DACs

Theta Generation VIII Series 2 Digital-to-Analog Converter/Preamp

ARTICLE INDEX

Future Upgrades to the Gen. VIII and the Theta Line

In the dialogue that follows, Reich shares exciting information about new upgrades to the Theta line:

JVS: What about more upgrades to the Gen. VIII? Are we talking another year before they're issued?

DR: There could be future upgrades, because the technology is changing so quickly.

What prompted the Series 2 upgrade were the new and better DACs that came along. It wasn't that long after the initial Gen. VIII was released that Kerstetter began working on the Series 2 revision. He worked on many different versions, tweaking it constantly until finally we were able to release it earlier this year. Perhaps it could have come out somewhat sooner, but the original Gen. VIII was doing so well that we didn't feel the need to rush the new one to market.

There isn't anything in the works for the Gen. VIII that we're trying to achieve at this moment. Most of our efforts are being concentrated on upgrading the Casablanca. There are things we've talked about that we could perhaps do one day, but they're not on the priority list right now.

JVS: Can the Gen. VIII handle 24/176.4 and 24/192 files?

DR: No, only because it's limited by a receiver chip that's on its own little board. That's one of the things we're looking at changing, which would take it up to 176.4 and 192.

JVS: You're the company that pioneered separates, yet you no longer have a separate transport in your line to mate with the Gen. VIII.

DR: We're working with a few OEM manufacturers who themselves are working on blu-ray players. We've toyed a lot with possibly coming out with another DVD player to fill the hole that the Compli universal player left, or perhaps issuing a CD-only player. But our marketing research could not justify it

Target prices appear to be dropping in order to do significant sales. So for us, the next transport would be an all-around player with blu-ray. The ones we're waiting for are not quite ready. It would do blu-ray backwards to anything and everything else that DVD players have always done. That includes SACD.

JVS: But you don't have a DAC that enables you to do SACD.

DR: Correct. The player would provide an analog output that would go to a multi-channel preamp.

JVS: This suggests that Theta might eventually issue a universal player that could play SACDs. But given the price range, would that SACD player be able to compete with the sound quality you can currently get from bluebook CD through the Gen. VIII Series 2? That was the problem you had several years ago, when you were trying to develop an SACD upgrade for the original Gen. VIII. When you used the now-discontinued Compli as a transport, and connected it to the Gen. VIII via your proprietary megalinque, well-recorded bluebook CDs sounded so good that it was hard to get SACDs to sound significantly better.

DR: That's certainly an issue. Things are so market driven these days that it makes it difficult for the small manufacturer. I'll give you an example. There was one large company that deals with very high-tech stuff. We were going along with them, working on a blu-ray player platform until they asked how many tens of thousands of units we would take each month. So it's difficult, and getting harder. We have to keep up with the technology, but there aren't a lot of companies that are very accommodating these days to ones who want to push the edge of the art. But we're still trying.

Obviously, we don't want to just repackage a cheap player. It's not something we can do.

JVS: Would a new multi-format player offer a proprietary megalinque from your new transport to the Gen. VIII, as you once intended to provide via the discontinued Compli, so that you'd get better sound than would an aftermarket digital cable?

DR: I don't think so.

JVS: Do you have any way of installing a USB input on the Gen. VIII?

DR: It's one of the things we're looking at, but it's a ways away.

JVS: How about firewire and HDMI?

DR: We have no plans for either on the Gen. VIII. When the HDMI project is complete on the Casablanca, however, we will have a new digital output that will provide a solution for Gen. VIII owners. For Gen. VIII owners who want to go the whole way, they could use four digital outputs into four Gen. VIIIs for 7.1 high-def. The sound will be pretty spectacular.

JVS: I'm sure it will be. But poor slobs like me, with only a single Gen. VIII Series 2 to our name, still won't have a way to get two-channel sound from the new transport that would at least equal if not certainly surpass the sound you were able to get from the Compli/Gen. VIII combo connected via the megalinque.

How far along are you with the Casablanca upgrade?

DR: We're neck deep in it right now. I've been laying out new boards that our digital design team is coming up with one after the other. It's going to be packed full of new boards, and it will be pretty spectacular. I'm not exactly sure when it will be ready, but we're going full speed on it as our main focus.

At the same time, since for me working on amps is a pleasure, I have found some time to work on our amps. We will have the Dreadnaught III in production by or shortly after CES. It's very exciting. I've relayed out the audio card. I expect the technology we're putting into the Dreadnaught III will work its way into the other models.

We're using a new output device, which is really nice because semi-conductor companies don't focus very much on analog output devices these days. But Motorola has. They've taken an already great-sounding, existing output device, redone its die chip, and added a diode that allows you to track your bias incredibly accurately. It's enabled me to completely revise the bias circuit in the Dreadnaught. It actually simplifies the circuit so that your audio path is more straightforward and your bias tracking is spot on. It's sounding great.

The Dreadnaught is a modular amp that can be configured for anywhere from one to ten channels. It's rated at 225w with the single-channel module, has a basic price of $4,500 for a two-channel 225w model, and costs extra for each additional module. 225w times five is the most common basic configuration, and costs $8,875. There's also a lower power two-channel stereo model that's 1002 and costs $4,625. A popular 7.1 surround configuration includes three 225w modules and four 100w modules; it costs $9,375.

Theta Generation VIII Series 2 Digital-to-Analog Converter/Preamp
The Sound of the Gen. VIII Series 2

When I initially asked the folks at Theta what difference the Series 2 upgrade would make, they said something like, "It takes everything you like about the sound of the Gen. VIII and makes it a whole lot better." Having now lived with the upgrade for a good six months, I heartily concur.

The difference between before and after is striking. Shortly before the Series 2 upgrade was released, I hosted a Bay Area Audiophile Society (BAAS) demo at Casa Bellecci-Serinus of Reference Recordings' new high-resolution HRx discs. When Prof. Keith O. Johnson, Marcia Martin, Tim Marutani, and their RR entourage came to set up several days in advance, we had to decide which DAC to use. While I of course offered my original Gen. VIII, Keith brought along as an alternative the new Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha DAC (BADA DAC), which was designed by the same team he worked with at Pacific Microsonics.

When we compared the two machines, there was no question that the Alpha DAC produced more bass. This surprised me, because Theta has always been prized for the strength and quality of its bass.

"The Gen. VIII uses old technology," Johnson told me. "The BADA DAC has a much newer DAC chip."

Not long after I installed the Series 2 upgrade, BAAS hosted a four-DAC comparison session (aka "The Great DACD Shootout of 2008") at my place. The DACs were the Theta Gen. VIII Series 2, BADA DAC, Weiss Medea, and Bel Canto DAC-III. Most present thought that the bass of the Gen. VIII Series 2 at least equaled if not surpassed that from the BADA DAC. That's how much of an improvement in bass delivery the Series 2 upgrade has made.

But that's not the only improvement. Immediately after installing and breaking in the upgrade for 100 hours, I noticed increased depth, deeper colors, and a more realistic (lifelike) presentation. The soundstage was bigger, more involving, more alive, and certainly more dynamic. Not only did percussion have more weight, it also sounded louder on initial impact, with greater slam.

Again and again, I'd play familiar orchestral recordings, and delight in the fact that timpani thwacks that had previously sounded unduly submerged and compressed now emerged with for more realistic visceral and emotional impact. Whether listening to the Bobo Stenson jazz trio, mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing Handel with orchestra, Brazilian vocalist Rosa Passos and bassist Ron Carter perform bossa nova, or a string quartet, I found myself far more deeply drawn into the music. The presentation sounded several major steps closer to the real thing.

One way to clarify the extent to which the upgrade has improved the sound of the Gen. VIII Series 2 is to return to the four-DAC comparison mentioned above, and reference comparison with the Bel Canto DAC-III ($2,500). The latter is a fine product. But whether playing the opening of Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony (hybrid SACD, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons cond.), Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances (24/88.2 and 16/44 versions, Reference Recordings), Jane Selkye & Chris Kee: "Slow Day" (hybrid SACD, Blue Coast Collection), Dave Matthews Band: "All Along the Watchtower" (Live at Red Rocks), or Patricia Barber: "Alfie" (not yet published 24/88.2 remastering by Paul Stubblebine), the Theta Gen. VIII Series 2's sound was noticeably more transparent, colorful, and three-dimensional (especially on the high resolution tracks). It simply had more life to it.

To these ears, the Bel Canto sounded like an excellent hi-fi product. The new Theta went beyond hi-fi; it consistently drew me in and made music. With the Bel Canto, I observed. With the Theta, I became deeply involved. To me, that explains the large price difference between the two.

Of course, I have not heard all the DAC competition out there. Though far more costly products from dcs have sometimes left me cold when playing standard CD, I have yet to hear them in my reference system, let alone pit them against the Theta Gen. VIII Series 2. Nor have I tried players from Esoteric, the upgrade mods to same offered by Alex Peychev and others, Wadia, or the host of newer DACs and CD players that are receiving consistently excellent reviews.

I did hear the Weiss Medea as part of the DAC shootout, and preferred the Theta. As for the much-vaunted Benchmark DAC1 USB, which I own, the Theta bests it in every way, especially in the quality of their preamp sections. The Theta's preamp is far more transparent, colorful, and lifelike. I'm constantly astounded by reviews that suggest the Benchmark DAC1 USB is as good as it gets. While I derive great pleasure from it on my upstairs computer system – it is astoundingly good at its price point, and deserves its Class A ratings – the far more costly Theta Gen. VIII Series 2 is a superior product.

The DAC separate I have heard that most gives the Gen. VIII Series 2 a run for the money is the Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha DAC. In the brief head-to-head comparisons we conducted during the two DAC comparison sessions, I was mightily impressed with the width of the BADA DAC's soundstage, the warmth and smoothness of its highs, and the realism of its presentation. Whether its extra smoothness on high-pitched soundsis a sign of softness, or indication of less artificial digital edge, I cannot say for certain without listening again for an extended period of time on an even more revealing set of speakers. If I can again obtain a BADA DAC, I hope to perform the comparison after a new set of full-range speakers arrives at Casa Bellecci-Serinus for review.

Regardless, the BADA DAC is not a full-functioning preamp. It lacks the Theta's two sets of inputs (one coaxial, the other XLR) for tuners and other devices. It thus will not suit audiophiles who want to run other components through their DAC without investing in a separate outboard preamp and additional cables

In addition, inserting an additional component and cables into the chain often degrades sound and lessens transparency. The Theta enables you to entirely eliminate a separate preamp. With one less component in the chain, and one less set of interconnects and power cables and supports to purchase, you not only achieve greater transparency, but also save a lot of money. That helps justify the Theta's greater cost.

On the plus side, the BADA DAC does have its own volume control (as do the Theta and Benchmark), which allows you to eliminate an outboard preamp if there are no other components (e.g. a tuner or blu-ray player) that you wish to connect. It also decodes high-resolution 176.4 and 192 kbps files, which the Theta cannot do short of another upgrade that could be a year or more away. Until the Theta can process files up to 192 kbps, and is able to accept USB and/or firewire inputs, it will not be fully competitive with newer, high-quality DACs that are more computer-friendly.