January 15, 2007
Toshiba’s second generation HD DVD players have arrived. The entry level HD-A2 ($499) has been available for several weeks now and by the time you read this the HD-XA2 (HDMI 1.3 & 1080p) should be should be on store shelves as well. After having spent about four weeks with the HD-A2, I’m ready to give my final review. However as with all the next-generation hi-def disc players, the players themselves are ever evolving by means of firmware updates. So keep in mind just as we saw several firmware updates with the HD-A1 & HD-XA1, we’ll likely see firmware updates for this second generation of players as well.
Before I get started here I want to get a few things out of the way. This review won’t delve into the overall merits of HD DVD versus Blu-ray. I’ve made my preferences known and in all honesty I doubt I could think of another way to rehash the subject, even if I wanted to. For the immediate future at least, both formats are here to stay. Suffice to say if you want my recommendation on which way to go, I’m still of the opinion that HD DVD offers the highest quality, least expensive entry point into hi-def optical disc playback. As always however, your mileage may vary.
First Impressions, Specifications and Set-up:
The Toshiba HD-A2 outputs 480p, 720p, and 1080i over HDMI and component and it up-scales standard definition DVD’s over the players HDMI 1.2a output. Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD (core only), Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital and standard DTS processing are supported. The player also sports a rear-panel Ethernet connection, slim-line design and greatly improved load times over its predecessors. The players build quality is still impressive even if it’s not the tank the HD-A1 was. The case is still made of metal and the brushed/stainless flip-down front tray adds to the players overall curb appeal.
As mentioned above, gone is the bulky, industrial look of the HD-A1; the HD-A2 is nearly half the height of its predecessor and considerably more polished looking. Toshiba appears to have taken much of the criticism of the first generation players to heart not only with regard to performance but with the aesthetics as well. The included remote control is also an improvement over its predecessor. The A2’s remote looks, feels, and operates much like any other DVD remote you’ve ever used. The buttons (non-backlit) are arranged intuitively with all the necessary functions up-front and center.
The players HDMI output (Audio & Video) was my primary connection method for the review, however I did spend a bit of time viewing a handful of discs over the component output. One welcome change over the HD-A1 is the A2’s HDMI performance. The A2 is rock solid in this regard and once a HDMI handshake is negotiated it takes quite a bit of meddling to fault it. I alternated between HDMI audio for TrueHD sound tracks and the player’s optical connection for Dolby Digital Plus, to get a better feel for the audio capabilities of both outputs.
HQV Benchmark Results:
Per usual I’ve included my HQV benchmark results and of course these results are for standard definition playback only.
•Color Bar/Vertical Detail: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Jaggies Pattern 1: Pass – Score 3 of 5
•Jaggies Pattern 2: Pass – Score 3 of 5
•Flag: Pass – Score 5 of 10
•Picture Detail: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Noise Reduction: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Motion Adaptive Noise Reduction: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•3:2 Detection: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Film Cadence: Pass – Score (Combined) 40 of 40
•Mixed 3:2 Film, Horizontal Text Crawl: Pass – Score 5 of 10
•Mixed 3:2 Film, Vertical Text Crawl: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Total Score:116 out of a possible 130.
Standard Definition DVD Viewing:
The Toshiba HD-A1 and HD-XA2 were widely lauded for their standard definition up-scaling capabilities, so of course I was quite interested to see how well the HD-A2 performed the same task. The first disc up was my well worn and just as enjoyed Superbit edition of ‘The Fifth Element’. I wanted something familiar for this test and I can’t think of a disc I’ve viewed more throughout the years. The colors were vibrant and well saturated and the overall image was on-par with the up-conversion from my XA1.
I skipped forward to chapter eight where Leeloo is crawling through the air-ducts; the shadow detail, sharpness and overall detail were all spot-on. The motion was fluid and lifelike and the flesh tones were very believable. Overall I was quite satisfied with the A2’s standard definition DVD playback and I never had the feeling that I was missing something or felt the desire to pop the disc back over into the XA1. For those of you who’ve heard the rave reviews about the HD-A1 and HD-XA1’s standard definition DVD playback, rest assured that the HD-A2 carries on in the same vein.
HD DVD Playback:
With all the precursory futzing around out of the way it was time to get down to brass tax, HD DVD playback. I started off with Universal’s recent release of ‘The Mummy’; fun movie, great characters but of course we’re not here to discuss that, you want to know how the HD-A2 compares to its predecessors with HD DVD playback. I began by exploring how well the A2 navigated the disc’s menu system. Paging through even the two-tiered sub-menus, the response was quick, decisive, and exhibited none of the lag present in some of the first generation players.
I skipped forward to chapter 7’s ‘Chamber of Death’ sequence. The audio was every bit as good as I’d remembered with the HD-XA1, high frequencies were dispersed evenly across the soundstage and the bass was deep and full of impact. Obviously as much of the film takes place in a crypt, the disc is jammed packed full of scenes with fine shadow details. Throughout the disc, subtle shades of gray and dark gradients were all rendered with striking realism.
Moving onto a film that’s become somewhat of a lightning rod in comic fan circles, 2003’s ‘The Hulk’ offers a glimpse into HD DVD nirvana. Say what you want about the film itself (I happen to prefer my comic based movies dark and challenging, versus shiny and safe) but few would argue ‘The Hulk’ doesn’t deserve its rightful place in the reference HD DVD list. From the very first glimpse of the opening montage onward, this disc delivers superb visuals. As a testament to this discs transfer quality even with all the CGI and visual effects that are laden throughout the film, ‘The Hulk’ still manages to look like film when the shot allows.
Scene after scene of ‘The Hulk’ with the HD-A2 exemplified what the format is capable of, crystal clear, highly detailed, high definition with superb audio quality. This consistency from shot to shot, in my opinion at least, plays a huge part in the immersion factor that’s so critical in a pre-recorded films ability to draw you in and just let the story unfold. Another interesting thing I keep re-discovering with HD DVD is text legibility. For example when an actor is holding/reading a newspaper you can often make out the actual text on the page and not just the headlines.
Back to audio performance for a minute, during chapter 16’s ‘Betty and the beast’ sequence; the deep, breathy growls from the mutated attack dogs reverberated throughout my entire room. As the Hulk picked them up and slammed them to the ground one by one, the thud from the PSB SubSeries 9 felt as if it might shake the room apart. Make no mistake the Dolby Digital Plus soundtracks encoded on many HD DVD’s of late deliver exceptional sound quality.
The Dolby TrueHD tracks found on titles such as The Phantom of the Opera, Training Day, Constantine, Troy, The Perfect Storm, The Ant Bully, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Batman Begins, V for Vendetta, Superman Returns, and Lady in the Water on the other hand, offer a whole other level or audio performance. During a recent demonstration of ‘V for Vendetta’ I had a client proclaim, “That’s the best home theater sound I’ve ever heard”. Obviously comments like that one make my job much easier. The odd part is that we weren’t even in the high-end demo room, but that’s a story for another day.
Lastly I wanted to re-visit another title I’ve come to rely on for demonstrations, 2005’s ‘King Kong’. This disc offers jaw dropping visuals and some fantastic action sequences to boot. I’ve bookmarked (“B” on your HD DVD remote) 01:41:55 (chapter 35 for those of you finding it for the first time) as my scene of choice to show off not only the disc, but HD DVD in general.
The T-Rex Battle is a treat for the eyes and ears, the lush jungle backdrop provides layer of detail upon layer of detail to take-in. The audio, as alluded to earlier, is no slouch either. Every ‘chomp’ from the attacking T-Rex’s is placed perfectly in the soundstage and delivers just the right amount of pop to make an otherwise impossible scenario just a tad bit more believable.
I really can’t stress this point enough but gorgeous visuals are only half the story with HD DVD. The final moments of the T-Rex battle in Kong are pure home theater audio-heaven as every thud, string from the orchestra, and grunt from the ape himself are crystal clear, sonically accurate and fully engaging. If you’re in the market for or just picking up your first HD DVD player, be sure to grab a copy of ‘King Kong’, your eyes and ears will thank you.
Talk about timing, as I was writing this review Toshiba announced a new player at their pre-CES press conference in Las Vegas. The HD-A20 adds 1080p output to the HD-A2’s feature-set and carries a suggested retail price of $599.99. I’ll leave the merits of 1080p versus 1080i out of the equation for the time being but suffice to say the capabilities of your display obviously come into play here. i.e. If your display doesn’t accept 1080p, how long will it be before you consider upgrading it? And of course the de-interlacing capabilities in your existing/future display.
Suggested retail aside (the HD-A2 lists for $499.99) the player can be found for as little as $424.99 with a bit of hunting; even at full retail the HD-A1 and now the HD-A2 are no brainer’s in my opinion. In the relative short amount of time since HD DVD’s launch, I’ve done an about-face with my home video purchases. Pre-HD DVD, my DVD purchases had slowed to a trickle, occasionally adding a 3rd or 4th disc to an existing series or the less occasional purchase of a theatrical favorite.
Post-HD DVD however I’ve found myself unable to resist the temptation of not only replacing newer titles already in my collection, but indulging in classics as well. Warner Bros. Mutiny on the Bounty, Casablanca, and Forbidden Planet were absolutely fantastic on HD DVD and I can’t wait to add films like A Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner, The Godfather, Chinatown, American Graffiti, and The Wizard of Oz to my collection.
The format war is still anyone’s guess in my opinion. One side could crush the other this year or dual-format players could eventually become the norm. All I know is that with an ever increasing amount of discs and players in the market from both camps, home theater enthusiast shouldn’t be overly concerned with waiting for a winner or the longevity of the respective formats. Find a deal on a player and start enjoying some of this terrific HD content. If you happen to go the HD DVD route, I can easily recommend either the HD-A2 or HD-A20 (I’m under the assumption it’s basically a HD-A2 with 1080p output) without reservation. And as always, happy viewing.