Big Picture Big Sound

Toshiba HD-XA1 HD-DVD Player Review

By Chris Boylan

Reaping the Rewards (and Feeling the Pain) of Early Adoption

Toshiba's HD-XA1 is one of only two HD-DVD players currently available, both made by Toshiba. And it incorporates the benefits, and the quirks, associated with first generation technology. First of all, to my eyes, the picture quality is as good or better than any of the consumer HD technologies -- broadcast HDTV, D-VHS, Blu-Ray Disc. And the sound quality of a well-mastered HD-DVD title in high bitrate Dolby Digital Plus is nothing short of stunning. But this audio/video nirvana comes at a cost, and I don't just mean beaucoup dollars.

Anticipation... It's Making Me Wait

If good things come to those who wait, then HD-DVD had better be good. Because from the time you put in a disc, to the time something appears on screen, you'll be waiting... and waiting... and waiting. There are several reasons for this, including early hardware and software which has not yet been optimized and tweaked over multiple generations, but also, a couple of features in the HD-DVD format itself make the loading process slower than DVD will ever be. First, each HD-DVD disc has a small introduction section of the disc which is formatted in standard DVD mode with meta data that allows the HD-DVD disc to "tell" older DVD players not to try to play it. There is also the equivalent of a "barcode" imprinted on the HD-DVD disc surface itself (you can see it by holding the disc up to the light at an angle), which is scanned by the laser, and then matched up with a corresponding data value in the HD-DVD's meta data. If the numbers do not match (e.g., a "bootleg" disc), then the disc will not play.

Toshiba's HD-XA1 looks and feels like a piece of high-end home theater equipment.

It's encouraging, though, that Toshiba has already made strides in improving the load times of discs on the player by the virtue of firmware updates. The most recent firmware update (version 1.4) includes several tweaks that not only speed up the initial load time, but also improve the player's compatibility with different HDMI and DVI-compatible source displays (still not perfect, as you will read later, but better than v. 1.0 was). Firmware installation can be done directly via an internet connection to the HD-DVD player (it has an Ethernet network port on the back) or by requesting a firmware upgrade disc from Toshiba. You can also sign up for firmware upgrades by filling out a card that comes with the player. Then you'll be sent firmware updates on CD as they become available. Installing the firmware from CD is simple -- just insert the firmware upgrade CD into the player, and the player will do the rest.

Toshiba's HD-DVD demo disc featured trailers and movie clips in HD, as well as a dramatic split screen demo that compared standard def to high def programming.

A Picture Worth 1,000 Words

Assuming you make it through the initial disc loading time, without running out of patience, packing your unit back up and returning it to the store, you're in for a treat. I've auditioned about 10 titles so far on HD-DVD, from Warner and Universal and they range from very good to outstanding in picture and sound quality. Some of my favorite early reference discs are Warner's "Unforgiven," and Universal's "Bourne Supremacy" and "Serenity." These titles display incredible picture detail, natural well-saturated colors, and crystal clear discrete surround sound tracks that will allow your home theater to really look and sound its best.

In terms of video quality, the HD-DVD format is capable of full High Definition 1080p resolution (1920X1080 pixels, progressive scan) -- that's six times the picture detail available on a standard DVD. The HD-XA1 "only" supports up to 1080i (1920X1080 interlaced) resolution, but this still looks excellent on any high quality HD-capable display. The software we've auditioned so far has all been mastered in 1080p format, so once the players come up to speed and support 1080p, they will be able to take advantage of the full resolution of current and future HD-DVD titles.

In addition to 1080i, the Toshiba supports high definition 720p (1280X720) output resolution, as well as standard definition 480p and 480i output (720X480 pixels) for compatibility with a wide variety of display devices. If you have a projector or flat panel display with a native panel resolution of 1280X720 pixels, then you might assume that you're best off selecting "720p" for your output resolution. But you'd be wrong. The video scaler in the Toshiba (the chipset and software that convert the 1080p video from the disc to 720p output) isn't up to snuff with scalers that are built into most HD-compliant displays. There are noticeable artifacts, like pixel-blocking particularly visible on the HD-DVD menu text, and in movie credits. You're better off setting the output format on the Toshiba to 1080i, and just let your TV (or outboard video processor) do the format conversion.

Sound to Match the Picture

In terms of sound quality, HD-DVD's superiority over standard DVD is as impressive as the video improvements. Standard DVD's Dolby Digital track is limited to 5.1 channels of compressed audio at a data rate of 448 KBPS (kilobits per second). DTS tracks can go a bit higher in bandwidth but not much. On HD-DVD, the most commonly used "Dolby Digital Plus" surround format supports up to 7.1 discrete channels at data rates of up to 3 MBPS (megabits per second) -- that's nearly 7 times the bandwidth of DVD's audio capabilities. On titles like "Serenity" which includes a 5.1-channel 1.5 MBPS audio track, you can hear the difference with effortless reproduction of explosions, gunshots and music, without losing any details or audibility in the dialog track.

The HD-XA1's remote feels very "high-end" but it's a bit awkward to use.

The HD-DVD format supports even higher quality audio as well, namely Dolby's True HD format and DTS-HD Master Audio, each of which features fully lossless encoding (bit for bit identical to the studio master) of up to 8 channels at 24-bit precision with a sampling rate of 96 KHz. This is even better than the ill-fated "DVD-Audio" format which made audiophile hearts race, though it never caught on with the general public. The only caveat is that this first-generation player only supports playback of Dolby TrueHD in two-channel mode (not full surround) so on those few titles that already have Dolby TrueHD soundtrack options (and those coming in the future), you'll have to "settle" for the standard Dolby Digital Plus or DTS surround track if you want surround sound.

When DTS is Not Really DTS

The other confusing aspect of the sound on this Toshiba player is that, if you use a standard coax or fiberoptic (aka "S/PDIF") digital audio connector between the player and your receiver or surround processor, your processor is going to tell you that you are listening to DTS sound even though the disc itself may not have a DTS soundtrack. Huh? I'll admit I was mystified by this until I spoke with HD-DVD guru Mark Knox who is currently consulting with Toshiba for the HD-DVD launch.

Mark explained that the HD-DVD format supports multiple independent audio component layers. In addition to the movie soundtrack itself, there are sound effects associated with the overlay menus, and potentially commentary tracks as well. All of these elements need to be mixed together by the player so that they can all be audible at the player's output.

In order to do this mixing, the movie soundtrack (Dolby Digital Plus or DTS) must be decoded into uncompressed multi-channel PCM (pulse code modulation) format. The pieces are all assembled, then this uncompressed digital audio stream is sent out through the HDMI output. So if you have an HDMI-enabled audio processor or receiver - one that supports multi-channel PCM audio - then you can decode the PCM directly into good old-fashioned analog sound for output to your speakers.

But unfortunately most of the home theater processors and receivers out there today do not include HDMI support. They only support digital audio via the aforementioned S/PDIF standard (those coax and fiberoptic cables we were talking about earlier). S/PDIF does not support multi-channel PCM, so the Toshiba engineers had to choose one format (either Dolby Digital or DTS) to use. They chose DTS. So once all the sounds are mixed in PCM, the resulting datastream is then re-encoded into DTS. It's all done very quickly (I noticed no lag or lip-synch problems on any titles) but, because DTS is a lossy codec, the audio will lose a bit in the conversion.

If you're an audio purist, who wants to get the highest quality audio signal out of this HD-DVD player, and your receiver does not include HDMI support, then you're better off using the Toshiba player's multi-channel analog output (6 cables) to carry the audio to your receiver. It's awkward, yes, but such is the price of being a freaky tweaky audiophile/videophile early adopter.

The payoff to this slightly more complicated set-up is really phenomenal sound quality. A high-end surround sound system will really shine when fed with a high-quality high bit-rate Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. Keep in mind that you may need to calibrate your home theater system separately for the Toshiba player, since it will not use your receiver or processor's built-in digital analog converter. The Toshiba player's set-up menu includes test tone generation for all six channels so you can adjust the levels and speaker distance settings to get the most accurate blend. If you'd rather keep things simple, then use the S/PDIF connection and listen to the soundtrack re-encoded in DTS. It doesn't sound bad at all. And at least you'll know why it says "DTS" on your receiver's display

Component or HDMI? That is the Question

In addition to choosing the best audio connection, you'll want to select the best quality video connector for your specific system. You may not have a choice. Our reference Loewe 38-inch HDTV-enabled CRT monitor does not include HDMI or DVI inputs -- only component video. So we used component video for this display. The oft-maligned "image constraint token" which the studios could use to prevent full hi-def video resolution from being passed through a component video connection, has yet to be activated on any of the HD-DVD titles currently available. So you'll get your full 1080i resolution over component video, as long as your display can handle it.

But the Toshiba player's upconversion of standard DVDs to 1080i or 720p high definition output only works over the digital HDMI output. So if your monitor has either an HDMI or DVI digital input, then you'll want to use the Toshiba's HDMI output, instead of component video. Unfortunately this may not be as simple as it sounds.

We tested the HD-XA1 with three DVI-enabled or HDMI-enabled displays -- an NEC 23-inch LCD monitor (using an HDMI-to-DVI adapter), a Sanyo PLV-Z2 LCD projector and a Vizio 42-inch LCD HDTV. On both the NEC and the Sanyo display, the set-up menu of the Toshiba player was visible on the displays, but once we tried to play either a standard DVD or an HD-DVD, the player displayed an error message "HDMI ERROR I" and playback stopped. On the Vizio display, the HDMI output worked properly, though we did have to plug and unplug the HDMI cable once in order to get it to work.

Mark Knox told me that the complexity of the HDMI "handshake" between source and display does make it much trickier than analog outputs, but that compatibility issues are much less common on more recent vintage display devices (the Vizio HDTV was first released in July, 2006, the NEC and Sanyo displays are somewhat older). Some of these issues have apparently been ameliorated with firmware upgrades, so if you have an HDMI or DVI-compatible display that causes trouble when used with the Toshiba player, then contact Toshiba's technical support. It's possible that your problem is corrected in a later revision of the firmware.

The HD-XA1 features a motorized door that hides the controls behind a sleek metal panel when not in use.

Ergonomics: How does It Feel?

The ergonomics of the Toshiba HD-XA1 are a decidedly mixed bag. The player itself feels like a high-end audio piece, heavy, sleek, with a super-cool motorized door that flips up or down to conceal or reveal the minimalist controls on the unit itself. But it's not without its ergonomic challenges. In addition to the slow boot-up and disc loading times, there are a few other operational issues that are less than ideal: the automatic backlighting of the remote seems a bit haphazard, and the button layout and sizing is too uniform to be simple to use in the dark. Unlike standard DVD, HD-DVD does not seem to have a "resume play" function. If you stop the disc, then restart it, it goes back to the beginning of the feature, instead of resuming where playback left off.

Also, the player seems to be more sensitive to disc issues. On a few of the HD-DVD titles I auditioned (all of which were factory-sealed new discs), playback would freeze or jitter a bit. Generally speaking, taking out the disc and wiping it radially (from inside edge to outside edge, in a straight line) with a soft cotton cloth would resolve the problem. I also had a few standard DVDs with light scratches that would not play back properly on the Toshiba, where they played back perfectly on our reference Pioneer Elite DVD player.

But the HD-DVD format itself offers some significant ergonomic improvements over DVD, namely the menus, which overlay the feature attraction -- this means you can access the menus, including changing audio tracks, viewing chapters and enabling or disabling commentary tracks, without stopping the film.

Also, because HD-DVD supports multiple concurrent audio and video streams, it's possible to pop-up a video commentary window on top of the screen, with the movie still playing in the background. This is, of course, dependent on the title. For an example, turn on "The Full Experience" on the "Bourne Supremacy" HD-DVD. When you activate the video commentary, the player automatically lowers the volume of the main feature so you can hear the commentary instead. This offers a qualitative improvement over what is possible on DVD. And as time goes by, I'm sure HD-DVD mastering engineers will find even more creative ways to use this technology.

So, Buy Now or Wait for the Next Generation?

This is a subjective question. If you've got a large screen HDTV (42 inches or larger) and a high quality audio surround sound system, the benefits of HD-DVD's improved sound and picture over standard DVD will be immediately obvious. If you really want to bring home that movie theater experience (but without those annoying patrons yelling at the screen), then you simply must own one of these players. The price tag (MSRP: $799) is a bit steep when compared to standard DVD players, but a bargain when compared to the first generation Blu-ray Disc players, which are currently selling for $1000 or more. Also, similar performance, albeit without the high-end look and feel, is available in Toshiba's HD-A1 player (MSRP: $499) and RCA's clone, the HDV5000 (also $499).

There are some limitations: slow operation and slow start-up time, lack of support for multi-channel Dolby TrueHD, lack of support for digital pass-through of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, lack of support for 1080p native output and slightly flaky HDMI support. All of these issues will undoubtedly be resolved or at least improved in a next generation player. But how long will this delay your gratification, and are you prepared to wait?

Overall, the HD-XA1 is an excellent first effort, and a worthy next step in the evolution of DVD. High Definition DVD is here. Are you ready?

Where to Buy Toshiba's HD-DVD Players:

Toshiba HD-A2 on OneCall
Toshiba HD-XA2 on OneCall (replacement for HD-XA1)

What's in the Box?
  • Toshiba HD-XA1 HD-DVD player
  • Power cord
  • Hdmi cable
  • Remote control
  • 4 AAA batteries
  • Stereo audio cable
  • Composite (RCA) video cable
  • User Manuals (English and French)

Detailed Manufacturer's Specifications:

  • HD Content Output via HDMI (Disc Native Resolution)
  • Video Up-Conversion for SD DVD (720p/1080i)
  • 11-bit / 216MHz Video Dac
  • Enhanced Black Level (0IRE /7.5IRE Selection)
  • Letterbox / Pan & Scan Support
  • Built-in Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS and DTS-HD Decoders
  • Dolby True HD Compatible (2 Channel)
  • Four 32-bit Floating Point Signal Processors
  • Multi-Channel 24-bit/192kHz Audio DACs
  • HDMI Audio support up to 5.1 L-PCM
  • 5.1 Channel analog Output
  • Dynamic Range Control
  • WMA & MP3 Playback
  • Tri-Lingual OSD (English, French/Japanese)
  • Bit Rate Display
  • FL Dimmer
  • Fast Forward
  • Slow Play
  • Step Play
  • Time Search
  • A-B Repeat
  • Screen Saver
  • Parental Lock
  • Motion Activated Backlight Remote Control
Audio/.Video Outputs:
  • HDMI™ (High-Definition Multimedia Interface)
  • ColorStream® Component Video Output
  • S-Video Output
  • Composite Video Output
  • Coaxial Digital Audio Output
  • Optical TosLink® Digital Audio Outputs
  • RS-232C (1)
  • Ethernet 10/100 Port (1)
  • USB
Weight and Dimensions
  • Dimensions: 17.72" x 4.33" x 13.39" (WxHxD)
  • Weight: approximately 16 pounds
Company Information:

Toshiba America, Inc.
1251 Avenue of the Americas
Suite 4110
New York, NY 10020

° Toshiba America Consumer Products, LLC
° Toshiba USA Home Page

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