Toshiba HD-A2 HD DVD player

The first car I owned was a VW Bug that cost a whopping $500 in 1986. It wasn't the prettiest car on the block, but it got me from Point A to Point B. When Toshiba's first generation HD-A1 HD DVD player arrived on the scene it reminded me an awful lot of that trusty old bug: slow, ugly and clunky, but once the movie started to play, the picture was so outstanding that I could forget it's little quirks. Oh yeah, and it cost a cool $500 as well!

It's not even a year from the HD-A1's launch and Toshiba has released its entry-level second-generation player, aptly named the HD-A2, and it too costs just $500.

The HD-A1 had three issues that it was never able to overcome. First, it was built on a PC platform and its "boot-up" time was close to a minute, and once you played a disc it was close to another minute before the FBI Warning made an appearance on the screen. Second, its cosmetics had the look of an early 1980's VCR (think ugly square box). Finally, there were myriad HDMI issues associated with the player that frequent firmware upgrades have tried to address, but still need some fine-tuning. Toshiba's aim with the second generation HD-A2 is to improve upon these shortcomings while maintaining the picture and sound quality that won its first-gen HD DVD players widespread praise.

Under the Hood of the HD-A2
Before we jump into the player, I need to comment on the looks of this baby. Sleek and beautiful come to mind, especially compared to the first generation model. While not as cutting edge and classy looking as the PS3, at least the player actually looks like it was made in this century!

There is a trade off for better looks though. Gone are some of the connection options that the A1 sported. Starting with the audio, both the coaxial digital audio output and the 5.1-channel analog output have been removed. What the omission of the latter means in real terms is that the only way you can tap the full sonic benefits of Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD is through an HDMI AV connection. At present, HD DVD players will convert these higher resolution audio formats to multichannel PCM and transmit it on an HDMI connection along with the video. For you to hear this, your AVR or pre-pro must be capable of playing multichannel PCM audio received via HDMI. Some AV receivers (and many current pre-pros) with HDMI connections are merely HDMI switchers and ignore HDMI audio altogether.

Without this HDMI audio capability you'll be limited to hearing only the downconverted output over the optical Toslink connection. DD+ or TrueHD signals are decoded and converted to PCM in the player. This PCM signal is then re-encoded as a 1.5 Mbps DTS bitstream, which is then output over the Toslink connection and decoded yet again from DTS to (ultimately) analog by your AVR or pre/pro. This is bad news for those who are still without a DTS decoder in their AVR. They'll be stuck listening to downmixed analog two-channel output from the legacy RCA jacks.

On the video side, the outputs remain the same as in the A1: HDMI (1.2) and component outputs limited to 1080i, plus S-Video and composite. Another quirk of the A1 is that it would trigger an HDMI error if you changed the inputs on your display or AVR. The disc would stop playing and you would have to restart the movie from the beginning. This issue has been fixed in the A2 and you will not lose HDMI sync when switching your video source away from the player. As an added bonus, the A2 will let you output a signal on both HDMI and component at the same time.

Inclusion of an RJ-45 Ethernet port in HD DVD players is mandated by the DVD Forum to accommodate both future interactivity applications and firmware upgrades over the Internet. New firmware was released for the A2 in the last week of January. The player connected to the Internet and updated itself without a hitch. (Toshiba will also distribute firmware updates burned onto disc media for those who can't get their player to a hard-wired Internet connection- Ed.)

I am also happy to report that the A1's abysmal remote has been replaced by a more traditional, DVD player-like remote. That's not to say it's perfect, however. While its buttons do glow in the dark, it isn't backlit, so it's usefulness in a dark room is limited. The buttons are also spaced a bit too close together for my liking. I'll personally stick with my Home Theater Master MX-700, which integrates flawlessly with the player.

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines
After setting up the player in my equipment rack, it was time to fire her up. Once the power button was pressed, I heard a slight beep, followed by the player's (very quiet) fan kicking on. The player was ready for me to load a movie within 30 seconds. Yes folks, 30 seconds! Twice as fast as the A1!

How did Toshiba do this? Unlike the first generation machine, this one is built around an IC (integrated circuit) solution that's more akin to what we have on legacy DVD players. Sure, there still is a lot of computer power in the player, but the implementation is much more refined than the rushed-to-market, first generation.

With the HD-A1 you could take a jog around the block waiting for the setup menu to appear. On the A2 it appeared almost instantly. It's well laid out, with five sub-menus: Picture, Audio, Language, Ethernet & General. If you have set up a DVD player in the past, you should have no issues here with the exception of the Ethernet options. You need to set up the A2 to work on your network, and if you do make any changes in this section you'll need to "reboot" the player in order for the changes to take affect. I found this out the hard way when trying to connect to the Internet for the first time. I was sure all of my settings were proper but I kept getting a "Can not find out server" message. In my frustration I turned the player off, came back about 10 minutes later after my temper had calmed down, fired it up again, and was connected to the Internet on the first try. The Convergence Bridge between the PC and your home electronics is getting shorter every day.

The first HD DVD I sampled was Batman Begins. To my surprise, it took only 25 seconds until the FBI warning screen popped up on my display. This is about twice as fast as the HD-A1. As is typical with Warner discs, the movie starts instantly. You aren't greeted with any opening menu screen. I promptly hit the up key on the remote, which brings up the enhanced menu, and changed the audio output to Dolby TrueHD 5.1. As I expected, the picture and sound were as amazing as I remember when I first viewed the movie last fall.

I viewed a number of other HD DVDs in my collection, including V for Vendetta and Superman Returns. It is really difficult for me to sit down and watch a standard definition DVD now that I'm accustomed to the superior audio and video offered by both high-definition disc formats.

As to the relative quality of the images and sound from the first generation A1 vs. the new A2, I would say that they are equal. The best, reference quality high definition discs offer the best audio and video experience that you can enjoy in your home, regardless of which player you are using.

Incidentally, the image parity between the two generations of players continued when 720p was selected for output. Toshiba claims a firmware update to the first-gen players solved the downconversion problems they had, and the new player seems to do an adequate job at this as well.

One of the benefits the HD DVD Group tout for upgrading to HD DVD are the interactive features that Microsoft's HDi environment allows. Each of the studios has its own name for these features. Universal calls it "U-Control" and Warner refers to it as Warner "IME" or "In Movie Experience."

In order for these interactive features to work, the HD DVD specification mandates that two video decoders be placed in each player, one for the movie and the other for the interactive features. My tests showed that the A2 and the A1 both handled these features the same way: flawlessly. I ran into no issues whatsoever.

Research indicates that interactive features will prompt people to buy movies that they own on DVD all over again on HD DVD. But I'm sold on the picture and sound alone. These interactive features are the cherry on the ice cream sundae!

I also popped in standard DVD's to test the upconverting capabilities of the HD-A2, comparing it to the Oppo 970 I use as a standard definition DVD player. As I expected, both were adequate in upconverting the standard DVD 480i image to 720p or 1080i. But neither does as a good a job as a good outboard scaler.

Another nice benefit of the HD-A2 is that like the Oppo (but unlike the HD-A1), it has the ability to output 480i over HDMI should you want to bypass the deinterlacing in the player in favor of an outboard processor or the processor in your display (I use the Oppo at 480i with a Lumagen VisionHDP for standard def DVDs). The one drawback to this is that when you play a DVD you need to enter the setup menu and tell the A2 to output 480i. This could be a problem if you forget to return the output setting to 1080i/720p for your HD DVD discs. But at least the setup menu is lightning fast to enter and make the change. I would personally prefer to have a button on the remote to change the output resolution, but my Mother always told me that I couldn't have everything I wanted.

And the winner is?
Toshiba has done an admirable job in keeping the HD-A1 updated throughout the first year of its life. But two things it hasn't been able to fix with multiple updates are the speed of the player, which is agonizingly slow, and some of the issues with the HDMI output, namely the inability to switch away from the player without getting a HDMI error. Eliminating those issues alone make the Toshiba HD-A2 the better player, and one that I would recommend, but with one caveat. If you don't have an HDMI 1.1 capable AVR or pre/pro and the new hi-res audio codecs (Dolby Digital Plus and TrueHD) are important to you, then the A1 may be a better choice for its 5.1-channel analog outputs. But be warned, the A1is like my old Bug: very slow and ugly. For many, the better choice for now would be to forego the advanced audio codecs and buy the A2 for a better user experience and the perfect excuse for a future upgrade to an HDMI-capable receiver!

Improved speed, more user friendly, and prettier fit n' finish than the first- gen Toshiba HD-A1
Outputs HDMI and component simultaneously
480i over HDMI output

Can't change the HDMI output resolution without entering the setup menu
The Format War!