Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD Player 
Home Theater Video Players HD DVD Players
Written by Bryan Dailey   
Tuesday, 01 May 2007

The HD DVD format has been out for just over a year now, and Toshiba is now on to the second generation of their high-def disc players. HD DVD was first to the market, beating Blu-ray by a few months. Despite a big shot in the arm from Sony’s Playstation 3 and Microsoft’s $179 Xbox 360 add-on HD DVD player, high-def discs have yet to explode the way that DVD did when that format was first launched. The initial reaction of most consumers was that the players were slow and clunky; many of the discs looked good, but some of the transfers were grainy and many felt that the picture quality of HD DVD was a tad sharper than Blu-ray. Hardware and firmware improvements in the first-generation Blu-ray players, such as the Samsung BDP-1000, have closed the gap that existed between the picture quality lead that HD DVD held over Blu-ray. Now, very well-trained video experts would be hard-pressed to see the difference between these two formats on two well-set-up, similar video systems. The reality is that both formats are fantastic and, if you are going to pick one, you need to look at the available hardware and software that are available and see which one is right for your system.

I have been able to audition the first two HD DVD players from Toshiba, the HD-A1 and HD-XA1. They both had their fair share of flaws from slow loading times to connectivity issues and picture dropouts when using them through HDMI switchers, so I was chomping at the bit to see what Toshiba had done with their second generation of HD DVD players. The current leader of the pack in the world of HD DVD is the $799 Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD player. This is the first 1080p-capable HD DVD player on the market, whereas from day one every commercially available Blu-ray player, from the first generation Blu-ray Samsung to the current Sony and Panasonic models, have always featured 1080p output. However, as of this review, the Sony Playstation is the only Blu-ray player that features HDMI 1.3. Toshiba waited for the HDMI 1.3 spec before releasing their 1080p-capable player. Consumers won’t be able to utilize many of the benefits of the HDMI 1.3 standard until they marry the player with an HDMI 1.3 display. However, I will talk about some of the future benefits below.

The Toshiba HD-XA2 has a pretty impressive list of features. The most notable features are the Silicon Optix Reon HQV video processor, a 12-bit 297 MHz video dac with 4x oversampling and HDMI 1.3 output featuring Deep Color™. The player can output HD video at 720p, 1080i and 1080p. It is also able to upconvert standard-def DVDs to 480p, 720p, 1080i and 1080p.

Cosmetically, there are several things I like better about the HD-XA2 than its predecessors. The HD-XA2 is solid black and, at first glance, looks like a run-of-the-mill DVD player with a fairly nondescript front panel. Upon further inspection, you will note some classy design features like a brushed aluminum top that has the HD DVD logo etched in it. The previous top-of-the-line HD-XA1 was very boxy, noticeably larger and had a front door that would automatically fold down before the disc tray would open up. This was a nice concept, but after several month of use, the front door on the HD-XA1 would not fully retract into place and sags about a quarter-inch from where it should sit. This won’t be an issue with the much simpler disc drive mechanism of the HD-XA2.

The biggest knock on high-def players so far is the speed, or lack thereof, of the players to boot up and start playing a disc. Other than the Sony Playstation 3’s 1080p Blu-ray player and the Xbox 360’s 1080i/720p HD DVD player, there aren’t any high-def players that anyone would call “speedy.” They keep getting faster and, as more firmware updates are released, the players seem to improve, but we were starting at nearly two minutes from powering up to the time a disc would play on the screen with the original HD-A1 from Toshiba. Out of the box, the HD-XA2 had a disc up and playing in about 50 seconds from a cold boot (remember, HD DVD players are basically computers dressed up like AV components). After the first firmware update, the time was improved by about five seconds. It’s better than generation one players for sure and this is mostly due to the fact that the loading of the discs on the HD-XA2 is handled mainly by internal hardware rather than a software-based system. However, there is still a long enough delay that when showing friends or family how great my system looks, they sit and stare at the blank screen and say, “Why is it taking so long?” I then explain how these discs have a lot more data than a regular DVD and the technology is still new but is improving. I have seen this evolution from the start and it feels much quicker to me, but compared to regular DVD players that most people are used to, I would have to say that this is still a pretty slow player.

The remote that comes with the player is almost identical to the first-generation Toshiba machine, except that it is black instead of silver. It is a long slender remote that is laid out fairly well, but the fact that all of the buttons are the same silver color and the text printed on the plastic faceplate below each button is pretty small can make it a little tough to find exactly what you are seeking. A panel at the bottom slides down to reveal an array of less-often-used buttons. It’s a nice-looking remote and has a backlight on it, so as far as an overall rating, compared to the remotes of the Panasonic and Samsung Blu-ray players, this is the best of the bunch. However, that isn’t saying much. Thankfully, gone is the “motion-sensitive” backlit remote of the HD-XA1 which would turn itself on any time you moved the remote, even if it’s just your dog or cat jumping up on the couch. There is a backlight on this remote, but it’s a little tricky figuring out how to turn it on. You must hold down the button for several seconds to activate it.

One of the biggest gripes about the first-generation HD DVD players from Toshiba was the fact that an HDCP-encrypted HDMI connection could not be interrupted by switching mid-movie to another input, then back to the player. Doing so would require you to start the movie back over from the beginning. Unfortunately, the same annoying malady still exists on this new player. The same goes for switching resolutions mid-movie. If you are watching an HD DVD disc using the HDMI output and decide you want to compare the 720p version to the 1080p version, pressing the resolution button to cycle through and change resolutions will result in the movie stopping and starting over from the beginning. Also, if you switch over to a satellite or cable channel to check in on the news or a sports score while watching an HD DVD disc via the HDMI output, the player will automatically start back at the beginning of the disc when you switch back to the HD DVD movie. I have auditioned several Blu-ray players and their HDMI outputs do not require this constant connection between the player and the display. This leads me to believe that the HDCP copy protection is enabled by default on the Toshiba HD DVD players and it is not on the Blu-ray players from Panasonic, Samsung and Sony that I have used. I understand why the Toshiba does what it does, as the Hollywood studios do not want someone to be able to insert an outboard device inline with the signal once the original HDCP handshake has been established. To make sure the digital signal path is not compromised, every few seconds the display and the HD DVD player “talk” to each other and make sure nothing is different. If you don’t want to deal with this issue when switching the player in an RS-232-controlled system, then you’ll find yourself most likely using the component video outputs until Toshiba can come up with a firmware update that allows the player to maintain its HDMI lock while you temporarily view another source.

What is “Deep Color”?
The “Deep Color” feature that Toshiba touts on their list of features is a new benefit of the HDMI 1.3 standard that should start showing up in HDTVs some time in mid-2007. According to the HDMI website, Deep Color™ expands the number of available colors from millions to billions, eliminating contouring. Contouring is the term for the noticeable lines that you see on a display when a color transitions from dark to light. If you are viewing the image of a sunset on an HDTV, for example, the orange glow of the sun transitions from bright orange at the center of the screen to dark orange at the corners of the screen. Most displays will not have enough colors to fully render these color transitions seamlessly. The result will be noticeable steps between the ranges of colors from bright orange to dark orange. The theory behind the benefits of Deep Color™ and the new IEC 61966-2-4 color standard, commonly called xvYCC, is that Deep Color™ increases the number of available colors within the boundaries defined by the RGB or YCbCr color space. xvYCC differs in that it expands the available range (limits) to allow the display of colors that meet and exceed what human eyes can recognize.

Audio Set-up - Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus but no DTS-HD Master Audio (yet)
1080p has been the big buzz-word in video, and the newest buzz in audio is DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD.As of this review you can count commercially available receivers or AV preamps that can decode either of these new formats on one hand, but the HD-XA2 features onboard decoding of Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus and then outputs the analog signal via the player’s multi-channel outputs thanks to the player's high-performance SHARC® DSP digital-to-analog converters, or output multi-channel linear PCM via the HDMI output. With the HDMI 1.3 connector, the player will be able to send the encoded bitstream audio signal to Dolby TrueHD-capable next-generation receivers. However, I found a nifty device by PureLink that can extract out the Dolby TrueHD soundtracks without the player having to do the decoding and send it to a non Dolby TrueHD-decoding receiver. More on that later when I discuss HDMI switching.

Strangely the player does not support the eaglery anticipated DTS HD Master audio format, however rumor has it that future firmware updates will alleviate this issue. The player does however have the ability to play the "core" DTS soundtrack on a DTS encoded disc. This soundtrack is of a higher quality than the DTS track that you'd find on a standard DVD.

When setting up the player, there are several audio options to choose from. The SPDIF digital out (digital coaxial) or optical out (Toslink) can be set to bitstream or PCM. The HDMI output has three options, Auto, PCM and dowmixed PCM. There is a dynamic range control that is useful for late-night viewing if you want to make sure a loud car crash or gunshot sound doesn’t jump out of the mix and disturb the neighbors, but for critical listening, you would obviously want to leave this off so you can enjoy the extremely wide dynamic range that the player is capable of. There are three options, on, off and auto. Auto struck me as strange, because I don’t know how the player decides when to compress and when not to, but from what I could surmise in my auditioning of various movies, when set to auto, it only compressed the most extreme sounds, leaving alone the dialogue and room ambiance in most scenes.

A setting called dialogue enhancement can be set to either on or off. As best I can tell, when turned on, it slightly boosts the center channel and gives a little high-end EQ to it. Not a bad option if you have front speakers of questionable quality, especially the center channel, but it added a touch of extra hiss to the noise floor and I have a pretty nimble center-channel speaker made by RBH, so I opted to leave this option off as well. The last part of the audio set-up allows you to tell the player if you are running the audio to a 5.1 channel receiver/preamp or are simply running it 2.0, which would most likely only be if you are running the HDMI cable directly into an HDMI-capable display and just want to use the display’s stereo speakers. This option will fold down any surround mix into stereo, so you don’t lose the audio information that would normally be sent to the center and surround speakers.

If you select “5.1 audio,” a 5.1 speaker set-up screen comes up and allows you to select the size and distance of each of your speakers and also the crossover frequency of your subwoofer. Many receivers have the ability to do this as well, so you will need to decide if you want to let the player do the custom time delays and crossover or if you want to let the receiver do it. If your main speakers are 15 feet away from your listening position and you tell that to both your HD-XA2 and your receiver or AV preamp, the combination of these two settings will result in very odd time synch problems, as your system essentially will think you sit 30 feet from the display.

1080p Finally Available On a HD DVD Player
When the first HD DVD discs came out with 1080p listed on the back of the packaging, consumers were disappointed to find that all of the commercially available players at the time, the first-generation Toshibas, were only able to output 720p and 1080i. This put many consumers into a holding pattern. Not only did they want to wait and see if Blu-ray would take off, they also didn’t want to feel like they were going to get stuck with an expensive boat anchor in the form of an HD DVD player that didn’t do 1080p.

Now for the question that many consumers have been waiting for: is the difference between 1080p vs. 720p or 1080i THAT big of a deal? On paper, it is huge. You will hear talk of 1080p having at most double the resolution of 1080i and 720p. The marketing hype makes you think that once you see 1080p for the first time, angels are going to sing, the clouds will part and you will be swept into video heaven.

The reality is that 1080p is better, but it’s not the jump that you got when going from standard definition to high def. Most 1080p TVs, even ones that don’t accept a native 1080p signal, already deinterlace 1080i up to 1080p, so you are not going to see night and day differences. Of course, if the incoming signal is already at 1080p and your display is 1080p native, the TV does not have to apply its deinterlacing process and, in the video world, generally less processing means less video distortion and artifacts.

The net result of what I see from 1080p is a term that I can only describe as “picture stability.” On my 1080p native set, when running a 1080i signal into it, the picture is automatically de-interlaced up to 1080p. If I stand right up against the screen and look at the pixels, I can see very subtle lines between each pixel, like a sheet of graph paper with data in each square and then each line between each pixel is colored in slightly to match the pixels around it. This inherently is what the difference between interlaced and progressive is. In oversimplified terms, interlaced doesn’t fill in the lines between pixels; progressive does. With a 1080i source (including the HD-XA2, if set on 1080i), the TV has to do the work to make the picture progressive. This process causes a very subtle amount of movement or noise in the space between pixels. If I set the player to output 1080p, my TV no longer needs to do the de-interlacing work and the progressive area between pixels does not have the same amount of grain or “noise.” When sitting 12 feet away from the display on my couch, I don’t necessarily see this grain when watching the 1080i signal, but I get a sense of the picture being more stable and solid when watching the 1080p version of the same movie. Static images, such as the HD DVD onscreen chapter menus, have more “pop” in 1080p. When a movie is playing with lots of movement on screen, the difference isn’t mind-blowing, but again the picture stability is noticeable.

Video Set-up
I first connected the HD-XA2 through my Integra DTR-10.5 receiver and then passed the signal to my JVC HD-61FN97 TV with native 1080p input via two HDMI cables, one from the player to the receiver and one from the receiver to the set. I then set the output of the player to 1080p and something strange happened. I could see the menus from the player on my TV, but every few seconds, the picture would get fuzzy and fade in and out. It was not the digital cutting in and out with green digital lines on the screen that you typically see when HDMI is making (or not making, as the case may be) the HDCP “handshake” with a display. I of course tried several different HDMI cables, in varying lengths from three feet to nine feet, and had the same result with each one. The HDMI switcher in the Integra is several years old and I have never been able to successfully get any audio from an HDMI connection with it, leading me to believe this switcher is of the original HDMI 1.0 spec and thus not capable of handling high bandwidth 1080p content. This could also explain why the higher bandwidth 1080p signal via HDMI struggles in the player. To make sure it wasn’t the HD DVD player that was causing this fuss, I set up my Sony Playstation 3 that features HDMI 1.3 and 1080p output. Sure enough, I had this same issue when playing a disc at 1080p, but the problem went away when connecting the players both directly to my TV.

Searching for an alternative way to effectively switch HDMI, I installed a PureLink HS-42A 4-in x 2-out HDMI switcher. The coolest feature of this box isn’t the fact that it effectively switches HDMI. This is currently the only box that can actually digitally strip out the high-res soundtracks from HD DVD and Blu-ray players that are using the HDMI output and convert it into optical or digital coaxial audio to run into your receiver or AV preamp. As I stated earlier, the player can decode and output these audio tracks via multi-channel analog outputs, or digital audio via the HDMI cable in linear PCM, but this PureLink box strips out the high-def audio tracks and sends them to any multi-channel AV receivers. Only a few receivers are available currently that support HDMI 1.3 and the Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD formats. Onkyo is one such company, having just released the TX-SR605 receiver. However, the HS-42A switcher is able to strip the high-res soundtracks and decode them into linear bitstream, so you can enjoy the new Dolby and DTS formats without having to wait for capable AV receivers to be released on the market.

The Movies
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.

DVD Upconversion
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.

The Downside
Although faster than its predecessors, the HD-XA2 is still pretty slow. The responsiveness of the player to commands from the remote is pretty disappointing. There is a noticeable delay when you press fast-forward, play, pause, etc. Fast-forwarding and rewinding any of these new formats is just plain clunky. This is because the player is moving a hell of a lot more data than a standard-definition DVD. so it obviously requires more processing power. DVD is the standard that people are used to, so the reality is that these players just seem slow in comparison.

The fact that you have to start the disc from the beginning whenever there is any interruption of the signal, be it changing inputs on your TV or receiver or even changing resolutions, is a major pain in the butt. The HDCP handshake always has to be made, otherwise Toshiba assumes you are up to no good and the player starts the disc over from the beginning. Fortunately, the player does not have to full reboot as the previous generation players did, and on this player, they have finally added a resume feature, so if you stop a disc, you can pick things up where you last left off. With this resume feature, installers who are trying to integrate an HD DVD via HDMI could set a macro in the commands of the client’s remote that automatically stops any HD DVD disc before switching channels or inputs. Then, when the client wants to come back to the movie, just pressing “play” will resume the movie and pick it up from the last place it was at, rather than at the opening copyright warning logo.

At first, my player developed a very funky audio issue when running a TOS-link cable straight from the player to my receiver. The sound would become heavily distorted if I would pause, fast-forward or rewind a movie then press play. The only way to alleviate this issue would be to press pause, fast-forward or rewind briefly then press play again. This would knock the player out of this distorted mode. It was clockwork. It would work fine, then I’d pause it. When I would push play, it would be distorted. One more pause/unpause cycle would cause the player to correct it. A firmware update corrected this problem, so if you have this player, you will want to make sure you have the latest version of the firmware installed. I never had this issue with the audio that was stripped out of the HDMI signal via the PureLink HS-42A before or after the firmware update, but it was a huge annoyance when it first happened.

One area that Toshiba seemed to skimp on with this player, compared to its predecessors, is in the power cord. I am a big fan of the detachable power cord when it comes to any audio or video component and the Toshiba has one, but it’s a very flimsy and cheesy one. Being essentially specialized computers, the reality is that these players sometimes freeze up and need a good kick in the ass. If that doesn’t work, unplugging them from the wall for several minutes usually alleviates the problem. Thankfully, the Toshiba HD-XA2 has a detachable power cord that makes unplugging it much easier, as you can do this by just reaching behind the player.

What I was a little disappointed with is the fact that Toshiba went with a much thinner, proprietary power cord in the new player rather than the large, standard computer power supply-type power cord. This means you had better make sure you don’t misplace your power cord for the player. Of course, you always want to keep the original power cords that come with each player, but I prefer the type of plug that came with the first-generation Toshibas as they felt more robust and were much easier to replace should the power cord go missing or become damaged for some reason.

The last and probably the biggest downside for audio enthusiasts is the fact that the Toshiba HD-XA2 does not support SACD or DVD-Audio. Not supporting Sony’s SACD format is completely understandable, but the real shocker is the lack of the DVD-Audio format. Granted, neither of these audio formats turned out to be the savior of the music industry, but if you have a collection of high-res audio discs, this HD DVD player won’t be replacing your high-res audio player. Neither HD disc camp should be giving consumers reasons not to avoid buying players; ignoring recent HD audio formats is just plain foolish.

There are two types of consumers who are reading this review. You may be an early adopter who jumped in headfirst and picked up a first-generation HD DVD player. You knew that there were going to be better features coming soon, but you couldn’t wait and figured you’d upgrade once a better player came along. You may be the other type of consumer who is confused by this format war and can’t decide if either of the new high-res formats is right for you. I’m honestly sold on both of them. From my experience, I wasn’t thrilled by any of the HD DVD players that were on the market until this one came along.

Regardless of what kind of consumer you are, I have to say that I highly recommend this player and I am generally a pretty jaded consumer. The HD-XA2 is far from perfect, but it has many features – also, the fact that it features HDMI 1.3 means that, as displays start to feature Deep Color™ and receivers and AV preamps begin to include DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD decoding capabilities, I’m left feeling like I have a player that won’t be obsolete in a few months. In the new world of “throwaway” audio and video components, it’s nice to know that you can get a player like the Toshiba HD-XA2 that will be current for years to come, and yet still kicks ass today.
Manufacturer Toshiba
Model HD-XA2 HD DVD Player
Reviewer Bryan Dailey

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