Whether decoded directly to PCM or decoded and then re-encoded to DTS, the Dolby Digital Plus soundtracks offered big dynamics, clear dialogue, and a satisfying fullness and musicality. By comparison, the standard Dolby Digital soundtracks on the DVDs sounded strained, thin, and edgy against the more data-rich sonics of HD DVD. Phantom's musical numbers and orchestral score didn't stand a chance on DVD; the stridency of massed strings was a dead giveaway, though it's hard to know if the difference was attributable to the mix or to the more bit-challenged encoding from which the sound emerged. And there were moments when the HD discs just blew me away. The launch sequence in Apollo 13 rattled the room so hard that the vibration-sensitive backlight in the HD-XA1's remote flickered. And Universal put so much dynamic juice and low-end energy into the hyper-suspenseful soundtrack to Doom that it had me leaping from my chair more than once.
What's in the Box
|As soon as you pull it from the carton, you know that the Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD player means business. Its 17-inch rack-size width and 20 pounds of heft beckon to a day when men were men and DVD players were both taller and heavier than a slice of white bread. While the boxy design won't win awards, the player's motorized aluminum door and glossy black display panel give it a sleek modern look that should make any early adopter proud. There's a large power button with a backlit collar that glows green or red to denote On or Standby and two small buttons to operate the door and disc drawer behind it. Lowering the door also reveals transport keys and a pair of USB ports earmarked for game controllers to be called into play by future software titles - the first real indication that this is not your grandpappy's DVD player.
Read more from this story
Beyond the picture and sound, much has been made of the high level of interactivity these new HD DVD discs will provide. None of the titles I tried had anything remarkable in their Extras menus. But the Warner discs, particularly, impressed me with their onscreen menus and ease of use. Load a Warner HD DVD, and it plays automatically - no stopping at the menu screen. When you do call up the menu, it rises from the bottom in layers as you go deeper and deeper, all with optional button sounds and all while the movie continues to play in the background. Selecting chapters was quick work, and the Warner discs allowed bookmarking. Just hit the B button on the remote at any point in the movie, and the bookmark is saved in the player's nonvolatile flash memory. From then on, it will always remember your bookmarks for each disc until you delete them (even after a power outage), and you can select them at any time from the Chapter menu. Awesome!
WALK, DON'T RUN
Okay, with the good comes the bad - though not too bad. Just the kind of bad you get with a misbehaving child who drives you crazy but you still love anyway.
I wasn't kidding about the HD-XA1 being a computer, and you'll know that the minute you turn it on. If you're used to watching your PC boot up, your experience with this player will be about the same. Many functions that are hard-wired in a regular DVD player are in firmware here, which gets reloaded whenever the piece goes live. If there's a disc in the drawer, the time from power-on to seeing it onscreen is a brutally long 1 minute, 20 seconds. Disc-load times when the player is already running vary from 50 to 70 seconds. These delays become exceptionally trying after a while, as was the generally sluggish and slow response to other commands. Fortunately, Toshiba says that upcoming firmware revisions (through the player's Ethernet port) will streamline things somewhat. Some other glitches, such as the Resume Play function working only for DVDs but not HD DVDs, turned out to be related to the early disc-mastering practices.
Copyright © 2013 Bonnier Corp. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.