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.
So far our biggest knock on dedicated players of HD DVD and Blu-ray discs has been that price puts them out of reach of the average consumer. HD DVD players have always been less expensive than Blu-ray players, however. The first-generation Toshiba HD-A1, for example, debuted at half the price of the least-expensive first-gen standalone Blu-ray players. Now Toshiba has rolled out its second generation line of HD DVD players, and the least-expensive member, the HD-A2, continues the trend. Its street price is near the $300 mark, placing it even closer to affordability for people looking to invest in a high-definition disc format. The HD-A2 lacks some of the features of the step-up HD-XA2, like 1080p output and multichannel analog outputs. On the other hand, the HD-A2 offers the best price-to-performance ratio of any of the standalone high-definition disc players, with excellent image quality on HD DVD discs, and onboard Dolby TrueHD decoding. We can't give the HD-A2 our unqualified support--there's still too much uncertainty in the ongoing format war--but overall it's an excellent value for budget-minded early adopters.
The design of the HD-A2 is a welcome upgrade over the bulky, industrial-looking HD-A1. The HD-A2 has a comparatively slim-line chassis, with measurements coming in at about 2.5 inches high, 17 inches wide, and 13.5 inches deep--a full inch and a half shorter than the A1. The front panel is glossy black and sloped forward, which gives it a unique look among more boxy components. To the far left is the Power button, illuminated by a blue light when it's on and a red light when it's off--unfortunately it can't be dimmed. To the far right is the LED display, which, thankfully, can be dimmed or even shut off if you're striving to limit light sources. The bottom-third of the player contains a flip-down panel; underneath are some additional front-panel controls such as Play, Stop, and chapter forward/backward buttons. There are also two USB-like "extension ports" that don't have any use as far as we know.
The main feature of the HD-A2 is that it can play HD DVD discs, and like all other next-gen players it's also capable of playing standard DVDs. Unlike some first generation Blu-ray players, it can play standard audio CDs, although it couldn't handle CDs and DVDs with MP3s or JPEGs on them.
The HD-A2 offers the same well-rounded soundtrack support we've come to expect from Toshiba's HD DVD players. It has onboard decoding for standard Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks and it also has onboard decoding for the two new high-resolution Dolby formats: Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD. In other words, it can send those new soundtracks to a compatible AV receiver or processor via HDMI as a PCM stream, which most HDMI-equipped receivers can handle. There is no onboard decoding for DTS-HD Master or DTS-HD High Resolution, but the HD-A2 can extract the "core" soundtrack from those formats, which is essentially just a standard DTS soundtrack. Like all current high-def disc players, HD DVD or Blu-ray, the HD-A2 is unable to send any of the high-resolution soundtracks to brand-new TrueHD and DTS-HD-compatible receivers in bit stream format.
Savvy home-theater enthusiasts will also notice that the HD-A2 lacks the ability to output in 24 frames, which some claim can reduce judder. The ability to output in 24 frames per second is marketed as a cutting-edge feature, but so far in our tests we have not been able to see any benefit from using this feature. We will continue testing the benefits of 24-frames-per-second output, but as of now we don't consider it a significant omission.
HD DVD performance
The HD-A2's performance on HD DVDs is excellent. Both HD DVD and Blu-ray offer superior image quality to DVD, and the HD-A2 does a fine job with HD DVD discs. That's not to say it's better than its competitors; we've found that nearly all high-def disc players offer virtually identical image quality. Movies like Aeon Flux, Mission Impossible: III, and The Hulk showed off the HD-A2's image quality prowess and we saw very little difference between the picture of the HD-A2 and the step-up HD-XA2 when both were in 1080i mode.
The HD-A2's predecessor, the HD-A1, was notoriously slow loading discs, often taking almost more than a minute to start playing a movie. The HD-A2 is improved in this regard, as it was able to load a disc in about 28 seconds.
Overall, the HD-A2 performed pretty well when converting standard DVDs to higher resolution, although not quite as well as the step-up HD-XA2. It failed some of the more difficult tests on Silicon Optix's HQV test suite; for instance, the waving American flag was full of jagged edges with the HD-A2, but mostly clean on the HD-XA2. On the other hand, the HD-A2 handled the difficult 2:3 pulldown test without a problem, as it kicked into film mode almost immediately.
The HQV test suite is filled with difficult test patterns, but we also looked at several of our favorite movies. As is usually the case, the HD-A2 performed better with actual movies, and it even did a good job with the sometimes difficult introduction on Seabiscuit. For the vast majority of consumers, the HD-A2's upscaling will be perfectly acceptable, especially at this price point. Those who need the absolute best performance on DVDs might want to consider stepping up to the HD-XA2.
We also checked DVD load times on the HD-A2. Discs loaded in a relatively speedy 17 seconds, which isn't as fast as a standard standalone DVD player, but is fast enough that you probably won't become annoyed at the difference.
Does 1080p make a difference?
Many people in the market for an HD DVD player are probably wondering whether it's worth spending the extra money to step up to either the HD-A20 or HD-XA2--both which offer 1080p output. To be sure, both 1080i and 1080p offer exactly the same amount of detail, the only difference is that with a 1080i signal, your HDTV will need to de-interlace the signal. So the only reason you'd want 1080p over 1080i is if the HD DVD player offered better de-interlacing than your HDTV.
The simple answer is yes, 1080p output can make a difference, but it depends on what TV you have. For example, we used Silicon Optix's HQV HD DVD test suite, and looked at the two players at their maximum resolutions on the Samsung LN-T4665F--an excellent HDTV overall, but we knew it had some issues with 1080i de-interlacing. Not surprisingly, we saw significant differences in the way the two players handled those test patterns on this TV. For example, on the Video Resolution Loss Test with the HD-A2, one of the boxes had a strobe-like effect, while the same box was stable with the HD-XA2. The same thing happened on the Film Resolution test. We also saw a significant difference on the Diagonal Filter "Jaggies" test, with three pivoting lines having nearly no artifacts on the HD-XA2 but two of the lines having noticeable artifacts on the HD-A2.
Despite these differences with test patterns, however, we found it difficult to find any noticeable difference with program material. We checked out the difficult Chapter 9 from Aeon Flux, for example, and both players looked the same on the Samsung TV. It's safe to say that with most HDTVs, the differences between the appearance of HD DVD discs at 1080i and at 1080p will be slight.
Is it worth spending the extra money? That depends on how well your own set does 1080i de-interlacing and how much you value squeezing just a little more performance out of your home theater. If you want 1080p output, but don't want to buy the more expensive HD-XA2, there's also the HD-A20, which essentially adds 1080p to the HD-A2's feature set for less money than the HD-XA2.