Editors' note: Toshiba officially announced it will stop producing HD DVD products, bringing an end to the format war. For that reason, CNET recommends that people avoid buying this player for high-definition movie playback.
When the first HD DVD player, Toshiba's HD-A1, came out last April, the general consensus was it put out excellent-quality images but was crippled by some major operational quirks. Although Toshiba improved the performance of the HD-A1 significantly with a few firmware updates, many prospective buyers were still holding out for a second-generation player that would fix these basic problems. Toshiba's HD-XA2 is the flagship version of that second-generation HD DVD player, complete with fancy features like HDMI 1.3 and 1080p output. Of course these extras don't come for free; the XA2 carries a hefty $800 price tag, although we've seen it going for about $700 online.
The Toshiba HD-XA2 is much improved over the HD-A1 in terms of boot times--they're less than a minute now--and we only had some minor operational quirks. That, combined with its superb image quality, is enough to make the HD-XA2 a worthwhile purchase for early adopters willing to gamble on HD DVD, a format that might not succeed in the long haul. We're still not ready to give any standalone HD DVD player an unqualified recommendation--there are too many signs that Blu-ray may have an insurmountable lead--but for well-heeled enthusiasts, the XA2 is easily the best HD DVD player currently available. For everyone else, it's still best to wait until the format war shakes out.
The XA2 has an understated black exterior with the HD DVD logo placed toward the bottom of the face plate and the LED display toward the upper right. It's about half the size of the giant HD-A1, coming in at 17.2 inches tall by 2.9 inches wide by 13.6 inches deep. To the far left is an illuminated power button that glows blue when turned on, a glow that unfortunately cannot be dimmed. The nice-sized, white LED display, on the other hand, can be dimmed or completely shut off via the remote. To the right of the disc tray is the open/close button, and along the bottom of the unit is a flip-down panel that reveals some important buttons like play and chapter forward/backward--which are handy for when the remote goes missing. Also under the flip-down panel are two USB-like "extension ports," although Toshiba hasn't made it clear what they're used for yet.
Unfortunately, the remote is largely unchanged from the HD-A1, which means it's pretty awful in everyday use. The shape is long and slender, which feels fairly good in the hand, but the buttons are all slim, raised rectangles, which makes navigating by feel nearly impossible. On the upside, at least there's backlighting, which can be activated by holding down the backlight button for a few seconds. A panel toward the bottom slides down to reveal a few extra buttons, most notably a numeric keypad. Considering how widely criticized the A1's remote was, it's surprising Toshiba didn't give the XA2 an update. In the meantime, the best tactic is to replace the XA2's clicker with a good universal remote.
The most important feature of the HD-XA2 is its ability to play HD DVD discs, and it can also handle standard-definition DVDs as well. For audio, it can play standard CDs, but it can't play either of the niche high-resolution audio formats, DVD-Audio or SACD.
One of the more important features on HD DVD and Blu-ray players is their support, or lack thereof, for the new high-definition soundtrack formats, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD. While Blu-ray players have been hit and miss with their support, Toshiba's HD DVD players have been consistently strong in this area (the LG BH100 combo drive excluded). The HD-XA2 is no exception, offering onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus, and the ability to play back the "core" soundtrack of DTS soundtracks ("core" DTS soundtracks offer slightly higher quality than standard DTS soundtracks). This means it can decode these soundtracks in the player and then either output the analog signal via the multichannel outputs, or output multichannel linear PCM via the HDMI output. We really like this flexibility because, at the time of this writing, there are no receivers available that can decode these soundtracks themselves. In other words, conversion at the player itself is currently the only way to take advantage of the higher quality sound.
While the HD-XA2 can decode these new soundtracks internally, the fact it has a HDMI 1.3 port means it should also be able to send these high-resolution soundtracks via encoded bit stream to future A/V receivers that will be able to decode them. This is a nice way to future-proof the product, because eventually we'll see receivers that can decode DTS-HD, and the HD-XA2 will be able to take advantage of the higher sound quality by sending the receiver the encoded bit stream.
HDMI 1.3 also allows for "deep color" and expanded color gamuts, two other features associated with HDMI 1.3 that should improve picture quality (more info). As a device with an HDMI 1.3 output, the HD-XA2 is compatible with these features, but for now they're strictly marketing hype. To fully take advantage of these features, they need to be present not only in the player, but also in the display and the content itself. To see the benefits of deep color, for example, it has to be present on the HD DVD disc and your HDTV--and as far as we know, no such discs or displays are currently available.