Toshiba HD-XA1HD DVD Player Page 2

This results in some rather peculiar consequences. The first is straightforward. The players can, via HDMI, output the soundtrack as raw, uncompressed multichannel PCM. The Toshiba players perform this conversion at 24-bits/96kHz, which provides more than enough headroom for high quality audio. The only way to hear full resolution Dolby Digtal Plus (or DTS-HD High resolution or Master Audio) as a native digital bitstream is over HDMI or by using the multichannel analog outputs of the player.

SPDIF doesn't have the throughput for mutlichannel 24/96, so for this and other obvious reasons the need is there to output a signal over SPDIF that can be decoded and played by all the existing Dolby Digital and/or DTS equipped AVRs and surround processors. Thus, the oddest consequence of this PCM conversion and processing is that Toshiba's engineers decided that what makes the most sense is encoding the hi-res multichannel PCM as DTS at 1.5Mbps since that allows broad backward compatibility with the existing install base of AVRs and processors. Converting to current standard Dolby Digital would have a bitrate ceiling of just 640kbps. So, yes, you're understanding this correctly. In the Toshiba HD DVD players Dolby Digital Plus is converted first to PCM and then to DTS before being sent out SPDIF on the back of the player. Play a DD+ track, and watch the front of your controller light up "DTS." Topsy-turvy.

I mentioned the lossless Dolby TrueHD format above, but it's not worth talking about with these Toshiba players: they downmix TrueHD to two-channel for processing even when the soundtrack is encoded with TrueHD in 5.1-channels, such as Warner's Phantom of the Opera, Constantine, and The Perfect Storm. No matter how high-res these two-channel tracks are, it's just not acceptable to even consider watching a movie using a two-channel track when a discrete 5.1-channel mix of reasonably high quality is on the same disc. Period. So, we'll talk more about TrueHD when there's something to talk about.

Also, the Toshiba players cannot decode DTS-HD High Resolution tracks or DTS-HD Master Audio, which is DTS' own lossless audio format. DTS encodes these soundtracks as "extensions" of the current DTS standard, so there will always be a "core" DTS 5.1-channel soundtrack embedded within DTS-HD and HD Master Audio tracks that can be extracted by the players, sent over SPDIF and decoded by every DTS decoder ever made.

There is much else on audio side of both HD DVD and Blu-ray that is too confusing to even begin to delve into here. I recommend reading UAV's treatise on the new formats for the complete download on next-gen sonics.

Disc Access and Ergonomics
On the HD-A1 we've already reported, as have others, on the laboriously slow boot up times for the machine coming out of standby and loading discs for playback, and since the HD-XA1's basic hardware is the same, it's déjà vu all over again. The machine takes well over a minute to complete its startup sequence when it comes out of standby, and from the time the disc drawer closes to when you see the first menu on a disc clocks in at a dreadful 50 seconds or so with both HD DVDs and DVDs.

Some of this sluggishness is due to copy protection measures and is inevitable to an extent. When a disc is loaded the player has a lot to think about. It starts with determining whether the disc is a CD, a standard DVD, or an HD DVD. The player then has to load the appropriate red or blue laser, and authenticate the HDMI handshake with the display if the HDMI output is active, and also determine which audio and video codecs need to load for decoding.

In the case of audio and video codecs, myriad choices above and beyond current DVD spec exist. The video compression codec choices include Microsoft's VC-1, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4/AVC H.264. HD DVDs have already appeared with Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus joining Dolby Digital and DTS as encoding options, and discs featuring uncompressed hi-res multichannel PCM and DTS' new options are sure to show up down the road.

Before the player can read the disc and determine which audio and video compression codecs it must decode on a particular disc, there is a series of AACS copy protection maneuvers that must be negotiated. Each disc encoded with a "media key block" data set that Toshiba's knowledgeable HD DVD point man Mark Knox likened to the "most wanted" posters at the post office. The player checks the media key block on each disc to determine if any keys have been involved in illegal copying of HD DVD discs.

The condensed version of this is that all of the players and each mastered HD DVD title are encoded with unique identifying numbers. Any illegal copies that are discovered as being made from a particular machine will carry that machine's identifying number. Any discs authored and replicated subsequently carry the identifier number for that player, and that player can never play a disc authored after that point in time. When a new disc is loaded into a "most wanted" machine and its media key block is read, the player won't play the disc. Busted! Although it seems impossible that as this format grows around the world that every compromised player's identifier can be carried in the media key block on every disc, Toshiba assured me that Internet connection will never be required to authenticate and play a single disc, and that any player bought from day one will always be able to play any and every HD DVD standard disc as long as no illegal copies have been made from it. In the meantime though, there is a lot going on that makes the disc boot up sequence a time consuming affair.

Unlike current DVD players, the HD-XA1 doesn't support the resume play feature for HD DVDs (though it does for ordinary DVDs). That is, when you hit the stop button in the middle of a movie, the player won't resume playing at the point you left off when you hit play again- it starts the disc over, and I mean all the way over. It starts at the studio logos and you can't skip through them. Combined with the machine's slow response it's just brutal. Trying to do a quick A/B with current DVDs to show off for your friends is simply a nightmare. (When this happens, however, at least it doesn't take the player 50+ seconds to start over. Apparently all the checks and authentications made when you first loaded the disc remain in memory as long as you don't eject it, so it only takes a few seconds for the disc to start playing. From the beginning.—TJN)

Also, although I've only got around a dozen HD DVDs, on a number of occasions the player froze when fast-forwarding or rewinding through a movie, and on a couple of occasions it locked up so completely that I had to pull the plug on the back and start over. Groooan! On top of that, disc and menu access in general is shockingly slow compared with today's DVD players (even the cheapies), and if you get impatient and hit a button again, or hit other buttons before the player has taken its sweet time, it gets confused and you're at reboot risk again.

(The freezing and reboot requirement appears to be very player specific. I had a few such problems early on—though only one freeze up, and it would not repeat when I played the same passage again. I've had none since I posted my review of the HD-A1 in early May, and no other problems since I downloaded the latest firmware update, The slowness continues, however, as does the player's tendency to get flustered when you feed it multiple commands before it reacts to the first.—TJN).

Although no one in reality should expect perfection out of the gate from a new format, I can't pretend that I wasn't surprised and dismayed by some of this, especially when standard def DVDs were in the player. After being spoiled by DVD, which is a very mature technology at this point, I think a lot of people are going to expect something that's better than DVD in every way, and Toshiba can only hope that the picture and sound that comes out once the discs play is what carries the day in the hearts and minds.

Yet another ergonomic faux pas is that the video output resolution of the player must be set manually. Fortunately the 1080i upconversion is superb- set the player and forget about it until 720p discs show up on the format (if they do). While there are no native 720p HD DVDs on the market yet, it's not at all out of the question that there could be someday. A "native rate mode" would solve this- the player would simply output whatever is on the disc. And think of how many bad demos at retail such a feature would defuse.

Another oddity, probably due to copy restriction, is that the component and HDMI output can't be active at the same time. You must activate one or the other at setup. I can't say I'm bothered by this, but I can't say I benefit either.

The remote really is as bad as you've read. Backlighting is cool, and it certainly helps, but the chapter skip buttons are too close to the pause and stop buttons, respectively. As I write this miscues have so far proven unavoidable. I've also found that I have to exceptionally fine with the direction cursor to navigate menus. I'd also note that I feel taunted having a backlit "resume play button" on the remote that won't work with HD DVD discs!

An Open Door For Blu-ray?
I suppose I'm beating an already beaten if not dead horse here, but it will be a major blow in the format war if Blu-ray players are faster and slicker than these first clunky HD DVD players. Sony's first-gen DVD player, for example, was an ergonomic standard setter and it took other manufacturers generations to catch up (and some never did).

On Toshiba's plus side, HD DVD clearly lays out a challenge in providing the best picture and sound I've ever heard and seen from a consumer format. Way beyond any HD I've yet experienced. Blu-ray has no margin for error in pure performance, and this will be a challenge since replication capacity for 50GB dual-layer discs will not be online until late 2006. Through the end of this year Blu-ray movies will be on 25GB single-layer and competing with 30GB dual—layer HD DVD discs.

Interactivity in the Next-Generation
The most salient aspect of the new interactivity is that the menus and even the chapters themselves overlay onto the screen while the movie keeps rolling right along- no more bouncing out of the movie to a separate menu page. To aid in navigation, each step you take through the menu is accompanied by a discrete sound effect- not unlike the sounds my Mac desktop makes when I kick something into the trash can, or the whoosh that sounds when I send off an email. Changing soundtracks, subtitles and anything can be performed mid-movie with ease.

The commentaries on the discs I've seen so far are the standard audio variety, but HD DVD caries the capability to stream commentaries from the 'Net and also to overlay a video commentary over the running film. It will take time for post production to start to build new features with these enhanced capabilities.

All of HD DVDs I've seen so far are dual-layer, and there are tons of features on the discs. A number of the discs released so far have been previously released in two-disc DVD special editions, and in every case I've seen so far all of the features from the two-disc releases have been present and accounted for on a single HD DVD disc, along with the 1080p video and DD+ audio.