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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 Downside
An advanced product at the leading edge of technology is going to have some growing pains and a few sore spots. Among these is the loading and start-up time from when the machine is turned on to the disc drawer first opening, sometimes longer than 12 seconds. The load time once a disc is in the drawer is even more demanding of one’s patience, with a DVD spin-up taking 32 seconds and an HD DVD requiring a grand total of 47 seconds. This is nothing short of pathetic. Several of my friends and video calibration clients have reported that they don’t mind this long delay, but I found it an inordinately long wait, as I did with spin-up and ejection operations. CDs, CD-Rs, MP-3 discs, DVD-Rs, etc. all took an equally long time to load up or spit out. This is way too long, in my opinion, to be usable and effective during a demonstration, much less a casual night in at the movies.

Because load and start-up times could be long, I was particularly irked by the layout of the remote control with its many wonderfully articulate buttons, which are not necessarily grouped together or apart for greatest functionality, even with the built-in backlight as an aid. All too many times, I hit the HDMI or output resolution buttons when I was actually looking for audio or angle controls. This would send the HDCP handshake into overdrive (in the case of an HD DVD) and subsequent failure, with the player displaying “HDMI ERROR 0.” Pushing “play” would then result in beginning the disc’s playback from the very first title, usually an FBI warning, followed by the main menu. Frustrated doesn’t even describe how this made me I feel. This happened no less than five times in a week.

The HDCP handshake over the HDMI connection (a necessity in order to witness the full capability of this new format digitally, particularly on 1920 x 1080 sets) is quite shaky and unreliable. On more than one occasion, simply switching to a different input on the television or projection monitor caused the HD-XA1 to display “HDMI ERROR 0” again. This was easily fixed by going back to the HD DVD input, but of course the disc begins at Title 1, the FBI warning. Even with a regular DVD inserted, the player would still flash the HDMI indicator until the television was retuned to the HD DVD input, though the disc did not need to be started over from the very beginning, as with HD DVDs.

Worse and more difficult to overcome were connection failures through an HDMI-equipped A/V receiver or some outboard HDMI switchers. Apparently, the handshake protocol is so sensitive, with this format in particular, that each disc must handshake with the monitor during every spin-up. I am not happy with the way HDCP is being implemented so far in general, particularly as the Supreme Court has ruled that the system unfairly penalizes customers by not working 100 percent of the time. Since no one can or is likely to be able to record the data stream even if it is not encrypted, I implore manufacturers of these products and suppliers of software to stop criminalizing customers for supporting their new products, especially as early adopters.

The very attractive and functional door that covers the disc compartment and transport controls (only on the HD-XA1) does not operate during power up or down and at certain times during normal operation. This seems rather sloppy, as manual operation is not encouraged in the operator’s guide, yet I was greatly tempted on more than a few occasions to pull the damn thing open so I could get my discs out faster. I beg manufacturers not to waste customers’ time and money with cutting-edge products that slow down the hard-earned commitment that we have for our beloved entertainment.

HD DVD is a breakthrough format and product, so Toshiba (along with Warner Bros. and Universal) must be highly commended for being the first out of the gate yet again with a new disc technology. The substantial 20-pound HD-XA1 offers HD DVD playback, with 5.1 surround sound available from discrete analog RCA jacks as well as digitally through coaxial or optical S/PDIF. The 1080i output from HDMI offers the finest picture quality available today from a consumer video playback device. Without a doubt, I found the picture and sound quality of the first eight discs to be outstanding, only superseded by the studio original digital masters, which take a lot more bandwidth to play and can only be seen in professional or broadcast circles.

Into the ranks of the already established sound formats of AC-3, Dolby Digital and DTS come the additions of Dolby Digital Plus (a lossy compression schema but better and more efficient than DD), Dolby Pure HD (lossless) and DTS-HD (also lossless). These new methods of sound compaction offer noticeably superior quality, even on a television’s built-in speakers. Replayed over a well-tuned six-to-12-channel surround sound system (as listed below under equipment used in this review), the results were nothing short of amazing, edging out even previous DVD releases with a DTS-EX soundtrack.

Picture quality, with the information on the discs being encoded at 1080p (though these two players currently output only 1080i) was significantly better than D-VHS’s HD (which is still MPEG-2), greatly improved over cable and satellite’s tendency to macro block during complex motion scenes, and outstandingly better than even the best DVDs. Yet this player lent itself to scaling up regular DVDs with much aplomb, albeit not quite that of a recent Faroujda, which costs simply 10 times as much money and should make DVDs look a whole lot better.

Overall, Toshiba has done a very good job at being first with the best picture and sound quality of any format yet offered. I can hardly wait for Blu-Ray discs to begin their epic journey to our screens as well.

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