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An update on the Toshiba HD-XA2.

[Please note that all the discussion below applies only the upconverted DVD playback in the Toshiba HD-XA2]

I've spent some time in the last few weeks deciphering the disparate results I saw from the Toshiba HD-XA2 with standard DVD playback with the help of Silicon Optix and that all around good citizen to the industry, Stacey Spears. There is interesting playback behavior that affects the playback of standard DVDs upconverted in the player.

Let me back track, and go over what I'd found and written in my first take on the HD-XA2. Regarding DVD playback I wrote: "Looking at static frequency bursts and horizontal and vertical wedges on the resolution patterns from Avia, the XA2 shows the sharpest image with 480p, with noticeable roll –off as the standard def signals are upconverted to 720p and 1080i/p. As is typical when I see some softness on this pattern, I saw it with moving pictures as well, including the detail test from Silicon Optix' HQV Benchmark DVD."

However, I also noted in my review that with the the XA2 upconverted DVDs "looked more palpably real with program material," and that the XA2 "revealed more fine textures in fabrics of costumes, and other set pieces." I ultimately wrote that I preferred the "more natural depth and solidity of the XA2's image." This seems contradictory, but that's what I saw and here's why.

When I used Avia's 200 TVL Resolution pattern with the player set to 1080p output, the Avia pattern played back as "pillar boxed" 4:3 with black bars a the sides of the 16:9 screen. The resolution wedges and the 6.75MHz area of the burst were clearly rolled off, indicating high frequency rolloff with upconversion.

SO's HQV Benchmark was also playing back as pillar boxed 4:3 in the player. With this DVD's resolution test I could clearly see that the image was softer, which was especially noticeable in comparison to the upconverted imaged from Toshiba's first-gen HD-XA1 and Pioneer Elite's BDP-HD1 Blu-ray player.

But my other reference material included 16:9 DVDs like Seabiscuit, Monsters Inc., Pirates of the Caribbean 2. These are the areas of my notes in which I noted that I thought the XA2 looked more natural than the Toshiba HD-XA1, with softer edges, but also more textural fine detail and overall depth.

Conferring with SO, they were seeing full frequency response and no rolloff in their XA2 units with their test DVDs upconverted. But their test DVDs were playing back at 16:9, not 4:3 as with Avia. I double-checked the frequency sweeps on the 16:9 patterns from Digital video Essentials and saw flat response to the limits, and saw the same with the 16:9 test patterns SO used from a DVD test disc from Stacey Spears, which I now had a copy of. So, with 16:9 signals, there was clearly no rolloff in the upconverted image, just sharp, natural detail all the way to the limits of the format.

But SO also took a look at Avia and found something interesting. According to SO, with the HD-XA2 set up for a 16:9 display it saw Avia as native 4:3 material, and the MPEG decoder in the player downconverted the signal from 720x480 to 540x480 in order to pillar box it prior to sending the signal to the Silicon Optix REON processor, hence the irrecoverable loss of resolution, which is the cause of the substandard test pattern performance.

To test this hypothesis, at Stacey Spears' urging I selected 4:3 as the TV Shape from the HD-XA2'setup menu and voila, I again saw perfectly flat frequency response out to the limits of the format with the Avia pattern and noticeably improved performance wit h the detail test on the HQV Benchmark (I also saw the patterns display as 16:9, which suggests either the discs are flagged incorrectly as 4:3, or that the player also doesn't identify aspoct ratios correctly). But when I switched the XA2 back to 16:9 TV Shape, and again the image was shown as pillar boxed 4:3 and downconversion softened the image.

So, on the plus side, I'm not schizophrenic. My notes on the HD-XA2's upconverted DVD playback are an accurate reflection of the XA2's behavior with 4:3 program material vs. 16:9 material with upconversion engaged (for reasons I can't yet explain, the 480p output of the XA2 plays back 4:3 material with no rolloff either).

Toshiba has been informed of these findings, but as I write this the potential problem is that upconverted 4:3 DVDs on the XA2 may not playback at full resolution. Putting a finer point on the potential problems, with upconversion engaged classics like Citizen Kane might not play back with as much resolution as a recent 16:9 transfer of something far less substantial. In order to work around this you might have to select 4:3 as the TV shape or the 480p output in the Toshiba's setup menu when you watch a 4:3 DVD. A pain, but hopefully a firmware update will correct this soon.

However, these findings also confirm that the upconverted DVD image quality from the XA2 with 16:9 DVDs is superb. It's got natural depth and dimensionality in spades, and is very clean and artifact-free. So far, with 16:9 material this player is the king of DVD playback among next-gen players.

[Very special thanks to Stacey Spears for his help here. The man has no vested interest in this product that I'm aware of and yet spent time troubleshooting these issues with me over email. Much appreciated, Stacey! -SCB]

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