When the HD-DVD/Blu-ray format war started and HD-DVD actually launched in the marketplace, I felt that Blu-ray had a better chance of long-term success. The early problems with the HD-A1 and HD-XA1 (brutally slow response times, limited TrueHD support) didn't help that. Then came the spotty launch of Blu-ray (video performance issues with the first player, delays in the launch of other players, and feature sets that were intially lacking as well), and Toshiba's support of their players via firmware updates as well as their inclusion of features like ethernet connectivity from the very outset seemed a bti more impressive. My plans of holding out on buying an HD player of either format finally crumbled when I found an HD-A2 back in June 2007 for only $250. Over the last six months, I've spent a bit of time with the HD-A2, and I have finally decided that it might be useful to think back on what I've found and try to sum it up especially in light of the early November Wal-Mart sale that offered HD-A2's for $100 a piece. As in my previous equipment reviews, you can find an equipment list at the end of this review, including the second of two HDMI switches that I've used with the HD-A2 over the last five months.
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The HD-A2 is part of Toshiba's second generation of HD-DVD players, and that generation brought the first steps toward traditional consumer electronics archiecture and away from PC-based design. As a result, the chassis is not as tall and bulky as the first HD-DVD players. There's still a fan in back, though, and the remote is still a plain black slab without backlight. I'm not terriby upset about the remote, since it just got programmed into my MX-700 and tossed into the drawer under the TV. Front panel controls are similar to a lot of DVD players these days: minimal.
The rear panel is a bit sparse, as well. The HD-A2 represented a cost-minimalization escalation by Toshiba, so the multichannel analog output was dropped entirely. The rear panel offers a detachable power cord, HDMI output, optical digital audio output, component video, stereo analog audio, s-video, and composite video. There's also an ethernet jack for internet access, useful for both firmware updates and downloading content for some discs. It doesn't look terribly different from any other typical DVD player these days, aside from being a bit taller and having a fan and network jack on the back.
The front panel display is fairly readable from a distance thanks to the extra height of the chassis. The big power button on the left side has a bright blue light around it, which some people may find annoying. It doesn't bother me, but it's also behind tinted glass and partially obscured by a door.
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My setup with the HD-A2 is simple, albeit not optimal for the HD-A2's output options. I connected it via the optical output and the HDMI output. HDMI goes to my TV through a rather convoluted process aside from a week or so going directly to a DVI input on my Model 990, I added a separate HDMI switch so that it and a second player could share one DVI input on the 990. The Model 990's DVI output goes to my HDTV's DVI input. Initially I used a MonoPrice HDMI switch (two inputs, one output, and a remote control). This arrangement proved problematic for getting the necessary HDCP handshake worked out. It only worked when the HD-A2 was first coming on, so if I changed inputs i would have to re-start the player to re-establish the HDCP handshake. More recently, I changed to a different HDMI switch an OPPO Digital HM-31. With this switch, I've had no trouble with HDCP handshaking.
Without an HDMI v1.1 input on the Model 990 (for those unfamiliar with the version stew of HDMI, check my HDMI FAQ), the optical output is the best option for multichannel audio. Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD signals are decoded internally by the HD-A2, and when the HDMI audio output isn't available the HD-A2 takes that decoded signal and re-encodes it into high bitrate DTS something that its optical output can handle.
The HD-A2's setup menu is pretty straightforward. The setup menu has several main categories that are fairly clearly defined. The "Picture" category covers things like display aspect ratio and output resolution. The "Audio" category covers optical and HDMI audio output settings, dynamic range control, and dialog enhancement. The only really unusual category is "Ethernet" which will allow you to configure the network connection. Since I ran some network cable to my entertainment center in 2006, I was able to connect the HD-A2 directly to my network router and let it get an IP address via DHCP. The "General" category also includes a related option called Maintenance which allows you to update the firmware via the Internet. Performing firmware updates via ethernet is slow (on the order of half an hour). I've done it a few times, but in light of the slow process I've considered switching to downloading firmware and burning it to a disc to save time the time isn't any particular inconvenience, but it does increase the slim chance of problems caused by a power outage mid-update.
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The primary reason to get an HD-DVD or Blu-ray player is video quality, with audio quality probably being next in line. A 32" HD display is not exactly an optimal venue for exploiting the benefits of either new format. It's still fun to give it a try, though. Disc loading speed is actually pretty good. Start-up speed is good compared to reports on first-gen players, although there is still a lot of room for improvement. Picture quality with HD-DVD's is excellent merely "good" transfers can appear to be a bit better than the best upscaled DVD (an example being Joss Whedon's Serenity), while the really good transfers look as good as or better than the best HD broadcasts I've seen. Due to the lower compression than found on typical HD broadcasts (over-the-air, cable, or satellite), HD-DVD and its rival can both offer higher bitrates and clearer images than broadcast HD material. Lastly, there is definitely no underscan whatsoever, and they push some graphical data *all* the way out to the edges. For a CRT with a bit more overscan than is probably healthy, that means symbols like "pause" and "play" are actually starting to fall off the side of the screen.
One place where HD-DVD has consistently maintained an edge over Blu-ray is the interactive content. From right out of the gate, HD-DVD has had interactive content, secondary audio, and other extra features working to a degree that Blu-ray is still trying to catch up to. It shows up even in simple ways. Many of Universal's titles (particularly the early releases) use a common menu interface that is slick, functional, and reasonably unobtrusive. Having the movie start playing immediately (as is the case with a number of titles I've played) is a bit inconvenient when you toss the disc in the player before you are ready to start watching it.
The HD-A2 will also play standard DVD's, and it will upscale them to 720p or 1080i when using the HDMI output (component is limited to 480p). It is a respectable player, although probably due to the burden of managing a new format it isn't as strong as some players. The layer change in particular is slow. Load times for DVD's aren't as bad as for HD-DVD's, but the player's start-up time is still the better part of half a minute just to get the tray open from standby mode which feels like a very long time when standing in front of an open equipment cabinet door, waiting to drop the disc in and close the tray so you can close the cabinet door.
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With no HDMI v1.1 input on my processor and no multichannel analog input on the HD-A2, I've got no direct access to the either Dolby Digital Plus or TrueHD. And of course the HD-A2 lacks any support (either internal decoding or bitstream output) for DTS-HD Master Audio. Nonetheless, I have to say that TrueHD looks (sounds) impressive even when filtered through a high-bitrate DTS encode. DD+ tracks that get the same treatment are at least on par with the best I've gotten from regular DVD's via Dolby Digital and DTS, but there is still a difference when moving to DTS-encoded TrueHD. There's a more clear and open sound. And once I remembered to use the Dolby button to engage it, I was able to set my Model 990 to apply Pro Logic IIx to the DTS signals.
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At the beginning of the format war, I felt that Blu-ray had the potential to win the format war within a year or a year and a half maybe by late 2007. When I bought my HD-A2 back in June, I still thought that Blu-ray could achieve a "victory" in the format war, although I had begun to doubt that we'd see a resolution to the whole mess by year's end. At the time, I still hadn't found a Blu-ray player that I was willing to spend my money on. They were too expensive, but they also lacked too many features that were promised for future players and future Blu-ray discs. The HD-A2 offered a way to inexpensively get into an HD disc format, and the omitted features didn't bother me. I can't use 1080p output anyway (and don't expect to for at least a few years) and my multichannel analog input is reserved for the remnants of our last format war DVD-Audio and SACD. I won't be investing a lot of money in HD-DVD media at the moment, and so far most of my HD-DVD content has come out of my Netflix queue, but I've been quite pleased with what I've seen from both the player and the format. At this point, I have my doubts about this format war having any more decisive or rapid a conclusion than the DVD-Audio/SACD war. I hope that one or both sides are able to fare well enough to offer better software libraries than those two audio formats (something that I think it likely, considering the studio support for both formats), but this is a war that I plan to remain neutral in. At some point soon I'll probably pick up a profile 1.1 Blu-ray player, but in the meanwhile I've already got the HD-DVD side covered quite nicely with the HD-A2.
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