Toshiba HD-A30 HD DVD Player

Hardly a week goes by that a big sale on HD DVD players from some mega-retailer or another doesn't make some screaming headlines. But it's been Toshiba's entry level, 1080i players that have lead that charge, with the HD-A2 getting famous overnight thanks to Wal-Mart's $99 sale, and the HD-A3 frequently seen at retail for around $199. But for my money, the real bargain in Toshiba's line could very well be the HD-A30.

Not splashy enough for the front page at an official MSRP of $399, this player isn't hard too find for well under $300. I saw it at Best Buy for $250 last weekend, and it's on Amazon as I type this for $239, with 10 free HD DVD movies (the 1080i HD-A3 is only $16 cheaper at Amazon). The HD-A30 offers almost all of the performance features of the more expensive HD-A35, including 1080p/24 output, and TrueHD decoding (to PCM). Let's take a look at the product that earned UAV's nod for Budget Product of the Year.

What It Will and What It Won't
As mentioned, the HD-A30 is a 1080p player, of both the 24p and 60p varieties, over HDMI. But it appears to share a quirk with some other high-def players in its 1080p/60 output. Rather than converting the 1080p/24 native signals on an HD DVD disc to 1080p/60 directly, the signals is first converted to 1080i, and then (poorly) deinterlaced to 1080p. Looking at our test patterns and Mission: Impossible 3's now notorious Vatican sequences in chapter 7 the telltale signs of 1080i-1080p deinterlacing without proper 3:2 pulldown compensation are obvious So, while one would be correct to note that the if you don't have a 1080p/24 capable display that the 1080p output of this player has limited value, if the prices of this player and the HD-A3 are that close, well, you could buy the HD-A30 and use the 1080i output until you upgrade your display.

As mentioned the player does decode 5.1-channel Dolby Digital Plus and TrueHD, and outputs these signals as multichannel PCM over HDMI. It does not decode DTS-HD Master Audio, which has almost no presence on HD DVD anyway, nor does it transmit either format as native bitstreams over its HDMI 1.3 output. It also lacks multichannal analog outputs, so for high-res audio it's HDMI or bust.

I know a number of you are probably scratching your heads, and wondering if I really meant to write that this player's HDMI 1.3 output can't transmit TrueHD and DTS-HD MA as native bitstreams. It's true. TrueHD and DTS-HD MA are optional in the HDMI 1.3 spec, and my understanding is that source component manufacturers can choose HDMI transmitter chips with or without hardware level support for bitstream transmission of these codecs, and that even with a transmitter that is hardware capable the player's firmware must also support bitstream transmission. I don't know what the case is here, but as of now bitstream support isn't enabled here, and as with other next-gen player manufacturers, Toshiba only makes this feature available in a more expensive model.

As we've explained many times, the exotic video features of HDMI 1.3, x.v.Color and Deep Color, are likely to remain vaporware for the foreseeable future. So, HDMI 1.3, what have you really done for me lately?

In addition, there's HDMI CEC, which allows the Toshiba's remote to control other compatible HDMI-connected components. I didn't test this.

So, the key distinctions between this player and the more expensive (by a hundred bucks, MSRP) HD-A35 is that the latter offers internal decoding of DD+ and TrueHD, multichannel analog outputs, and bitstream output of TrueHD and DTS-HD MA. So, for someone with HDMI capability, and particularly, HDMI switching with multichannel PCM, this player is a nifty way to save a hundred bucks.

For standard digital audio only a Toslink optical output is provided. Like all next-gen players we're aware of, the HD-A30 will decode Dolby Digital and DTS-HD and DTS-HD MA "core streams" or pass them as bitstreams over the Toslink output. These can be higher bitrate streams than is typical on DVD, but these are not true lossless audio streams.

Like all current HD DVD players, the HD-A30 ships with a full implementation of the hardware required to support HDi interactivity. Secondary audio and video decoders for streaming Picture-In-Picture features are there, as is an Ethernet port for both web-enabled interactivity and firmware updates. The Internet phobic crowd can download firmware updates and burn them to a disc, or, heaven forbid, contact Toshiba and request a disc be snail-mailed. But some firmware updates arrive just ahead of new exciting releases that require them, so keep this in mind. There is also a USB slot for future use.

The remote control is not as big or fancy-pants as those that shipped with Toshiba's first-gen players, or with the HD-XA2. But other than backlighting, I prefer this remote for its simplicity and reliability. This remote isn't great, but the others were universally reviled and rightfully so.

The AC cord is detachable, but one of those chintzy two-pole jobs without a separate ground pin.

Setup and More Video Jive
The HD-A30 upconverts standard DVDs up to 1080i over component and up to 1080p over HDMI. Big deal, right? What's a bit more fascinating here is that when set to 1080p/24 output the HD-A30 can extract a 24p signal from standard DVDs, removing the 3:2 pulldown process and its artifacts entirely and output it as 1080p/24. As with the HD-A35 TJN reviewed, this works clunkily in many DVD menus and features that are video (not film) based, but seems to work just fine with most movies once the actual program starts. TJN also found some hiccups here and there with 24p DVD playback, but with the admittedly few DVDs I've watched 24p has worked well.

Toshiba doesn't promote or recommend 24p output with DVDs as a feature, but here's the rub. If you select 1080p/24 in the setup menus you get it with DVDs whether you or Toshiba want it that way, and to change it you have to go back into the setup menu. And here's the other problem with that implementation: some concert videos are 1080i native, not 1080p/24. So, with 1080p/24 engaged, which works for virtually all HD DVD movies, you have to go back into the setup and manually switch to 1080i or 1080p output (which is 1080p/60). And 1080i might well be best in this case as the HD-A30's 1080i-1080p deinterlacing is not very good. Your display's conversion could be better, so try it.

What would be best is a menu setting that outputs the disc content at its native rate. 1080p/24 goes out as 1080p/24, while 1080i goes out as 1080i. In the meantime, any oddball concert videos you play will require some setup juggling.

Also note that if you're using the HDMI setup you probably think the "Digital Out SPDIF" setting doesn't have anything to do with the PCM output over HDMI. It does. If this is set to PCM, the HD-A30 converts incoming DD+ and TrueHD tracks to multichannel PCM at 96kHz. If it's set to bitstream the conversion is at 48kHz. Most soundtracks are 48kHz native, so I don't know if this has sonic consequences, but why take a chance?