Toshiba's Sleek, Pricey HD-XA2

This top-of-the line high-definition DVD player makes even standard discs look better, but what if the competing next-gen format prevails?

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Super-rich high-def picture; sleek design

The Bad: Less expensive than competing models, but still pricey

The Bottom Line: Packed with the latest features, but $800-plus for a player that could soon be obsolete?

Toshiba's HD-XA2 high-definition disc and DVD player reminds me of the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's a sleek, long, shiny black rectangle that seems to scream "I'm from the future!" As I tore open the box, I imagined Also Sprach Zarathustra playing in the background.

I took this trip into the future as part of a review series on next-generation DVD players (see, 2/16/07, "Panasonic's Blu-ray Special"). It's too early to tell which next-gen format—HD DVD or Sony's (SNE) Blu-ray—will carry the day, so I am testing players compatible with both systems.

It's not just the XA2's design that lends itself to such futuristic associations. Toshiba (TOSBF) packed its top-of-the-line player with the latest in next-generation home theater technology. Like most HD DVD players, the device broadcasts up to 1080p, the highest available resolution, enabling it to display crisp, richly detailed images on compatible televisions.

Terrific Picture

Better still, the XA2 is among the first to broadcast via High Definition Multimedia Interface 1.3. This is the most high-tech interface now available for video players, enabling the device to broadcast sound in the best available audio formats for home theater, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master. That's a step up from the Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD formats that already sound similar to sitting in the theater. The result is a home movie experience that seems as if you're not really at home at all.

HDMI 1.3 has another key function. It enables the player to display richer, more vibrant colors. I noticed this when watching Harrison Ford's crime drama Firewall. Ford's character is an IT professional who works in a rather bland office and lives in a relatively monochromatic home. But far from appearing washed out, those settings had a richness of light and color that I attribute to the player. Toshiba's XA2 also lets users fine-tune color to reflect personal tastes.

The ability to personalize the video viewing experience is one of the major benefits of high-definition players and discs, which can store more information and options than standard DVDs. I particularly had fun playing with the language feature on the Toshiba player. One minute, Harrison Ford speaks in English, the next minute il parle en Français, puis, él habla Español.

Good for "Upconverting"

Transitions on this player were super fast. I didn't notice any of the sluggishness reviewers saw in earlier versions of Toshiba's high-definition player. Whatever you ask this player to do, it does pretty much immediately.

The trouble with any next-generation DVD player is that few of the movies available at the local video rental store or in most home collections are likely to be high-definition discs. But that doesn't mean forgoing the HD viewing experience altogether. This player is capable of "upconverting" regular DVDs to HD resolution. Such a feature is major plus, considering that replacing an existing collection with HD discs can get expensive, with retail prices ranging between $25 and $40.

Cost, in my opinion, is the biggest drawback of this player. Toshiba's HD-XA2 ranges from $800 to just under $1,000 in stores. That's hundreds less than some comparable Blu-ray players with stickers of more than $1,000. However, it's still top dollar compared to DVD players that typically go for less than $200.

First, the Format War

The XA2 would be worth it—if I could be assured HD DVD will prevail. But it's not clear any high-definition player can convincingly make such a claim right now. Sure, high-definition discs will be available. But, if Blu-ray wins out, HD DVD could become obsolete.

That said, for those who don't mind spending a little coin for cutting edge, this player is a good value compared to pricier Blu-ray players on the market. Provided that HD doesn't lose to Blu-ray, this player has everything it needs to be relevant in the future.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.