|Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD Player|
|Home Theater Video Players HD DVD Players|
|Written by Bryan Dailey|
|Tuesday, 01 May 2007|
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I’ve been using Seabiscuit (Universal Studios Home Video) as a reference as long as I have had an HDTV, from the DVD version on my original JVC HD-61Z575 through an upscaling Integra DPS-10.5 DVD player to the HD DVD version on my 1080i Microsoft Xbox 360 HD DVD player into my current JVC HD-61FN97. Now, with a 1080p native display and a 1080p-capable player, it was time to see this movie in the best way possible on my display.
The sequence I always go to first is Chapter 11. This scene opens with a wide shot of the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, California. It has beautiful snow-capped mountains on the horizon and a lot of detail in the center of the track, with spectators milling about on the infield. Having seen this shot hundreds of times on a great variety of players and displays, I was not blown away, but I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of new detail, most notably the shadow detail in the mountains.
I’ll probably be even more impressed with this film on a Deep Color display, but in the meantime, this is just about as perfect as a movie can get. The skin tones on the Toshiba were rock-solid and more refined than the same disc when viewed on the HD DVD player of the Xbox 360. The Xbox’s only HD output option is component video, and the max resolution is only 1080i, and while it does look fantastic, the picture is unquestionably more stable on the Toshiba. From the white rails on the racetrack to the very hard-to-resolve mesh lines of the chain link fences, there is much less flicker around these fine edges and less “stair stepping.” The Silicon Optix video processor assists the player greatly in this regard and can really be seen in the “waving flag” test pattern on the HD DVD Benchmark test disc, as well as the spinning bar pattern called the “Diagonal Filter Jaggies Test.”
There is very little source material at this point that is mastered in DTS-HD, but DTS, famous for their AV demo discs, has released an HD DVD test disc that features some incredible high-def audio and video tracks. The track “Salisbury Hill” performed by Peter Gabriel is a killer demo with stunning visuals. DTS also has a version of this song that was featured on the DVD Peter Gabriel – Growing Up Live (Universal Music and Video Distrubution) remastered in HD video and DTS-HD master audio for HD DVD. For some strange reason, Peter Gabriel rides a bike around a circular rotating stage while singing through a headset microphone. The mix is not overly aggressive, with little instrumentation mixed into the rear speakers, but the clarity of this live recording is spectacular. I would assume that Gabriel’s vocals were also re-cut in the studio, as well as most if not all of the instruments, because the amount of separation and clarity on this disc is outstanding. We never hear Gabriel miss a beat, despite the fact that he is riding a bike against the flow of a rotating stage. It’s a very interesting visual that I don’t fully understand, but you have to remember that this is the man that led pre-pop Genesis and used to wear theatrical makeup and glitter on stage, so you should always expect the unexpected at a Peter Gabriel show. Visually, this live music excerpt is one of the best-looking concert tracks I have ever seen. The shine of the lights off the polished surfaces, such as the drum hardware and the front of the bass and guitars, is flashy eye candy and, in 1080p, it’s an undeniable visual treat. Occasionally, the editor cuts to a low-res “bike handlebar cam” and it’s completely jarring to move from some of the best-looking concert footage to this awful grainy shot of Peter Gabriel’s nostril as he sings into his Time Life Operator meets Janet Jackson-style headset. When the camera pans back to show the full arena, the level of detail again is breathtaking. The stage in the center of the arena surrounded by lights from every angle illuminates the crowd with varying colors and shades. In the areas of the crowd that are lit by non-colored, filtered light, you can see such detail as the back pockets of people’s pants and handbags on women’s shoulders. The only time I noticed visual anomalies is when a low camera catches a direct shot of a moving stage light. A large amount of contouring would occur as the camera picks up what is essentially lens flare. This should be minimized in theory by the Deep Color™ feature that I previously mentioned. In an extreme case, such as a concert light shining directly into a camera lens, I bet there would still be contouring, even with the Deep Color™ feature.
Despite not being a perfect demo, this Peter Gabriel track left me chomping at the bit for not only a full-length HD DVD release of Growing Up Live, but made me think about the fact that Rush has been recording their recent concerts with high-def cameras, so don’t be surprised if you see HD DVD and Blu-ray releases of their concerts some time soon.
Like Seabiscuit, another film I have seen in just about every format imaginable is Superman Returns (Warner Home Video). It was decent, yet disappointedly grainy on traditional DVD. The Blu-ray version was markedly better, but still not eye-popping, as it had what I felt was a slightly washed-out look to it and there is a great deal of video compression that is evident. The winner of the three is the HD DVD version, although it too suffers from some compression artifacts. The colors on the HD DVD release are the most vibrant, yet not over the top. This film is a little confusing stylistically, as director Bryan Singer dances the fine line between making it a modern film, yet seems to push certain colors such as orange and yellow to give the film a slightly vintage sepia look in some scenes. However, it is supposed to be the most recent of all the Superman films in terms of the timeline. The action sequences don’t seem to have the golden glow that the scenes in the Daily Planet newspaper offices do. Mostly rendered on computers, the shots of Superman in action are primarily digital and have much less noticeable film grain and other visual artifacts that they make for great demos.
A particular favorite scene that I like to use to test a display and player is the scene where Superman saves the plane that is launching the space shuttle into orbit. Lois Lane, a distinguished member of the press thanks to her award-winning feature article ”Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” just so happens to be on the plane along with a whole host of reporters who are covering the event. After a malfunction, the plane and space shuttle fail to disengage, spelling disaster for all the passengers aboard both crafts. This is all being covered live on TV, so Clark Kent, at a local Metropolis pub with Jimmy Olsen, is able to quickly step out and fly to the plane’s rescue.
This action-packed scene is a spectacular demo for several reasons. The Dolby True HD soundtrack and even the legacy Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks are a bombastic and rip-roaring test for your speakers. The sound of the rocket engines, combined with Superman flying at warp speed to get up to the plane and the flashing warning signals at the NASA command center make for some real edge-of-your-seat action.
The next element where the HD DVD version shines over the DVD and Blu-ray version on the HD-XA2 are the shots inside the plane where Lois and the other press members are tossed around like rag dolls as the plane spins out of control. For one brief moment, when the plane hits near zero gravity before its free fall, the yellow breath masks float in mid-air and light beams shine through the side of the plane’s windows, allowing you to see the finest of details, including the dust floating in the air. The picture on the Blu-ray version, most likely due to how it was encoded, was just light enough that I didn’t really catch that detail, and on the DVD version, there was really no chance of seeing this. A sudden change in direction from an explosion breaks this serene moment of near zero gravity and Lois is slammed against the back of the plane. The combination of my JVC rear-projection TV and the Toshiba HD-XA2 did not display motion artifacts as Lois’ body is hurled throughout the cabin.
A prime example of the contouring that in theory should be corrected by the Deep Color™ feature is when Superman breaks the space shuttle off from the plane and sends it safely off to outer space. As the rocket engines fire and the shuttle drifts off into the distance, there are noticeable rings around the engine exhaust that looks like bright sunshine. I have seen this contouring issue on every version of this movie on every player, and it also appears here on the HD-XA2, but I have to say that contour bands are the least defined and jagged on the new Toshiba.
The climactic end of this scene, when Superman flies back down to stop the plane just before it buries itself deep and explodes in the middle of a major league baseball park, is where the over-the-top eye candy is most evident. One of the wings of the plane breaks off and the Man of Steel flies right through it, ripping a hole in it. The detail in the jagged edges of the torn wing and the shrapnel that flies off is so realistic, it’s frightening.
When Superman finally catches up to the plane and gets in front to slow it down, the momentum shift causes ripples in the sheet metal that translates to HD DVD like a champ. I’m surprised the filmmakers didn’t go so far as to show individual rivets popping out of the metal as the shock waves move through the body of the plane’s hull. I guess the world really did need Superman that day.
A great test for the upconverting capabilities of any DVD player is the tenth anniversary DVD release of Toy Story (Pixar/Buena Vista Home Entertainment). Not only is computer-generated animation filled with bright vivid colors, but it has a menu at the beginning of the disc that will tell you if the player suffers from a problem that videophiles have discovered in many DVD players and MPEG decoders. This error is called a “chroma error” and, not to get into a lengthy geeky explanation, but the gist of the problem is that, when improperly decoded, red objects can appear jagged and streaky. The Toy Story menus feature a red TV set on the right side of the screen with the Toy Story Logo in it and underneath it are group of little green aliens with antennas on top of their heads. It just so happens that one of the aliens’ tentacles waves back and forth in front of the red TV. On a DVD player that has this chroma error, you can see very distinct jagged red lines bleed over into the round green end of the alien’s tentacle.
The Toshiba, which has the ability to de-interlace the picture and output it at 1080p, did a fantastic job of resolving the red in the Toy Story logo. No chroma error here. With that test out of the way, I allowed the movie to play, not only to see if I could find other chroma errors (I found none), but also to see how the HD-XA2 performed as a whole. Once you have watched enough native 1080p content, there really is no fooling the eye into thinking that 480p converted to 1080p is as good as real HD, but this is the best high-def player that I have seen so far when it comes to de-interlacing a DVD and outputting it in 1080p. There was a three-dimensionality to the picture on the Toshiba that rivaled my reference Integra DPS-10.5 DVD player – so much so, in fact, that for the past few weeks I have found myself going to the Toshiba more often than the Integra when playing DVD movies.
In the sequence of Toy Story where Buzz Lightyear, voiced by Tim Allen, tries to rocket himself into outer space down a large ramp from the top of the bed, there were minimal motion artifacts and well-defined, clean lines on the edges of each of the characters, giving them a sense of depth. As the film is computer-animated, the filmmakers are able to control the depth of field and focus in a way that real cameras can’t do and the effect is surreal. I found the de-interlaced 480p version to be almost as good as the highly compressed high-def broadcasts of animated features on Dish Network, such as The Incredibles (Pixar) and Ice Age (20th Century Fox).
The Panasonic Blu-ray player had the chroma error when I tested it, but this may have since been corrected with a firmware update. The PS3 is probably the best Blu-ray player out, but it does not, as of April 2007, scale DVDs up to 1080p. If you have a large collection of DVDs that you want to keep but want to ditch your DVD player, I have to say the Toshiba HD-XA2 is the leader of the pack so far in this department.