Toshiba HD-XA1HD DVD Player Page 3

As I write this I have a handful of the first Blu-ray disc titles from Sony and MGM. Regardless of what the interactivity features may end up being like with respect to functionality, in terms of the breadth of features, it's a landslide in favor of HD DVD. The Blu-ray movies have practically no features, and I'm sure that's due at least in part on Sony's decision to use less efficient MPEG-2 video and uncompressed PCM audio combined with the fact that replication of dual-layer Blu-ray Discs won't go online until later this year at the earliest. So for now, Blu-ray is confined to disc space that's 5GB less than the dual-layer HD DVDs we're seeing week in and week out- 25GB for a single-layer BD vs. 30GB for a dual-layer HD DVD disc.

Picture and Sound
I was very fortunate to have the Marantz VP-11S1 in my system for the bulk of the review period. This is the first 1080p DLP (single-chip) I've seen, and it's spectacular. Using HDMI this projector clearly and completely resolves single pixel width bursts at the 37MHz limit of 1080i HD. It is the highest resolution display I've ever had in my theater.

While my reference Marantz VP-12S4 720p DLP projector was more than enough to show HD DVD's utterly clear superiority over DVD, the 1080p projector indeed took the image quality to yet another level. 720p is enough to reveal spectacular image quality, but 1080p is what we're going to need to critically evaluate the transfer quality of these next-gen discs.

In the audio world, when we hear a new CD player, we're extremely excited to think that we can get more out of our entire library of music. Well, HD DVD is going to do the opposite for you: every DVD in your collection just became a second-class citizen!

The image quality is, in short, everything we've hoped it could be, and represents a significant challenge to Blu-ray or any other format that comes down the pike. The picture is unequivocally the best I've seen in my home from any HD source. DirecTV is my broadcast HD source, and sometimes presentations on Showtime HD, Discovery HD, and the HDNet channels approach this level of quality, but they don't quite get there.

For HBO HD, which is reputedly compressed to something more like 12-14Mbps using MPEG-2, the HD DVD format must be considered a serious shot across the bow. While HBO HD broadcasts are often excellent, they are not even in HD DVD's neighborhood of clarity, depth, and freedom from artifacts. I must also add that unlike HBO HD, all of the HD DVD discs I've seen so far are presented in their original aspect ratios- no cropping 2.35:1 movies to 1.78:1, thank you very much!

The vast majority of the HD DVD transfers I've seen so far have been so excellent compared to their DVD counterparts that it's hard to pick the standouts. Apollo 13, Serenity, and Unforgiven are all amazing, but I gravitate to Warner's Last Samurai for all its wealth of natural, outdoor photography (courtesy of Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll). The small details and textures in faces make the same images from DVD appear more waxen, like featureless mannequins (it's not quite that pronounced, but you get my drift). The gardens and landscapes have layers of natural depth and convincing dimensional beauty. It's an entirely other level of image quality.

Bright outdoor scenes and transitions from indoors to outdoors seem to exhibit a wider range than I see with DVDs. But it could be too that the additional pixels and detail and freedom from other artifacts just make it feel like more. In any case, HD DVD really is putting a lot more information on the screen.

The "Display" feature on the XA1 shows which video and audio codecs are being played on each disc, and so far every title I've seen is using Microsoft's VC-1. But HD DVD is limited in storage space compared to dual-layer Blu-ray. While this might lead one to believe that the new compression codecs would be used at a lower bitrate, Toshiba has said it believes that these discs are being encoded with an average bitrate of around 20Mbps. With the soundtrack taking up around 1.5Mbps, this is high bitrate video with a more efficient codec.

Some movies I've seen on HDNet Movies and some other satellite HD broadcasts have had a little more noticeable film grain, texture and natural softness, in spite of their other issues and artifacts. These are MPEG-2 encoded. Interestingly, at least Sony's initial Blu-ray Discs will be MPEG-2 encoded. So, we'll have a chance to see those, and at some point we may even see some of the same Warner titles on Blu-ray encoded with MPEG-2 and perform a direct comparison.

HD DVDs are unequivocally more film-like in the complete elimination of compression artifacts, motion artifacts, and certainly in the depth of the image and more convincing color saturation. In fact, I couldn't see just how prevalent these artifacts are with DVD until watching these discs and noticing that they'd simply vanished. And again, even compared to the best broadcast HD I've seen the level of clarity is a clear and mighty cut above with the best discs.

Also, from time to time in dark scenes on DVD I've seen some noise that to be honest I'd assumed was the residue of dithering noise that hasn't yet been wrung out of DLP technology. These HD DVDs blew that theory out of the water by offering noticeably less noise in these sequences, particularly the many sparsely lit images fromMillon Dollar Baby.

Are all HD DVD transfers as good as those mentioned here? No. The Fugitive, Full Metal Jacket, The Perfect Storm and probably a few others are less scintillating than these others, to be sure. There are apparently different grades of HD whether that has more to do with the original photography, the transfer, or both. But even these discs are a clear step up from their DVD counterparts in freedom from artifacts and color depth, if not at least a bit more focused and clear. Credit the Toshiba player, and perhaps the format itself for clearly revealing these differences.

HD DVD's sound is also a noticeable step up. The reference system I used for the bulk of this review lacks a surround processor with HDMI spec 1.1 switching and multichannel analog inputs, so for this evaluation I was stuck mostly with the sound I could get out of the coaxial SPDIF connection, which as mentioned is DD+ transcoded to PCM transcoded to DTS.

I've just acquired a processor that can accept multichannel analog and have only spent limited time listening to DD+ tracks and comparing the SPDIF/DTS transcoded sound to that of the DD+ tracks converted directly to analog in the player. I'm using Theta's Casablanca III and Six-Shooter, which has an unusual configuration I don't' want to take space discussing in depth here. Suffice it to say that my initial impressions of the DD+ to analog sound is very preliminary- while I've been using a Casablanca for years, I'm still getting used to the Six-Shooter's sound.

Also, when it comes time to do the D-A conversion its doubtful that the Toshiba has anything as sophisticated as the stacked differential mode DAC solution used in the Casablanca. On top of that, the Theta has a number of enhancements it can apply above and beyond straight digital decoding that the HD-XA1's internal decoding can't match- infinitely variable crossovers, wider ranges of delay adjustments for all channels, and bleeding the center channel information, including the bass, into the left and right channels for more "phantom" center sound and better bass. In short, the Toshiba players can't do as much to enhance DD+ tracks internally as an advanced controller like the Casablanca can do with the transcoded DTS signals via SPDIF.

That being said, listening to the best DD+ tracks converted directly to analog I feel so far like I hear improved dynamics, particularly in loud, visceral transients, and occasionally a subtle increase in overall clarity. It also seemed like there was a little better articulation in the bass, and that the transcoded DTS bass was just a little looser and boomy, making the overall sonic signature a warmer, sweeter one. More investigation is required, and I'll follow up on that as I get more time with the new system.