Toshiba HD-A35 HD DVD Player Page 3
I say "sort of an AB test" only because HDMI switching does not provide an instantaneous transition from one player to the other; there's a blank-screen delay while the HDMI link is broken then re-established. (Fortunately, neither player stops and must be restarted when the link is broken, as was the case with the first generation HD-A1.)
Even with the time gap, I could see that the HD-A35 was the better performer. There was no difference in apparent resolution, but the newer player produced richer colors and, more importantly, more consistently correct color saturation from scene to scene. It also produced a greater sense of depth. And the HD-A35's color superiority it wasn't simply a matter of color level; increasing the projector's Color control with the HD-A20 could not duplicate the HD-A35's performance. It merely made flesh tones, for example, look sunburned. According to Toshiba, the HD-A35 has video processing superior to that in the HD-A3, HD-A30, or, obviously, the HD-A20.
Because of this superior HD performance, it came as something of a surprise to find the HD-A35 turning in a poor score when upconverting a 1080i HD DVD source to 1080p, judging from the 1080i test patterns on the HD HQV Benchmark disc. While it handled the jaggies patterns well on this 1080i disc, it did not deinterlace properly (it appeared to be bobbing the image from 1080i-to-1080p rather than using more sophisticated deinterlacing techniques). Nor did it recognize 3/2 pulldown on the source disc's film mode test. One of the features from the previous HD-XA2 that Toshiba dropped in the HD-A35 is Silicon Optix' HQV processing.
But since most HD DVDs are mastered at 1080p (including all movies, as far as we know), this 1080i-to-1080p issue will be irrelevant for most viewing, since no deinterlacing will be required if you set the player's output to 1080p or 1080p/24. Exceptions to this include some demo discs and some concert discs, which are 1080i. For these discs, your 1080p display might well perform the 1080i-to-1080p conversion better than the processing in the HD-A35. If you're playing such a disc and it looks a bit soft on the HD-A35, try changing the player's output resolution to 1080i. (The same advice applies to Toshiba's HD-A20, which also shares these processing shortcomings, even after its recent update.)
The HD-A35's upconversion from 480i to 1080p was also compromised. It failed the jaggies and waving flag tests on the HQV Benchmark standard definition DVD, though it did recognize 3/2 pulldown in the 480i source.
But despite its poor performance on these specialized tests, the HD-A35 easily passed the standard definition DVD tests on both Gladiator (chapter 12, the Coliseum "flyover") and Star Trek Insurrection (the haystacks and the pan across the village behind the opening credits). In fact, despite the HD-A35's failure to shine on the HQV DVD tests, the playback from both of these DVDs looked superb, with no obvious artifacts. Gladiator in fact, nearly passed the "looks like HD" test on the 60" Pioneer PDP-6010 plasma display. It was strikingly clean, vivid, and sharp. Even though the Pioneer display's 480i-to-1080p upconversion was significantly better than the Toshiba player's on the test disc, the Toshiba's own upconversion looked just as good on this DVD—and perhaps even a bit better.
As with the updated HD-A20 I reviewed recently, the HD-A35 will not only play back HD DVDs at 1080p/24, but will do the same for standard DVDs as well—something that no Blu-ray player we know of will do. But Toshiba does not recommend using 1080p/24 on standard DVDs, nor does it promote this capability. The player was apparently not specifically designed for this feature, so its 1080p/24 standard DVD performance is not seamless. But note that setting up the player to output 1080p/24 for HD DVDs also engages 1080p/24 output for DVDs, whether we or Toshiba want it to or not!
If, for example, you set the player to 1080p/24 before you start a standard DVD, the disc, the menus will not work correctly, making it difficult to set up for playback or navigate to specific scenes using the Scenes menu. The only way around this is to start the disc in 1080p/60 or a lesser resolution, stop it immediately after the movie starts, change the resolution to 1080p/24, then push Play to resume (recall that the HD-A35's resume function works on standard DVDs but not on HD DVDs). Obviously, this tap dance is not required on film-based HD DVDs, which work fine at 1080p/24, your display permitting.
On my first attempt at watching scenes from the SD DVD of Gladiator at 1080p/24 the player also froze up three times in chapter 13. It also refused to accept a command to skip to chapter 14. But after gently wiping the disc (which was, however, already pristine apart from some light fingerprints at the outer edge), the skipping stopped and the chapter skip control worked normally.
Despite these inconsistencies, you might find that watching a DVD at 1080p/24 can result in noticeably smoother motion by eliminating 3/2 pulldown. The improvement won't be visible all the time, but it can be significant, particularly if you're one of those viewers sensitive to 3/2 pulldown judder.
Though we were beginning to have our doubts in the absence of a suitable player, the front panel window on the Onkyo TX-SR875 AV receiver, and presumably many other new AV receivers and pre-pros, actually does indicate Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital+ when fed those formats in bitstream form. And as noted earlier, the HD-A35 can be set to bitstream those formats directly to the receiver, rather than first decoding and converting them to multichannel linear PCM in the player.
But in using the decoding in the receiver, you do lose the audio on secondary audio streams, such as Picture-In-Picture interactivity, and also silence those enthralling clicks, peeps, squeaks and burps that accompany your menu selections.
But do you gain anything? My first reaction was that the sound was actually better—cleaner and more full-bodied—when decoded from a bitstream by the receiver. Why should this be, you ask? I have no definitive answer, and in fact consider this only a first impression that may be demolished by further listening. And it may not even be repeatable on other receivers or pre-pros.
But if you can separate yourself from the concept that "bits are always bits," there are possible reasons. Take jitter, for example. If it's important (and you could start a fight by bringing up jitter in a room full of audiophiles), is a bitstream connection more or less likely than PCM to develop high levels of jitter, or is the difference non-existent and/or irrelevant?
There was another complication that made such a comparison difficult, at least for now. With the program material I used, when I passed TrueHD to the Onkyo as a bitstream, the sound measured about 3dB lower in level than when it was decoded in the player and passed to Onkyo receiver as multichannel PCM. And it got even curiouser. With the Dolby Digital Plus encoded discs I tried, the level difference was reversed: DD+ decoded in the Onkyo was 3dB louder than with player-to-PCM decoding.
But for now I can say for certain that the HD-A35 produces superb mutichannel audio from its HDMI output whether you choose to convert it first to PCM in the player or decide to go the bitstream route. If your current receiver lacks onboard decoding for the new higher rez formats, and can handle only multichannel PCM over HDMI, there's no need to feel deprived with the HD-A35. And believe us; the new lossless audio formats do offer significant advantages over plain old Dolby Digital, however you access them.
There is also one oddity in the way the sound operates from the HD-A35. When you set the "Digital Out SPDIF" menu selection to Bitstream in setup, the output of the HDMI audio is limited to a sample frequency of 48kHz. When you set Digital Out SPDIF to PCM (which limits the SPDIF output to two-channels), the maximum possible from on the HDMI audio link increases to 96kHz. Since movies are generally mastered at a maximum sampling rate of 48kHz, this quirk should be irrelevant for most soundtracks. But it might be something you'll want to be aware of on music HD DVDs (perhaps even including some future multichannel, music-only HD DVDs).
I did experience HDMI handshaking issues on the last day of the testing. For one short period, roughly two hours before my deadline to complete the observational part of the review and hit the old word processor, the player broke lock with the video display (in this case the InFocus projector connected through the switcher in the Onkyo receiver). It resisted several attempts to reset it, including changing inputs then switching back, disconnecting and reconnecting the HDMI link, and shutting off the player (though not the receiver or the projector). Then suddenly it re-established a lock and remained that way for the rest of the tests.
As with all such HDMI issues, the problem could lie with the player itself but just as easily with some combination of the three components. If you thought that such issues were behind us with HDMI 1.3, don't be so sure.
Apart from its somewhat quirky video processing—which appeared to have few adverse affects on the player's performance with real-world discs—and a few HDMI issues that cannot be definitively traced to the Toshiba player, I had no complaints about the HD-A35's performance.
In fact, it provided some of the best HD video I've yet seen in my system. Highly recommended.
• Stunning image quality
• Bitstreams audio (including native Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital+, and DTS-HD (both High Resolution and Master Audio versions) directly to an AV receiver or pre-pro for decoding.
• Lowers the admission price for the best HD DVD performance
• Remote is not illuminated and could have better ergonomics
• Video deinterlacing and scaling could be better
• Product-dependent HDMI issues remain
• The format war