Setting up the Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD player for the best picture and sound quality is not for the uninitiated. Even home theater experts will face a learning curve to understand the different ways to extract video and audio from the player and the ramifications of each option and will have to read the manual to find what settings in the player's internal menu will yield the desired results. Here's some background and useful tips.
The HD-XA1's back panel (see photo) provides a range of video connections. Most important is the critical HDMI digital video/audio output, which is equipped with HDCP copy protection to keep Hollywood's precious pearls from those nasty pirates. (Aye, matey - give up your bits!). There's also an analog component-video output that sends full resolution 1080i or 720p HDTV signals to your set at the discretion of the studios; as with the pending Blu-ray players, Hollywood will decide whether to flip the Image Constraint Token on its titles to down-res playback via component video. I'm happy to report the ICT was not active on any of the six initial titles we received (The Last Samurai, The Phantom of the Opera, and Million Dollar Baby from Warner and Apollo 13, Doom, and Serentity from Universal).
Beyond these two options are the old fallbacks: composite video (the traditional yellow RCA jack) and its slightly more capable brother, S-video. Neither can pass an HDTV signal of any kind, nor even progressive-scan standard-def (480p) from a traditional DVD. I understand that they have to be there, but it's hard to imagine why anyone buying this player would ever use them.
Of the two HD-compatible connections, HDMI is the obvious first choice - both to keep the disc's pristine digital video signal in that form right through to the TV and to avoid potential complications with the Image Constraint Token on future titles. That said, many enthusiasts most likely to be the first customers for HD DVD were also early HDTV adopters, whose sets may lack the HDMI (or HDCP-compliant DVI) digital video connection that would allow them to hook up to the Toshiba's HDMI port. In that case, the only option is to use the component-video output and let the ICT fall where it may from disc to disc.
On the other hand, if you've got either an HD DVD or Blu-ray player in your future, there's an even better reasons than the ICT to consider upgrading to a new 1080p HDTV with a digital video input. First, our ongoing HDTV tests suggest that in most cases, images viewed through a set's HDMI digital input are at least marginally cleaner and more detailed than those coming into its analog component video input. That was certainly the case when we tried running both HDMI digital video and analog component video from the Toshiba into the reference rear-projection HDTV used for this review.
But beyond this, any HDTV that lacks a digital video input today is almost surely a 720p model, which has fewer pixels with which to display the image than a 1080p model. Since all the movies being released for both HD DVD and Blu-ray are being encoded on the disc at 1080p, displaying them on a 720p bigscreen HDTV or projector calls for a fairly complicated downconversion of the signal. That means throwing away some picture information inherent on the disc and introducing the potential for serious image degradation if the quality of the processing in either the player or your TV isn't up to par.
In fact, my experience with the HD-XA1 bore this out. Because the standard for the next evolution of HDMI (known as version 1.3) is not finished, this Toshiba can't send the 1080p signal on an HD DVD disc directly to any TV. But the player does a great job interlacing the disc's 1080p to 1080i, which most 720p HDTVs can handle pretty well with their own deinterlacing and scaling circuits - albeit with at least a modest sacrifice in image quality.
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