It's amazing how fast markets are changing lately. A year ago you had to pay at least a cool ten grand to get a high quality 1080p front projector, and now you can find them for less than $5K. HD DVD players hit the market and would cost you $500 for an entry model, and now you can buy their new flagship for just a few dollars more. In fact, as of this writing you can find a brand new HD DVD player on-line for less than $300. Can you imagine going into the local Wal-Mart and getting an HD DVD player for $250 or less? You may not have to imagine long.
The price has always been one of the selling points of the HD DVD group, and one of their main advantages over the rival Blu-ray format. However, Blu-ray has made some impressive strides as well with $500 players hitting the markets now. The only question is, will bringing down the price be enough to gather the mainstream market into the foray? Personally, I don't think it is near enough.
I've had this conversation with one of my colleagues, Darin Perrigo, on numerous occasions. While DVD came into the mainstream market and created a new revolution in home video libraries, I don't think the pre-recorded HD market is up to the task. Consumers have moved on to on-demand and portability, and with the price of hard drives and in-home movie servers dropping, I truly believe the "iTunes" and "Napsters" of downloadable HD content that are on the way will be the medium of the future. Why buy movies for $30 and up when you can download and watch any movie ever made in HD for a few bucks and save yourself the trip to the store? It's a question that lingers on my mind and the minds of a lot of people I know. This is an uphill battle that may end up leaving both competitors fending for the scraps at the end of it.
The Toshiba HD-XA2 is the new flagship HD DVD player from the main proponent of the format. It is a complete redesign from the previous flagship, the HD-XA1. This is a good thing. The previous model was on the large side and was PC-based. While this added a lot of flexibility in the design and updating, it made for a slow and rather clunky experience. The XA1 wasn't really much of an upgrade over the entry level HD-A1; it only added a motorized front panel and backlit remote.
The XA2 is an entirely different beast and adds quite a few updates to the previous models for both HD DVD and DVD playback.
The XA2 is a rather modest sized player and far more in line with the normal DVD players on the market. It is only about half the height of the A1 and XA1, and far smoother to operate. The player has a far less "techie" look to it and is simple in form and function. The front faceplate is devoid of futuristic buttons and lighting and the only real distinguishing facet is the glow of the blue light that is under the front (which can be turned off thankfully!)
There is a small flip down panel where you'll find most of the main operating controls and two USB inputs that are for future use.
The main case is brushed metal and attractive overall. The HD DVD logo is carved into the top but is barely discernable in even a dimly lit room. The back panel is almost identical to the previous models and includes both analog and digital outputs for video and audio. There is also an Ethernet port for connection to the Internet. This allows for firmware updates and downloadable content to enhance the HD DVD experience.
Toshiba released the HD-XA2 at the same time as the HD-A2. Both are very similar in appearance but they are vastly different in what they offer the end consumer. The HD-A2 does not have the six-channel analog outputs that the HD-A1 offered, so multi-channel high resolution PCM playback is only possible via the HDMI output. The HD-XA2 offers both options to the end user, making it a more flexible solution for those who haven't invested in an AVR or SSP with HDMI inputs. Of course, the customary Toslink and coaxial digital outputs are all there for legacy soundtracks such as Dolby Digital and DTS. Unfortunately these outputs cannot handle the newer soundtrack options of the HD DVD format like DTS-HD or Dolby Digital Plus (in their native format).
The HD-XA2 is also the first HD DVD player to offer a HDMI v1.3 output. The v1.3 interface supposedly allows for bitstream transfer of the new audio codecs associated with the HD DVD format, including DTS-HD, DTS-HD Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD, and Dolby Digital Plus. Unfortunately, that is not the whole truth. The 1.3 spec does allow for support of these new formats in bitstream form, but that doesn't mean that the consumer product has to support them, and support-them-not seems to be what is happening so far.