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Product Review
 

Theta Generation VIII DAC/Preamplifier

Part II

March, 2003

Jason Victor Serinus

 

The Sound

The first thing that struck me about the Thetaís sound - the thing that continues to strike me every time I listen to it - is the transparency and depth of its soundstage and the silence of presentation. The usual reference to a blacker black does not suffice; the background is so silent, and the colors so vivid, that I hear more noise from air conditioning in live concert situations than I do from the Gen. VIII. This unit does an extraordinary job of getting out of the way of the music.

Even non-audiophiles with indisputably lousy sound systems - people like the friend who dropped over today to listen to her old Chanticleer and brand new Indigo Girls CDs and who prefaced her fledgling audiophile exploration by saying ďIím sure my ears are nowhere near as able to discern things as yoursĒ - comment on how clear the system sounds. To quote that friend, ďMy system is such much noisier than yours.Ē If an anything-but-audiophile can recognize the difference between noise (with its concomitant dulling of colors and blurring of detail) and silence, Secrets listeners certainly can.

Up until a month ago, David resisted listening to recorded music chez Serinus. If I put something on, he chose to sit on the floor, complaining that the futon hurt his back and that he had a short attention span. When I noted that his ears were positioned well below the line of the tweeters, and that he was missing all the system had to offer, he shrugged his shoulders as if to say ďso what.Ē He didnít even seem to mind listening to music lying on the floor with only one ear turned toward the speakers, and his head far more to one side of the soundstage than the other. In fact, I could often only get him to listen to music late at night, when the reality of neighbors led me to turn the volume down considerably. Most of the time, David preferred to watch DVDs on my 18 year old 19Ē Quasar TV, and to disregard sound quality.

People who react this way usually donít care to listen to music for any length of time. But David in fact received his BA in music, and is a tenor currently preparing for a vocal competition. He loves attending live concerts, and never complains about the seats, even in church pews.

As Bob Dylan has said, "It doesnít take a weatherman to see which way the wind blows." Itís not music David resisted; it was the sound of my system.

All that has changed since the arrival of the Gen. VIII. David has now sat nearly motionless on the futon through two one hour plus listening sessions without complaining in the least about his back. Instead he has begun telling people how incredible the system is. He looks forward to listening more. What a difference a DAC makes.

Last night we attended a San Francisco Symphony performance that included John Adamsí My Father Knew Charles Ives and Rimsky-Korakovís Scheherazade. We are talking two very different sonic tours de force that demand a large orchestra led by a conductor who revels in highlighting the contrasting colors of instruments. We were lucky enough to sit in seats K 101 and 102 in premium orchestra, which is pretty close to ideal. The sound was glorious: transparent, full, and at times nearly overwhelming in size, volume and intensity.

My system is incapable of producing a body of sound of similar size and weight. Huge speakers in the $100,000 plus range, a pair of 400W monoblocks, and a room far bigger than my 14.5 x 17 living room would certainly help approach such a level of sonic splendor. Nonetheless, what I do hear when I just played Valery Gergievís 2002 recording of Scheherazade (Decca) and Eiji Oueís twice Golden Eared Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances (Reference Recordings) through the Gen. VIII approaches the transparency and color I heard in Davies Symphony Hall.

This brings us to the fullness of the Thetaís bass, the richness of its midrange and the clarity of its highs. As I listen to R-Kís huge orchestral outpouring, nothing seems muddy or congealed. Iím well aware that Iím listening to a recording in a less than ideal listening room, but I am satisfied nonetheless.

I have so far spent many hours pulling out my venerated test CDs and listening anew. This is a process I will continue to eagerly pursue over the next several months. I marvel at how easily I can hear the texture of the guitar plucks on Terry Evansí "Puttin It Down", how full the bass is, and how clearly I now hear the slight hoarseness on his voice. The space between instruments and the size and depth of the soundstage continually pull me deeper into the music. I love the extra fullness on Rachmaninoffís Symphonic Dances, the newfound beauty of Karina Gauvinís voice on her Songs of the Auvergne. Iím thrilled that, thanks to Thetaís state-of-the-art technology, I can now fully appreciate the sonic advantages of the 24-bit digital output on my cheapo DVD-Video player.

I recently borrowed my friendís latest Indigo Girls CD, All That We Let In. While it ainít gonna' win any engineering awards - the voices sound distinctly miked and the bass could be clearer - I nonetheless marvel at the depth of the drums as compared to the forward sound of the guitar. I hear the same remarkable sense of depth on the CD layer of Michael Tilson Thomasí new Mahler Symphony No. 4 and Gergievís Scheherazade. I know this remarkable sense of depth is in part a product of the Power Plantís P-1 setting. But when I played the Theta Gen. V with the Power Plant having the same P-1 setting, I never heard anything approaching the Gen. VIII's engaging sense of depth and three-dimensionality.

The Gen. VIIIís huge dynamic range initially blew me away. You may find yourself resetting your volume level if you begin listening to soft passages that suddenly transition to triple fortissimo. Thankfully, because the unit is so quiet, soft passages sound musical, full and colorful even at low volume. But do be prepared to be astounded. It took me a few days to find the right volume level for each of my reference recordings, recordings I had previously played at identical volume levels. Shades of Gertrude Stein, there is so much more there there.

I have switched back and forth between Thetaís proprietary ďJitter JailĒ and its alternative built-in reclocking technology numerous times. There is no question that I prefer the Jitter Jail on CD playback. What is most marked, to these ears, is what it does to highs. Cymbals and triangles are more lifelike, with less digital ďcrispnessĒ. Violins are especially wonderful. I can't use the Jitter Jail option with my DVD-V player - if I select Jitter Jail, I can't hear anything from the DVD player. However, selecting reclocking instead still makes DVDs sound light years ahead of how they sounded through the Theta Gen. V.

The one review I have so far read of the Gen. VIII was written by a man who these days spends most of his time listening to multi-channel recordings because he finds them far more satisfying than two-channel. With the Gen. VIII, however, he found two-channel listening so compelling that he felt no pressing need to return to multi-channel. I donít have multi-channel chez Serinus, so I canít comment on this personally. But when a veteran reviewer such as Kalman Rubinson makes such a statement, it is well worth entertaining.

As a DAC/Preamp

Before I received the Gen. VIII, the sound of its built-in preamp was initially a cause for concern. I had heard several digital preamps, ranging from the preamp in the little $845 Benchmark DAC preamp (see review in archives) to several stand-alone digital preamps costing many thousands of dollars. In every case, I had bemoaned their lack of midrange warmth and alteration of true timbre. In plain terms, the digital preamps I had heard up until February 13, 2004 exemplified the worst aspects of solid state gear; regardless of slam or bam, they did not sound very good at all. I thus questioned if Theta could design a digital DAC preamp that would sound as neutral, transparent, warm, airy and musically satisfying as the best tube and/or solid-state analogue preamps I have so far heard chez Serinus.

I am happy to report that the answer is yes. I have so far tried the solid-state Reflection Audio OM1-Quantum preamp and the tube Bruce Moore Companion III preamp with the Gen. VIII. As much as I like the Reflection Audio OM1-Quantum, so far the best stand-alone preamp Iíve heard in my system, I find that, when connected to the Gen. VIII and powered from the wall as opposed to its optional battery pack, it cannot approach the transparency of immediacy of the one piece Gen. VIII DAC preamp. The same holds true for the Companion III. (Before long Iíll be trying the Manley 300B, Wyetech Pearl, Edge and Messenger preamps as well).

I can only surmise that the reason these preamps come up second best to the one-piece Theta DAC preamp is that they introduce another piece of equipment, pair of interconnects, and power cable to the system, bringing with them noise, distortion, RF etc. As fine as the OM1-Quantum may be, it muddies up the sound of the Gen. VIIIís DAC. When Kal Rubinson comments in his review that the sound of the Gen. VIIIís built-in preamp surpasses all but the finest external preamps he has heard, he is probably referring to preamps that cost well over $10,000. When one of those comes my way for review, Iíll be sure to let you know how it mates with the Gen. VIII. Until then, methinks the Gen. VIII DAC preamp will suit me just fine.

SACD, DVD-A, and Multi-Channel

The Gen. VIIIís chip is already capable of decoding DVD-A and SACD signals. Theta had initially hoped that a universal SACD protocol would be arrived at before the Gen. VIIIís release that would enable the company to include a standard interface on the unit to connect with outboard SACD, DVD-A, and universal transports. Since no universal SACD standard yet exists, and no implementation date has been set, Theta is currently developing a proprietary DVD-A/SACD interface between its own universal transport, the Compli, and the Gen. VIII that will allow for DVD-A and SACD playback.

In June 2004 at the earliest, Theta plans to offer board additions to the Theta Compli and Gen. VIII - additions that can be installed quickly at Thetaís factory - that combined with software downloads to the Gen. VIII will transmit and decode DVD-A and SACD signals via a proprietary link. At that time, the Gen. VIII will play SACD as well as DVD-A in two-channel mode. Unless an owner desires multi-channel SACD and DVD-A playback, in which case stringing together a number of Gen. VIIIs with a Theta Casablanca or Casa Nova is necessary, this will eliminate the need for a separate stand-alone SACD, DVD-A, or universal player.

Given the Gen. VIIIís extraordinary performance with two-channel CD, I can only assume that it will excel with DVD-A and SACD. At the time the technology is available, I will obtain an upgraded Compli, send the Gen. VIII back for upgrading, and review the comboís DVD-A and SACD playback.

Meanwhile, I hope to review one-piece universal players as well as SACD units from other manufacturers. Iím especially eager to hear how their two-channel DVD-A and SACD sound compares to the Gen. VIII playing redbook CDs. I wonder if I can obtain two-channel SACD playback on the same level as Iím now experiencing with redbook CDs from anything less than a top-of-the-line, well over $10,000 SACD or universal player.

An alternative to obtaining a new SACD player, one that many audiophiles entertain, is to obtain either an older Sony 777-ES or Philips 1000 and heavily modify it. (These units reportedly contain better transports than those in the latest Sony multi-channel SACD players). That could end up costing a good $3500 with upgrades and still not guarantee sound superior to what Theta plans to offer later in 2004. How will the Theta on SACD compare to the upgraded Philips 1000/Meitner SACD DAC that has been so highly praised by other reviewers (and which Iíve been told doesnít do a super job with redbook CDs). Only time will tell.

Conclusions

Is the Theta Generation VIII the ideal DAC preamp? Not quite. As fabulous as its sound may be, there are a few things that would render it even more user-friendly.

I wish the Gen. VIIIís preamp had at least one more set of analogue inputs. As it is, I can only connect both my tuner and turntable to it because my tuner has single-ended outputs while the Classť phono preamp has balanced outputs. To play tapes or anything else through the Gen. VIII. Iíve got to disconnect the tuner and switch cables. And, as we all know, many brands of audiophile cables do not like to be switched around. They take awhile to settle in, and their connectors quickly corrode when exposed to air. That means another round of cleaning plus a long wait for optimal sound. Hardly the same as flipping a switch. Boo.

Secondly, thereís no tape loop for recording and playback. Oneís only choice for playback through your speakers while recording is to simultaneously employ both the Thetaís single-ended and balanced outputs. One output would go to the recorder and the other to the amp. But that only works if one of the devices can accept balanced inputs and the other can accepted single-ended.

In my particular case, neither recorder nor amp accepts balanced inputs. This means that if I want to listen to music through my speakers while simultaneously recording it, I have no choice but to either (a) use balanced interconnects from the Theta to my amp
equipped with XLR to RCA adapters; (b) drive the amp from my ancient Nakamichi tape deck's headphone jack output, again using adapters; or (c) forego use of my speakers and listen through the tape deck's headphone output. All three options compromise sound quality.

Thirdly, when used with an external preamp, unless you turn the Thetaís volume up very high (which in turn can overload the external preamp), the external preampís attenuator(s) must be turned way up, much higher than I had to set them with the Gen. V. This can introduce noise, especially with tube equipment. I expect this isnít a problem if you order the Gen. VIII with fixed output volume, but then youíre pretty much tied to an external preamp unless you send the Gen. VIII back to the factory and ask them to switch back to adjustable volume output.

With those gripes out of the way, there is only one thing to say: The Theta Generation VIII DAC preamp is the finest unit of its kind I have heard chez Serinus. It takes my listening experience one giant step closer to the real thing than any other DAC, preamp, or one-piece DAC/preamp I have used. The Gen. VIII is so excellent that you can easily hear what a change in amplifier, interconnect, power cable, or even vibration support makes to the sound. That in one sense may be a reviewerís dream. But it also creates a music loverís paradise. And love is what I feel when I play music through the Gen. VIII.



- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2004 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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