- Review Price: £487.00
At the beginning of the year I looked at Toshiba’s first European HD DVD player, the HD-E1. The HD-E1 proved to be a very impressive piece of kit, marketed at a bargain price, especially when compared to the competing Blu-ray products at the time. Unusually however, Toshiba chose to release its entry level player before its high end machine, but now I have the flagship HD-XE1 in my possession and it’s time to find out whether it’s worth the extra cash.
The HD-XE1 definitely looks more substantial than the HD-E1, but not as big and bulky as many high end DVD players out there. A nice touch is the HD DVD logo etched onto the top of the casing, although if you have the player sitting underneath your TV you probably won’t see this. As with the HD-E1 the only two buttons on show are the round power switch and the eject button to the right of the disc tray.
A pull down flap covers the bottom half of the fascia. This hides a set of basic playback controls along with a “Mode” switch that can be flicked between 1 and 2. The Mode switch determines whether the player outputs a high definition signal or downscales to standard definition. The switch should be left at position 2 if you’re outputting an HD signal through HDMI or component video, but if you choose to output SD through S-Video or composite, you’ll need to flight the switch to 1. I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would buy a player like the HD-XE1 and output a downscaled image through S-Video or composite, but I guess the option is there if you happen to be insane.
Also hiding behind the front fascia flap are two USB ports, although like on the HD-E1 they’re labelled Extension Ports. Toshiba confirmed that these are most definitely standard USB ports and that they may well be labelled that way in future products. What I’d like to see though, is the ability to playback video from a USB memory key plugged into one of these ports. Considering that Toshiba’s standard DVD players support DivX, I would like to see the same support added to its HD DVD players, with the ability to stream content from USB devices.
Looking at the rear of the HD-XE1 makes its flagship status very clear indeed. There’s a plethora of gold plated connection options, far more connection options than the HD-E1 in fact. Obviously there’s both HDMI and component video outputs for digital and analogue high definition connection. There’s also an Ethernet port for connection to the Internet – this is a mandatory requirement for HD DVD players, so every player, no matter how basic, will have access to online content and be able to download firmware updates from the Web.
The HD-XE1 also sports both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, while the HD-E1 only had optical. More impressive is the fact that the HD-XE1 has a built-in surround sound decoder with 5.1-channel analogue outputs. This means that you can hook the HD-XE1 up to any amplifier with six analogue inputs and get full surround sound from HD DVDs. There’s also stereo analogue audio output on offer, along with composite and S-video outputs. Finally there’s an RS232 control port.
While I’m on the subject of connections I should mention that the HDMI port on the HD-XE1 is version 1.3 compliant, unlike the HD-E1 and the recently announced HD-EP10, both of which still employ HDMI 1.2 ports. HDMI 1.3 brings with it several advantages for the high-end home cinema buff. First up is support for Deep Colour, which allows for much higher colour depth when watching high definition content. Of course you’ll need a compatible TV also with HDMI 1.3 and software that’s encoded with the higher colour depth to actually make use of this feature.
HDMI 1.3 also opens the door to the latest high-end audio CODECs like Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus, although amplifiers that support the new CODECs are still pretty thin on the ground. Although the HD-XE1 has full support for lossless Dolby TrueHD, it still only has core support for DTS-HD. That said I’ve not come across any equipment that’s DTS-HD Master Audio compliant yet, not to mention any software.
Unlike the entry level HD-E1, the HD-XE1 can output the pinnacle of high definition – 1080p. Of course this player can also output 720p and 1080i, and if you really want to, 576p/576i and 480p/480i. The HD-XE1 doesn’t support 1080p 24 yet, but Toshiba informed me that this will be coming in a firmware update due in a couple of months. With the Ethernet connection, you can download and install firmware updates quickly and easily. However, if you don’t have your player connected to the Internet, Toshiba has indicated that customers will be able to request firmware updates on disc and install them that way. Of course, this could also be a good use for those USB ports at the front!
When Toshiba launched its first HD DVD player in the US, it received a fair amount of criticism concerning the startup time – with the HD-A1, you really could go and make a cup of coffee while you waited for it to startup. Thankfully that’s not the case now, but you will still be left twiddling your thumbs for a while when you fire up the HD-XE1. You’re looking at just under 40 seconds from the minute you press the power button, to when the player is ready to accept a disc. Then when you do load a disc, you’ll be treated with another 30 second wait before the movie starts playing. Of course in the great scheme of things, times like 40 seconds and 30 seconds are hardly an eternity, but when you’re sitting there, remote control in hand, waiting for things to get going, the wait feels far longer than it actually is.
While I’m talking about wait times, it’s also worth noting that the player tends to respond quite slowly to commands from the remote control. When navigating a disc menu I often found myself pressing buttons several times before the player responded. This can be a little annoying when you’re trying to access the special features on a disc, although I eventually realised that a longer button press usually did the trick.
Toshiba has a pretty poor track record when it comes to designing remote controls. It seemed that no matter how stylish a Toshiba TV or DVD player looked, it was coupled with an awful, generic looking remote control that spoiled the aesthetic effect. Thankfully that’s not the case with the HD-XE1. Toshiba has helped differentiate its flagship HD DVD player by including a sleek, stylish and very solid remote control. The long, black remote is finished in brushed metal and feels very good in the hand. A touch of any button illuminates the entire unit, making it easy to find the right control when you’ve got the lights turned down. Each of the buttons has a chrome finish too, adding to the high-end, stylish look.
One thing is for certain though, the video produced by the HD-XE1 is definitely worth the wait. I tested the HD-XE1 with a number of different high definition TVs and it managed to bring out the best in all of them. Watching Superman Returns via the Fujitsu P42XHA58 was a totally immersive experience – even though I’m not a huge fan of the movie, I found myself drawn in by the images produced and probably spent more time than I should have “evaluating”. Likewise, the superb V For Vendetta was a revelation on the HD-XE1, showing a level of detail that simply isn’t there in the standard DVD. If it’s true that certain actresses are worried about close ups in high definition destroying the myth of beauty in the movies, it’s fair to say that Natalie Portman has absolutely nothing to worry about in this department.
The ever impressive King Kong HD DVD looked truly impressive when played on the HD-EX1. The lush jungle scenes looked alive, with an exceptional sense of depth creating an almost 3D effect. Unfortunately for Peter Jackson, when I played King Kong on the HD-XE1, the picture was so sharp and clear that all the CGI effects looked terrible. What looked seamless when watching the film on standard DVD now looked obviously fake – I guess that’s the next challenge for film makers, dealing with the high definition age.
As with the HD-E1 before it, the HD-XE1 does a sterling job of upscaling standard definition DVDs. I loaded up the recent re-release of Blade Runner, which is a pretty good print and far cleaner than the original DVD. Blade Runner is a tough test for any player, since almost the entire film is shot in semi darkness, with rain and smoke adding to the grainy, almost dirty effect that Ridley Scott tried hard to create. On the HD-XE1 Blade Runner looked amazing, even in scenes dominated by shadow, detail was clearly resolved. Facial close ups also highlight the improvement over watching proceedings on a standard 576i player, while the bright neon signs that dominate the cityscape are sharp and intrusive. In fact, watching Blade Runner on the HD-XE1 reminded me of when I first compared my Criterion Collection LaserDisc of the film to a VHS copy – the improvement really is that stark. Now, if Scott would just hurry up and release the Final Cut version on HD DVD, this player can really do the movie justice!
Even with a poor source disc the HD-XE1 does a pretty good upscaling job. I fed the player my copy of The Big Blue, which is a fairly poor print, clearly taken from a dirty master and exhibiting some rather nasty MPEG noise in many scenes. Given, even the HD-XE1 couldn’t make this disc look great, but it still offered a significant improvement over non-upscaled playback.
The HD-XE1 has an estimated retail price of £599, but it can already be found on the street for under £500. By comparison, the Panasonic DMP-BD10 Blu-ray player will still cost you close to £900 on the street, and you’re not getting HDMI 1.3 or an Ethernet port! So, it would seem that even Toshiba’s high-end HD DVD player offers great value for money when compared to the competition.
Of course the average consumer is probably still too scared to commit to either of the new formats and I can’t really blame them for that. For the early adopters though, Toshiba is making the decision to go HD now far less painful by offering high-end performance and cutting edge features at an affordable price.
The true home cinema enthusiast has probably been waiting for a player to arrive with HDMI 1.3, 1080p output and an Ethernet port. But what that early adopter probably didn’t expect was for all that to come at such an affordable price. The HD-XE1 is a highly featured HD DVD player that performs superbly. Yes there are a few issues with startup and load times, as well as a lack of responsiveness in menus, but those small niggles can’t take the shine off this player.
With standalone Blu-ray players still pushing £900, the HD-XE1 offers fantastic value for money and makes a pretty convincing argument for the HD DVD format. In fact, if you really want to cover all the bases right now, the best option could be to have both an HD-XE1 and a PlayStation 3 under your TV.
Score in detail
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