- Review Price: £249.99
Toshiba’s aggressive pricing strategy for its HD DVD hardware might be bad news for the Blu-ray camp and fellow HD DVD manufacturers, but it’s great news for consumers. It means that you can pick up a fully featured hi-def deck like the HD-EP35 for under £300, a price tag which for many people will suddenly make hi-def seem a lot more accessible.
The HD-EP35 is the step-up version of the HD-EP30 player that we recently reviewed. It looks exactly the same, with the familiar black styling found on all of Toshiba’s HD DVD decks, but the EP35 adds a few extra features, including support for 7.1-channel bitstream audio and Deep Colour, both of which are likely to have significant benefits for picture and sound performance (when the supporting technology catches up with it, that is).
Deep Colour increases the number of bits available for colour reproduction and is made possible the inclusion of an HDMI 1.3 output, which can support 10-, 12- and 16-bit colour depths (HDMI 1.2 could only support up to 8-bit). This increases the amount of shades at its disposal, leading to smoother gradients (eliminating the banding that can be seen on many 8-bit TVs) and a richer colour range.
What’s more, its ability to output 7.1-channel audio as a bitstream from its HDMI output means you can use your amplifier to decode Dolby True HD, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS HD soundtracks, as opposed to the player.
Of course, to take advantage of these features you’ll need a TV with Deep Colour support (plus a currently non-existent Deep Colour disc), plus an amplifier with HDMI 1.3 input that can decode the HD audio formats – all of which are still thin on the ground.
And using external audio equipment to decode HD soundtracks means you won’t be able to listen to new commentaries streamed over the web, as the relevant decoding and mixing can only be carried out inside the player. But despite these implications, it’s good to know that Toshiba is supporting these features.
Otherwise the HD-EP35 offers 1080/24p video output and a LAN Internet connection, which allows you to download new content and firmware updates. Other connections include component video output and 5.1-channel analogue audio outputs (not found on the EP30), which will come in handy if you want to listen to HD audio soundtracks but your AV amplifier lacks HDMI input. Rounding up the socketry roster are composite video output, plus optical digital and analogue stereo audio outputs.
Those of you with large DVD collections can rest assured that the HD-EP35 will play them, and will also upscale them to 720p, 1080i or 1080p. However, the unit won’t play MP3, WMA or DivX so it might be worth hanging onto that DVD deck.
If you’ve got more than one HDMI-equipped component in your system then the inclusion of CEC control (dubbed Regza Link) will enable you to control all of them with one remote – we tried it out with the Toshiba 46XF355D TV and it works very well.
In fact, the whole deck works extremely well. The main setup menu is a treat to navigate thanks to its use of jazzy fonts and snazzy colours, while other onscreen displays (including the slick pop-up menus) are responsive and easy to follow. The remote eases operation even further with good button placement, though it’s not exactly exciting to look at.
Our only operational criticism is that the deck takes ages to load as per usual and there’s no quick start mode as found on Sharp’s Blu-ray deck.
But we’re more interested in picture quality and on that score it doesn’t disappoint. We slipped our Batman Begins HD DVD into the tray and were blown away by the richness, depth and sharpness of the picture.
Scenes of Bruce Wayne training early in the film reveal staggering detail reproduction – the textures and patterns of the surrounding mountain scenery are so razor-sharp that they’re almost tangible. But when the action moves to Gotham the player cranks things up a notch, handling the city’s harsh, grubby detail with the sort of clarity that’s sure to win over hi-def sceptics. These talents are made all the more impressive by the fact that most of the film is set in darkness, but the player’s naturally strong contrast levels still allow you to distinguish every scrap of detail.
Colour handling is equally impressive, displaying a deft touch with delicate tones like Katie Holmes’ skin but backing it up with bold and forceful reproduction of strong hues like neon signs. We’re also impressed by black level, which makes Batman’s suit seem solid and realistic without losing any of the detail within it.
DVD playback is impressive too, with The Simpsons Movie looking crisp, dense and extremely vivid when upscaled to 1080p – though ‘live action’ fare like our Region 2 Heat disc looks just as smooth and compelling. We couldn’t discern any flaws in the upscaling either.
As for sound, Batman Begins’ 5.1-channel Dolby TrueHD soundtrack sounds detailed and dynamic through the analogue audio outputs, and just about pips the digital output to the post – though both are impressive. There are no grumbles about CD playback either, with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue sounding suitably smooth.
With outstanding hi-def performance and a superb set of features, the HD-EP35 scores yet more points for HD DVD in the battle with Blu-ray. Considering that it costs roughly the same as the cheapest Blu-ray players but offers more features, it really does represent great value for money.
But the question is, should you pay the extra cash for the HD-EP35 or opt for the cheaper EP30? Well, if you want a hi-def player with 5.1 analogue outputs that won’t seem outdated when Deep Colour and HD audio decoding becomes widespread, then the EP35 is for you. But if you’re not bothered about any of that then save yourself a few bob and buy the EP30.
Score in detail