Toshiba HD-A1 review, Part 1

April 19, 2006

Toshiba HD-A1Surely one of the greatest examples of impartiality would have to be the ‘Fair Witness’ as described in Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi classic ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’. In the book, fair witnesses are methodically trained to impartially observe and report facts and facts alone, with total recall. In one passage of the book, a fair witness (Anne) is asked, “What color is the house on that hill?” She responds, “White on this side”. Anne makes no assertions as to the color of the other sides of the house.

Obviously such unfailing impartiality exists only in fiction and thankfully so. I feel a review based solely on facts no matter how technically accurate or chock-full of measurements it may be fails on a certain level. Particularly if those ‘facts’ read like a grocery list of specifications, which could have just as easily been read off the manufacturers description of the product.

Of course real reviews contain fact, but facts alone often paint a poor picture of what it’s actually like to own a piece of gear. For example, if someone asked you “Hey, how do you like that new projector?” and you respond with “It does 1080p,” you’d likely receive a blank stare. Real reviews go beyond specifications and measurements and convey what the reviewer experienced as well as any potential pitfalls; hopefully if you’ll bear with my long-windedness that’s exactly what I’ll achieve with this review.

To say that yesterday was an eventful day here would be a gross understatement. Not only did I go out and purchase a high definition DVD player, something I’ve talked about for nearly two years ad nauseam, I also watched the first three HD-DVD titles released, into the wee hours of the morning.

It’s hard to believe that almost two years of waiting came to an end yesterday afternoon, but in a sense it didn’t. Sure I now have a HD-DVD player in my system, but with only three titles available I’m far from my goal of having my favorite films in high definition at my disposal. But every lofty goal has to start somewhere.

As I mentioned in yesterdays quick update, I purchased my HD-A1 at a local Best Buy along with the three titles available on launch day, namely: ‘Phantom of the Opera’, ‘The Last Samurai’, and ‘Serenity’. I won’t bore you again with how lackluster Best Buy’s display looked but geesh these guys need better displays if this format is to catch-on with their average customer. Anyway back to the review.

So with player and titles in hand (err rather under-arm as the box is huge and rather heavy for a DVD player) I was on my way home. Ah but I had one last stop to make as I wanted to rent the standard definition versions of my three HD-DVD titles. I later found this to be a pointless delay but I’ll get to that.

I got home around 4pm and snapped a couple of photos for posterities sake and then began un-boxing everything. All of the normal DVD player paraphernalia is included in the box; a remote, owners manual, a trial membership to Netflix, and most importantly a HDMI cable. So with everything unpacked I began hooking the player up to my system. Speaking of my system, all equipment used in this review can be found here. The list is updated often but should any critical system component change I’ll mention it in the post.

?Video Connections

For my application I used a Gefen HDMI to DVI adaptor out to a DVI cable that interfaces with my Gefen 2×1 DVI switchbox, which ultimately makes its way to my Infocus 7205. Yes lets be clear upfront, Home Theater Blog isn’t 1080p capable. I’m stuck with 720p for the time being but so are about 70% to 85% of all the other HDTV owners in the world. But hey if any projector manufacturers are looking to sponsor an up-and-coming home theater publication with a fancy new 1080p projector, here’s your chance! Ok, that was shameless but you can’t blame a guy for trying. Anyway back to the review.

So with video connections made all that was left were the audio connections and not being one to buck tradition, I kept with my standard coaxial-digital connection to my Marantz SR-7500. Not that I had a choice as the 7500 doesn’t have HDMI inputs and analog player-to-receiver connections are out of the question, due to equipment placement in my room. But before we move forward we need to discuss digital audio connections and HD-DVD in greater depth.

?Audio connections

This part of the review may strike some as a bit odd or even troubling but please read the following carefully before you make any snap judgments as to HD-DVD’s audio compatibility with older standards. The Toshiba HD-A1 will not output Dolby Digital 5.1, at least as we know it. DD-5.1 is considered a legacy format by Toshiba (and likely Sony) on high definition DVD players, but all is not lost!

HD-DVD discs (some if not all) are mastered in “Advanced Content Mode” which is just another way of saying mastered with future technologies in mind while still supporting legacy formats. This advanced content layer is where the information for Dolby Digital+, TrueHD, and DTS-HD resides.

Rather than stacking all these new and old formats on the same disc, (I’m working on assumptions here, unlike Anne) Toshiba and the studios decided to use a few high bit-rate tracks and encode them (on-board) into a stream that older surround sound equipment could decode. This legacy stream, as it turns out, isn’t Dolby Digital 5.1 but actually DTS (at least from the HD-A1, with the discs I have available).

Now many of you may ask, why DTS? Isn’t Dolby Digital more common? It might be more common but I have to assume that at least part of the reason to go with DTS over DD is bandwidth. DTS allows for transfers up to 1.5 Mbps (megabytes per second) while Dolby Digital tops out at 640 kbps (kilobits per second).

I can only assume this faster data transmission potential and sound quality is why DTS was chosen as the default legacy audio codec for the first generation HD-DVD’s. But keep in mind the format may undergo another evolution or three and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see other studios and manufacturers support Dolby Digital in addition to DTS for legacy support.

Now as a huge fan of DTS over DD I’m not the least bit upset by any of this, but invariably someone will wonder, “What if my receiver doesn’t do DTS?” This is a valid concern. Again, Toshiba hasn’t inadvertently left hundreds of thousands of home theater fans out in the cold. There are at least two additional options available to get HD-DVD audio out to your receiver.

HDMI would be the best option as it keeps the signal path digital and will allow your receiver to handle the decoding. The average Denon, Marantz, Arcam, etc, range of receivers likely have better digital-to-analog decoders than are found in the HD-A1. In addition to HDMI, the HD-A1 also has 6-channel discrete analog outputs that can be fed directly into your receiver.

?Initial impressions

With everything hooked up I gave my projector a calibration through the HD-A1’s HDMI output using Digital Video Essentials and the THX Optimizer. I ran several tests including making sure the HD-A1 passed blacker than black and checked for color uniformity as well as assorted other tests, all of which I’m happy to say passed with flying colors. With this done I grabbed a cold drink and my notepad and had at it.

Hmm, I don’t think the disc tray on the HD-A1 is in danger of setting any new land speed records. To be honest the entire load to play time isn’t exactly what you’d call speedy but I can live with that.

One problem I wasn’t going to be able to live with however was the player not handshaking with my projector via HDCP. Ok let’s see. I know I can fix this, I thought to myself. I turned the player off and un-plugged the HDMI cable, plugged it back in and restarted the player. This time it worked or at least I thought it did. It was just a fluke as it failed to handshake on the next re-boot.

Ok I grabbed the manual. God I hate reading manuals, it must be my maleness. Anyway I ultimately discovered the problem was that even though I got a few random syncs every now and then, it wasn’t until I actually selected HDMI as the output via the remote’s “V.Output” button (I’ll bet that stands for Video Output) that the player would consistently lock in HDMI. Ok no harm no foul, chalk that one up to user error.

I had one last thing to sort out before I moved onto video performance. My HD-A1 defaulted to 1080i out of the box which in of itself is not a problem. However since my projector has a native resolution of 720p, I was inclined to switch the player to that resolution with the expectation of getting a better image. This didn’t happen. The 1080i setting was obviously superior on my projector. I attribute this to nothing other than my projector de-interlaces video better than the HD-A1, which is nothing earthshaking but worth noting. If you have a 720p display try it out and see what works best for you.

Part (2) continued



Posted by Bryan Greenway | | Filed Under HD-DVD, Reviews


Comments

  • shawn

    i can’t figure out how to adjust the color. nothing is the right color. reds are blue, and blues are red. any suggestions

  • shawn

    i can’t figure out how to adjust the color. nothing is the right color. reds are blue, and blues are red. any suggestions

  • B.Greenway

    Hi Ben,

    I would attribute the fact that 1080i looked better than 720p on my projector directly to the quality of the internal scalers in both pieces of gear.

    i.e. if I got a better image in 1080i even though my projector is native 720p, I cant arrive at any other conclusion than that the internal scaler in the HD-A1 didn’t do as good a job at turning the image into 720p as my projector did, but I guess we might be splitting hairs.

    I do agree with you however that if any of the discs were mastered in 720p I would have likely found the opposite reaction. However I doubt we’ll see very many 720p HD-DVD discs.

    As to your third point, obviously I can’t answer that directly but both 720p and 1080i are passed directly out of the component feeds on the back of the HD-A1.

    That might not be relevant to your question, but I wanted to put it out there just the same.

  • B.Greenway

    Hi Ben,

    I would attribute the fact that 1080i looked better than 720p on my projector directly to the quality of the internal scalers in both pieces of gear.

    i.e. if I got a better image in 1080i even though my projector is native 720p, I cant arrive at any other conclusion than that the internal scaler in the HD-A1 didn’t do as good a job at turning the image into 720p as my projector did, but I guess we might be splitting hairs.

    I do agree with you however that if any of the discs were mastered in 720p I would have likely found the opposite reaction. However I doubt we’ll see very many 720p HD-DVD discs.

    As to your third point, obviously I can’t answer that directly but both 720p and 1080i are passed directly out of the component feeds on the back of the HD-A1.

    That might not be relevant to your question, but I wanted to put it out there just the same.

  • B.Greenway

    Westcott,

    All three of the discs I have now are 1080p according to the back cover. It’s the player that doesn’t do 1080p (yet).

  • B.Greenway

    Westcott,

    All three of the discs I have now are 1080p according to the back cover. It’s the player that doesn’t do 1080p (yet).

  • PhillyRampage

    Can’t wait! Nice job.

  • PhillyRampage

    Can’t wait! Nice job.

  • westcott

    I was curious as to the information provided on the the HD DVDs and how the resolution is defined.

    It is my understanding that initially, we will still be using 24fps film stock that is remastered into video at 1080\30\60fps.

    Could you please clarify or expand on this. Will there eventually be 1080p video recording in the near future by the studios?

  • westcott

    I was curious as to the information provided on the the HD DVDs and how the resolution is defined.

    It is my understanding that initially, we will still be using 24fps film stock that is remastered into video at 10803060fps.

    Could you please clarify or expand on this. Will there eventually be 1080p video recording in the near future by the studios?

  • Ben Hobbs

    I’m not so sure its that the Infocus scales down better, but the fact that the disk was authored in 1080 so the player likes to send it out in 1080 – although this doesn’t really make much sense to me either. But I’m betting if there are any disks that will be authored at 720p, they would look better being sent by the Toshiba at that resolution. I’ve played 720p content on my neoneu (EVD – Chinese HD) and it looked fantastic at 720p on my projectors (their native resolution) and rubbish when sent through at 1080i.

    Oh BTW I also have a Marantz SR7500 and think its great, though I would like to have had a 8500 or 9600.

    Does anyone know what happens if you feed a HD DVD signal via DVI/HDMI through to a HDMI/DVI scaling amplifier (like the SR8500 or SR9600) if it can then be sent out through the component output on the amp?

  • Ben Hobbs

    I’m not so sure its that the Infocus scales down better, but the fact that the disk was authored in 1080 so the player likes to send it out in 1080 – although this doesn’t really make much sense to me either. But I’m betting if there are any disks that will be authored at 720p, they would look better being sent by the Toshiba at that resolution. I’ve played 720p content on my neoneu (EVD – Chinese HD) and it looked fantastic at 720p on my projectors (their native resolution) and rubbish when sent through at 1080i.

    Oh BTW I also have a Marantz SR7500 and think its great, though I would like to have had a 8500 or 9600.

    Does anyone know what happens if you feed a HD DVD signal via DVI/HDMI through to a HDMI/DVI scaling amplifier (like the SR8500 or SR9600) if it can then be sent out through the component output on the amp?

  • shakaZOLO

    I did the same thing with the HDMI……Just got back from setting up a Vidikron Vision 60, 3-chip DILA with a Kaleidescape on a 100″ Blue Ocean Acrylic screen in my client’s backyard. Sweet.

    Am I the only one reading here?

  • shakaZOLO

    I did the same thing with the HDMI……Just got back from setting up a Vidikron Vision 60, 3-chip DILA with a Kaleidescape on a 100″ Blue Ocean Acrylic screen in my client’s backyard. Sweet.

    Am I the only one reading here?