The next generation of DVD format war is just heating up, with Sony‘s Blu-Ray and Toshiba‘s HD-DVD still in it’s retail infancy. The upcoming holiday season will be the first real indicator of which one will end up the dominant format, but it may be a year or to before anything is really decided. Clearly high definition is the format of the near future to replace the aging standard DVD.
For now early adopters and home theater enthusiasts have their choice of any number of Blu-Ray players from several manufacturers, or the Toshiba line of HD DVD players (I went over many of the differences between the two formats here, so I won’t belabor them again). Other companies are in the process of making HD DVD players, and there have been announcements of inexpensive Chinese manufactured players in time for Christmas, but for now it’s Toshiba on the HD DVD side. Toshiba’ players are already in their second generation, and they have several models including the HD-A2 and the high end HD-AX2. I’ve owned the A2 for several months now and am finally getting around to writing a review.
The HD-A2 is a sleek, attractive player that looks good in anybody’s home theater stack. That’s a big improvement over the chunky tank that was the A1. It plays both regular DVDs and the new HD DVD’s, so you will not need to keep your old DVD player and have two pieces of equipment taking up room in your cabinet. One of the best features of the A2, and all the Toshiba HD DVD players, is that they are excellent at up-converting regular DVD’s to high definition signals. Upconversion simply means that the 480p resolution signal of a standard DVD is changed to a high definition signal of 720p or 1080i (in this case anyway, as the max resolution of the A2). There is good and bad upconversion, and the A2’s is excellent. I have an expensive video processor that does upconversion for standard TV and did for my old standard DVD player, and I cannot tell the difference between the A2’s upconverted DVDs and the ones upconverted by my pricey iScan video processor. That is high praise for the A2. Regular DVDs will look much better on your high definition TV than they do on any regular DVD player, so even your current DVD collection will get a facelift with this player.
One thing before I go on, it is pointless to get the A2 or any high definition disk player if you do not have an HDTV. Your TV should be HD with a resolution of 720p or higher for you to get any benefit from an HD disk player. The A2 looks fantastic on a 720p HDTV. Because it’s maximium resolution is 1080i, it’s a good choice if you do not have one of the newer 1080p TVs. My projector is max 1080i, so the A2 is perfect for my needs. If you have a 1080p TV or projector, you might want to step up to the Ax2, which is fully 1080p capable. Some people claim that a good 1080p TV/projector has a built in deinterlacer that will change a 1080i signal into a 1080p signal so well it’s nearly impossible to see a difference, but if you have the real deal in a 1080p TV you should just go for broke at get the AX2.
Hooking up the A2 is very straightforward thanks to the abundance of outputs for both video an audio. If you are hooking the A2 to a TV with HDMI input, one simple cable will do the job for both the highest quality video and audio. The A2 supports HDMI 1.2 output. If you are setting up a more elaborate home theater system with separate audio and video (i.e. a surround sound stereo and TV or projector for video only) then you can still use the HMDI output for digital video into the HDMI inputs of your TV/projector. You can also use your TV’s DVI input using an HDMI to DVI cable, or you can also use component video. Once again, if you don’t have one of these kinds of inputs your TV is not high definition, and this player would be useless to you.
As for sound, that is where the Toshibas really shine. The HD DVD group very smartly required all player manufacturers to build in audio decoders for the latest HD sound formats, including Dolby True TD and DTS-HD, both lossless (uncompressed) 5.1 sound formats of startling quality. Unfortunately with the A2, the only way to get this sound is via HDMI audio output, and very few surround sound receivers or pre-amps accept HMDI audio inputs. Some do, but most of those just “pass through” the HDMI audio signal to the proper channels without any processing. That’s just fine for the A2, however, as the build in decoders do all the processing for you. There are also optical and co-axial digital audio outputs on the A2, which deliver great sound to your surrond sound system, but are downmixed to regular 5.1 Dolby or DTS formats and cannot support the much higher bitrates of lossless HD sound. This is still terrific sound, however. In retrospect I wish I had gotten the AX2, as it also has 5.1 analog outputs that I could have used to get the full HD sound experience from my Sunfire amp/preamp system, which has analog inputs for each separate channel. Still, the sound is terrfic using the digital co-axial outputs as I do.
Another great feature that the HD DVD camp requires of all manufacturers is built in ethernet support. An ethernet port in the back of the A2 connects to my home network, and the player can download updates for it’s firmware to access new features and correct any bugs that might be discovered. I just downloaded my second firmware last night, and while it was a little complicated to set up the internet connection with the first download it is now a breeze. Eventually this connection may be used for accessing internet content for movies you are watching and other features. It would be nice if Toshiba also made a wifi adapter for the players to eliminate the cables (home wireless networks are everywhere these days), but I have read that wireless game console adapters can work with these players. I’ll have to research that and get the A2 on my home wifi network.
Of course, all that is just an aside when in comes to the really important thing… picture quality. As far as picture quality goes, it’s difficult to describe the difference between an HD DVD picture and even an upconverted regular DVD other than to say it’s incredible. The bigger your screen, the more you’ll notice the difference. The picture on a 42 inch plasma screen at 720p resolution is obviously tighter and clearer with an HD DVD, but get into the 50 inch range and it’s like night and day. Projectors are even more noticeable. 720p is amazing, so I cannot imagine what a true 1080p picture will be like. If your only experience with HD picture quality is your cable or satellite HD TV channels, you haven’t seen a real HD picture yet. Those channels are super compressed to allow for broadcast, and an HD DVD uses far less compression causing much less data loss and picture degradation. Transfered films are still films, and subject to the focus and quality of the original film based medium, so you don’t see the pores of the skin like you do on the hyper HD broadcasts of sporting events or news broadcasts that uses digital HD cameras. Rather you see the film in nearly the same way as you would in a theater, with ultra smooth picture and sharp, vivid details along with rich color. There is a calibration disk that you can get to tweak the settings on your TV to match the specifics of the A2, but frankly it’s a wonder right out of the box.
The menus are fairly easy to navigate, and you can set your video output/resolution and audio output/format independently, as well as many other options. You can navigate the menus via a remote or right on the unit, but using the unit’s small screen makes it cryptic and hard to decipher. Fortunately you only really need to use it if your initial video output is set to the wrong format and you cannot see the on screen menus. Once you get on the right video output, the rest is easy. The remote is easy to use and navigate, and universal remotes can be programmed to operate the A2.
It’s not a perfect machine, however. Loading times for HD DVDs are much better on the A2 than they were on the A1, but it still seems to take forever for the machine to boot up and for the disk to load. There have been a few times where I’ve had to unplug the unit to reset it if the player and the disk don’t get along right way and the A2 hangs on loading. I’ve never had any problem playing any HD DVD on the A2, but I have heard that it can be temperamental when playing certain disks, especially the combo HD DVD/standard DVD type disks. I did have it refuse to play a standard DVD once, and I think it is very sensitive to scratched or smudged disks that a regular DVD player wouldn’t blink at. No doubt later generation HD DVD players will be more rugged and less finicky down the line. Lack of better HD audio output, no HDMI 1.3 support and only 1080i resolution doesn’t make it state of the art, but that is what the more expensive HD-AX2 is for.
Right now the A2, which you can get for as little as $378.00 on Amazon with a bunch of free HD movies is the best value in HD disk players on the market. Unless you have an advanced 1080p HDTV and/or a serious surround sound receiver with either 5.1 analog inputs or HDMI audio inputs, the A2 is the smart way to go. The cheaper players might be here for Christmas, but as always you get what you pay for. Today the A2 delivers the goods.
755 My cover art for the next issue of MAD, exclusive sneak peek from @entertainmentweekly website
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