|Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD Player|
|Home Theater Video Players HD DVD Players|
|Written by Jeremy R. Kipnis|
|Thursday, 01 June 2006|
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Obviously, any playback device is only as good as the software you play on it. While the initial offerings were a bit small in number, and a little variable in quality and program appeal, they nevertheless represent a good cross section of high-end demonstration material. First, I played Universal’s HD DVD of the movie “Doom.” After the 45-second power-up and tray opening cycle, carefully placing the disc as you would a regular DVD, pressing “Door” to raise the sleek-looking exterior lower door that hides the disc tray and transport controls or “Play” will begin the lengthy 45-second loading cycle. Type A personalities will need to take a deep breath and or go get a cold soda or something while they wait.
Once it is fully loaded, you are greeted by a much better-looking Universal (+HD DVD) logo that has noticeably better color and detail on just these opening animations of the planet Earth than anything to appear so far on D-VHS, cable, satellite or broadcast of the same thing and by a wide margin. Following this, all HD DVDs begin with an animated high-definition menu, featuring four tabs (or blades – like the Xbox 360) starting with “play,” “set-up” for audio and subtitle control, “scenes,” which currently have only still images describing each one (I trust this will change to include moving previews of each scene), and “extras,” which have now become ubiquitous with most DVDs. The Universal titles all have their menu blades on the left-hand side; you can bring these up while watching the movie, rather than having to go back to the main menu, which can become a bit tedious to listen to or watch more than a few times.
Picture and sound quality of the opening chapter of “Doom” were spectacular and a bit unnerving. The initial downward pan across an enormous field of stars is particularly detailed, with many different-sized stars appearing across a velvety black background that does not include visible macro blocking as seen on a properly calibrated display. The ensuing scenes contain very loud and violent lossy encoded Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack amidst a darkly Cinemascope 2.35:1 opening that segues directly into a shot of our lead, The Rock. The level of depth of focus that can be seen in these scenes and deep into each of the images subsequently shown, along with some of the most stunning color resolution I have ever seen in a consumer product, provide a substantial improvement over any commercially available HD source or content previously offered in the world. Some interlace distortion can be visible at times with several televisions and projectors, due to the nature of their video scalers interacting with such acutely high-resolution sources. The Qualia 006 70-inch rear-projection HDTV showed some stars popping in and out, along with some line twitter on the film’s title, while the Qualia 004 video projector, Sony 40XBR1 Bravia LCD HDTV, and even the 40XBR700 direct-view CRT all showed a clean, resolved and continuous star field. The rest of the movie had similarly excellent picture and sound quality, but I didn’t find the story engaging, despite some snappy special effects and a terrifying soundtrack.
Universal’s “Serenity” is likewise something of a shocker film, with equally compelling picture (lensed at 2.4:1 but listed as 2.35:1 on the jacket, as are all the Universal titles so far) and equally excellent sound quality. Many of the complex planetary fly-overs, which would normally be totally unwatchable on cable or satellite HD due to macro and micro blocking of the darkest sections, are handled with so much grace and ease, lacking any real digital artifacts whatsoever, that I was frequently reminded of a first-run 35mm print brought into an Academy screening by the director of photography.
Last from Universal is our old favorite “Apollo 13.” This appears to be from the Super 35 domestic release (2.35:1), rather than the IMAX DMR version (1.50:1 as seen at the Smithsonian IMAX exhibition at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center on May 5, 2006). Picture quality is on the grainy side, which I recall seeing less of in the DMR remastered version at the IMAX. Sound quality is far better than that of any DVD versions released so far and better than that of the IMAX, while sounding very similar to the high-quality DTS version found on a 12-inch laser disc release from a decade ago. The scenes of the launch and the disaster that follows are portrayed with a level of detail and color saturation previously unknown outside of the broadcast booth or an Academy screening. Skin tone and facial details all seemed to have considerably more information, more texture and less artifacts than any previous version, even the 1.78:1 HD pan-and-scan version running at various different times on the Universal HD channel and of course your friendly neighborhood DVR and/or D-VHS recorder, if you are lucky.
Warner Bros. began its HD DVD releases with “Phantom of the Opera” at its flagship offering. This lavish production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber opera/show will give your entire system a real chance to show off, with unbelievably rich and succulent colors in virtually every scene and an extremely refined soundtrack that demands to be played at realistic levels. This is where it gets interesting, because all the Warner Bros. titles are coming out mastered with the audio 10 dB too low in level. I found this quite annoying. What is interesting is that all the Warner releases are listed on the covers as being 2.4:1 (which is correct), as opposed to listing it as 2.35:1 (more likely what you will see on the screen anyway before a full calibration), as Universal has chosen to do. Otherwise, I never watched a scene that was less than captivating and totally involving, even more so than I recall when I saw “Phantom” in the theater on Broadway.
Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” has a much paler visual tone to its cinematography than “Phantom,” with a very subtle mix for the audio. Most of this film is very laid-back, but with HD DVD, we are sucked into the story because of all the visual and aural cues that are almost completely lost in the DVD or the HBO HD versions. This film is also 2.4:1, unlike its 1.78:1 pan and scan cousin seen on HBO. For some reason, certain studios and/or marketing people seem to think that filling a widescreen television by zooming into a well-choreographed widescreen shot and throwing away one-third of the picture is a good practice. Thankfully, every HD DVD release is coming out in its original aspect ratio, so if your television or projector has minimal overscan, or has been calibrated as such, then you will truly see the entire film frame as the director and cinematographer intended. There will, however be certain films that fill the whole screen while others will have black bars top and bottom like CinemaScope films such as “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or the “Lord of the Rings” series, each shot in Super Panavision at 2.40:1.
Naturally, the Tom Cruise-produced “The Last Samurai” has slightly less detail than “Phantom,” but more than “Million Dollar Baby,” with a soundtrack that is the most filmlike of these initial three Warner titles. I found it to be quite engaging, as long as we are not forced to watch too much of Tom Cruise’s attempts and misses at hitting the mark.
Just before putting this review to bed, I acquired a copy of “Swordfish,” starring John Travolta. This is certainly the most exciting action picture of the initial HD DVD releases. The sound (because it is an initial Warner HD) is still 10 dB too low, but after that great inconvenience is dealt with or ignored, the sound quality is very, very impressive, ranking right up there with “Doom” and “Serenity” with its broad dynamic range and speaker-popping explosions. Dialogue is well-balanced throughout, giving a very immersive quality to the presentation that is matched by the subtle nuances seen in the picture quality.
Finally, Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” was at the top of my list to purchase from the first moment I saw the release list, just as it was in April of 1997 when the first DVD version became available. While that first DVD was a marvelous mastering for its day, it pales in comparison to the HD version found on Cinemax HD. I verified that this HD DVD version is the same cut as the most recent Cinemax version by comparing identical dust marks on the print used for the transfer. The improvement of both picture and sound quality of HD DVD over the Cinemax HD presentation of the same HD transfer was like night and day. “Removing the screen from the television picture” is essentially how one friend and colleague chose to phrase the effect of this HD DVD. Therefore, I am very certain that the future of HD DVD, despite some small flaws, is going to make many, many customers happy, particularly if the film studios will release movies in both HD DVD and Blu-Ray disc formats.