Toshiba HD-XA2

When the first HD DVD player, Toshiba’s HD-A1, came out last April, the general consensus was it put out excellent-quality images but was crippled by some major operational quirks. Although Toshiba improved the performance of the HD-A1 significantly with a few firmware updates, many prospective buyers were still holding out for a second-generation player that would fix these basic problems. Toshiba’s HD-XA2 is the flagship version of that second-generation HD DVD player, complete with fancy features like HDMI 1.3 and 1080p output. Of course these extras don’t come for free; the XA2 carries a hefty $800 price tag, although we’ve seen it going for about $700 online.

The
Toshiba HD-XA2 is much improved over the HD-A1 in terms of boot times–they’re less than a minute now–and we only had some minor operational quirks. That, combined with its superb image quality, is enough to make the HD-XA2 a worthwhile purchase for early adopters willing to gamble on HD DVD, a format that might not succeed in the long haul. We’re still not ready to give any standalone HD DVD player an unqualified recommendation–there are too many signs that Blu-ray may have an insurmountable lead–but for well-heeled enthusiasts, the XA2 is easily the best HD DVD player currently available. For everyone else, it’s still best to wait until the format war shakes out.  

 

Design
The XA2 has an understated black exterior with the HD DVD logo placed toward the bottom of the face plate and the LED display toward the upper right. It’s about half the size of the giant HD-A1, coming in at 17.2 inches tall by 2.9 inches wide by 13.6 inches deep. To the far left is an illuminated power button that glows blue when turned on, a glow that unfortunately cannot be dimmed. The nice-sized, white LED display, on the other hand, can be dimmed or completely shut off via the remote. To the right of the disc tray is the open/close button, and along the bottom of the unit is a flip-down panel that reveals some important buttons like play and chapter forward/backward–which are handy for when the remote goes missing. Also under the flip-down panel are two USB-like “extension ports,” although Toshiba hasn’t made it clear what they’re used for yet.

 Unfortunately, the remote is largely unchanged from the HD-A1, which means it’s pretty awful in everyday use. The shape is long and slender, which feels fairly good in the hand, but the buttons are all slim, raised rectangles, which makes navigating by feel nearly impossible. On the upside, at least there’s backlighting, which can be activated by holding down the backlight button for a few seconds. A panel toward the bottom slides down to reveal a few extra buttons, most notably a numeric keypad. Considering how widely criticized the A1’s remote was, it’s surprising Toshiba didn’t give the XA2 an update. In the meantime, the best tactic is to replace the XA2’s clicker with a good universal remote.

 

Features
The most important feature of the HD-XA2 is its ability to play HD DVD discs, and it can also handle standard-definition DVDs as well. For audio, it can play standard CDs, but it can’t play either of the niche high-resolution audio formats, DVD-Audio or SACD.

One of the more important features on HD DVD and Blu-ray players is their support, or lack thereof, for the new high-definition soundtrack formats, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD. While Blu-ray players have been hit and miss with their support, Toshiba’s HD DVD players have been consistently strong in this area (the LG BH100 combo drive excluded). The HD-XA2 is no exception, offering onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus, and the ability to play back the “core” soundtrack of DTS soundtracks (“core” DTS soundtracks offer slightly higher quality than standard DTS soundtracks). This means it can decode these soundtracks in the player and then either output the analog signal via the multichannel outputs, or output multichannel linear PCM via the HDMI output. We really like this flexibility because, at the time of this writing, there are no receivers available that can decode these soundtracks themselves. In other words, conversion at the player itself is currently the only way to take advantage of the higher quality sound.

While the HD-XA2 can decode these new soundtracks internally, the fact it has a HDMI 1.3 port means it should also be able to send these high-resolution soundtracks via encoded bit stream to future A/V receivers that will be able to decode them. This is a nice way to future-proof the product, because eventually we’ll see receivers that can decode DTS-HD, and the HD-XA2 will be able to take advantage of the higher sound quality by sending the receiver the encoded bit stream.

HDMI 1.3 also allows for “deep color” and expanded color gamuts, two other features associated with HDMI 1.3 that should improve picture quality (more info). As a device with an HDMI 1.3 output, the HD-XA2 is compatible with these features, but for now they’re strictly marketing hype. To fully take advantage of these features, they need to be present not only in the player, but also in the display and the content itself. To see the benefits of deep color, for example, it has to be present on the HD DVD disc and your HDTV–and as far as we know, no such discs or displays are currently available.

Connectivity is above average for the HD-XA2, with the highlight being the HDMI output, which can handle both high-definition video and audio. The rest of the video connectivity is completed by a component video output, as well as an S-Video output and a composite video output. For audio, there are also both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, plus stereo analog outputs and 5.1 analog multichannel outputs. Rounding the connectivity is an RS-232 port–which is useful for those with home automation systems–and an Ethernet jack that can be used to update the firmware. Being able to update the firmware via Ethernet is a nice convenience, but do note it took more than a half hour for the process to complete.

 

The XA2 supports 1080p output via its HDMI output, although it doesn’t support 1080p output at 24 frames. While some have claimed this feature can reduce judder with compatible displays, we haven’t seen an increase in performance with the 1080p/24 Blu-ray players we’ve tested. Therefore, it’s not a big missing feature as far as we’re concerned.

HD DVD Performance
The picture quality of the

Toshiba HD-XA2 is excellent overall. HD DVDs deliver vastly superior image quality to DVDs, especially when viewed on large TVs. To be clear, we feel that the performance is essentially identical to the HD-A1–which isn’t a knock, since they both put out a stunning image. For example, on Swordfish we could easily make out very fine details of
Hugh Jackman‘s face on closeups, and the colors really popped on our reference display, the Pioneer Pro-FHD1. We also looked at the The Hulk, which is also extremely sharp, and saw very few flaws in the image quality.

We’ve seen some reports (including High-Def Digest’s review) regarding an issue with “video stutter” on certain discs, including MI: III and Serenity. After watching scenes from these movies several times, both on the XA2 and the A1 (the latter supposedly does not suffer), we had difficulty seeing it. We feel that all but the most demanding videophiles will probably not even notice it.

 A big difference between the HD-XA2 and its predecessor is operational speed. The HD-A1 was extremely slow, taking more than a minute to boot up and play a disc. The HD-XA2 definitely improves on this–it only took us 50 seconds total to load the unit and start playing a movie, and it only took 32 seconds to load an HD DVD when the unit was already turned on. That’s not as fast as standard DVD players, but it was fast enough to not be a major issue.

We did, however, experience some operational quirks with the unit. For instance, there were several times when we hit the “Eject” button and the HD-XA2 just shut off. On the other hand, many of the troublesome issues with the HD-A1 have been fixed–we didn’t run into any “HDMI errors” while testing the HD-XA2. One thing we did notice that was surprising, though, was that we felt the HD-A1 was more responsive when fast-forwarding and skipping chapters than the HD-XA2. This was probably more noticeable to us since we use those functions frequently during testing, but anyone who likes to search around movies may be a bit frustrated.

Standard DVD performance


We also checked the XA2’s ability to upscale standard-definition DVDs high-def resolutions–not to be confused with watching actual HD DVD discs. Of course, real HD DVDs deliver noticeably superior image quality to standard DVDs, and no amount of upscaling can change that. That said, we were very impressed with the XA2’s upscaling performance. We started off with Silicon Optix’s
HQV test suite on DVD, and the initial resolution test was excellent, demonstrating the player’s ability to display the full resolution of DVDs. Other tests designed to produce jaggies looked smooth, with a waving flag exhibiting none of the jagged edges we see on lesser players. A 2:3 pull-down processing test was successfully passed, with the XA2 kicking into film mode in about a second. Considering the HD-XA2 uses Silicon Optix’s Reon video-processing chip, we weren’t surprised it faired so well on these tests, but it’s still a good indication of its performance.

 Using Windows DVD Test Annex, we did notice the chroma bug, although it should only show up on poorly authored DVDs. We followed up this test by taking a quick look at the introduction to Star Trek: Insurrection and again confirmed that the HD-XA2 has 2:3 pull-down processing as it smoothly rendered the curved lines of the bridge and boat hulls.

While the HD-XA2 was generally very good at upscaling, it wasn’t perfect. We also took a look at the introduction to Seabiscuit, which often gives players problems. We have to admit we were a bit surprised by this disc–we saw some significant jaggies in the black-and-white photos as the camera panned over them. We looked at the same sequence on the HD-A1 and the XA2 had the edge, although at some points the HD-A1 outperformed the XA2. We also compared it to the Oppo DV-981HD on this same sequence, and the DV-981HD had a definitive edge. So, while the upconversion on the HD-XA2 is very good, we still felt that the DV-981HD was significantly better.

We did notice some annoying playback issues on some homemade DVD copies we have. For example, if we tried to fast-forward the player would just hang and wouldn’t play back even if we tried hitting play. We had to stop the disc and hit play again to get it to work. We didn’t have any problems fast-forwarding or rewinding in standard commercial DVDs, but we did feel like it was less responsive than the HD-A1.

 The XA2 also has decent support for older, non-anamorphic wide-screen DVDs. Some HDTVs, such as the HP LC3760N and the Philips 42PF9831D, do not have aspect-ratio control when fed high-def sources, so it’s nice to have the player handle it. This is not an issue for most high-quality DVDs, which are anamorphic, but non-anamorphic wide-screen discs will look distorted on lesser players. While the HD-XA2 doesn’t give you control over the aspect ratio, it did automatically put our copy of Carlito’s Way in the correct aspect ratio, which left black bars on all four sides of the screen. Unfortunately, there’s no zoom option on the player, so you’ll have to watch a relatively small image unless your TV has a zoom feature. In terms of load time, the HD-XA2 was able to load a DVD in a speedy 16 seconds.  

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2 Comments on “Toshiba HD-XA2”

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