Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD Player Page 2

Also onboard is one REON processor from Silicon Optix. The REON uses the same essential HQV processing technology as SO's flagship REALTA processor, but is not as flexible in its programmability While it does offer user selectable picture controls, its major benefits include not only the REON's deinterlacing and upconversion of standard-def DVDs, but also high quality, selectable downconversion of the 1080p material on HD DVDs to lower resolutions like 720p (if needed). In Toshiba's first-gen players (prior to a major firmware update) instead of a straight downconversion from 1080p to 720p, 1080p signals were converted first to 540p, and then upconverted to 720p. Doing the math, that's an upconversion of half of the signal's inherent resolution. The results were as abysmal as one would expect. REON, take me away! (According to Toshiba, the new HD-A2, not yet reviewed, also properly converts 1080p to 720p, although it does not use the REON chip.)

On the audio side while I'm pleased that full, multichannel Dolby TrueHD is included, I'm baffled that DTS-HD Master Audio isn't yet on-board. I don't blame Toshiba here; DTS-HD Master Audio is a no show on any hardware, although LG has claimed its Multi Blue combi player has built-in decoding for this new codec. I'd be more anxious for this if I had any HD DVDs with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks on them, and I'd be more critical if there were any other players or components that included it out there. To be fair, the XA2 isn't alone; the hardware support just isn't there, here, or anywhere yet, but one day it's probably something we'll want in these players.

One other potential omission, barely worth mention, is the lack of 7.1-channel analog outputs. Although 7.1 can be carried over HDMI in this player, and I consider 7.1-channel playback to be of legitimate use to very few people (those with very large rooms that have numerous seating positions behind traditional surround channel positions), there probably will be some 7.1-channel soundtracks appearing on HD DVDs and some people might prefer having the option of playing them back over this player's analog outputs.

Firing Up And Playing Discs
OK, the big question- is the XA2 faster starting up and playing discs? Happily, yes! You can stop taking that lunch break, or a walk down the street while you wait for an HD DVD to boot up. Powering the player up still takes around 40 seconds from the time the power button is hit to seeing the first menu from the player on screen. That's down by about 1/3 from the minute or so the first-gen players needed to power up.

But, while the first-gen players notoriously took over 50 seconds to load to an HD DVD, the HD-XA2 takes 30- seconds or less, with some loading closer to 25 seconds. DVDs load to menu in 10-15 seconds, which is totally acceptable.

Also, the way most HD DVDs are authored doesn't allow the resume play feature. When you hit stop you don't go back to where you left off in the movie, you start over. What made this a horrific nightmare in the first-gen players is that for HD DVDs stopping during playback meant another 50-second load time. Thankfully, gleefully, that's not the case here. Stop play during an HD DVD and you go back to the studio logo, but you're there in less than five seconds. This isn't perfection, but it's a huge and welcome leap forward.

I'd also add that skipping chapters and scanning forward and backwards is faster and more stable than with the first-gen players. From the get-go with the HD-XA1, I had the player locking up on me when scanning within a movie, or at other inopportune times. I've had the XA2 for about a week as I write this, and so far there have not been any lock-ups at all. This is something that will take time and many discs to evaluate, and so again, this is something I'll address further in a Take 2 down the road.

The XA2 also handles Dolby Digital Plus and TrueHD soundtracks differently than the first-gen players. First, because of the inclusion of HDMI 1.3, the Setup selections available for audio over HDMI are different. Since there are not yet any DD+, TrueHD or DTS-HD decoders on the market, that means that users with HDMI 1.1 switching or better are going to need these signals converted to PCM. HDMI audio options include both PCM (multichannel) and Downmixed (stereo) PCM, but Auto can also be selected. Auto allows DD+ and TrueHD (and, in the future DTS-HD and DTS-HD Master Audio) to be transmitted digitally as native bitstreams to compatible decoders. But the user manual also claims that Auto can detect if the downstream decoding equipment is compatible with the bitstream audio it is about to receive, and will convert to linear PCM on the fly if necessary. My initial experiences with this suggest it isn't foolproof.

Playing Clerks II on HD DVD the sound became distorted with Auto mode engaged. After restarting the disc, the player played it correctly until Chapter 14, which appears to have a layer change. The image paused and the distorted audio began again until another reboot seemingly solved the issue. More experimentation is required, but if you have issues with this in your player try switching the HDMI audio setup to PCM.

While the XA2's specifications indicate that it will properly process audio tracks mastered at both 48kHz and 96kHz, the PCM conversions from DD+ and TrueHD I've played thus far are at 48kHz in the XA2, as opposed to the 96kHz conversions in the HD-XA1 (according to the Anthem AVM 50 surround processor, which has HDMI 1.1 switching). While movie masters are typically 48kHz, my concern here is that there might be concert or music oriented discs coming out down the road that are 96kHz (or higher). If a TrueHD track is taken from a 96kHz master, a PCM conversion to 48kHz could constitute a serious loss of resolution.

I'm following up with Toshiba on this, but the only other explanation might be that there is bit-for-bit reconstruction from a lossless TrueHD track in the XA2. So if a soundtrack with a 96kHz master is decoded from a TrueHD track, perhaps that would be at full 96k resolution. Given that all of the movies I've checked with the Anthem thus far show up at 96kHz on the XA1 and 48kHz with the XA2, this would clearly imply that the XA1 oversampled on its PCM conversions regardless of what the soundtrack master's sample rate actually was.

Also different in the XA2 is what it does when DD+ and TrueHD soundtracks are played and the SPDIF digital audio outputs are used. It's legend now that Toshiba's first-gen players converted these tracks to 96kHz PCM before then converting to DTS at 1.5Mbps over the Toslink and coaxial digital audio outputs. The XA2 outputs 640kbps Dolby Digital over Toslink and coax when a DD+ or TrueHD track is played, which is a shame in the sense that this is less than half data rate than the DTS conversion allowed. (The 640kbps rate is the maximum that standard Dolby Digital decoders can process.)

The setup menu also includes a Dynamic Range Control, which defaults to Auto. Of course, the main purpose of this is to apply compression so that the loud passages aren't too loud for nighttime movie watching, or other times when you don't want to rock the house playing movies. According to the manual, this is not activated unless metadata in the content you're playing engages it. I prefer to take no such chances and turned this to Off.