Toshiba holds the distinction of being the first company to introduce high-def disc players to the American market nearly a year ago. Those players were of the HD DVD variety, beating Blu-ray out of the gate by several months. As I discovered in my review of the HD-XA1 (see Issue 69), the first generation had some problems, but the player produced an eye-popping picture and ear-wowing sound. The company accepted the accolades and listened to the complaints, leading it to announce the second generation of HD DVD players several months ago. I was eager to see what improvements Toshiba had wrought, so it was with great glee that I took delivery of an HD-XA2.
With a list price of $1000, the HD-XA2 is the current top-of-the-line model; also available is the HD-A2 ($500), soon to be joined by the HD-A20 ($600), which was unveiled at CES in January. The XA2 and A20 can both deliver 1080p via their HDMI outputs, perhaps the biggest change compared to the first-gen units, which were limited to 1080i. However, they deliver 1080p at 60 frames per second (fps) only—there’s no option for 24fps, which, in conjunction with a TV that can accept and display 1080p/24, would eliminate any chance of jerky motion in film-based movies.
Another significant upgrade to the XA2 is the addition of Silicon Optix HQV processing with the Reon VX chip. HQV is one of the most highly-regarded video processors in the industry, providing a range of functions, including exceptional deinterlacing, noise reduction, and scaling.
As if that weren’t enough, the XA2 is also among the first consumer-electronics devices to implement HDMI 1.3, a major improvement over previous generations of the digital audio/video interface. It’s faster and facilitates a greatly expanded range of colors and smoother color gradations, among other things. However, to enjoy these benefits, the content must be created with these features (not done yet) and the TV must have an HDMI 1.3 input (still pretty rare). Even so, this means the HD-XA2 is essentially future-proof.
Whereas the first-gen models let you choose a particular output resolution (1080i, 720p, and so on), the XA2 lets you specify “up to” a certain resolution, which lets the player set the resolution based on what the display tells it (via an HDMI connection). The default is “up to 1080i,” but it was easy to switch it to “up to 1080p.”
Unlike most current Blu-ray players, the HD-XA2 has an Ethernet connection so you can take advantage of discs that offer online interactivity—getting more info about the movie, viewing trailers, and so on—and download firmware updates directly into the player.
The remote is almost identical to that of the previous generation—slim and elegant, with reasonably well-organized buttons. Interestingly, there’s a Backlight button, but the remote is not illuminated! The menu system is also exceedingly well-organized and very intuitive. I had no problem navigating around and finding the controls I wanted quickly and easily.
ran into a little trouble when I fired up the HD-XA2 for the first time. I popped The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift into the tray and, as the disc was starting to load, the player froze—the disc wouldn’t eject, and the player wouldn’t turn off, at least not for a while. After it finally shut down, I powered it back up, but the deck remained locked. This time, I unplugged the player, plugged it back in, and tried again. Everything worked fine, and I had no further problems except that the tray was very slow to eject a disc a couple of times.
One of the shortcomings of the first-gen Toshiba players was that they were painfully slow to do anything—boot up, load a disc, and so on. The XA2 is greatly improved in this regard, taking half the time to perform most operations compared with the XA1. Also, the earlier models balked big time if the HDMI link was broken (when switching inputs on the TV, for example); the XA2 handles such disruptions much more gracefully, though it still stops playback of HD DVDs and starts from the beginning of the disc when the connection is re-established.
Looking at the King Kong HD DVD via HDMI on the Olevia 747i LCD TV, the image took on a distinctly three-dimensional appearance—the New York cityscapes were razor sharp, each hair on Kong was clearly visible, and the texture of the wood on the gangplank as Ann takes the first step toward her destiny was positively palpable. Likewise, the color was gorgeous, with completely natural skin tones, beautiful blue sky, deep aqua sea, and delicate pink and gold sunsets.
Standard DVDs also looked great, even though the images weren’t quite as sharp as with HD DVD. Watching Pirates of the Caribbean, I was struck by how well defined the buildings in Port Royal were, not to mention the ornaments in Captain Jack Sparrow’s hair. Colors were realistic, including skin tones, green palms, and red British uniforms. Overall, the XA2 is an excellent DVD player.