Toshiba HD-A20 HD DVD Player 
Home Theater Video Players HD DVD Players
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Wednesday, 01 August 2007

HD DVD vs. Blu-ray. It seems, once again, consumers are in the middle of yet another format war. While round one has seemingly come and gone with the introduction of both parties’ initial efforts a little over a year ago, like all good fights, nothing is ever won in the first round and consumers now find themselves entrenched in round two. You could argue that round one had to go to Blu-ray (despite missing the opening bell by months) with their true 1080p support trumping HD DVD’s 1080i-only resolution. However, the victory was a hollow one, for the first batch of 1080p discs were less than stellar and often looked worse then their HD DVD and sometimes even standard DVD counterparts. Now, both sides have full 1080p support and, with the introduction of the new Toshiba HD-A20 reviewed here, it seems HD DVD’s trump card is now price. At $499 retail, the HD-A20 is now the most economic way to score true 1080p content for your home theater set-up, undercutting even the cheapest Blu-ray players by over $300. Will round two go to Toshiba and their latest HD DVD offering, or should consumers expect a 12-round slugfest to be decided by popular opinion once the dust settles?

I suppose I’m not your typical consumer, in that I support both Blu-ray and HD DVD equally, having bought both players in numbers for nearly every room in my house. This being said, I long for the day when I will have a universal solution, not unlike my Denon universal players, which will do every audio and video format and come at a price that will suit my wallet. My previous experience with HD DVD came from the first-generation Toshiba HD-XA1 player. While the image was often exceptional, the functionality and day-to-day livability of the XA1 was atrocious. My Sony BDP-S1 was and has always been more reliable than the XA1 and has remained my favorite HD source until now.

The HD-A20 is less flashy than my old XA1, and thank god. While the XA1 caught the eye of nearly everyone who saw it in my rack, its silly trapdoor and subsequent hidden controls were an absolute nightmare. The HD-A20 is sleek and the epitome of simplicity. It measures in at 17 inches wide by nearly three inches tall and 15 inches deep. The HD-A20 sports a glossy black and charcoal grey façade, with only a blue backlit power button, disc tray and small LCD display screen barely cluttering up its front. You have to open up the grey trapdoor to reveal the HD-A20’s manual controls. Turning my attention aft, I found the traditional array of outputs. The HD-A20 has a single HDCP-compliant HDMI 1.2a output that supports all resolutions, including up-conversion of standard-def DVDs up to 1080p, as well as multi-channel audio in the form of Dolby TrueHD. While HDMI 1.3 is the new benchmark, having hit the streets only a short while ago, the HD-A20’s 1.2a HDMI output is currently the best you can do in the world of HD DVD, unless you opt for the much more expensive HDMI 1.3-equipped Toshiba HD-XA2. The HD-A20 also features a set of component video outs, as well as composite and S-Video. There is a single set of analog audio outs and a single digital optical audio output. Lastly, the HD-A20 has an Ethernet port to facilitate future upgrades, in addition to two USB ports.

Under the bonnet, the HD-A20 supports most of the current disc formats, with the exception of MP3 or WMA-encoded discs and of course Blu-ray. The HD-A20 also supports all of the current Dolby and DTS surround sound processing formats, including the new Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD, which are said to produce surround sound performance equal to the original studio masters. More, or should I say most importantly, the HD-A20 features the new ABT1018 high-performance video-scaling chip from Anchor Bay (the parent company of DVDO). The ABT1018 is Anchor Bay’s second-generation scaling chipset targeted at high-definition applications, mainly HD DVD and Blu-ray players, which prefer high-definition resolutions such as 1080p. The ABT1018 uses a proprietary 10-bit Precision Video Scaling engine that is capable of independently scaling both horizontal and vertical resolution simultaneously for better picture quality. It’s the same chipset found in DVDO’s flagship video scaler/processor, the DVDO iScan VP50, which retails for $2,999 and is featured in the June issue of Needless to say, to have this level of processing in an inexpensive player such as the HD-A20 is not only a huge benefit to the consumer, but also a tremendous value.

As for the remote… well, shockingly, it doesn’t offend me. It’s not the greatest, but it is leaps and bounds better than my old Toshiba XA-1 remote, which I found absolutely appalling. The HD-A20’s remote is sleek and well laid-out, but sadly doesn’t feature any sort of backlighting. However, I do appreciate its simplicity, trading the XA-1 remote’s awe factor for sheer usability, which is always a good thing in my book. If only it were backlit. It doesn’t feature glow in the dark keys, but unless you store your remote under a lamp all the time to charge up the keys, it doesn’t compare to a backlit remote.

Out of the box and into my rack, I connected the HD-A20 to my Yamaha RX-V861, which was subbing for my reference Meridian G68 processor for this review, due to its HDMI inputs and 1080p support. I connected the HD-A20 to the Yamaha receiver via a single HDMI cable from UltraLink, to take full advantage of the HD-A20’s audio and video capabilities. The rest of my system was comprised of my reference Meridian in-wall speakers and Sony Pearl projector.

I fired up the HD-A20 and set its menu controls for 1080p video up-scaling and output, then set the audio to be output through its single HDMI out.

I ran a series of quick tests for HDCP or “handshake” issues, as well as gauged the HD-A20’s various start-up and load times with a variety of different audio and video formats. In terms of HDCP handshake issues, there were none whatsoever; the HD-A20 performed flawlessly. I was able to achieve a brilliant picture from a cold start, as well as retain said picture when switching between other HD sources before returning to the HD-A20. This lone fact was enough to excite me, so much so that I began to literally jump up and down with joy. My former HD DVD player, the Toshiba HD-XA1, never was able to accomplish this task. Hell, it sometimes wouldn’t even play an HD DVD without me having to restart and/or unplug the machine three or four times. As for start-up and load times, the HD-A20 isn’t immediate, but it is better than the first-generation HD DVD players and is a bit quicker than my Sony Blu-ray player as well. I found the load times to be quicker with music CDs and standard-definition DVDs than with HD DVDs, but overall, it is much improved and easier than ever to use.

Movies And Music
I started my evaluation with the HD-A20 with a brief two-channel demo, largely in part because my old XA-1 (despite the manufacturer’s claims) never played standard CDs. I cued up one of Michael Jackson’s later albums, Dangerous (Sony), and started with the first track, “Jam.” This track opens with the vivid sounds of shattering glass, followed by an aggressive bass line, which was realistically portrayed and extremely natural-sounding through the HD-A20, with tremendous air and decay throughout the treble, and good heft and impact in the bass. Michael’s vocals were very well defined and natural, held firmly in place by the HD-A20’s strong center image. The midrange was warm and a tad rounder-sounding overall compared to other players I had on hand which aided the HD-A20’s smooth sonic character. The soundstage was incredibly impressive, not only in terms of width and depth, but also in terms of resolution, allowing for all of the musical elements to exist independently of one another without fear of sonic smearing. Switching tracks to “In the Closet,” the HD-A20’s dynamic prowess impressed me most. When the chorus kicks in, it is heralded by a loud and snappy “digital” rim shot, which was extremely punchy and free from any sort of perceivable compression through the HD-A20. The vocals were again very natural-sounding, with a good sense of weight and presence, as though the performers were in the room. The bass was taut and incredibly deep without excess bloat. Honestly, from a two-channel-only perspective, the HD-A20 is no slouch and performed well beyond what you’d expect from a player geared more toward high-definition film reproduction than audiophile fare.

I decided to switch gears and focus on multi-channel music, opting for the DVD-A release of R.E.M.’s In Time: The Best of R.E.M. (WEA). Starting with my personal favorite “All the Way to Reno,” the surround sound performance, in both Dolby Digital and DTS formats, was excellent. The sheer sense of scale and space the HD-A20 brought to the presentation was exceptional. The cymbals hung effortlessly in space, with a good sense of air and decay, all the while sounding natural and lifelike in their scale and placement within the soundstage. Michael Stipe’s vocals retained their raspy quality without sounding overtly compressed and had just a tinge of warmth, which I found to be a welcome addition. The snare drum was snappy and I could hear the skins vibrating after each impact of the sticks. On the track “Electrolite,” the piano was room-filling and ever so slightly larger than life, aided by the track’s slight reverberation. The round tones of the piano itself were rife with air and remained extremely resolute even with the recorded reverberation, allowing me to hear each chord change and keystroke cleanly, with no signs of slurring. The accompanying string quartet was beautifully rendered through the HD-A20, with enough detail that I could feel the bows quivering along the strings. The midrange was a bit more pure and neutral-sounding when compared to the HD-A20’s two-channel performance, especially when it came to the track’s vocals. The bass, while not incredibly deep in this particular track, was well-defined and complimented the rest of the musical spectrum nicely without overpowering it. Again, like its two-channel performance, the sheer musicality of the HD-A20 with multi-channel music was a quite welcome surprise.

Next, I fired up the Christian Bale sci-fi action thriller Equilibrium (Dimension Home Entertainment) on DVD. As this is a slightly older DVD, I thought Equilibrium would be a good test of the HD-A20’s upscaling prowess, and what a test it was. Ignoring the audio presentation for a moment, the video quality of Equilibrium through the HD-A20 defied belief. While the film itself is mostly desaturated, with deep blacks, it was the dimensionality, sharpness and smooth motion throughout that impressed me most. As I watched Equilibrium, I found myself scratching my head, thinking I had somehow obtained a copy of the film in HD – the edge fidelity, motion tracking and overall crispness were that good. The actors appeared as if they were somehow standing in a three-dimensional space, rather than being projected onto the two-dimensional surface of my Screen Research screen. The black levels were incredibly impressive both in their depth and in the amount of perceivable detail I could see throughout, even in the most dimly lit scenes. White levels too, were quite good, appearing very natural with zero signs of blooming. Skin tones, while muted (with the exception of Emily Watson), were incredibly well-defined and textured without appearing excessively glossy or, worse, porous. When color was finally introduced to the film, it was extremely punchy, vibrant and natural in its overall saturation and clarity. During the climatic fight between Christian Bale and “Father,” their ballet-like sparring match was rendered without a single trace of motion artifacts or “jaggies” as their bodies continually crossed in front of and around stark vertical and horizontal architectural elements. The HD-A20’s presentation of Equilibrium was the best example I’ve seen of upsampled standard-definition content this side of the five grand mark. Sonically, the HD-A20 didn’t disappoint one bit. The surround sound presentation was larger than life, filling my reference room with all the atmosphere and action I could handle. The gunshots, of which there are many, were incredibly dynamic and detailed, with a good amount of both treble and bass information unlike the plodding “boom” sounds you hear in most films. Dialogue was clear and intelligible, even when the actors themselves were doing their best to keep secrets.

I ended my evaluation of the HD-A20 with the HD DVD presentation of Children of Men starring Clive Owen (Universal Studios Home Video). Children of Men, while not a pick-me-up sort of film, is incredibly well-produced and features some spectacular visuals, along with some very interesting surround sound mastering. That said, the HD-A20’s presentation of Children of Men was magnificent. Visually, the HD-A20’s image was as good as it gets for HD DVD. The image was crystal clear, incredibly sharp with no signs of excess grain or pixilation throughout the frame. Edge fidelity was excellent and well-defined, giving the image even more of that three-dimensional feel I saw with standard DVDs. The sheer depth displayed in the images themselves was awe-inspiring, seemingly going on for days. In terms of an overall sense of scale and “being there” quality, the HD-A20’s image is as good as any I’ve seen, regardless of price. The colors were incredibly accurate and lifelike and complimented beautifully by the HD-A20’s terrific black levels, which made even the most muted colors appear to pop off the screen. Skin tones, while cold in nature, were rendered truthfully and had a real sense of dimension to them that helped draw me in to the emotions of the characters on the screen. During the climatic battle in the refugee camp, the rapid action, debris and war-torn village proved little concern for the HD-A20’s internal chipsets, as each and every detail was rendered without incident. I could detect no signs of floating in the blacks during rapid pans or complex shots, nor was there any stair-stepping in the image, even when it was presented with the often difficult task of displaying mini-blinds in windows. The motion, be it the camera or action on screen, was very lifelike and smooth. Sonically, the HD-A20’s surround sound presentation was just as amazing. The sheer scope to the sonic landscape was not only room-filling, but also room-transporting, as even the minutest sounds couldn’t escape the HD-A20’s grasp. The treble was pristine, smooth and free from glare or harshness, even at insane volumes. The midrange, particularly the vocals, was warm and inviting and extremely articulate. Often, actors with lower, more baritone voices can sound a bit garbled as your source components and speakers work out the delicate balance between the bass and midrange drivers. This was not the case with the HD-A20’s uncompressed HDMI audio signal, as every voice, high or low, sounded very natural. Speaking of bass, the thundering explosions that rock most of the last 15 minutes of the film were tremendously deep, with the system all the while remaining in complete control. Children of Men, as played through the HD-A20, has to go down in history as one of the best overall HD DVD demos I’ve ever seen, and it was in my house. How cool.

The Downside
While I absolutely adore the HD-A20, there are a few issues I have with it. First is its build quality. While the XA-1 was a substantial piece of hardware with a price to match, the HD-A20 seems a bit flimsy around the edges and frankly not indicative of a player costing close to $500. The disc tray seems overly fragile and, if you have small children or someone in your home who isn’t careful when loading discs, I fear it will break.

I would’ve liked to see the inclusion of a digital coaxial audio out. It’s not that coax is better than optical or vice versa, but if you have a lot of sources in your system, you may run out of digital audio inputs on the back of your receiver or processor and it would be extremely beneficial to have an extra choice when it comes to connecting your hardware, especially if you’re unable to take advantage of the HD-A20’s HDMI audio output.

Lastly, there’s the remote. While I liked its size, shape and layout, it fell short in the backlighting department. It was this omission that kept the HD-A20’s remote from becoming one of my favorites in recent memory, which is no small compliment, if I do say so myself.

At $499 retail, the HD-A20, with its ABT1018 chipset from Anchor Bay (DVDO), is not only an incredible value for the money, but quite possibly the best HD DVD player on the market today. The image quality the HD-A20 is capable of achieving with both HD DVD and standard DVDs is truly impressive. Throw in its surprising musicality and you’re left with one hell of a good player, and not just for the price. With all the headaches I received from my first-generation HD DVD player, the Toshiba HD-XA1, I began to wonder if Toshiba was ever going to catch up to Blu-ray. Well, they have, and done so with gusto. The HD-A20 may just be the best HD DVD player out there today, even better than Toshiba’s own (and costlier) HD-XA2. In my opinion, I’d say round two goes to Toshiba and their HD-A20.
Manufacturer Toshiba
Model HD-A20 HD DVD Player
Reviewer Andrew Robinson

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