The HD-XA2, Toshiba’s latest 2nd generation HD DVD high definition disc player, incorporates a number of “firsts” and offers improved performance compared to Toshiba’s previous top player, the HD-AX1. Among the improvements are faster loading time, better upconversion of standard definition sources and 1080p output availability.

The HD-XA2 is more compact and lighter than its predecessor, with a height of just 2.93,” a depth of 13.54″ and weighing in at 13.64 lbs, compared to the older HD-XA1’s 4.53” height and whopping 19.58 pound weight.

While the first generation Toshiba players were little more than “specific-use” PCs, this 2nd generation player utilizes dedicated HD DVD circuitry, resulting in much faster operation. Slow start up was a major complaint of both buyers and reviewers.

The new player’s startup time from power “off” to “on” and “booted up” has been reduced to a tolerable 35 seconds. It takes just 22 additional seconds to load and begin playing an HD DVD disc. If you leave a disc in the player and shut it off, powering back up and playing the HD DVD disc will commence in 45 seconds.

The HD-XA2’s biggest improvement compared to 1st generation HD DVD players as well as competing Blu-ray units is its signal processing abilities, converting native 480i content to enhanced or high definition output (480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p).

While for some reason it’s not mentioned in the literature, on the box or in the owner’s manual, the Silicon Optix Hollywood Quality Video (HQV) Reon scaler/processor chip handles all upconversion and deinterlacing duties in the new player. HQV is widely regarded by many reviewers and manufacturers as one of the best signal processors available.

Previously, the HQV chip has only been included within select HDTVs, external signal processor boxes and the highly rated Denon standard definition (SD) DVD players priced from $849 and up.

Priced at only $999 retail, or $150 more than Denon’s least expensive standard definition DVD player, this Toshiba plays DVDs, HD DVDs and audio CDs, adds Ethernet connectivity (used for firmware updates and additional content), Dolby True HD and DTS HD (lossless audio codexes) . It also includes front mounted “Extension” ports for future options such as game controllers and additional memory (to augment the 256MB built into the player).

The HD-XA2’s backlit remote control, similar to the one supplied with the first generation Toshiba HD-XA1, adds a picture control button function that accesses user controls within the player, such as color, brightness and tint as well as edge and color enhancement. In addition, three types of noise reduction (NR) circuits can be activated, including Mosquito NR ( a compression artifact that produces wispiness around objects), Block NR (another compression artifact found in fast moving images), and Random NR.

I put the HD-XA2 through a series of tests (once I’d familiarized myself with the user controls) using Pioneer’s FHD-1 1920X1080p 50-inch plasma monitor set to “Pure” picture mode. Selecting the Dot-by-Dot aspect ratio bypasses Pioneer’s internal scaler and provides a straight feed from the Toshiba HD DVD player to the monitor.

The evaluations utilized the HD-XA2’s 1080p/60hz output, though its 1080i output was also briefly sampled and evaluated. The Pioneer monitor properly de-interlaces 1080i sources to1080 progressive, providing similar images in either mode.

The HD-XA2’s ability to upconvert standard DVDs was nothing short of spectacular. With the player’s noise reduction circuits engaged, standard definition DVDs looked noticeably smoother, cleaner and more HD DVD-like, thanks to the significant reduction or elimination (depending on the disc) of compression artifacts, though of course they lacked the greater detail delivered by the HD DVD version of the same material.

The Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark test DVD confirmed these findings. As expected, the Toshiba aced all the jaggies, flag and detail tests. Pioneer’s Blu-ray player did not fare as well. For example, the Toshiba player received a perfect 10 score on the color bar test, with no flickering observed, while Pioneer’s HD-BP1 Blu-ray player, set at 1080p output failed this test, producing an image that flickered, and failed the jaggy tests as well.

The HD-XA2’s mosquito noise reduction and edge enhancement circuits, available only when playing standard definition DVDs, worked effectively when put to the test using the HQV Benchmark disc.

Among the new HD DVD titles viewed were “Babel,” “Beerfest” and “Hollywoodland.” Babel, viewed in SD, HD DVD and Blu-ray, produced superb image quality in all three formats, thanks to a high quality transfer.

Digital artifact-free and clean and super sharp in both HD DVD and Blu-ray versions, it was too close to choose a “Babel” winner (using the Pioneer BD-HD1). Both looked fantastic using their respective players. As previously reported, the Pioneer BDP-HD1 performs beautifully with Blu-ray discs.

Only one glitch to report with the HD-XA2: switching inputs on the Pioneer plasma set while watching the HD-XA2, caused the player to stop and restart at the beginning of the disc. This was quite annoying. I asked a Toshiba product manager about a fix and he said he would get back to me. This review will be updated as information becomes available.

The HD-XA2 is marvelous machine. The high definition images it produces, coupled with its 1080p output ability place it on the same performance level as the best Blu-ray machines. The HD-XA2’s standard definition DVD upconversion quality, place its standard definition disc performance ahead of all other high definition players tested to date.

If you plan to use both types of discs (SD DVDs and HD DVDs) in one machine with a large screen HDTV display, the Toshiba HD-XA2 is very fine choice.

The HD Guru awards the Toshiba HD-XA2 its top ♥♥♥♥ rating.

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