Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD Player Page 3

How the video output resolutions are selected is also different from the first-gen players, which allowed on the fly changes with a button push on the remote. With the XA2 the output must be chosen from Setup menu, and you must go back into the Setup menu to change it. An oddity is that while the $500 HD-A2 allows a 480i output to be chosen, the XA2 doesn't. I guess they didn't use Silicon Optix processing so you could output 480i and deinterlace somewhere downstream. The other choices are 480p, 720p 1080i and 1080p, so compatibility with displays is accordingly broad.

Picture and Sound
I evaluated the HD-XA2 with my new reference 1080p projector, the outstanding Marantz VP-11S1 on an 80" wide Stewart Studiotek 130, a white 1.3-gain screen. While I switched the HDMI video and audio through the Anthem AVM 50, all critical results were double-checked with a direct connection to the VP-11S1. My viewing to this point has been confined to HDMI video and audio; analog audio and video outs and an evaluation of the sound from the SPDIF outputs will come in a Take 2.

Looking at test patterns I found that although the player would pass above white, I can't yet say whether it will pass below black with YCbCr signals. The Marantz projector passes above white and below black with RGB signals as verified by my Accupel signal generator. But my understanding at this point is that these players output YCbCr digital component video via HDMI, and it appears that the Marantz clips below black when YCbCr is the source.

I recently acquired some HD test material that can be played back on HD DVD players--Silicon Optix' HD HQV Benchmark and test disc from Stacey Spears and Don Munsil. I used these discs to compare the performance of the HD-XA2 and the first-gen HD-XA1. Among other things the Spears and Munsil disc showed that both the HD-XA1 and HD-XA2 are capable of outputting the highest frequencies of a 1920x1080 luma (black and white) burst at single pixel width. In other words, their luma resolution extends to the limits of the format. The only visible difference between the two was that the vertical resolution of the highest frequencies of a chroma (color) burst showed an easily discernible line structure on the XA2 that was nearly absent on the XA1.

Moving on to the new Silicon Optix HD disc, I set the output of both players to 1080i, which according to SO is what's native on their disc. It makes sense that SO would master this disc at 1080i since this disc is made to torture, er, excuse me, test, video processors and deinterlacers. Two of SO's new tests show SMPTE patterns with resolution wedges. In the video-based test motion is introduced within the pattern while the film-based test sets the entire pattern in motion. Both patterns test the ability of video processors to maintain resolution in the wedges while deinterlacing and processing video and film material. Even the powerful Gennum processing in the VP-11S1, which is a better solution than you'll find in most displays, couldn't maintain complete image integrity here with these tests. However, switching the XA2 to 1080p eliminated all of the artifacts entirely. Gone. The 1080i-1080p deinterlacing in this player looks to be nothing short of outstanding, and according to SO their new pattern indicates the player can detect 3/2 pulldown and properly deinterlace film-based 1080i material to perfection.

Looking at the best HD DVDs like Batman Begins, M:I 3, and Hulk, I saw image quality that was a small but still noticeable smidge better than Toshiba's first-gen HD-XA1. Stationary patterns suggest that the resolution of these two players is just about the same, but highly detailed moving pictures with complex motion always had me favoring the XA2 by a narrow but perceptible margin. And remember here, this is native 1080p of the disc, which should involve no deinterlacing at any stage. It should be better, and it is.

Since Jurassic Park has yet to make it to HD on a disc, it's good to see a T.Rex (or four) in action again, as in Universal's King Kong. This sequence is loaded with lots of exquisite detail, and fast motion. And the resolution here is good enough to make the CGI backgrounds obvious enough that you wonder if the Lord of the Rings guy really made this movie. All of the scars, rips and tears on mighty Kong's battle-tested body are here, along with every strand of fur. And when he and the Rexes get after each other the XA2 clearly held an edge in maintaining depth, three-dimensionality and fluidity in motion throughout the fight.

Toshiba's first-gen players were revered for the pristine HD DVD images we saw from them--images that were so superior to any HD we'd seen that we forgave a lot of ergonomic foibles. The ergonomics here are better, and if anything, the outstanding HD image quality that had us gushing has gotten even better. In addition, the sound from the HDMI output is at least as good. This will require some follow-up, as there are no audio equivalents to the HD DVD video test patterns that might offer objective benchmarks on the player's audio performance. But so far the listening tests have given me no reasons to complain.

On standard definition DVD video test patterns, the XA2 exhibits some interesting results. Looking at static frequency bursts and horizontal and vertical wedges on the resolution patterns from Avia, the XA2 shows the sharpest image with 480p, with noticeable roll –off as the standard def signals are upconverted to 720p and 1080i/p. As is typical when I see some softness on this pattern, I saw it with moving pictures as well, including the detail test from Silicon Optix' HQV Benchmark DVD.

Comparing the XA2's performance on these patterns and program material (including the SO detail test) to Toshiba's XA1 at 1080i and Pioneer BDP-HD1 at 1080i/p revealed that both of these players indeed look sharper and crisper overall than the new Toshiba. However, that's not all there is to image quality. Both the Toshiba XA1 and the Pioneer fail to perform anywhere close to the XA2's standards on the deinterlacing tests we have available from SO's own standard definition test discs, and even the Faroudja test DVD I have from way back when. This, and perhaps other functions of the Silicon Optix processing in the XA2, did more than just even the score.

Although the XA1 and the Pioneer looked sharper, the XA2 looked more solid and three-dimensional, had softer and more natural edges, and looked more palpably real with program material. In spite of the crisper look to the other players, the XA2 revealed more fine textures in fabrics of costumes, and other set pieces and held those details rock solid no matter how complex the motion in the image. Although some would gravitate initially to the sharper image, I think over time many would prefer the more natural depth and solidity of the XA2's image, as I did. With standard DVDs, the XA2's 480p output is a bit cleaner and sharper than 720p or 1080i/p, but because you have to go into the Setup menu to change picture resolution it's not very practical to switch on the fly. Plus, if you're like me you'd watch 15 minutes of your next HD DVD thinking how God awful the transfer is, and then you'd remember you didn't switch back to 1080p output after watching your last DVD at 480p! In other words, I miss the Resolution button on the XA1's remote that allowed changing the output resolution on the fly.

Silicon Optix' HD HQV Benchmark's Film Detail test is also said to determine whether a player or display takes 1920x1080p images and converts them first to 540p as an intermediary step to 720p. I'm not quite 100% certain this is the case, but should you choose to convert 1080p DVDs to 720p, in order (for example) to match the native resolution of your display, the XA2 definitely produced excellent downconverted 720p images on SO's Film Detail test.

HDMI 1.3
Some comments on HDMI 1.3 after living with both Sony's PlayStation3 and the HD-XA2, and switching them through Anthem's AVM 50--a "backward compatible" HDMI 1.1 device. While I had no qualitative performance issues with picture and sound, switching to and from these HDMI 1.3 sources with the AVM 50 was not trouble free. Often, switching from and sometimes to either the PS3 or the XA2 caused the Anthem to lose picture and/or sound. The only cure I found was to power the Anthem down and back up again. Not a deal killer for me, but more than many people would tolerate from expensive components.

That can hardly be blamed on either player, of course, but it is a system consideration. HDMI 1.3 is brand new, so it's likely that no 1.3 products were available for Anthem or anyone to test effectively when designing and building their 1.1-compatible components. And I must say that in the months I've had the Anthem in my system it has provided totally seamless operation with any and all connected components that are HDMI 1.1 or 1.2. And I should add that the Anthem's software updateable platform means that if a software fix is possible it can be easily implemented.

I don't have enough information about what causes these issues to criticize any involved party outright. So, I'll voice this as a general frustration over the entire HDMI 1.3 situation which has kept manufacturers and consumers alike held hostage. The promise of simplistic connectivity with superior picture and sound over a single cable is a wonderful thing, but we're undeniably experiencing growing pains as the HDMI standard appears to remain something of a moving target. Here's hoping that if there is an HDMI 1.4 it stays on ice for at least 10 years.

So far, Toshiba's HD-XA2 is everything the HD-XA1 was in pure performance, and more. It's also a quantum leap in ergonomics and disc access speed and convenience- it's a next-gen player that not only performs like one, it also behaves like one. While the XA1 was a clunky muscle car that could blow anything else off the line once it got going, the XA2 can also corner and it gets you there in style.

So thus far, the HXA2 is proving itself to be the HD DVD player we wanted the first time around. If you're format war glass is half empty, this player proves that the first generation players were rushed to market; if you're glass is full you're just thankful it's here now. There still isn't a clear winner in this format war, but one thing is indelibly clear- whether you're playing DVDs or HD DVDs the HD-XA2 is shaping up as a winner of a disc player. Look for a Take 2 to follow.

Superlative image quality with HD DVDs and DVDs alike
Much improved loading and disc access response times
Silicon Optix Processing

Same paltry remote from first-gen player
DTS-HD Master Audio decoding still a no show
1080p/24 output not (yet) included