AUDIO PERFORMANCE Audio results were equally satisfying. The Toshiba turned out to be a fine stereo CD player - nice, considering that a number of high-def players out there (again, BD players) won't even play a CD. But with movie sound, the big advancement here is onboard multichannel Dolby TrueHD decoding, which gives the HD DVD camp an equivalent to the uncompressed multichannel PCM soundtracks that appear on some Blu-ray Discs. I spun a few HD DVDs with 5.1-channel TrueHD, including Poseidon and Superman Returns, listening through both the HDMI output (which delivers the signal as multichannel PCM for conversion to analog in the receiver) and from the 5.1-channel analog outputs.
The HDMI was impressive and on par with the straight PCM experience I've had with Blu-ray Discs - imagine big, open, unstrained sound with spectacular dynamics and a nearly heart-stopping bottom end (at least on our two-subwoofer system). The signature scene in Poseidon in which the ocean liner capsizes has some powerful audio: undulating, rumbling bass that rips through the viewing room as the giant tidal wave speeds toward the ship, followed by ridiculously complex and layered effects from various parts of the boat - breaking glass, crunching metal, human cries, rushing water, silverware and dishes crashing, furniture tumbling, electricity arcing and snapping, and the sounds of bodies hitting the ground (or, rather, the ceiling) from four or five stories. Not only did the HD-XA2 keep this cacophony of sharp noises well-delineated, it did so with a sonic smoothness that didn't fatigue or strafe my ears. Switching to the XA2's 5.1-channel output shifted digital-to-analog conversion from the receiver to the player, resulting in even more spacious and detailed sound in the mid- and high frequencies - a testament to the onboard processing. But with the player's LFE output down 10 dB by design, I had a difficult time balancing the system and was ultimately able to achieve considerably more solid bass with my receiver handling bass management via HDMI. Audio from the optical digital output, a Dolby Digital core bitstream with a 640 kilobit-per-second data rate, was good, but sounded veiled and less open next to the TrueHD.
BOTTOM LINE Regular readers may know that, Sony's PS3 game console aside, no high-def disc player we've tested has made it to our S&V's Best list of recommended products, including Toshiba's HD-XA1, our 2006 Editors' Choice Product of the Year. That's because - despite stellar video and audio - all have had glitches or omitted key features. No such qualms here, beyond the usual caveats about buying during a format war. With its future-readiness, superb performance with both HD and SD DVDs, and essentially glitch-free operation, the Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD player easily lives up to its promise and price tag.
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