The first (and so far, only) entry into Toshiba's “XDE” Upscaling DVD player range has had a pretty contentious launch. After admitting defeat with HD DVD and succumbing to the promotional clout of Blu-ray Disc, Toshiba put on a brave face and announced that, rather than joining the Blu-ray ranks, it would fight back with... an upscaling DVD player.
The announcement, quite frankly, didn't really sit well with anyone. The company appeared to be saying that DVD-Video had always been good enough anyway, causing die-hard HD DVD fans and Blu-ray supporters alike to wonder what the confusion and battles of the last two years had actually been for.
Of course, this is all just unfortunate timing. Today, we're going to put memories of the frankly insane format war behind us, and see just how good an upscaling DVD player Toshiba's XD-E500 is. Will this machine help our 1080p-acquainted eyes tolerate our vast DVD back catalogues once again, or are Toshiba's claims of advanced upscaling nothing more than hot air?
The Toshiba XD-E500 player is an incredibly lightweight, small unit. The back features all of the outputs a modern user will probably need: an HDMI A/V output, separate Optical and Coaxial digital audio outputs, analogue Component video outputs, a Composite video output (ew), analogue stereo sound outputs, and lastly, an RGB SCART A/V output for hookup to standard-def TVs.
When it's powered on, the front “TOSHIBA” logo lights up in a cool, glowing white. If you own a projector and want the darkest room possible, it can of course be turned off in the system menus. The rest of the front display is lit up in green, but the display isn't big enough, so it only ever shows the current chapter, or otherwise truncated messages ("NO" rather than "NO DISC", for example).
DVD's wasted potential
It's been a while since I reviewed a DVD player, and to be frank, I wouldn't be surprised if this is the last review of a DVD player that you read on AVForums. This is probably as good a time as any to take a look back at the format's video performance, and explain exactly why it needs to be treated with such care in order to get halfway decent results from it on a modern display.
Reason One: Resolution.
A lot of readers will know that a “PAL” DVD Video title has a resolution of 720x576 pixels, and an “NTSC” one contains 720x480 – right? Well, sort of. In a misguided attempt to improve the compressibility of video, and to avoid flicker on the interlaced displays of years past, it's become standard practice to apply a low-pass filter to the video source before it hits the encoder. In other words, the highest frequency parts of the image (that is, the single pixel-sized details) are essentially blurred out and redistributed. So, whilst the system works by addressing a 720x576 pixel grid, the effective resolution that can be pulled out isn't this high – unless you're watching one of the handful of titles that hasn't been subjected to this process.
How can player manufacturers deal with this blurry problem? One approach is to do nothing! After all, many consumers consider DVD-Video to be the benchmark of standard definition video, and have never seen just how great SD can look! Another approach is to try and inject some “kick” back into the picture with Sharpening/edge enhancement controls, but most forum readers will be aware that these often do more harm than good, and create glowing halos around high contrast edges.
Different scaling algorithms also have an effect on the perceived clarity of the final result: going from a blurry 720x576 source up to 1920x1080 pixels is quite a challenge, and there are various mathematically different approaches to calculating new pixels - all with a slightly different look.
Reason Two: Compression Quality. The quality of compression on even modern DVD-Video titles is amazing, and I don't mean that as a compliment. Despite certain modern software MPEG-2 encoders being able to produce astonishingly well-encoded images, the industry appears to be married to older hardware-based devices which can transcode directly from an SDI-connected studio tape deck (speed is the name of the game here). Poorer quality encoding results in the compression artefacts that we're all too used to: the well-known “mosaic” effect (a result of aggressive quantisation revealing the edges of MPEG-2's 8x8 blocks) and mosquito noise.
There is almost nothing that can be done about this problem. Even the most expensive artefact-busting processing has great difficulty in doing so, and will almost certainly truncate some genuine detail. Also, consider this: once you've removed the compression artefact, then what? There's still missing detail which has been lost to compression which can't be magically reinvented. The best approach is to try and not make the artefacts any worse, and for any sharpening processing to be on the conservative side.
Reason Three: Incorrectly flagged video. Depending on the authoring and encoding solutions they're using, DVD creators have various chances to “flag” the video content they're working with as either Interlaced or Progressive. This flag is essentially a clue written into the video stream and, depending on the design of the DVD player, it can help it make decisions on how to best process the video. Given my tone in the rest of this article, it probably won't surprise you to hear that the majority of discs do not have the flags set correctly. 9.8 times out of 10, a Region 2 PAL disc containing an entirely Progressive film is encoded and flagged as Interlaced. This not only hampers compression, but also means that a Progressive Scan DVD player has to analyse the video content to determine the correct Deinterlacing mode, rather than simply reading a flag in the video stream and reacting accordingly. Ah, in a perfect world...
(Region 1 NTSC titles are ahead in this area. For technical reasons relating to how 3-2 pulldown is performed upon playback, the majority of big-name film releases are correctly flagged).
Garbage in, garbage out: All of the above doesn't mention the quality of the original source element. For modern Hollywood blockbusters, this won't be an issue, as a high quality downconvert of an HD master made on a modern film scanner will be prepared. But for older releases and niche material, there's nothing to stop a cash-strapped distributor from grabbing the best source they can find, which is often an old Betacam SP cassette made on less-than-ideal telecine equipment in the 1980s or 90s. Never forget the old adage of “garbage in, garbage out” - whilst a Blu-ray release all but necessitates making a new HD master (or at least it damn well ought to – there have been Blu-ray Discs upconverted from SD masters, of course), DVD had no such requirement.
Of course, the above is just a side-note: we can't blame a DVD player for the quality of the original material used to make a disc.
All of this is quite a minefield, and some of the above reasons help shed some light on the vast performance differences that exist between Upscaling DVD players. Armed with this technical understanding, the XD-E500's performance will hopefully make a little more sense.
Before I put the XD-E500 through a round of tests, it'll pay to make sure that it's set up correctly in the first place. Pressing SETUP on the remote control brings up some blue-coloured menus, which are split into five categories. The “Video” tab lets us choose our display device's Aspect Ratio, as well as select from one of four “View Modes”: Fill, Original, Auto Fit, and Pan Scan. “TV System” lets us choose between NTSC, PAL, or in our case, “Auto”, which avoids any juddery 50/60hz conversions and outputs discs in their native refresh rate. The “Video out” can also be set between Interlaced Component Video, RGB SCART, Progressive Component, or HDMI. HDMI output resolution can be set to 480/576p, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p. There's also a “Picture Modes” selection, which allows us to choose from “Sharp”, “Colour”, “Contrast”, or “Off”. Explanations of these modes to follow.
I pulled up the SMPTE RP-133 resolution test pattern (as seen on the PAL version of the Digital Video Essentials DVD) and had a look with all of the player's enhancement modes turned off, in order to see how well the player could resize the 720x576 images from the disc to the 1920x1080 resolution it was outputting. Although perfectly serviceable, the scaling wasn't the clearest I've ever seen, and, compared to my resident Oppo DV-980H, there was subtle glowing around the edges of lines on the chart. Although not terrible, this is not the best start for an apparently revolutionary DVD player.I then pressed the PIC MODE button and selected “SHARP” to engage the Toshiba XDE processing. This resulted in very obvious sharpening being applied, which only served to emphasise the glowing already present in the image. It also brought out quite a bit of mosquito noise around the fine characters in the chart, which is to be expected from any sharpening algorithm (differentiating fine detail from fine artefacts is no walk in the park). Remember, though, that although this test gives some insight into what's going on behind the scenes, it isn't going to be directly representative of what most DVDs actually look like. Why? Scroll back up to my “Resolution” explanation above. The Resolution test pattern hasn't been low-pass filtered (if it had, it would be useless as a Resolution test pattern, because the filtering process kills resolution!) So, whilst Toshiba's sharpening process may be excessive on such finely detailed pattern, it may still impress when it's faced with lower grade, run-of-the-mill DVD footage.
Another interesting side-note: when I engaged the “Sharp” mode, the player didn't transition from soft to sharpened straight away. I could see the player applying more and more sharpening over a period of about one second, before settling on what appears to be its maximum strength. It appears, then, that the XDE circuitry allows for fine-tuning of the Sharpening, even although we're not given any such control: it's all or nothing.
Since Progressive/Upscaling DVD players can't simply rely on flags stored in the video stream to determine whether the content is Interlaced or Progressive (since just about everything is flagged as Interlaced regardless), the capability of the player to detect the correct type is critical in pulling the best quality out of DVD titles.
When I ran the PAL version of the Silicon Optix HQV test disc on the XD-E500, the player correctly deinterlaced the 2:2 “Telecine A” sequence after about two seconds, which is pretty good. What's less good is the performance on real-world content, which revealed the whole story: while the single-scene test pattern allowed the XD-E500 to pass the test, it appears that the player performs cadence detection whenever it detects a scene cut, and doesn't always get things right. So, fast action scenes, like the San Francisco car chase in “The Rock”, could throw the player into momentary jagginess. This was rare, though – the majority of discs I tried locked, and then stayed locked.
Even if we don't have sizeable Region 1 collections, it's likely that most of us will have at least one or two American NTSC discs in our collection. The NTSC system has a bucketload of different film cadences to compensate for, and compensate the XD-E500 does. Every single one of the cadence tests on the NTSC HQV disc passed, including the most common 3-2 test. (The Film Detail “racecar” test clip also locked on in just under half a second, which is very impressive). To say that this is exceptional on a machine this cheap is putting it lightly: suddenly, the glowing reviews of this machine coming from across the Atlantic begin to make a lot of sense.
This is all well and good for Progressive/Film content, but in the case of Video material, missing picture information has to be created for high quality playback on Progressive devices like flat-panel HDTVs and projectors. Done well, this process can be quite convincing, but done badly, it can leave obvious jaggies whenever anything moves. To test this, we use a mixture of real video content as well as the “Diagonal Filter Test” on the HQV disc. The XD-E500 came out shining here: its diagonal filtering is remarkably good, especially for such a cheap player.
Real world testing
I dug deep back into my DVD collection past the piles of Blu-coloured cases and wracked my brains, trying to think what titles on the format didn't look disappointing. Apologies again for putting such a negative slant on the format, but from being involved in the encoding and authoring stages on some niche titles late into its life, I've always been disappointed that the output of the big-name studios has always been sub-optimal in at least one way.
The R2 UK version of Vanilla Sky is a good example of why we shouldn't rely on test patterns alone to see what a sharpening algorithm is doing. Whilst the sharpening was excessive on unadulterated video, using the “SHARP” mode on soft, consumer-grade standard definition video did inject some extra kick back into the image. Of course, sitting further back from the screen to help get away from the emphasised compression artefacts helped, as well.
I was impressed, too, by the seamless layer break - whilst other players will stumble for a second at the layer break position on a dual-layer disc, the XD-E500 breezed by and didn't hiccup for even a second. Very impressive.
I pulled out the Region 1 extended edition of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring next. At the time of this set's release, the insane rumour that it contained “near HD” levels of detail began circulating, which is quite surprising given that it's on the far less detailed side of the DVD-Video scale. Like much of New Line Home Entertainment's output, LotR is, and always has been incredibly soft – a fact not helped by the excessive number of audio commentaries and mixes on the disc (seven audio tracks on a dual-layer DVD). I can only imagine that rave reports of picture quality were a result of confusing high quality cinematography with high quality encoding – this, or the disbelief that a film of its stature could look anything other than outstanding, a very naïve assumption. The XD-E500's “SHARP” mode barely makes a difference here – detail is pushed back so far back into the middle frequencies on this disc, meaning there is almost nothing for Toshiba's processing to act upon.
The other modes, COLOUR and CONTRAST, are counter-productive from our viewpoint, as we want to accurately reproduce the disc's contents. (Sharpening is the exception to the rule, as we're trying to compensate for lost detail, rather than interfere with the cinematographer's colours and lighting). Both of these modes are combined with the Sharpening algorithm, by the way – so “COLOUR+SHARP” and “CONTRAST+SHARP” would be better descriptions.
Since I had an NTSC disc in, I looked for the option to enable 24p output (it was outputting at 60hz, so 3-2 judder was present). Well, guess what – that option is missing from the European XD-E500. Presumably, Toshiba's European division assumed none of us over here would ever watch US discs which would benefit from it. The “24p” LED on the front of the player is even still present on the European version – but no matter how hard you try, it won't light up. What a missed opportunity.
One other problem cropped up during the review, though, and that problem is with 4:3 content. This player ignores the aspect ratio of material flagged as 4:3 and stretches it to fill the 16:9 HDTV frame, rather than adding side-bars. So, get ready to watch 1990s TV shows and pre-1950s movies stretched, if your HD display is one which doesn't allow you to correct for this issue.
Toshiba XD-E500 Upscaling DVD Player
The dust has settled, the HD disc format war is gone, and we can see the XD-E500 for what it really is: a good value, imperfect DVD player that's had a lot of weight piled onto its shoulders due to unfortunate timing. This is absolutely not a replacement for HD DVD, nor is it a replacement for Blu-ray. The only question left is whether or not it can still find an audience. Anyone who cares about AV presentation quality will hopefully have bought a Blu-ray Disc player by now, so justifying another DVD player may be counter-productive, especially when you consider that perfectly serviceable BD players from last year - most of which do at least a good job of DVD playback - can be had for a little over £100. With that said, the machine is available for around £84 on Amazon.co.uk, and the fact that it can be made multi-region so easily is definitely a selling point.
The XD-E500 is certainly not a shoddy attempt at building a DVD player, even if it does have some questionable features (the Colour and Contrast modes). Certainly, it's Sharpening feature does a credible job of compensating for the shoddy mastering that became commonplace on DVD. I just hope that Toshiba steps forward and starts making real high-def disc players again: I'm sure there are a lot of HD DVD owners who'd love to buy a Toshiba Blu-ray machine.
- NTSC Film deinterlacing is basically bullet-proof
- PAL Film deinterlacing is still better than most comparatively priced players, but imperfect
- Video deinterlacing is great, too
- XDE "Sharp" mode can help make some discs more tolerable on HD displays, assuming they've not been too badly filtered to start with
- Seamless layer break
- Can be made region free easily (Eject, type 24039609, close tray, restart player)
- Scaling isn't as clear as the best SD DVD players (although most DVD content won't really reveal this limitation)
- 4:3 content appears stretched and distorted, unless you can correct for this on your TV
- PAL Film (2-2) cadence detection isn't 100% reliable, so jaggies can pop up on PAL film material
- More control should be given over Sharpening
- 24p output is missing from the European model - annoying for those of us with NTSC discs
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