Before I get to the XA1’s exemplary video and audio performance, there are a few things you should be aware of. I noticed right away that the HDXA1 takes a very long time to do just about anything with an HD DVD disc. With a disc in the player, it took almost a minute and a half to go from power up to the first image on the screen. Loading a new disc with the power already on took 53 seconds, while loading a DVD took 36 seconds. According to Toshiba, when loading an HD DVD, the player must perform certain operations to authenticate the disc among other things, a process that is not required for regular DVDs.
The HDMI and component outputs are not active simultaneously; when I first powered up the XA1, the component output was selected. I think the HDMI output should be the default, because that’s the interface of choice for high-def signals from such players. Also, switching between HDMI and component while an HD DVD is playing stops playback and starts from the beginning. The same is true for switching output resolutions. These parameters can be switched on the fly with DVDs.
One HDMI problem is evident when the display is not powered on. If the player is turned on without the display, or the display is turned off before the player, the front panel indicates an HDMI error and the transport freezes up, requiring the disc to be ejected and reinserted. This condition should be handled more gracefully.
There’s no on-screen indication of shuttle speed or progress, which is disorienting. Also, there is no resume-after-stop; unlike DVD, when you stop an HD DVD and then hit play again, the disc starts from the beginning rather than where you left off.
I was disappointed to learn that there is no output bit-rate meter that can be displayed, unlike some DVD players. I suspect the powers that be don’t want the public to see which studios are using lower bit rates to fit more content on the disc.
Many of these problems can probably be solved with firmware updates, which will be available online using the player’s maintenance menu. Connecting the player to a broadband Internet access point and activating the update function will download and install the latest system software when it becomes available.
None of the problems cited above detract from the player’s primary strength: stupendous picture and sound quality. I had two HD DVDs on hand: The Phantom of the Opera and The Last Samurai, as well as the Toshiba demo disc. Full reviews of the two commercial discs will follow in Issue 70 of TPV, but for now, all I can say is, Wow!
Well, okay, there’s more I can say. The picture quality of both commercial titles was fantastic—crisp, clean, and clear as a bell. The color in both movies was vivid and rich without being oversaturated, the depth was astonishingly three-dimensional, and the detail was tack sharp, at least when the output was set to 1080i. At 720p, the picture was decidedly softer, even on the 720p projector I was using. I believe both discs are 1080- line native (the movies are stored on the discs at 1080p/24), so the projector obviously did a better job of scaling than the player. This was equally evident from the HDMI and component outputs; neither title implements the Image Constraint Token (ICT), so the full HD image can be seen from the component-video output.
The Last Samurai is a sweeping epic, and HD DVD does it full justice. Everything from the intricate samurai uniforms and delicate silk kimonos to individual blades of grass in the fields were depicted beautifully. The last scene stands out in particular—as Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise’s character) leaves the emperor to find peace after the final battle, the camera sweeps across a grand vista of mountains at different distances, and the color rendition and depth were positively palpable.
The Phantom of the Opera is more intimate but no less spectacular. The gaudy theater stage and dingy dungeon of the Phantom’s candle-lit lair were rendered with equal aplomb, and the masquerade ball was sumptuous in its glittering gold and silver tones. Nowhere was the detail of true highdefinition more evident than in the chandelier as it comes crashing down near the end—each tiny glass bead is clearly discernable until they are consumed in the ensuing fire.
The trailers on the Toshiba demo disc were just as gorgeous, but the same cannot be said for the DVD Forum’s demo footage of Hawaii, which looked veiled by comparison and even exhibited motion artifacts in slow pans across a city skyline. More interesting was the split-screen demo of high-def on one side and simulated standard-def on the other. Anyone with any doubt about the dramatic difference between these two presentations need only look at this demo to see just how much improvement HD represents.