Theta Data universal disc transport Page 2

Finally, the videodisc medium is much more demanding on the playback system than the CD format. Unlike CD, the data stored on a videodisc result in an analog video signal, without the benefit of error correction. Slight changes in the signal reflected from the disc caused by player imperfections will show up as poor video quality. These factors force videodisc players to perform to a much higher standard than their CD-only cousins.

All this seems good in theory, but how does the Data sound as a CD transport in a demanding high-end audio system?

I might as well come clean up front and avoid any ambiguity: the Theta Data is the best CD transport I've heard—and by a wide margin. The Data is not only the best transport I've auditioned, but it brings digital playback one step closer to the elusive goal of mimicking analog replay.

What makes the Data special is its ability to render an analog-like ease to the presentation. The forwardness and tension of lesser transports were contrasted with the Data's smoothness, liquidity, and musicality. In fact, the Data's sound can be summed up in one word: musical. It invited me into the music with a laid-back comfort and relaxation reminiscent of good analog. In this regard, it was very similar to the extraordinary Esoteric P-2—but clearly a notch above the $4000 reference transport.

Specifically, the Data has an uncanny ability to present natural instrumental and vocal timbres. The glare and hardness associated with digital playback were significantly reduced with the Data. There was a velvety smoothness to instrumental textures not previously heard from digital playback. Timbres just sounded right, infused with their natural harmonic richness, yet lacking the brittle edge of overly emphasized upper harmonics so common to digital playback. The mids in particular had a sense of ease and liquidity rivaled only by analog. The Steinway D on Stereophile's Intermezzo CD (STPH003-2) had a warmth and lushness not heard from other transports.

The treble was equally impressive. Of all the transports I've auditioned, the Data presented the least offensive top-octave reproduction. Again, the word "smooth" aptly describes the Data. The treble was devoid of hash and grain, instead presenting high-frequency–rich instruments with their natural tonal balance and delicacy intact. Cymbals had much less of that spittiness associated with digital, instead having a rich texture. Most recordings, in my opinion, have too much treble energy. This situation is exacerbated by digital's tendency to make the treble sound hashy. With the Data, however, a more natural rendering was restored to high frequencies. In every comparison, the Data had a softer, more lifelike treble presentation.

Don't be misled by this description into thinking the Data sounded overly soft and romantic at the expense of detail and liveliness—far from it. In fact, the Data's lack of unnatural artifacts allowed much more detail and nuance to emerge. The absence of detail-obscuring grain in the mids and treble allowed the finely woven inner detail of the instrumental or vocal fabric to suddenly become immediate and palpable. Direct A/B comparisons with other transports revealed just how much better the Data was in this regard. A wealth of nuance and subtlety returned to the music, making the musical presentation through the other transports somewhat uninvolving. In addition, long-term, single-presentation listening was more involving through the Data; I had the feeling that there was just more music there.

There is one other remarkable characteristic of the Data—its spectacular presentation of soundstage. In many ways, the Data's soundstage presentation and its spatial characteristics were very similar to Theta's digital processors: big, spacious, three-dimensional, and precisely focused. I found it fascinating that a designer could shape the sound of a transport to reflect his sonic priorities—priorities evinced by the family resemblance of Mike Moffat's previous creations. The Data threw a sense of size and space that was truly remarkable. Listen how naturally miked recordings—Pictures at an Exhibition (Dorian DOR-90117), Intermezzo (Stereophile STPH003-2), and Three-Way Mirror (Reference Recordings RR-24CD)—seem to make the listening room's walls vanish, to be replaced by the recording site's spatial characteristics. Switching to the Data made the soundstage bloom, creating a convincing feeling of size and space.

In addition, there was superb resolution of subtle spatial cues. The nuances that greatly add to a feeling of instruments existing in the room were bountiful through the Data. The presentation was wide and deep, maintaining a sense of width toward the soundstage rear. All these characteristics added up to a sense of life, air, and vibrancy—the antithesis of cardboard sterility.

What don't I like about the Data? I'm hard pressed to find any criticisms of its musical presentation—except in relation to analog. It outperformed every transport previously audition in virtually every area. The Esoteric P-2 had a similar analog-like ease, the Meridian 602's soundstage depth was very close to the Data's, but for overall musicality, no other transport approached the Data for sheer enjoyment of the music. It's that good.

Incidentally, the Data works well as a videodisc player. I experienced one slight glitch, however: a slight flashing phenomenon on the TV monitor after the Data had been playing for a few hours.

Finally, this review is incomplete in two respects. First, Theta was unable to get me an AT&T glass fiber-optical interface in time for this review. How much better does the Data sound with glass fiber? Is it worth $400 more?

Second, I didn't have a standard videodisc player with a digital audio output on hand to compare to the Data and to other CD-only transports. It's possible that many of the Data's musical characteristics are inherent in all videodisc players. I'll have a follow-up in the next issue to resolve these important questions.

The Theta Data redefines what we can expect from a CD transport. It is a sonic quantum leap above any transport near its price range, in my opinion even exceeding the performance of the $4000 reference Esoteric P-2. In addition, it made a bigger difference to my system's overall musicality than I have previously experienced with CD transports.

What the Data does well it does extraordinarily, presenting an unrivaled smoothness and liquidity to instrumental textures, a remarkable freedom from hash and grain, and throwing a huge sense of transparent space before the listener.

My only complaint is that the Data is big, clunky, slow, and generally not as user-friendly as other transports. The remote is similarly clumsy, with so many identically sized and colored buttons, many of them having nothing to do with CD playback. This is a small price to pay, however, for the Data's musical qualities.

In short, the $2400 Theta Data is an unprecedented bargain. It is clearly at the top of the transports I've auditioned. The fact that it costs significantly less than many high-end transports is exciting; more music lovers can realize the benefits of a Class A CD transport in their systems.

I have previously advised readers to put most of their digital budget into a digital processor and not the transport. The Data, however, provides such a high level of performance for such a reasonable price that it should be considered by audiophiles on any budget.

Theta Digital/ATI
1749 Chapin Road
Montebello, CA 90640
(323) 278-0001

DeeCee3's picture

Was reading this article recently
And was wondering if this is the one and the same?
Food for thought?

John Atkinson's picture
DeeCee3 wrote:
Was reading this article recently And was wondering if this is the one and the same?

Indeed it is. But the Lampizator article gives the impression that Stereophile didn't mention the Theta's provenance. However, from the 1991 text: "The Data is based on a Philips CDV-400, a so-called "combination" player that accepts a variety of optical disc formats." And "what makes the Data different from a normal videodisc player is the addition of a small printed circuit board attached to the rear panel near the digital output jack."

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

doak's picture

I purchased one (pre-owned) way back when. When I got wind of what was going on I sold it off and purchased the Phillips model that was in Theta's box. Sure they prob tweaked it a bit, but at a VERY dear price. Caveat Emptor.

BTW: I now own a Lampizator. :-)

JulyGirl53's picture

Funny! I happened upon this article while searching for a new CD transport to fit into a vintage audio system, mostly circa 1990-1996 plus a 1979 Linn Sondek. This Theta transport piqued my interest as my vintage DAC is a Theta DS Pro Basic II which always has been played with a Phililps CDV 400! This combination produced audio with the same warmth & imaging as vinyl LPs on the Linn. Unfortunately, after 20+ years & two teen-to-twenty-something sons, the CDV 400 won't work. Imagine how amused I was to read: "Theta ... picked the best-sounding videodisc player they could find, a Philips CDV-400, developed a data-clocking circuit to further increase its sonic performance, and put it all in a solid chassis with the Theta nameplate on the front panel—all for $2400 retail. What? Maybe I should just see if I can find someone to repair the Philips!