Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD Player 
Home Theater Video Players HD DVD Players
Written by Jeremy R. Kipnis   
Thursday, 01 June 2006

Introduction
With tremendous hype and noted delays, HD DVD players have hit the market, allowing consumers to see HD movies from a commercially available disc for the first time. Two players mark the launch of the format: the Toshiba HD-XA1 ($799.95) and HD-A1 HD DVD ($499.95). The launch is a cautious one, with reportedly only 15,000 units being shipped for the first run of players, leaving stores like Sears and Best Buy to sell off their small number of players relatively quickly.

Initial software offerings are quite pleasing, with Warner Bros. correctly featuring “Phantom of the Opera” and “The Last Samurai” alongside Universal’s “Serenity” (apparently alternating with Warner’s “Million Dollar Baby,” which came out the following week, due to a mastering concern by the producers). Also available in the second week (Tuesday, April 25) were releases that included Universal’s “Apollo 13” and “Doom” for a total of six HD DVD titles at the end of April 2006. Roughly 10,000 copies of each title are being pressed initially, yet many retailers have sold out of both player and discs.

How HD DVD Works
The new HD DVD format, featuring a maximum bandwidth (or continuous flow-through) of 36.55 megabytes per second (Mbps) is able to serve up a far superior picture with much better sound quality than even D-VHS (at about 28 Mbps) or, for that matter, Cable – Satellite – and/or Broadcast HDTV (which top out at about 19 Mbps, or roughly half the information per second on a good day). By comparison, DVD has a maximum bandwidth of 10 Mbps. This high-definition variation on DVD uses new and cutting edge technologies like a Blue Laser operating at 405 nanometers (nM), which increases storage capacity by over three times that of a DVD’s 680 nM red laser, along with two greatly more efficient codecs: MPEG-4 AVC and VC-1 (WMV-9), as well as conventional MPEG-2, that are capable of delivering vastly more transparent image and sound quality while taking up one-third of the space of our old friend MPEG-2, used for DVD, SD and HD cable and satellite programs. Combined together, the increased storage capacity of 15 gigabytes per single-layer or 30 gigabytes per double-layer HD DVD disc (compared to 800 megabytes for a CD or nine gigabytes for a double-layer DVD) can accommodate significantly more information than any previously mass-produced disc format. The limits of this new disc are clearly in the hands of the program producers.


Consumers in this country have come to expect a lot more for their HDTV, DVD and videogame dollars than they ever did when we all were watching standard-definition digital TV, DVD or PlayStation One up to a decade ago. $20 to $30 for a new movie released on disc today or $50 to $60 for a new game has come to mean very good picture and sound quality to most people, solid game play for many and the opportunity to amass a library of favorites to enjoy repeatedly with friends and family.

But, in fact, most discs sold in America are actually between $5 and $15 per disc, particularly after a title has been available for a year or two and has been heavily discounted. It turns out in recent studies that over 76 percent of owners of HDTVs are not even looking at an HD picture but rather the SD portion of the signal, resulting in no better and sometimes worse performance than anyone used to experience with a standard-definition television. I have even seen several threads on the Internet from people who honestly could not tell that HD DVD was even slightly different-looking or better than DVD precisely because they hooked up the S-Video connection (capable of only 480i) or did not set up their component video or HDMI output for a 1080i signal. As frightening as it is for consumers to be expecting HDTV to flow through an S-video cable, it is equally important to teach them that this high-resolution video is best sent via an HDMI video cable to your HDTV. Sets with only DVI inputs can use a simple adaptor to make the needed connection and all-important “digital handshake.”

The Player
Toshiba is the first company to release an HD DVD player, as they were with the very first DVD player, the Toshiba SD-2006, sold in March 1997 for $499.99. They also brought out a high-end model, the SD-3006, at $599.99, which thoughtfully added gold-plated connectors and a component video output, a novelty in those days. Like that first production run of DVD players, Toshiba has spent a lot of time and effort making this new player functional and aesthetically pleasing. The new HD-XA1 is a somewhat massive source component: 13.39 inches deep, 4.33 inches high, 17.72 inches wide and weighing in at nearly twenty pounds, as compared to most recent DVD players, which are little more than one-quarter rack space high and weigh about as much as a box of crackers. The less expensive sibling is about the same size at 12 by 20 by 16 inches and lighter at 12 pounds.

There is an attractive motorized front door covering the bottom front bezel of the player that discreetly hides the disc drawer, transport controls and two USB 2.0 ports for the use of future gaming controllers, keyboards and other accessories. The rear apron contains the familiar left and right audio channels, coaxial and component video connections on RCA jacks, an S-Video, a single HDMI output with HDCP encryption (as dictated by the software you are playing), and both coaxial and optical S/PDIF for full digital output of just about every previously available surround sound format, plus several new ones, to an outboard surround processor. There is also an RS-232C connector, suitable for automated control, using a touch screen or house-wide control system, and lastly an RJ-45 Ethernet port for connection to the Internet, which is also your gateway to firmware upgrades, software package add-ons such as live commentary by the producers along with the film, liner notes, games, and other after-market considerations. Only the firmware option has been tested to date, as no software is yet making use of this feature.

One of the most important outputs found on both the high and low-end players is a 5.1 analog output on RCA jacks. This will be the only way most people can actually hear the new Dolby Digital Plus (lossy), Dolby Pure HD and DTS-HD (both lossless), part of most HD DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, until manufacturers officially offer a receiver or surround processor that handles these high-resolution sources without down-rezing.

What do I mean by down-rezing? Well, in both electronic digital image and sound recreation, any master source starts out captured to digital at a particular high resolution or number of bits per second, equaling the required bandwidth per second indicated for the format. A 1080p studio source master (>55 Mpbs) must be down-rezed or scaled in order to be seen through 1080i compressed cable or satellite (<19 Mbps). In doing so, information is lost to the compression schema. The images become softer, less detailed and much more prone to macro-blocking, noise and other artifacts. Further, a 1080i source must be down-rezed through a scaler in order to be seen on a 1280 x 720p display. Again, information is lost, although in this last example a television’s built-in scaler will usually add edge enhancement to cover the loss, both horizontally and vertically. It is the same with digital audio. The new HD audio formats must currently be down-rezed in order to be heard externally using an outboard digital surround decoder. Therefore, all of the latest HD sound formats will have their signals scaled down to an existing lossy format currently in use, such as DTS-EX and Dolby ES.

Since HD DVD format players are capable of playing lossy as well as many lossless formats, including Linear PCM (as with CDs) and the new Dolby True (or Pure) HD, identical bit for bit with the studio master and with resolutions as high as 24-bit/96 kHz over eight channels. The only shortcoming of these two players is that they currently only support the mandatory inclusion of two-channel playback. Although this crop of HD DVD players will only play back a two-channel reduction of the Dolby and DTS lossless formats actually on a disc, they provide some of the best two-channel sound you are likely to hear. DTS-HD also offers lossless sound quality very similar to the sadly defunct DVD-Audio format with a higher 24 bit/192 kHz sampling rate, which is equally suitable for both film and music performances.

As noted above, the Toshiba HD DVD players offer built-in multi-channel decoders for Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby True (or Pure) HD (two-channel-only, as I mentioned), DTS and DTS-HD. The higher-end HD-XA1 (which I purchased from Crutchfield when other sources had already dried up on rollout Tuesday) employs four separate DSP engines to decode the multi-channel. Onboard multi-channel signal management has thoughtfully been included to control the six-channel outputs found on the RCA jacks along the back apron. User selectable crossovers, delay management and channel level management make it possible to add these players quickly and easily to an existing home theater and obtain astonishing results (given good software and a room with a fine audio system).

For the more adventuresome home theater owners, the Toshiba HD DVD players will pass digital information to an external surround sound processor or receiver via coaxial or Toslink S/PDIF or via the HDMI output. With Dolby Digital and DTS bit streams, the signal is sent to the surround processor in the same way as with a DVD player or cable DVR. But, as noted, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD content is down-converted to one of the already existing high-quality formats, such as DTS-EX or Dolby Digital ES, as determined by settings in the player’s set-up menu. Thank goodness all other audio formats from DVD or HD DVD will be able (using the settings menu) to be up- or down-converted as necessary to linear PCM and then output via either optical or coaxial SPDIF connections or HDMI in either stereo or multi-channel.

Video reproduction, which for HD requires 50 percent more bandwidth than D-VHS (an already stunning if outdated format) and a full 100 percent more bandwidth than cable, satellite or broadcast on a good day, is handled via four onboard DSP chips developed by Broadcom. Program material can be recorded as high as 1920 x 1080p at 60 Hz, which is six times the resolution of conventional DVD at 720 x 480i at 60 Hz or SD broadcast at 640 x 480i at 60Hz. The single HDMI output is fully HDCP compliant, allowing both native and up- or down-rezed copyrighted material to be shown on an HDCP-compliant monitor with either an HDMI or DVI input.

The player’s substantial physique is a result of a double chassis construction. Because HD DVD (and Blu-Ray) discs spin more rapidly (HD DVD spins 3.3 times faster than DVD) and utilize a blue laser that can be focused down three times smaller than a conventional red laser found in a DVD player, much greater mechanical stability and alignment are required between the optical block and the nimbly spinning disc. The player’s “chassis within a chassis” is designed to add stability and isolation from both internal and external vibrations, virtually eliminating data errors coming off the discs before they require error correction and substantially lowering jitter of both image and sound. Toshiba has even included isolated stabilizing feet to assure a solid landing on any rack. Although these isolation feet are certainly not of the same caliber as a well-designed vibration-control accessory, such as the Solid-Tech Feet of Silence ($499 MSRP for a set of four), they are nevertheless a very important part of the chassis design, which is reminiscent of Pioneer’s long-standing flagship DVD player, the DV-09.

The unit comes with the usual spaghetti cables, which are better than nothing, but strangely, there is no RJ-45 wire for the Internet connection. One of the first things I wanted to do, thanks to the long load times, was install a firmware update. It would have been nice to have an included cable to make the connection immediately. Initially, I also had trouble (once I found an RJ-45 cable) getting the set-up screen to acknowledge that there was the possibility of a connection. Several attempts, with the unit trying to reach out to start an update, proved fruitless. But eventually I was able to do the firmware upgrade.

The final item is, of course, the remote control. This backlit, rather long in shape, motion-sensitive unit features more buttons than most cell phones. Many of these are not always in the most convenient location and trying to memorize the key structure resulted in several errors on my part: pushing drawer instead of door (which just raises or lowers the front panel) caused the unit to eject the drawer, which sometimes took 45 seconds to open. The unit and remote can emit a soft confirmation tone so that you know the player has received a command. Yet, quite a few times, I was not able to scroll through menus (player or disc) without it locking up for several seconds before again taking commands. All in all, though, I am happier having a full remote with direct access to audio, picture, set-up, still-frame, etc. right there on the remote. I have had all too many DVD player remotes simply not offer certain controls that are a normal part of using the format for anything beyond just a straight play-through.

Testing
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.

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.

Conclusion
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.
Manufacturer Toshiba
Model HD-XA1 HD DVD Player
Reviewer Jeremy Kipnis





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