Theta Data universal disc transport What I Listen for in Digital Components

Sidebar 2: What I Listen for in Digital Components

The Clark Terry Live at the Village Gate CD (Chesky JD49) is particularly revealing of many aspects of a digital source component's performance. This recording of all acoustic instruments is remarkably transparent, tonally accurate, and has a stunning sense of instrument placement within a three-dimensional soundstage. Here's what I listen for on track 2:

The audience applause and laughter at the beginning should have a sense of immediacy and palpability. With the right components, the audience can seem to wrap around the loudspeakers and almost surround the listener. Some digital processors and transports narrow the soundstage, squashing the audience between the loudspeakers. In addition, individual voices in the audience are more distinct and separate from others with the better digital sources.

The drum introduction is a good indicator of a processor or transport's transparency. The drums should be set distinctly behind the rest of the band, with a nice sense of air surrounding them. There should be a feeling of crystal-clear space between the listener and the drums—like crisp, clean mountain air. Some digital source components add a veiling haze to the presentation—like looking at the drums through a layer of smog. Switching to a better digital processor is like washing months of winter off a picture window.

The saxophone solo is revealing of glare, forwardness, and the unpleasant pushiness characteristic of digital audio, especially brass instruments. The sax is a little prominent in the mix for my tastes, but through some processors and transports it can be overbearing. The sax's texture should be round and smooth rather than hard and edgy. It is very common for digital components to make this sax sound aggressive. The instrument should, however, still have a little bite and maintain its detailed harmonic richness.

You should be able to visualize the placement of each instrument within the soundstage during the ensemble playing. Good processors and transports will throw a focused soundstage, each instrument occupying a distinct position. In addition, there should be a feeling that the instruments are spatially distinct from each other, both laterally and from front to rear. The instruments should be clearly defined individual objects surrounded by air rather than just more sounds in a synthetic continuum. The image should be tight and compact, not large and diffuse. Each image, however, should have a delicate bloom around it as the sound is launched into space. With a topnotch digital front end, the sense of individual instruments existing in the room is stunning.

The cymbals on this recording tend to be a just a little forward, but they have a natural tonal balance free from spittiness and the feeling that they are overlaid with white noise. Cymbals have a "gong"-like component that gives them a sense of body. All too often, cymbals' delicacy is obscured by hash and grain. Listen for texture, detail, and a sense of pitch; if they sound like bursts of featureless white noise, it's time to upgrade.

The acoustic bass can sound a little lightweight on some D/A converters. The better processors will create a greater sense of rhythmic drive and urgency. Listen for a feeling of solidity, clear pitch definition, and a driving bounce in the low end. There is a big difference in what Martin Colloms calls "pace" between digital processors, transports, and digital interconnects. How energetic the band sounds is often related to a digital converter's bass performance.

Having said all that, I must add a caveat: I listen for these specifics because it is my job to discover and describe the differences between components. The best way to evaluate audio equipment for your own use is to forget about specifics and let the music itself speak through the playback system. How easily do you forget about the electronics and concentrate on the music? Does the system make you tap your foot? How compelled are you to keep pulling out more and more of your favorite music? Are other activities subordinated to the need to keep listening? Finally, and most important, how much are you enjoying the music? In many ways, you are the best audio critic for choosing your own components. Believe what you experience firsthand.

I often discover more about components when I go into the listening room at night as a music lover than during the day as a reviewer with a notepad. I believe that focusing on specific aspects of a product's performance excludes a sensitivity to the most important aspect of equipment quality—the ability to convey the music's meaning. Watch for a further discussion of this phenomenon in an upcoming "As We See It."—Robert Harley

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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!