Toshiba HD-XA2 Review

Highs

  • Excellent image quality; fast startup time
  • attractive remote control

Rating

Our Score 9
User Score 10

Lows

  • Still relatively expensive
Toshiba wanted to put out the best possible next-generation, high-definition optical disc player, and they have with their HD-XA2.

Summary

Toshiba has long been a pioneer and innovator of television and video. Let’s not forget that Toshiba was responsible for the creation of the DVD in 1997. Today, things aren’t any different with Toshiba’s introduction of the first HD DVD players. High-definition DVD players have been in development for the past several years, using a blue/purple laser instead of the red one that is used in standard-definition DVD players. This review focuses on Toshiba’s second-generation HD DVD player — the HD-XA2. I had the opportunity of reviewing the first-generation offering, and I can say definitely that the new XA2 is superior in every way.

Background
Following the lead of King Kong, Toshiba introduced its first two HD DVD players last summer. Both of those models offered similar features and 1080i output. While the 1080i images looked really good, the operation of the player was terrible. At that time, it took close to one minute and 45 seconds for the player to initialize an HD DVD, which was unacceptable. Surprisingly, even though the first-generation players had a slow start-up time, images were still excellent in every way and compared favorably to Samsung’s first-generation Blu-ray Disc player. In fact, image quality on HD DVD was superior to Blu-ray at the time.
Last summer, Toshiba saw that there were problems with its first-generation offering and began working to fix them. Simply put, it completely redesigned its top-of-the-line player and added some exemplary features. The defects of their XA1 were corrected for their HD-XA2, including the slow start-up time.
Now, there are several differences between the first-generation and second-generation models. First of all, the XA2 is 1080p versus 1080i, which makes the image quality even more superior than before. Secondly (and more importantly), the XA2 loads a disc like a DVD player, meaning that it takes about 15 seconds or so for a disc to load into the player. It’s like night and day; the XA2 acts like a normal DVD player.
Features and Design

Today, all HD DVD models take advantage of the superior capabilities of the HD DVD format, including high-definition level visual quality up to 1080p, utilizing cutting-edge video compression technologies (H.264 and VC-1), high resolution audio capabilities, and the capability for enhanced functionality, including Advanced Navigation (iHD).

The advanced navigation and interactive features offer new and exciting ways to interact with content. The player’s “pop-up menu” displays movie chapters with thumbnails while the movie plays, and allows users to navigate menu features without pausing playback. Picture in Picture (PIP) with motion video functions includes the ability to play supplementary video over the main program, allowing viewers to watch bonus content — such as a superimposed director’s commentary or a documentary about the making of the movie — while the movie plays. It works well.

Unlike some of the Blu-ray players currently available (Pioneer, Philips, and Sony), HD DVD does play back standard CDs. Also, HD DVD supports the new audio codecs, such as Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby True HD (5.1) and DTS HD (core only), and includes decoders for each. For true fidelity of these audio signals, you will need to use HDMI or the 5.1-channel analog output jacks.

The HD XA2 is the first next-generation optical disc player that includes HDMI version 1.3, which passes the new audio codecs to a compatible A/V Receiver or A/V Processor. Otherwise, to receive the full benefit of these new codecs, you’ll have to use the multi-channel analog audio outputs. Audio signals can also be passed via S/PDIF. However, since advanced audio codecs cannot be passed via these connectors, the audio stream is automatically defaulted to PCM audio.

One of the things that separates this next-generation optical disc player from others is its video processing. I’ve been saying this for awhile now: one of the key ingredients to exceptional DTV products is the processing. In the case of the XA2, it’s the Silicon Optix Reon-VX chipset utilized. The Reon-VX offers true HQV (Hollywood Quality Video) four-field, motion-adaptive, per-pixel, high-definition (HD) deinterlacing, which delivers the sharpest and most detailed HD images possible. With 1080i material, you’ll be able to see things like strands of hair, guitar strings, and even threads in suits and ties. By looking at each individual pixel, HQV processing ensures that there is no unnecessary loss of resolution, as is the case with region-based or frame-based solutions. With HQV’s content-based HD cadence detection, the Reon-VX delivers true 1080p reconstruction of HD film sources, including Hollywood films and television shows produced on film. The Reon chipset is a highly integrated advanced SoC. The XA2 also features a 297 Mhz/12-bit video DAC with 4x oversampling.

On the audio side, the XA2 employs a high-performance SHARC DSP offering 192 kHz/24-bit DAC audio processing, enabling it to reproduce superior multi-channel sound. The HD-XA2 also plays back CDs, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-Video, and DVD-R. These signals can be passed thorough HDMI, TosLink optical and/or digital coax digital outputs, and 5.1 analog outputs. All standard Dolby Digital and DTS signals can be passed via TosLink optical and/or digital coax digital outputs.

As previously stated, to obtain the best possible aural and visual signals, HDMI must be employed. Standard-definition DVDs will be upconverted to near-HD quality via HDMI only. HDMI 1.3 also passes Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS-HD. In addition to all the standard features found on any DVD players, Toshiba’s HD-XA2 adds an Ethernet connector. If the Ethernet port is enabled, you will be able to access additional content or firmware upgrades via the web.
While video images can passed by composite, S-Video, or even component video, to get the best possible 1080p image quality, HDMI with HDCP (for copy protection) must be employed. While it’s o.k. to use component video now (with 1080i screen resolution), there could be problems in the future for component video. As part of the embedded Digital Rights Management schemes employed by HD DVD (and Blu-ray Disc), there’s something called the Image Constraint Token (or ICT for short). It controls the output of video signals on component video. Depending on the movie studio, it could “turn off” the component video stream entirely, or down-res the signal to 480p, or leave it at 1080i. The packaging of the particular movie title will tell the tale. To be certain of playback compatibility, it is suggested to only use HDMI for playback of HD DVDs. Initially, the studios will not be invoking ICT. However, we don’t know what next year will bring!
Toshiba HD-XA2
Image Courtesy of Toshiba
Installation/Set-up/Ease of Use
Installation was straightforward. A Tributaries HDMI cable was used to tether the HD-XA2 to the HDMI-enabled Pioneer Elite VSX84TXi A/V Receiver that passes 1080p video and processes all of the audio signals. In turn, those pristine 1080p signals were passed on to a Mitsubishi WD-57831 1080p DLP HDTV. Sound was ported to six B&W CDM Series speakers.

Completing the package, Toshiba includes an illuminated 52-button universal remote with center navigation. It was relatively easy to use. I did not like the earlier remote, but this newly redesigned (in black) unit is much better, offering amber back illumination for ease of use and easy readability in a darkened room. Like any other remote, it takes awhile to get used to.

Evaluation
Toshiba HD-AX2The HD-XA2 produced superior visual images in 1080p. Will the 1080p images from a Blu-ray Disc player look much better? It’s hard to say. Personally, I believe that HD DVD looks better than Blu-ray, as the images have a lot of punch. The colors are more vibrant overall with more crisp detail. With Blu-ray, the colors and images seem slightly muted. All of the images displayed on the Mitsubishi WD-57831 1080p HDTV had clarity and depth of field, giving the illusion of clear HD-quality from a next-generation optical disc player. If you want to be a stickler, you can always put on the Video Essentials test disc, or use the Home Theater Demo disc from Mannheim Steamroller, and watch test patterns to measure gray scale (which I did), and calibrate and test different multi-channel audio signals. But, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak, and let’s face it: an HD DVD player and an HD television are designed to work together to watch movies and music videos —not test patterns.
I watched several new HD DVD releases from Warner Home Video and Universal Home Video with a keen eye towards picture detail and clarity, and in each case, those images were far superior to what I have viewed from standard-definition (SD) DVD players in the past. HD DVD titles watched included: Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Superman Returns, Serenity, Unforgiven, The Searchers, Goodfellas, Training Day, Full Metal Jacket, Swordfish, Mission Impossible III, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miami Vice: Unrated Director’s Cut (HD DVD and DVD Combo disc). Image quality was exceptional on all titles, especially Serenity, Miami Vice, and The Searchers, which bordered on phenomenal!
Numerous standard-definition films on DVD were also watched also, including: Forbidden Planet, Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut, 1776, The Chronicles of Naria, Chicago, Finding Nemo, Madagascar, Ice Age 2, Casablanca, and Lawrence of Arabia, among others. I also viewed a couple of old standbys like Fox’s The Abyss: Special Edition and Columbia-TriStar’s Air Force One (SuperBit), because of their aural and visual brilliance.
While HD DVD images looked absolutely spectacular (and better than Blu-ray for my money!), it was standard-definition images from any DVD, which were upconverted to 1080p, that separates this player from other 1080p players. Standard-definition DVDs were crisp, clear, and free from any noticeable artifacts. They were truly near-HD in quality. Standard definition titles ranging from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and The DaVinci Code to The Eagles: First Farewell Tour and Celtic Woman looked simply stunning! It all comes back to video processing and Toshiba’s wise use of the Reon HQV chipset.
Conclusions

On purpose, I chose various types of film material, from action/adventure movies with a lot of special effects to romantic comedies to musicals — some were recent releases and others were classics from various studios. The images pumped out from the HD-XA2 and displayed on the Mitsubishi 1080p DLP set were so vivid and life-like that they looked like top-quality, true 35/70mm feature films shown at your local multiplex. All selections had a true film-like quality with superlative HD imagery. That’s how good the image quality was from the HD-XA2, as displayed on a next-generation HDTV.

It is something that needs to be seen to be believed, and heard to be fully appreciated as well. I believe that one thing that separates the XA2 from other players is the wise choice to include Silicon Optix Reon video processing. High quality video processing cannot be understated and can easily turn really good products into really great ones. Certainly, Toshiba wanted to put out the best possible next-generation, high-definition optical disc player, and they have with their HD-XA2.

So, why talk about HD DVD products anyways? I know that a good portion of the world thinks that the next-generation optical disc format war is over, with Blu-ray Disc being the de facto winner. Reportedly, BD movie titles are outselling HD DVD titles 2-to-1. Well, besides the PS3 that I have used, I’m still waiting for a review sample of a Blu-ray player from Sony, Pioneer, or Philips. Forget about Samsung for the time being. And, in terms of image quality, HD DVD can’t be beat. HD DVD is also more affordable than Blu-ray; a $600 1080p with HDMI 1.3 will be available later this spring, but it won’t include the Reon HQV chipset, which is worth the price of admission for the XA2. Toshiba’s HD-XA2 is truly a player for all seasons and all formats, from SD to HD DVD.
Pros:
  • Excellent image quality
  • Fast load times
  • Attractive remote control

Cons:

  • Still relatively expensive, but pricing is coming down

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