Toshiba Leaks, Er, Bows 3rd Gen HD DVD Players

Late last week Amazon inadvertently posted and started taking pre-orders on 3rd-gen HD DVD players from Toshiba. The posts were quickly pulled, but obviously the cat was out of the bag. This week Toshiba went ahead and offically announced the trio of third generation players, which will go on sale in September and October.

Toshiba's intent to remain a price leader is clear- all three players retail for less than $500. The HD-A3 will hit stores in October at $299, and the HD-A30 will arrive in September at $399. The $499 HD-A35 will also arrive in Ocober and as of now, there's no word on whether that player will supplant the HD-XA2 as the flagship in the line. Although some capabilties are upgraded in the HD-A35, there is no word that it will feature advanced processing such as the Silicon Optix REON solution employed in the $799 HD-XA2 ( which took that player to another level in its DVD playback ability).

As with the current line, the low-end HD-A3 will max out at 1080i, while the HD-A30 and HD-A35 will offer 1080p/24 output. The current Toshiba 1080p players in the market, the HD-A20 and HD-XA2 will be updated in September for 1080p/24 output. So, what's new in the 3rd-gen?

According to Toshiba the 3rd-gen players can transmit Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio as native bitstreams to compatible AV receivers and pre/pros. Also, although its analog multichannel outputs are 5.1-channels, the HD-A35 will have the capability to transmit 7.1-channel signals over HDMI when such a soundtrack is encoded on a disc and the player is connected to an HDMI 1.3a compatible AV receiver or pre/pro capable of 7.1-channel decoding.

Although this 7.1-channel feature is primarily an expansion in the number of channels, Toshiba has made the decision to market this feature in a way I think will confuse consumers in calling this feature "High Bit Rate Audio." It is not known if this player (or existing HD DVD players) will transcode 7.1-channel TrueHD or DTS-HD MA tracks to 7.1-channel PCM for transmission over the HDMI link, or if transmission will be limited to native bitstreams only.

In addition, the HD-A30 and HD-A35 will offer CE-Link connectivity which allows HDMI connected components to be controlled by one remote control. For example, if you owned a CE-Link HDTV and one of these players, a single button one one remote or the other would would turn on both devices and prepare it for movie watching. Beyond that, there are perhaps mare questions than answers here.

In addition, the lines of distinction between HDMI 1.3 and HDMI 1.3a spec components continue to blur, to the embarrassment of all. For instance, according to Toshiba, the HD-A20 and HD-XA2 are HDMI 1.3 compatible. A wide segment of the world (myself included) believed that this meant these players were already capable of transmitting Dolby TrueHD as a native bitstream. But our initial tests with the first batch of AVRs that accept and decode TrueHD (and DTS-HD MA) indicate that these early HDMI 1.3 players cannot in fact do this. And now a third generation of Blu-ray and HD DVD players are coming along with this feature listed as a primary distinction, and HDMI 1.3a is now being listed as spec.

We are at work on nailing down these distinctions, but no matter what anyone tells me at this point, I don't think we'll really know what the capabilities of these new players will be until we can test them ourselves.