Toshiba HD-A35 HD DVD Player Page 2

On the video setup side, the Enhanced Black Level control, which provides a setup level of 0 IRE (no setup) or 7.5 IRE, operates only in 480i component or composite. There is an RGB Output Range control that offers both Standard (black level 16-235) and Enhanced (0-255), but this should be of no consequence for most HDMI to HDMI installations (we suspect this is only necessary to pay attention to when an HDMI to DVI breakout cable is used). The Toshiba will display both above white and below black over HDMI and (we suspect) with HDMI-DVI when Standard is chosen, which is not only useful for setup but provides headroom at both ends (assuming your display will do so as well).

The HD-A35 may be set up to output 1080p/24 on HD DVDs, which eliminates 3/2 pulldown on film-based source material and the slight motion judder that 3/2 produces—assuming your television or projector can accept a 24fps input and display it as a multiple of 24fps. (Most older TVs cannot, and while more and more new video displays can accept 1080p/24, many of them simply convert it to 1080p/60 internally before displaying it, which adds 3/2 pulldown and improves nothing.)

But if the disc is based on a video source, or mastered at 1080i/30 frames per second (which appears to be common only on disc menus and concert discs) the motion may stutter badly. This can be corrected by changing the setup to a different output resolution, for example 1080p (1080p/60fps) or 1080i (1080i/30fps). But as noted this does require stopping the disc and going into the setup menu; it would be very helpful to be able to make this change on the fly from the remote.

Some of us have been waiting anxiously for a player that will light up the Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio lights on our new AV receivers or pre-pros. That is, a player that will output native bitstreams for each of these formats directly through the HDMI link so that they are decoded in a suitably-equipped receiver. Up to now we've been able to get Dolby TrueHD in full resolution only by relying on the player to convert it from its native bitstream form to multichannel PCM. No current HD player in either format can decode lossless DTS-HD Master Audio and pass it on in full resolution to an AV receiver or pre-pro in linear PCM form.

While it's still unclear if decoding of the bitstream data in the AVR or pre/pro will offer any sonic advantages over conversion to PCM in the player (and it does have functional disadvantages, which we'll get to soon), the HD-A35 can be set up to output Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD as bitstreams. It's the first HD DVD player to offer this option.

It's also claimed that the HD-A35 can pass along the bitstreams for both lossy and lossless flavors of DTS-HD. But there are currently no consumer HD DVDs available in the US (some foreign HD DVDs do apparently offer DTS-HD MA) with any sort of DTS-HD soundtracks, so the DTS-HD MA lights on the front panel of the Onkyo AV receiver I'm currently using remain mute.

Setting up for this bitstream vs. PCM option involves two controls, and the explanation on how to use them in the manual is a bit confusing. For most systems, here's the drill for what you'll get from the HDMI audio:

(DTS-HD as used here refers here to both flavors of DTS-HD.)

Digital HDMI Out set to Auto; Digital Direct Audio Mode set to Off:
• Dolby Digital +, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD are output as linear PCM (DTS-HD decodes only from the lossy, 1.5Mb/sec DTS core track)
• Dolby Digital and legacy DTS are output as bitstreams.

Digital HDMI Out set to PCM; Digital Direct Audio Mode set to Off:
• Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital +, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, and DTS-HD are all output as multichannel linear PCM (DTS-HD decodes only from the basic, lossy, 1.5Mb/sec DTS core track)

Digital HDMI Out set to Auto; Digital Direct Audio Mode set to On:
• Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital D+, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, and DTS-HD are output as bitstreams. Sub-audio for special features and menu sounds are disabled.

I used a direct HDMI connection to a receiver for both the audio and video for most of this review. HDMI-equipped receivers typically offer their most flexible setup options from an HDMI input.

But for those who need them, the setup options for the HD-A35's multichannel analog outputs provide are more extensive than most players. There's a selection of crossover points for the subwoofer (80Hz, 100Hz, 120Hz), distance settings to provide the correct channel delays, and a test tone for setting the levels correctly.

The HD-A35 also provides an on-screen information display that provides useful information, including the video codec in use, the output resolution, and the form of the audio output (bitstream or PCM).

Firing It Up
The picture quality the HD-A35 provides may not astonish anyone familiar with previous HD DVD players, but it came as a surprise to me that in small but important ways it actually improves on the earlier designs I've seen. The images this new player draws from a good HD DVD transfer on a good 1080p display are consistently superb, with crisp detail, an illusion of depth that is often uncanny for a two-dimensional medium, and rich but natural color.

Inside Man may not be a memorable film (in fact, I had forgotten that I had already seen it on the standard definition DVD when I popped the HD DVD into the HD-A35), but its picture grabs you from the get-go with a montage of New York shots that plays out behind the opening credits. And while the quality of its video after that is a bit more uneven than the compelling opening, it's good enough to keep the movie consistently entertaining until a rushed and ambiguous conclusion. Nothing in the performance of the HD-A35 on this disc, however, disappointed me in any way.

But whenever I want to get a good handle on the best quality HD DVD playback, I often turn to The Chronicles of Riddick. It might not be (spoiler alert: understatement ahead) the greatest movie ever made, but it does become more interesting with repeat viewing, thanks to a serious science fiction premise and some fine performances from actors who can make even leaden lines sound convincing (though I don't refer here to the leads!).

But like it as a film or not, it looks completely amazing. I haven't revisited this film in a while, but through the HD-A35 I received a refresher course in its jaw-dropping cinematography and production design. It's a rather monochromatic film, but the few bright colors are all the more startling for that. There are many dark scenes, but they are never murky—on a good display. And there aren't more than a handful of shots here that aren't in tight, crisp focus, including long shots with a startling depth of field. The HD-35 gets it all—in fact I've never seen this pristine HD DVD transfer look better.

I had the good fortune to see King Kong twice in the same theater (the Arclight in Hollywood). In both cases the prints were the best I've seen from any movie in years. I had been particularly impressed by one of the quieter sequences early in the film: the close-ups of Naomi Watts' Ann Darrow as she talks in a New York restaurant with Jack Black's Jack Driscoll. Watts' eyes looked amazing on the big screen. I don't know if there was any computer enhancement involved in this, but if there was, it had the desired effect. I've watched this scene on other HD DVD players and displays, and this was the closest I've come to duplicating the emotional reaction I had from it in that original theatrical experience. The rest of the disc looked great as well on the HD-A35, but this particular scene grabbed me immediately.