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Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD Player Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 May 2007
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Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD Player
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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.

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