Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player 
Home Theater Video Players HD DVD Players
Written by Bryan Dailey   
Saturday, 01 July 2006

Cracking open the box of my first HD DVD player, I can’t help but think back to the days of the VHS vs. Betamax and DVD-Audio vs. SACD format wars. With the pending release of Blu-ray, the competing high-definition disc format, many consumers are taking a “wait and see” attitude about which one will be the champion of the high-resolution disc. Blu-ray players are going to be in the $1,000 to $1,500 range. However Toshiba is the first to market with their HD-A1 and HD-XA1 players, $499 and $799, respectively.

Those thirsty for more HD content have braved the format war controversy and picked up these Toshiba units, which were virtually impossible to find in their first few weeks of release. However, this was partially due to a small inventory rollout from Toshiba. The company tentatively dipped their feet in the water with this player and the initial reports from consumers, staffers and custom installers have been mixed.

From a design standpoint, the HD-A1 is very unassuming. It features a muted gray and black finish with perfectly square lines and weighs in at 7.5 kg. On the front left side is the large brushed silver “on/standby” button. When the player is on, a small green light above the button glows. When the player is off, an almost too bright red light shines like a stop light. This lets you find it in the dark, but if you are one of those people who like to have a very dark bedroom, you might consider putting some black tape over this Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer beacon in the night.

Just to the right of the power button is a small fold-down door. Popping this door open unveils two USB extension ports. The instruction manual says that these ports are for USB game controllers and for additional features in the future. As of this review, there are no devices available for this unit, and you can bet that the movie studios aren’t interested in making a device that allows one to rip copies of these discs to a hard drive, so most likely these would be used for connecting a computer or for playing HD DVD-based videogames, although not with the same level of sophistication as dedicated gaming machines like the Xbox 360 or the soon to be released Blu-ray-based Playstation 3.

Up next, as we move from left to right across the front of the player, is the fold-down door for loading and unloading HD DVD, DVD and CD discs. Nothing fancy here, as this plastic door has a HD DVD logo in white on the front; the tray that slides out is also made of a consumer-grade plastic. As I have been using the slick Integra DPS-10.5, a fairly high-end up-scaling $2,500 DVD player, I found the action on the disc drawer of the HD-A1 a little sloppy, but even at $500, I keep having to reminding myself that this is the entry-level player. The disc drawer opens with the same noise you hear from a computer disc drive. There is a little play in the tray. I don’t feel there is any reason to believe the tray won’t hold up well over time, but it’s not built to the standards of good DVD players.

The most obvious difference between the HD-A1 and its more expensive counterpart is cosmetic. The more expensive HD-XA1 has a metal plate that runs the width of the player. The plate folds down and out of the way when you are loading discs. It seems like a cool feature but, as you will soon learn, anything that makes these players take longer to get from turning the player on to getting a picture on the screen is not a welcome thing.

Another feature the HD-A1 lacks that is possessed by its bigger brother, the HD-XA1, is the motion-sensitive remote. After using both units for quite some time, I found that the motion-sensitive remote in the HD-XA1 was too sensitive and would turn on even at the slightest movement. Although this makes it easy to find the correct button to push in the dark, I would often find that it can kill the mood when watching a film as you jostle around on the couch a little or your dog or cat jumps up next to you.

With the HD-A1, however, the SE-R0237 remote does not have any kind of backlight. So the problem with my dog jumping up on the couch and turning on the remove is averted. Even so, I have to get up and turn the lights on if I want to see the buttons in a dark room. I don’t use a DVD player remote the same way I use a TiVo remote, so this is not a huge issue to me. Both remotes have some serious flaws, but if I had to choose the lesser of two evils, I would say that I prefer the non-backlit remote to the one that lights up and annoyingly flashes too often.

Above the disc tray is a glass/lexan-covered display window that contains all of the LED lights that give information about the player. In the window, the player gives status indicators like the resolution that the player is outputting, from 480i/480p on up to 720p and 1080i. The player does not output 1080p, but there are few displays that can accept a true 1080p source. Timers that show the amount of time elapsed and the time remaining on a disc count down as the discs play and an indicator shows the video output format. The available options are HDMI, component video, composite and S-Video output. For this review, because I have an HDMI with HDCP-capable HDTV display, along with a receiver with HDMI switching, I ran the HDMI cable to from the player into my Integra receiver with the HDMI switching card, then into the TV. An HDMI cable is included with the unit, but if your monitor or switching system is equipped with DVI inputs, you will need an HDMI to DVI conversion cable or adapter. For my review, I used a Pure Link by Dtrovision 10-foot copper HDMI cable into one of the two inputs of my Integra DTR-10.5 receiver’s two-in x one-out HDMI switching card so I could have use of the HD DVD player and the HD-A1 and even toggle between them to compare the difference between HD movies via satellite on Dish Network vs. on HD DVD discs.

The rest of the features on the front of the player are basic disc controls, including skip backwards, skip forwards, pause, stop and play. Holding down the skip forward/backward buttons allows the disc to fast forward and pressing and then quickly releasing them make the disc skip forward or backwards to the next or previous chapter. The last button on the front right of the player is the large silver open/close control.

Set-up and Reboot
The first time the HD-A1 boots up, you might want to have a good book handy to read. The player winds up and then, after what seems like a solid 30 to 40 seconds, the hard drive starts writing. This was the first time the concept of “convergence” really hit me and it was more of a slap in the face. I know the receivers and players are becoming more computerized. TiVos are really purpose-built Linux-based computers. Media center PCs are like TiVos combined with a PC. These new Toshiba players are Windows-based computers. Unfortunately, with the incredible computing power of today’s personal computers, also come the inevitable crashes, lock-ups and slow boot times. On average, when changing discs, the time it takes for the machine to boot up and the player to do its HDMI-HDCP handshake is about 45 seconds. I was thinking of getting my exercise in by seeing how many push-ups I could do every time I change a disc.

Sliding down the hidden compartment on the long slender remote control unveils a series of numeric buttons, perfect for typing a chapter number or picking a TV channel manually if you have the remote set up to control your TV or cable box/satellite recover using the included remote codes.. The other buttons under this silver slide down panel are T.Search (an advanced search function), clear (clears out numbers you may have typed in) and the most important button on the remote, “set-up.” Pressing this button brings up a simple and very user-friendly set-up menu. A list of settings for Picture, Audio, Language, Ethernet and General Preferences then comes up. These menus are easy to navigate with the round silver cursor control button in the center of the remote and pushing the “okay” button selects your desired setting. In the picture menu, you can select the size/shape of your TV from one of three settings, 16:9, 4:3 and 4:3 letterbox. My JVC HD-ILA TV is a 16:9 set, so I left it on this, which is the default setting.

Some digital effects, including Enhanced Black Level and Picture modes, with options of Film, Video and Auto, are also available. I have almost always found that the less you have your player do to the signal, the better off you typically are, so I left the enhanced black level off and set the picture mode to Auto.

If you have a receiver or an AV preamp that supports audio on the HDMI cable, the Audio menu is where you can set up your player to output the audio signal with the picture. For my system, I ran the picture via HDMI, but I take a TosLink optical cable and run that into my Integra receiver, which is set up to automatically detect the input signal being fed to it. Users also have the option of running six RCA cables for multi-channel audio from the HD DVD player to the receiver or AV preamp.

Under the general preferences, one can set up the screen saver that will play when the machine is on but not in use, set the clock, change the onscreen play and a host of other options. The menus are basic enough that a beginner can find the correct things to look for and a more advanced user has some decent options for customizing the functionality of the machine. Pressing set-up again takes users back out of the menus and back to whatever disc is playing or to the screen saver if the player has been sitting idle for a while.

On the back of the player, a decent host of connection options are available, including video outputs for HDMI, component video, S-Video and composite video. Digital audio options include the HDMI output, if your system supports it, optical TosLink and coaxial digital (orange cable). Analog audio outputs include 5.1 surround sound outs like those on most SACD and DVD-Audio players, as well as a two-channel audio output that is perfect for running to a second TV, such as a nearby LCD that doesn’t have surround speakers. I do this to my kitchen’s TV, so if I want to watch a movie on the smaller 19-inch LDC HDTV in my kitchen, I change the HD DVD output to component video and turn up the TV and I have a folded-down stereo mix coming out of the player.

Rounding out the connections on the back is an Ethernet port, which can be confirmed to access special online contest from discs and for firmware upgrades. It also allows the player to keep its time based on a network time server. No more flashing 12:00, 12:00 like the old VCR days. A large vent with a cooling fan and a power cable receptacle are on the rear right side of the player.

What is missing from the HD-A1 vs. its more expensive counterpart, the HD-XA1, is an RS-232 control port for a custom installed control system, like a Crestron or AMX. The response time of the player when pressing the buttons on the remote is slow enough that if you are going to be using an HD DVD player in a custom theater, you’ll have to stop reading this review right now, as there is no way to control the HD-A1 via hardwire control. If you use an infrared remote, then this will not be an issue. Just be aware of this fundamental difference in the two players.

After laboring through the set-up, dealing with a few hard reboots and some HDMI connection issues, it was time to start evaluating the player. I had previously used the more expensive HD-XA1 player in my system for close to a month, so besides the cosmetic differences, I was eager to see if the picture quality between the two players was any different. The internal specs are roughly the same, so it did not surprise me when the difference in picture was completely indistinguishable during a blind side by side comparison (I enlisted a friend to help swap one player for the other). This is a small victory for budget-minded shoppers who want to know if the extra money spent on the player yields dramatically improved performance benefits, which it doesn’t. Again, the big difference is the lack of RS232 on the cheaper player.

Starting with the gritty cop drama “Training Day” (Warner Home Video), I was a little disappointed to see a noticeable gradient pattern around the rising sun as the film’s opening credits roll by. This is partially a function of my TV with its lack of an auto-iris, as first-generation JVC TVs do not have this feature, which effectively increases the dynamic contrast ratio of scenes. Moving on to the film itself, the power of the HD DVD format began to really show its muscle. The opening scene where Ethan Hawke’s character is waking up and getting ready for his first day on the job, training to be a narcotics officer, is set in a dark room. However, the amount of details that emerge from the shadows is outstanding. Moving into daylight scenes where the weaknesses of modern big-screen HDTV displays are negated, the HD-A1’s picture helped me forget some of the headaches I had been dealing with getting the unit up and running reliably.

As I noted in my review of the film, the little nuances of this drama are what really draw you into the picture. The detail in the puff of smoke as Denzel Washington’s character tricks his young trainee into smoking some PCP-laced weed is just something you aren’t going to notice the way you would even on the best up-scaling DVD player. The droplets of rain on the window of the car as Hawke and Washington’s characters patrol the streets of L.A. and the sparks that flicker from the gun barrel ends as thug gang bangers shoot at an unmarked police car are spectacular.

The sound format on the back of the disc says Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital-Plus. However, the auto-detect setting on my Integra receiver for some reason sees the digital signal on this disc, and almost every other Warner Home Video HD DVD disc, as DTS Neo 6. There has been some major confusion as to what format these Toshiba players are actually outputting, as the intro movie that plays is notated on my receiver as Dolby Pro Logic II, then switches to the DTS format when the feature movie plays. However, in the end, the sound is true discreet 5.1 and sounds as good if not better than the standard DVD player.

Moving to another spectacular-looking film, I put in the relatively new Tom Cruise film “The Last Samurai” (Warner Home Video). This film is slow and plods along like a turtle, but the battle scenes are such amazing demos that this disc could find a permanent home in any HD DVD home theater collection. The main battle in the middle of the film as Cruise leads his army of armor-clad Samurai warriors against traditionally-dressed soldiers, with their shiny buckles and navy blue suits, is a monumental clash on a well-lit field that is a recipe for a great-looking HD demo. The details may be too graphic for the weak of heart, as an arrow pierces the eye of one soldier and swords slash hearts and necks of others, but when the huge explosions start rocking the battlefield, it becomes quickly apparent that standard DVDs just aren’t going to cut it anymore.

Turning to a film with an especially entertaining opening segment, I put in the Stanley Kubrick’s classic war film “Full Metal Jacket” (Warner Home Video). Talk about a letdown. The transfer of this HD DVD is very washed-out and soft; all of the skin tones shift to a pinkish hue. Now, I know the soldiers’ newly-shaved domes haven’t gotten much sun, but the colors on this disc look horribly pink on my ISF-calibrated display. Where “Training Day” had spot-on colors, “Full Metal Jacket” was quite off, grainy and very soft-looking. The level of detail that can be seen vs. the standard DVD version was improved and I appreciate the fact that the widescreen transfer was enhanced for my 16x9 TV. However, I would never put this disc in to impress my friends and family with the capabilities of HD DVD.

Right in line for worst HD DVD transfer behind “Full Metal Jacket” is “Goodfellas” (Warner Home Video). The best way to replicate its look is to take a very high-resolution, bright picture, then put a small layer of slightly frosted glass over it that has a pinkish hue. To make sure this was not something my set-up was doing to the player, I put in the Academy Award-winning “Million Dollar Baby” (Warner Home Video). Ah, yes. Someone peeled away the layer of fuzz that was getting in the way of the high-def experience. This film has very muted, almost black and white hues, but the quality of the skin tones, the details in an aging Clint Eastwood’s face, the creases on the heavy bag and the bricks of the gym as young Maggie (Hilary Swank) fights to be come the ultimate female boxing champ are what this format is all about.

The Downside
As Tom Petty said, “The waiting is the hardest part.” Not only does the player take a while to boot up, but any time you want to make a change to your video output resolution or call up an onscreen menu, such as the HD DVD player’s info or the receiver set-up menu, the HDMI connection gets really moody. The movie studios want to make sure people don’t break the all-digital connection and insert something into the loop, so when this connection is interfered with, the player gives the infamous HDMI error message that makes us early adopters cringe.

Even Toshiba fully discloses that “HDMI is an evolving technology, so it is possible that some devices may not operate properly with this player.” Well, I’m here to tell you first-hand that it currently sucks. My Integra receiver has an HDMI 1.1 switching card in it that worked flawlessly with my Satellite receiver and Integra DVD player with HDMI output. With the HD DVD player in the loop, 50 percent of the time, the display does not get the correct “handshake” from the player and the movie will start playing the sound but the picture will be missing. Once I have rebooted the player, it then works fine. To see if it was the receiver and not the player to blame, I tested the player going straight into the TV. The results were slightly better, as there was one less component requiring the HDCP “handshake,” but there were still a great number of times that I had to power off and on the machine. Frustrating, to say the least. home video reviewer Darren Gross has the same player going analog out into a CRT HDTV and experiences fewer delays because he doesn’t need to make a handshake, but as soon as the studios start putting down-resolution code on the discs, Gross will be relegated to either 480p (which is not anything close to HD) or stuck buying a new HDTV with an HDMI input. And he isn’t alone. Reportedly, there are over 7,000,000 HDTV sets with no HDCP-compliant input.

Having to reboot up the player and needing press the “V Output” four times before the HDMI signal would pass through to my display was a major drag. The response time when pushing buttons on the remote is reminiscent of the turtle running around the track I mentioned earlier. When changing the video resolutions, a menu pops up that says, “Resolution key was pressed. Playback will start from the beginning so that the resolution can be changed. Press OK button.” Then the disc goes back to the beginning and you have to go through the whole song and dance to get back to where you were. This is not an effective way to determine whether your TV and system is better at displaying the 1080i signal or the 720p. It takes a trained eye to recall the differences, as the amount of time elapsed when performing this task is quite substantial. If there was a way to allow one to change resolutions on the fly using the HDMI connection, it would be much easier for the non-video calibrators of the world to compare the different resolutions. The differences between 480i/p are absolutely night and day. However, on my set, which automatically down-resolves 1080i to 720p, I found the best picture came from telling the player to output 720p.

When changing the resolution and starting the player back up from the beginning menu of a disc, several times the player’s audio output decided to stop working. Unplugging the unit from my APS battery backup system for a hard reboot fixed the problem, but it’s just another indication of how the early adopter road can be a bumpy one. Stuff just happens to the HD-A1 that is inexplicable. Nine times out of 10, turning it off, unplugging it for a few minutes, then turning it back on seems to solve the problem, but does it ever get old, fast.

I wish I could rave about every HD DVD disc I have seen, but I can’t. The picture quality of the player is absolutely source-dependent. More modern film such as “The Last Samurai,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Million Dollar Baby” are spectacular, bright and vibrant. Older films like “Full Metal Jacket,” “Goodfellas” and “Apollo 13” are a little soft and light and have poor colors. The best-looking standard DVDs, such as the newer “Star Wars” films, looked almost as good as the worst HD DVDs. Whoever picked the titles to launch the format should be fired. The lack of titles is one issue, but not putting the absolute best-looking titles out to lure people is simply making the wrong statement about why consumers should purchase a clunky new player that seems to add as much frustration to your life as it does increase the video performance of your HDTV.

The hard reality is that there is still a major void in the world of HD content. Even with Dish Network, one of the largest sources of HD content, on any given day, the odds of finding something truly compelling on HD are tough. Sure, I can record stuff on my DVR, but then I’m watching playback of a very compressed video signal and I only have about 20 hours of storage space for HD content, so keeping any kind of real library of HD movies is not really feasible on a PVR. There is no question the video on this HD DVD player is better and less compressed than what you will see from your cable or satellite. In fact, it is much better.

Blu-ray players are rumored to have much faster boot-up times (15 seconds, compared to about 45 seconds on the Toshiba HD-A1), but they are also carrying a much heftier price tag out of the gate, with some players costing three times the amount of the $499 Toshiba HD-A1. Even at $499, Toshiba knows they will have to drop the price of their player to sub-$100 levels to land the market penetration that standard DVD currently enjoys. For now, it seems like they are happy to try to just work the bugs out.

It would be easy for me to tell you that this player is a $500 paperweight, but it does have its upsides. Once you get through the initial start-up, get used to waiting nearly a minute for your discs to start playing and can tolerate the HDMI errors should you run the player digitally, the pot of gold at the end of this crappy brown rainbow is a pretty damn spectacular picture when viewing well-mastered HD discs. I have to say I actually give the less expensive of the players an edge in a head to head battle, because of the faster disc door opening times, the non-motion sensitive remote and the fact that there are going to be much better HD DVD players someday and you wont feel quite so burned when you decide to upgrade. Sure, $500 is a nice chunk of change, but the extra $300 you didn’t spend on a first-generation player can be put towards your first Blu-ray player, should you decide to support both formats, or towards your second-generation HD DVD player that we hope puts out 1080p. Of course, this is after you have bought your TV that accepts a true, native 1080p signal.

The bottom line: this is a player full of bugs, but when it’s working right, it’s an adequate DVD player/CD transport and the HD discs that you can play on it look much better than standard DVDs. It doesn’t output 1080p, even though the discs are mastered in 1080p. Perhaps there will someday be a firmware upgrade that speeds up the boot time and allows the player to output 1080p, but my guess is those benefits will come in the form of a second- or third-generation player. The problem is that, by failing with the first player on so many levels, there may not be a chance for these to catch on. After seeing how good HD DVD can be, however, I know that down the road, one if not both of the hi-res disc formats have to survive. Too many HDTVs are selling each month for it not to happen. Just know you’ll need some patience if you want to be the first on your block to rock the Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD player in your system.
Manufacturer Toshiba
Model HD-A1 HD DVD Player
Reviewer Bryan Dailey

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