Toshiba HD-A1 review, Part 2

April 20, 2006

Toshiba HD-A1So far in part one of our HD-A1 review I’ve gone through a little background, video connections, audio connections and my initial impressions. Now we’ll move ahead to the HD-A1’s video performance. Alright, it was approaching 7:30 pm here and that’s dark enough to watch a movie (don’t ask, suffice to say skylights are evil), so I grabbed ‘The Last Samurai’ and popped it in. Wow, even the movie rating logo screen was much sharper than I’d remembered seeing previously. Being the impatient reviewer I am I couldn’t help but try out the new menu system. You know that look on your face when you finally figure out something that’s been dogging you for months or years? That’s the look I must have had on my face working through the new menu system.

The HD-DVD menus make DVD menus look prehistoric by comparison. There’s no stopping the disc to change a setting or search for a scene, its all done in real-time and overlaid right on top of the video. However there is one small part of the new menu system I could live without, the audible TiVo’ish whoosh you get tabbing through the various options. I’ll bet there’s a way to turn that off but I had bigger fish to fry.

Video Performance

Content with having explored the bells and whistles on my new toy, I turned my attention back to ‘The Last Samurai’. Ok, opening credits were nothing earth shattering however the opening scene where Cruise is sitting behind stage was pretty damn impressive. I could make out details in the flags draped over the barrels that I’d never seen before.

Moving on from there I could tell that Mr. Grahams suit was linen and not just linen colored as it had appeared in previous viewings, an important distinction compared with the standard definition release. Farther along in Samurai I began to process what I was seeing with less skepticism. Up until this point I had tried to err on the side of pessimism because I know first hand that any given scene can look ‘good’ but great formats and mediums are consistent throughout.

When I got to the scene where Cruise is being stitched up by his captors, the gruesomeness of seeing the wound tugged on by the sutures was new to me, yet I’d viewed this scene at least 3 times before. The only thing I can attribute this to is the detail that HD-DVD was giving me over both DVD and a previous viewing on HD cable. Something was weird here and I was determined to figure it out.

I took a break from Samurai around chapter 11 as I wanted to check out its standard definition counterpart and see how that same scene looked on DVD. It was then I knew that my entire trip to Block Buster to rent the standard-def versions of my HD-DVD’s was essentially a waste of time. You see, I had taken the time to rent them as I expected there to be enough similarities between the SD and HD versions of the discs to warrant a comparison.

Let me just say that if you don’t see an immediate improvement with HD-DVD over standard definition DVD, you’re likely viewing on a display smaller than 32” or in desperate need of an optometrist visit. I don’t mean that last comment to sound harsh or crass, nothing of the sort. There really is that much difference.

I’ve got a coupe of screen shots that further illustrate my point in regards to the obvious difference in the SD and HD versions of film, but as always I have to give my screen-shot disclaimer.

Screen shots are a fun way of illustrating two scenes that are obviously quite different or a single standalone knock-out scene, but they should never be taken as an absolute interpretation of image quality. Digital cameras aren’t nearly as sensitive as the human eye and often introduce their own perspective to the shot, which may or may not be accurate.

You’ll notice how much easier to read the cue-cards are from the HD-DVD version of Samurai as opposed to the DVD release, again not an end all judgment of image quality but interesting nonetheless.

In chapter 27 of ‘The Last Samurai’ on HD-DVD I started to get a grasp of that “something weird” I mentioned earlier. This was something I’d been seeing (technically not seeing) the entire time but couldn’t quite put my finger on until now. It was the lack of mosquito noise from HD cable in the image and its absence made a profound effect on the HD material I was seeing with HD-DVD.

As I continued on in chapter 27, I realized I was seeing the best black level detail I’d ever viewed on my projector including that from HD cable and quite possibly even better than my much missed Voom HD satellite service.

The clarity in the last battle scene of Samurai made the action easier to follow than in previous viewings of the film on HD cable, and of course much easier to follow than with standard DVD. Again the lack of mosquito noise in the image made picking out small individual skirmishes in the large-scale battle sequence effortless.

One quick note about the HD-A1 with standard definition DVD’s. I found the HD-A1 did a fine job in both 720p and 1080i on SD DVD’s, so much so that I wanted to compare it with my Denon 1910. I found that the HD-A1 did well enough with the standard DVD’s that keeping both players attached to my system made little sense.

Why all HD doesn’t look the same

I wanted to touch on something else that distinguishes HD-DVD from HD cable, HD satellite, and off-air HDTV. HD-DVD’s bitrate is considerably higher than just about any other HDTV source (Blu-ray notwithstanding) for example:

Satellite HDTV – 8/19mbs
Off-Air ATSC Broadcast – 18/19Mbs
Cable/Fiber HDTV (in better markets) – 12/24Mbps
HD-DVD – 36mbs

Why does bitrate matter, you ask? While it would be easy to assume ‘HD is HD’ but it rarely works out as such. In theory one 1920×1080 image should have the same bitrate as the next, but often the signal is compressed to make room for more channels on existing equipment.

This compression (read bit rate reduction) results in less data making its way to your display. The less data the image is comprised of, the worse the image looks.

Moving onto Serenity

I have to admit I knew very little about this title but wound up really enjoying it. Regrettably this made it a less than ideal title to review the HD-A1 with, as I put down my pen and pad a few too many times and just took in the movie. I did manage to snap out of the action and take a few notes, however.

Overall ‘Serenity’ didn’t look quite as good as the two Warner Bros. titles but as they were nearly jaw-dropping in image quality, that’s not much of a knock. I think what distracted me most with ‘Serenity’ was the matte effect the director seemed to use in some shots but not others. Again no big deal just not my cup of tea.

It could also be that after having just seen some of the most impressive landscapes ever witnessed in my home theater, CGI effects weren’t quite as impressive as they normally would have been. But as CGI goes these were razor sharp and I did notice some excellent flesh tones as well.

While we’re discussing the HD-DVD discs I feel inclined to say that this review was as much about them as the player itself, as no piece of gear can out-perform the media it was designed to play. Rather it’s a very symbiotic relationship between media and hardware and especially so at over 700 lines of resolution.

Anyway back to ‘Serenity’. Skipping forward to chapter 14 ‘Learning the Secret’, I was in for another surprise from HD-DVD. One particular scene in this chapter has the crew of Serenity outdoors in bright direct sunlight, something that until now was often less than spectacular on my projector. This outdoor scene however was very bright but also maintained excellent contrast and image detail, all at the same time.

The Phantom of the Opera

I didn’t realize I was saving the best for last, I thought I was just putting off hearing show-tunes as long as I could. As it turns out however Phantom of the Opera was the best looking of the three HD-DVD’s. The opening sequence depicts a grainy black and white montage of the interior of the opera, which dissolves into a gorgeous panoramic transformation shot into the first stage scenes. These early stage scenes were hands down the best looking HDTV I’ve seen from my projector. The clarity in the faces of the performers was almost eerie.

Even though the visuals in Phantom where phenomenal, musicals and specifically Andrew Lloyd Weber style musicals just aren’t my thing, so I found my self skipping chapters a bit.

The beginning of chapter 14 was easily one of the most ridiculously colorful scenes on on my screen in recent memory, but both disc and player never even hinted at over saturation, they just pounded out color like no tomorrow.

A note about the screen shot above: that image was taken with my 3.2MP Canon Power-Shot and hasn’t been touched by any piece of software other than your web browser. Just to assure you that’s an actual image taken of my projection screen and not a screen-grab, look down below the center of the screen and you can see the top of my center channel speaker, and just to the left of that you should be able to make out the tonearm on my turntable.

Conclusion

Please keep in mind this is an entirely new format, even though it’s called HD-DVD it would be a misnomer to simply assume this is DVD’s in HD. While high definition is obviously an element, the format is slightly more encompassing i.e. the promise, once and for all, of generating a viable high-resolution audio format.

As with any new format that has to interface with older equipment, the occasional incompatibility issue has a chance to rear its ugly head although I’m happy to report I’ve suffered no such problems with HD-DVD.

In almost every scene of every HD-DVD title I viewed on my 80” screen, HD-DVD trounced all other HDTV sources I have at my disposal. Whether it was through HDMI/DVI or component, the image quality was undeniable. Once high resolution surround hardware is available, the overall experience will surely improve even more. For these two reasons alone I would be hard pressed to not recommend HD-DVD to any videophile.

That’s not to say I’d recommend it to everyone (yet). If you’re relatively new to the HDTV experience and the whole format war really has you put off then by all means wait it out. But if you’re like me and the lure of gorgeous big screen images in hi-def is overwhelming, then HD-DVD makes sense. I say makes sense but possibly the cutesy ‘makes cents’ would be appropriate here as well.

Let’s face it, HD-DVD is the least expensive of the two competing formats and if you genuinely want to experience one, HD-DVD in my opinion is the way to go. However I cant argue the fact that if when either one tanks, you’ll likely want to unload your player/discs quickly if you picked the wrong side. With this in mind please do all the research you can before investing in either format.

I made my decision, obviously I went with HD-DVD and the HD-A1, but I’ll be the first to admit this will be a long and bumpy road ahead for both formats, but at least I’ll have some great scenery to check out along the way.

Summary

These are exciting times for movie fans. We now have access to a HD DVD format that in my opinion rivals anything that’s come before it (please no D-VHS comments, its dead and we both know it) but unfortunately as with most high quality video formats its feast or famine (DVD being the obvious exception to this rule). We will have two formats to contend with once Blu-ray launches in the states, and I have no doubt that barring any unforeseen snafu it will offer HD-DVD some degree of competition.

So where does that leave us? I’ve made my case for which format will win, and in the end picking the winner is much more important than picking the format with more technical merit, that is unless your into collecting technically superior museum pieces.

In my opinion this is all about your HD disc collection because after the dust settles no matter how expensive the player was, your disc collection will likely be worth much more… or less depending on how you look at it…

In closing the HD-A1 represents a new performance level in large-screen home entertainment sources, this is a new format and caution should be exercised before investing, however if you’ve already made that decision in favor of HD-DVD, I feel that you’ll be very happy with the HD-A1.



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


Comments

  • Steveiz

    Great review, well written. Thank you. Are you still pleased with the A1? Have you made the 2.0 firmware update. Any further thoughts and/or impressions now that you hadthe A1 for awhile.

  • Steveiz

    Great review, well written. Thank you. Are you still pleased with the A1? Have you made the 2.0 firmware update. Any further thoughts and/or impressions now that you hadthe A1 for awhile.

  • B.Greenway

    Hi Danny,

    Actually I did mention it briefly, its right above “Why all HD doesn’t look the same”. The only other up-converter I had available was my Denon DVD-1910 and I felt the HD-A1 looked just as good and maybe even slightly better.

  • B.Greenway

    Hi Danny,

    Actually I did mention it briefly, its right above “Why all HD doesn’t look the same”. The only other up-converter I had available was my Denon DVD-1910 and I felt the HD-A1 looked just as good and maybe even slightly better.

  • Dan

    Great Review…One thing you did not touch on that I am interested in hearing you report. How do regular DVD’s look using the HD-A1. I understand that it will upconvert standard def DVD’s. How does it compare to other upconverting players

  • Dan

    Great Review…One thing you did not touch on that I am interested in hearing you report. How do regular DVD’s look using the HD-A1. I understand that it will upconvert standard def DVD’s. How does it compare to other upconverting players

  • Excellent review. I posted a link on my blog. I would love to purchase one of these puppies, but I have a nagging feeling I will have the urge to upgrade within the year. As much as I agree with your assessment of HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray, I am still going to sit this one out.

    Mark

  • Excellent review. I posted a link on my blog. I would love to purchase one of these puppies, but I have a nagging feeling I will have the urge to upgrade within the year. As much as I agree with your assessment of HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray, I am still going to sit this one out.

    Mark