Big Picture Big Sound

Toshiba HD-XA2 HD-DVD Player (Update: v 2.7 Firmware) Review

By Chris Boylan

The Last DVD Player You'll Ever Buy?

Note: 11/21/07 - the "Final Thoughts" section of this review has been updated with information/results from the latest firmware upgrade (v. 2.7) which has added some substantial new features, after our original review.

As you may have heard, we're now deeply embroiled in a format war - a bitter battle to determine the heir to the throne of the mighty DVD. In one corner: Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer, Disney, other studios and hardware manufacturers supporting the Blu-Ray Disc format (BD). In the other corner: Toshiba, RCA, Microsoft, Universal and other studios backing the HD-DVD format. Some hardware manufacturers (notably, LG) have chosen not to take sides with hardware that supports both formats, and some movie studios (e.g., Warner) are also hedging their bets with movies being released in both formats as well as a proposed unified disc ("Total HD") that would include a movie in both formats on one disc.

Both high definition disc formats offer significant improvements in image quality, sound quality and usability over standard DVD, and either makes an excellent match for the latest large screen HDTVs. As the Blu-Ray camp releases its first generation of Blu-Ray disc players, Toshiba has now brought to market their second generation HD-DVD players, the entry level HD-A2 and the top-of-the-line HD-XA2 under review here. Notable upgrades from the XA1 to the XA2 include improved disc load times, more responsive operation, HDMI Version 1.3 support (with "Deep Color"), full 1080p output (HDMI only) and an advanced new on-board video processor from Silicon Optix.

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Toshiba HD-XA2 HD-DVD Player.


Ergonomics and Styling

Personally, I liked the styling of the first generation high-end model, the HD-XA1. It was a simple but sleek black and silver box with a motorized drop-down door that hid the disc drawer and controls. But I was definitely not a fan of the XA1's sluggish start-up and disc load times. The HD-XA2 features a brushed metal case, but its plain black color makes it look more like a traditional mass-market DVD player. However, its ergonomics are signficantly improved over the original models.

Although the initial power-on time is no faster than the HD-XA1 (with the latest firmware applied to both players), the newer model is able to identify and begin playback of both DVDs and HD-DVDs in approximately half the time of the earlier model. I decided to leave the player on most of the time in order to avoid the lengthy power-on delay.

time-table.jpg
Comparison between initial power-on and disc load times of HD-XA1 and HD-XA2. Firmware versions: HD-XA1 - "2.0/1.0A/2.0S" HD-XA2 - "1.3/T19"


As yet another data point, a standard DVD player (Pioneer DV-46AV) powers up in about 14 seconds, and loads a DVD in about 13 seconds. The Pioneer isn't the quickest loading DVD player in the world, but it's nice to see that the new Toshiba HD-DVD player actually loads a DVD faster than this particular standard DVD player.

When watching HD-DVDs, the ergonomics are vastly enhanced over DVD, just by nature of the format itself. You can access chapters and special features from the menu without exiting movie playback, and titles such as "Batman Begins" and "Poseidon" take value-added content to the next level by exploiting the "In Movie Experience" (IME) option. With IME, commentary by the film-makers is actually superimposed on top of the film, usually as a small inset PIP (Picture in Picture) window. Like the chapter menu, the IME option can be turned on or off without interrupting film playback.

But for standard DVD playback, the HD-XA2 does behave slightly differently than a traditional DVD player. On certain titles, such as datacolor's SpyderTV calibration DVD, test patterns which are accessible directly via the numeric keypad on most DVD remote controls, cannot be accessed directly from the Toshiba remote's numeric keypad. These are stored on the DVD itself as sub-chapters (e.g., Black test pattern is chapter 2-1, white is 2-2. etc.). Also, nagivation to the test patterns (sub-chapters) from within the disc menu is a bit sluggish on the XA2 compared to a standard DVD player. Not a major shortcoming, as most DVD titles do not utilize DVD sub-chapters. But it's something worth noting.

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Other than its color, slightly different button placement and a brighter backlight, the HD-XA2 remote (right) is not much different than that of the HD-XA1.

Another area where the ergonomics of the HD-XA2 are a bit challenged is in the overall noise level. The fan on the HD-XA2 produces a noticeable whir when the unit is powered up. Not too annoying when you're listening to music or watching a movie, but during silent portions, you can hear the unit from across the room. Considering the unit's unexceptional styling and operational noise, it would be perfectly acceptable to hide this player away in a cabinet or equipment closet.

The new player's remote isn't much different from that of the HD-XA1, except the color (black vs. silver), and the fact that the new remote's backlight function is not motion sensitive (the XA1 remote is). You have to push the backlight button in order to illuminate the keys, and they do light up considerably brighter than the keys on their predecessor did. Also, the new remote does not include a "Resolution" button to change the player's output resolution (480i/p,720p,1080i/p). To change output resolution on the HD-XA2 you have to go into the set-up menu. The set-up button itself is thankfully located on the main remote panel, not hidden behind the sliding bottom door as it was on the XA1's remote.

Oh, and if you're an HD-XA2 owner wondering why the "backlight" button doesn't work on your remote, you actually have to hold it in for about 5 seconds the first time you use it, in order to enable the backlighting feature. Overall, although the remote feels solid and substantial, its operation is pretty average - no real improvement over the earlier model here.

In terms of output options, the HD-XA2 has just about every type of output you could possibly need. High definition video can be carried over HDMI (up to 1080p) and component video (up to 1080i). As with most upconverting DVD players, standard DVD upconversion is only performed over the HDMI output. Standard def video can be output over component, composite or S-video. Digital audio can be carried over S/PDIF coax or fiberoptic, or over HDMI. And analog audio can go to your TV or receiver via stereo or multi-channel RCA audio connections. The unit even includes an RS-232 control port as well as an Ethernet connection (currently handy for firmware updates, and in the future, to enable internet-based features of select HD-DVD titles).

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The HD-XA2 features all of the outputs you could possibly need, including an Ethernet jack for live connection to the Internet (useful for firmware updates).


Performance (Real Beauty is on the Inside)

Ergonomics are fairly secondary here. What we really care about is performance, and this is where the new Toshiba player really shines. The XA2 is Toshiba's first player to include the Reon-VX HQV (Hollywood Quality Video) processor from Silicon Optix. I've been impressed with this video processor since first seeing it in action at the New York Home Entertainment Expo a couple of years ago. It can take standard definition DVDs and truly make them approach high definition quality, and can even clean up Full HD 1080p signals making them look even better than the original. And the implementation of this chip on the HD-XA2 does not disappoint.

The first standard definition DVD I popped in was "Madagascar" and it was impossible to see the scan lines, even on a 50-inch Panasonic plasma (1366x768 pixel resolution) from 6 feet away. Very smooth, extremely crisp and detailed. When I ran through the HQV benchmark DVD, the player showed me what a real upconverting DVD player is supposed to look like. The jagged line tests produced the smoothest diagonal lines I've ever seen from a DVD player, with no evidence of stair-stepping. The player performed equally well on the detail and cadence testing as well as on complex mixed content tests that include film material overlaid with video titling.

The colors on standard DVDs were a bit muted when compared with HD-DVD titles, and of course there is a certain level of detail missing when comparing standard DVDs to HD-DVD, but overall this player's treatment of SD material is exceptional. It really may be the last DVD player you'll ever have to buy.

Switching over to HD-DVDs was almost anti-climactic (almost), but the video performance of the player on true HD 1080p content was significantly better than on standard DVDs (as one would expect). The HD-XA2's new 1080p output has been stunning on any 1080p-compatible monitor to which we've connected it. Reference quality HD-DVD titles such as "Poseidon," "Unforgiven" and "Serenity" generated eye-popping nearly three-dimensional detail on a well-calibrated HDTV, whether we set the output resolution to 1080i, 1080p or 720p. And speaking of 720p output resolution, this was where we saw the biggest improvement over the HD-XA1.

Whether watching standard definition or high definition content on the earlier HD-XA1 player, the 720P output resolution was fairly poor, with noticeable pixilation of text and obscuring of fine details. The only high quality high def output resolution of the XA1 was 1080i. With the on-board Silicon Optix video processing chip, this limitation has been eliminated on the HD-XA2. We tested 1080p HD-DVD discs with the player set to both 1080p and 720p output, on a Sanyo PLV-Z5 projector that features a native 720p panel (1280x720), as well as on a 1080p-capable plasma HDTV. Both resolutions looked excellent, with crisp clear menu text and fine visible details.

A Sound Worth 1,000 Pictures

Perhaps as impressive as the video chops of the XA2 is its audio performance. With its HDMI 1.3 support, it should be possible to pass Dolby's new lossless HD audio format (Dolby TrueHD) natively over HDMI to a receiver or home theater processor which supports decoding of these formats. I say "should be" because HDMI 1.3-compatible receivers and processors are not generally available yet. Fortunately the player also supports internal conversion of the lossless audio formats to analog multi-channel outputs, as well as to uncompressed PCM Digital for pass-through to your surround processor via the HDMI digital cable.

It's important to note, you DO NOT NEED an HDMI-1.3 receiver in order to take advantage of these new audio formats. The player's internal audio converter will pass an extremely high quality audio feed to your receiver via the analog (RCA) multi-channel outputs. Or you can choose the uncompressed PCM digital multi-channel connection via HDMI (requires HDMI 1.1 or above). I used the Toshiba player successfully with an Onkyo TX-SR674 receiver (HDMI 1.1-compliant) and it was able to decode the multi-channel PCM digital stream without any problems.

Dolby TrueHD HD-DVD titles such as "Poseidon" and "Batman Begins" sounded phenomenal on the Toshiba player with excellent dynamics and a complete lack of the brittle, tinny artifacts that sometimes plague the compressed digital audio formats found on standard DVDs. Unfortunately the Toshiba player's support for DTS-HD (the high definition audio format from DTS) is "core only" meaning it recognizes only the standard base-level DTS information in the DTS bitstream, not the extended high definition "lossless" component. But considering the current dearth of software titles which exploit DTS-HD, this is not a show-stopper.

Final Thoughts

The Toshiba HD-XA2 is not perfect. Still a little slow to boot, slightly noisy in its operation, and featuring a less than exciting remote control. But these slight operational quirks are easily tolerated in light of the unit's stellar video and audio performance. The HD-XA2 represents a significant step forward from its predecessors in its treatment of standard DVDs. In fact, with its on-board Silicon Optix HQV processing and a newly reduced MSRP of $799, the HD-XA2 may be the best value in high-end upconverting DVD players today. Its performance leaves other upconverting DVD players in the dust. The fact that the player also supports the new Full High Definition 1080p HD-DVD format is a bonus. And a big bonus it is with dozens of recent and classic titles already released on 1080p HD-DVD and many more in the pipeline.

Will HD-DVD ultimately win the format battle? That remains to be seen, but until then you'll be able to enjoy a new level of image quality from your entire collection of standard DVDs while also enjoying a sampling of movies available in the new format. If you've got a high definition flat panel or rear projection set, or better yet a true "Big Picture" front projection system, then you owe it to yourself to check out the HD-XA2. It takes standard DVD playback to the next level, and its HD-DVD playback capabilities will allow you to see a glimpse of what your display device can really do.

November, 2007 Update: The latest firmware upgrade (version 2.7), now available on Toshiba's web site, finally delivers on Toshiba's promise to support 24 FPS (frames per second) video natively and to support next generation surround sound codecs, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio via bitstream output.

After the upgrade, 1080p/24 HD-DVD discs look even better (on compatible display devices, of course), with smooth motion and a lack of any visible judder. We did notice a problem when in 1080p/24Hz mode when trying to play back 1080i discs (deinterlacing is not done properly, losing some resolution. and motion is jittery) but this behavior is the same on Toshiba's newest HD-A35 HD-DVD player. To put this in perspective, the only 1080i HD-DVD disc in our collection currently is a test disc from Silicon Optix, so this limitation is not likely to effect too many people in day to day use. Switching the player to 1080p/60 mode restores proper deinterlacing behavior for 1080i source material.

Also, we have verified that next generation audio formats are successfully passed to a compatible HDMI 1.3 receiver with the new decoders. Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio titles produce excellent sound when used with a compatible receiver. A new set-up menu option in the audio section entitled "Digital Direct Audio Mode" must be set to "on" in order to pass these next generation formats to your compatible receiver.

These new features and performance put the HD-XA2 on par with or better than the latest HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc players currently on the market.

Where to Buy:

Toshiba HD-XA2 on OneCall
Toshiba HD-XA2 on Amazon.com

What's in the Box?
  • HD-XA2 HD DVD player
  • SE-R0251 Wireless remote control
  • 4 "AAA" batteries
  • 6' Detachable AC power cord
  • 5' AV cable (composite video/stereo audio RCA cable)
  • Owner's Manuals (English, French)
  • Product Registration card
  • Firmware Update cards (USA, Canada)
  • "Important Firmware Update Information" sheet (English, French)
  • "Stop Need Help" sheets (English, French)

Specifications:

General
  • Suggested Retail Price: $799.99
  • Kill-A-Watt Rating: Average power consumption of 33 Watts when powered on
Video
  • Silicon Optix Reon HQV processing technology
  • 297 Mhz/12 bit Video DAC with 4x Oversampling
  • HD Output 720p/1080i/1080p
  • SD Upconversion 480p/720p/1080i/1080p
  • HDMI™ with Deep Color
  • HD DVD Video
  • DVD Video
  • DVD VR
  • DVD-R (Video)
  • DVD-R DL (Video)
  • DVD-RW (Video/VR CPRM not supported)
  • User Selectable Picture Setting
  • Selective Color Enhancement
  • Edge Enhancement
  • Mosquito Noise Reduction
  • Block Noise Reduction
  • Random Noise Reduction
Audio
  • High-performance SHARC® DSP
  • Dolby® Digital Plus 5.1ch
  • Dolby® TrueHD 5.1ch
  • DTS® 5.1ch
  • DTS® HD (core only)
  • CD, CD-R/-RW (CD-DA)
Convenience/Styling
  • Persistent storage
  • Fully illuminated universal remote
  • Compact chassis with brushed aluminum panels
  • Digital/Analog Out simultaneously
  • AV Cable (Video/L/R)
  • OSD Language English/French/German/Japanese
  • Advanced Navigation
Inputs/Outputs
  • HDMI™
  • Gold Plated Component Video Output
  • Digital Optical Output
  • Gold Plated 5.1 Analog Output
  • Ethernet Port
  • Extension Terminal (2)
  • Gold Plated S-Video Output
  • Gold Plated RCA Video Output
  • Gold Plated 2ch Audio Output
  • Gold Plated Digital Coaxial Audio Output
  • Control (RS-232C) Bi-directional
Weight and Dimensions
  • Weight: 13.4 lbs.
  • Dimensions: 17.2" x 13.58" x 2.91" (WxHxD)

Company Information:

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

Websites:

What did you think?

Overall
Value
Performance
Features/Ergonomics
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