Theta Digital Generation VIII D/A converter Page 2

The Gen.VIII's sound was so open and grain-free, yet so unaggressive, that it seemed to invite me to turn up the volume. Having been satisfied so long with the Mark Levinson No.360S, and with the Weiss Medea and MSB Platinum Plus before it, I was more than a bit disturbed to think that the Gen.VIII could sound so different yet still be accurate. Yet, over the span of months, that's the conclusion I could not avoid.

The Gen.VIII offered as uncolored and transparent a representation as the Weiss Medea (which I thought a paradigm of neutrality a year ago, and still do) and the Levinson No.360S, but with an even more detailed presentation in the midrange and high frequencies. Not brighter, to be sure, but with a more discrete definition of each instrument (and voice) harmonically and in space. At the bottom end of the frequency spectrum, I was hard-pressed to hear any difference between the Theta and the Levinson, though the Weiss seemed a bit firmer with some recordings. Of course, this is very much dependent on the relationship of the speakers to the room. In a leaner system than mine, which includes the Revel Ultima Studio speakers, the tables would have been turned. Nonetheless, I found the Theta Gen.VIII consistently livelier and more engaging, even with recordings made in large, resonant spaces.

With the opening of the ambient noise at the start of the Cowboy Junkies' The Trinity Session (CD, RCA 8568-2-R), a huge space rolled out in front of me even before the music began. Then I did something I hadn't done for years: I listened to the whole damn disc, and was ravished by the sound all the way through. Quickly, I pulled out CD after familiar CD and found that each was better than I had recalled. I thought I knew and loved Odetta's rendition of "America the Beautiful" on Strike a Deep Chord (CD, Justice JR 0003-2)—now it was sweeter, a bit less stentorian, and oh! so much more human.

Male voices, too, were less "electronic" and better-defined, without losing any weight or resonance. I have three versions of Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms: the LP (Warner Bros. 25264-1), the remastered CD (Warner Bros. 47773-2), and the Hong Kong XRCD CD, imported by May Audio (Veritas 5483572). (Because I already had the LP, I never bought the original CD release, about which I've heard nothing flattering.) First, only the LP and the XRCD capture the same balance of breathiness and resonance in Mark Knopfler's voice, and the XRCD did so only through the Gen.VIII DAC. Second, although I haven't made scrupulous auditions of these discs with every DAC that's passed through, it's my impression that only with the Gen.VIII did every other aspect of the sound of the CD match or exceed that of the LP.

The bass was tighter and firmer, and imaging was stable, as demonstrated by the giant mosquito (!) in "Ride Across the River." The recorded levels are a bit lower on the remastered CD and the balances a bit more restrained, as if in reaction to what I've heard about the original CD release. As a result, the remastering is a little too sedate, and Knopfler's guitar doesn't billow out as it should. In comparison to the LP and XRCD, the remastered CD is also soft on top. Listen to the cymbal crescendo about five minutes into "Ride Across the River." On the XRCD, it sounded appropriately bright and glittery and equally realistic as it was panpotted back and forth; on the remastered disc it sounded filtered and dulled. Overall, the Theta Gen.VIII not only let me hear such very small differences between media, but also let me, after many years, say that the XRCD version is my preferred choice.

Concomitants of the Gen.VIII's nonaggressive nature include a slightly more distant soundstage of extraordinary depth and detail, and the potential for extremely loud playback levels free of ear fatigue, as long as the associated equipment is up to it. I clearly preferred the CD track of the Rosalyra String Quartet's new multichannel SACD/CD of Shostakovich's String Quartets 2 and 8 (Artegra ART 1002), as DAC'd by the Gen.VIII, over the two-channel DSD track fed directly from the Sony SCD-XA777ES to one of the Theta's analog inputs. They were harmonically pretty much indistinguishable, but I risk heresy in saying that I heard better detail from the 16-bit track. Each instrument was etched in place, and the lowest levels of marginally audible sound were discernible. In the opening of the third movement of Quartet 8, the viola plays a low-pitched drone before making a slow Dies Irae statement, then joins the other instruments in the musical argument. That first, barely audible tone anchored those bars to great musical and emotional effect via the Gen.VIII, but was nearly missing and less effective on the DSD track. (In defense of this SACD, the effect is subtle and more successful in multichannel.) It's not that one can't hear this with the other DACs, but that such distinctions are effortless with the Gen.VIII.

With really big stuff (he says, whipping out yet another Mahler disc), I could turn up the volume to glorious levels without concern. I could play Michael Gielen's neo-Brahmsian version of Mahler's Symphony 1 (CD, Hänssler HAN 93097) at levels that revealed the sweet felicities of the quietest moments in the second movement, and then I could revel in the size and power of the finale's fortissimos as they rolled over me, free of strain. It just got bigger, and better.

It does analog, too
Implied in most of the above is that the output stage of the Theta Generation VIII is as good as, if not better than, my reference Sonic Frontiers Line-3 preamp, and that either alone is better than the pair in series. So, after these initial (and continuing) experiences, I further distilled them by eliminating the Sonic Frontiers and running the Gen.VIII, via its own volume and balance controls, directly into the balanced inputs of the Classé CAM-350 or Sonic Frontiers Power-3 monoblocks. I also spent much time using the Gen.VIII as an analog preamp with, as sources, my turntable and FM tuner—and, of course, the Gen.VIII's own and other DACs.

It was tight and clean, and could depict a very deep, wide soundstage. The phase switch came in handy for comparing discs and sources, because it let me optimize each one with ease. Drive was excellent from both the balanced and single-ended outputs with my 30' interconnects and any of the power amps. The only characteristics I could ascribe to the Gen.VIII when used as a line stage were that it was not warm or forgiving but revealing and dynamic. Deal with it.

In my search for complaints, I reach for straws: I wish the Gen.VIII DAC's bass, good as it was, was as good as that of the Weiss Medea or, indeed, of the Theta's own line stage. I wish, too, that there was a knob for volume control—making large, fast changes is difficult with the Gen.VIII's incremental buttons. I'd also like a readout of input frequency and bit width. Finally—I feel like Oliver Twist pleading for "More, please, Sir"—would a third analog input be too much to ask for? Of course, I'd not trade off anything the Gen.VIII does now to fulfill any of these wishes.

For the past months, I have been beguiled by multichannel music and have become very casual infrequent with my two-channel listening. The Theta Generation VIII has changed all that. With the exception of a handful of speakers—the B&W Signature 800, the Revel Ultima Studio, the Apogee [Duetta], and the sainted Stax ELS-F81 come to mind—no component, and certainly no electronic component, has so transformed my stereo system, or made such an emotional impact on me. Through the Gen.VIII, I have discovered how much more information, music, and enjoyment my stereo CDs contain. I now rush back from my multichannel weekends anticipating new delights. The prospect of stacking three Gen.VIIIs for multichannel is almost overwhelming.

The Gen.VIII's glory is in how it opens up the music, particularly in the midrange. It's only a little better than everything else I've heard, but that small increment is like cool water to the thirsty audiophile. Everyone who reads this should give it a listen, just to hear what the "Red Book" CD technology can deliver now, 20 years after its debut.

The Gen.VIII costs $10,000; buying one will not be a snap decision for anyone. But it is, at that price, the most revealing and engaging DAC I've heard, and a cutting-edge line controller. Theta Digital's Generation VIII may have been a long time coming, but it's not going back so fast: I've still got thousands of CDs to rediscover.

Theta Digital
5330 Derry Ave., Suite R
Agoura Hills, CA 91301
(818) 597-9195