.

What do I mean by down-rezing? Well, in both electronic digital image and sound recreation, any master source starts out captured to digital at a particular high resolution or number of bits per second, equaling the required bandwidth per second indicated for the format. A 1080p studio source master (>55 Mpbs) must be down-rezed or scaled in order to be seen through 1080i compressed cable or satellite (<19 Mbps). In doing so, information is lost to the compression schema. The images become softer, less detailed and much more prone to macro-blocking, noise and other artifacts. Further, a 1080i source must be down-rezed through a scaler in order to be seen on a 1280 x 720p display. Again, information is lost, although in this last example a television’s built-in scaler will usually add edge enhancement to cover the loss, both horizontally and vertically. It is the same with digital audio. The new HD audio formats must currently be down-rezed in order to be heard externally using an outboard digital surround decoder. Therefore, all of the latest HD sound formats will have their signals scaled down to an existing lossy format currently in use, such as DTS-EX and Dolby ES.

Since HD DVD format players are capable of playing lossy as well as many lossless formats, including Linear PCM (as with CDs) and the new Dolby True (or Pure) HD, identical bit for bit with the studio master and with resolutions as high as 24-bit/96 kHz over eight channels. The only shortcoming of these two players is that they currently only support the mandatory inclusion of two-channel playback. Although this crop of HD DVD players will only play back a two-channel reduction of the Dolby and DTS lossless formats actually on a disc, they provide some of the best two-channel sound you are likely to hear. DTS-HD also offers lossless sound quality very similar to the sadly defunct DVD-Audio format with a higher 24 bit/192 kHz sampling rate, which is equally suitable for both film and music performances.

As noted above, the Toshiba HD DVD players offer built-in multi-channel decoders for Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby True (or Pure) HD (two-channel-only, as I mentioned), DTS and DTS-HD. The higher-end HD-XA1 (which I purchased from Crutchfield when other sources had already dried up on rollout Tuesday) employs four separate DSP engines to decode the multi-channel. Onboard multi-channel signal management has thoughtfully been included to control the six-channel outputs found on the RCA jacks along the back apron. User selectable crossovers, delay management and channel level management make it possible to add these players quickly and easily to an existing home theater and obtain astonishing results (given good software and a room with a fine audio system).

For the more adventuresome home theater owners, the Toshiba HD DVD players will pass digital information to an external surround sound processor or receiver via coaxial or Toslink S/PDIF or via the HDMI output. With Dolby Digital and DTS bit streams, the signal is sent to the surround processor in the same way as with a DVD player or cable DVR. But, as noted, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD content is down-converted to one of the already existing high-quality formats, such as DTS-EX or Dolby Digital ES, as determined by settings in the player’s set-up menu. Thank goodness all other audio formats from DVD or HD DVD will be able (using the settings menu) to be up- or down-converted as necessary to linear PCM and then output via either optical or coaxial SPDIF connections or HDMI in either stereo or multi-channel.

Video reproduction, which for HD requires 50 percent more bandwidth than D-VHS (an already stunning if outdated format) and a full 100 percent more bandwidth than cable, satellite or broadcast on a good day, is handled via four onboard DSP chips developed by Broadcom. Program material can be recorded as high as 1920 x 1080p at 60 Hz, which is six times the resolution of conventional DVD at 720 x 480i at 60 Hz or SD broadcast at 640 x 480i at 60Hz. The single HDMI output is fully HDCP compliant, allowing both native and up- or down-rezed copyrighted material to be shown on an HDCP-compliant monitor with either an HDMI or DVI input.

The player’s substantial physique is a result of a double chassis construction. Because HD DVD (and Blu-Ray) discs spin more rapidly (HD DVD spins 3.3 times faster than DVD) and utilize a blue laser that can be focused down three times smaller than a conventional red laser found in a DVD player, much greater mechanical stability and alignment are required between the optical block and the nimbly spinning disc. The player’s “chassis within a chassis” is designed to add stability and isolation from both internal and external vibrations, virtually eliminating data errors coming off the discs before they require error correction and substantially lowering jitter of both image and sound. Toshiba has even included isolated stabilizing feet to assure a solid landing on any rack. Although these isolation feet are certainly not of the same caliber as a well-designed vibration-control accessory, such as the Solid-Tech Feet of Silence ($499 MSRP for a set of four), they are nevertheless a very important part of the chassis design, which is reminiscent of Pioneer’s long-standing flagship DVD player, the DV-09.

The unit comes with the usual spaghetti cables, which are better than nothing, but strangely, there is no RJ-45 wire for the Internet connection. One of the first things I wanted to do, thanks to the long load times, was install a firmware update. It would have been nice to have an included cable to make the connection immediately. Initially, I also had trouble (once I found an RJ-45 cable) getting the set-up screen to acknowledge that there was the possibility of a connection. Several attempts, with the unit trying to reach out to start an update, proved fruitless. But eventually I was able to do the firmware upgrade.

The final item is, of course, the remote control. This backlit, rather long in shape, motion-sensitive unit features more buttons than most cell phones. Many of these are not always in the most convenient location and trying to memorize the key structure resulted in several errors on my part: pushing drawer instead of door (which just raises or lowers the front panel) caused the unit to eject the drawer, which sometimes took 45 seconds to open. The unit and remote can emit a soft confirmation tone so that you know the player has received a command. Yet, quite a few times, I was not able to scroll through menus (player or disc) without it locking up for several seconds before again taking commands. All in all, though, I am happier having a full remote with direct access to audio, picture, set-up, still-frame, etc. right there on the remote. I have had all too many DVD player remotes simply not offer certain controls that are a normal part of using the format for anything beyond just a straight play-through.

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