Theta DS Pro Generation III digital processor Lewis Lipnick listens

Lewis Lipnick listens to the Theta Pro Balanced Generation III

For the past three years I've lived with one of the original Theta Pro D/A processors. After what seem like dozens of updates and upgrades, my archaic (by today's standards) Pro finally made it to the vaunted status of Generation II Balanced. Although I hadn't had the opportunity to hear all of Theta's competitors' products in my system (except for the Krell 32 and 64, and original Proceed D/A), the Gen.II balanced processor surpassed everything auditioned Chez Lipnick within the realm of musical accuracy. The Theta seemed better able to glean the fine nuances and less obvious dynamic shadings from the recorded material, providing a more intimate and involving perspective. While you were still aware of the digital artifacts in some recordings, the Gen.II successfully separated the kernel of musical truth from the chaff of poor-quality commercial A/D conversion. In short, the Gen.II brought me to the highest level of musical reproduction I had so far experienced.

Then, in the middle of my sonic bliss, Theta decided to come out with yet another upgrade: Generation III. Will this never end? Maybe I'm just getting burned out, but at this rate, we'll be into Generation XX by 1995! Okay, so high-end audio is flaky and fickle. What would the lunatics do without constant upgrades to look forward to? I suppose it's not exciting enough to just listen to the music. No way.

In spite of my ranting and raving about the upgrade/update mania, I've got to tell you that Generation III is so much better than the previous incarnation that you should either sell your II by tomorrow (before everyone else reads this), shove it out the window, or have it updated (the most logical, but least compulsive route). How much better is the III than the II? Apples and oranges. Even though Theta products suffer very little from Designer Sound Syndrome, the Generation II definitely sounds colored in comparison with the new version.

My sample was supplied with the usual two coaxial inputs, along with the optional AT&T interface. A few weeks after receiving the Gen.III, I sent my Data CD drive back to the manufacturer to have the AT&T output installed (my Data is one of the first units built). At the same time, Neil Sinclair at Theta suggested that they update my Data to the new Series II, which had just become available. By this point (mid-April) I had the only production Gen.II Data/Gen.III Balanced Pro with all of the options. I'm not an engineer, so I won't attempt to provide the technical description of the updated Data (perhaps Neil Sinclair would be kind enough to give you the details in his "Manufacturer's Comment"), other than to say that the reworking is quite extensive (new transformers and additional power supplies).

Sonically, the $2495 Data II (footnote 1) closely parallels the new Pro D/A: more open, less constricted, with a lot more three-dimensional soundstaging (but only if it's in the program material). This heightened degree of ambience retrieval is somewhat of a double-edged sword. Recordings with lots of natural space and dimensionality sound much more convincing, but those loaded with multiple phase anomalies and gobs of artificially induced reverb can sound very confused and downright unmusical. There is no doubt in my mind that the revised Data transport is clearly better in every way. But just as the person who lives next to the junkyard finds the outside world not so pretty after cleaning the windows, the Data II may provide more than we might always want to hear, especially with poor-quality recordings. The abnormal sensitivity to shock noted in my earlier comments on the Data has been somewhat alleviated in the upgrade (the manufacturer replaced the entire subchassis), but the problem still remained to an unacceptable degree. After several phone calls to Theta, Neil Sinclair agreed to swap the troubled unit with a new sample, which exhibited none of the shock problems of my original Data. In other words, this was a "one-off" sample defect, and not indigenous to the design.

Sonic & musical results
Many audiophiles look upon digital recording and playback in much the same way wine connoisseurs view Thunderbird. It's wine, all right, but better you should put it in your car radiator than your stomach. As regular readers probably know, I don't completely agree with the analogy. I'll admit that digital (especially commercial A/D conversion) has a long way to go, but digital technology, properly employed, has many musical attributes overlooked by the critics.

So how does the new Theta Generation III Pro/Data II combination deal with the music? Better than anything I've yet experienced in the digital domain. If you're looking for transparency, and the ability to follow several music lines at once without earstrain, then it's a winning combination. If you prefer the sound of an orchestra in a natural acoustic, without any exaggeration or diminution of ambience, you'll probably go nuts over this combo. And if soundstage dimensionality is your thing, this is the closest thing to the holy grail of digital audio I've heard so far. Definition of the most minute musical transients (instrumental/vocal attacks) were uncovered without the usual non-musical electronic artifacts found in virtually all digital front ends, but without the common artificial sweetening we've come to expect from so many lesser components. At first, I found the sound to be a bit too laid-back. But after extended listening, it was obvious that I was really hearing more music and less equipment.

I've been accused of living on the hot side of town when it comes to high-frequency spectral balance. No, I don't want it to sound like I'm sitting in the middle of the orchestra (where the effect is not bright or forward at all, and actually rather dull and heavy), but I do want to hear all of the natural clarity and brilliance of live music. This is where the new Pro/Data combo set a new standard. Clarity without grit, high-frequency extension without glare, and, for the first time in my digital experience, bass with all of the natural harmonic textures.

In a recent A/B comparison of the Gen.II Pro (which I still have) and the new III with some DAT master tapes of the National Symphony made by Ed Kelly (a member of our listening group), the latter produced a more realistic sonic clone of our orchestra's personality. The same results were obtained with our Sony CD, which we recorded live in Moscow during a 1990 tour (Rostropovich: Return to Russia, Mstislav Rostropovich, National Symphony Orchestra, Sony SK 45836). Although it may be in bad taste for me to blow my own horn (as it were), this CD is a knockout, both sonically and musically. Recorded over two nights in the Main Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the Sony production team successfully captured the excitement of the standing-room-only concerts, with a "not too close" perspective. The Pro Gen.III recreates the brilliance and sheer dynamic weight of our orchestra much better than the Gen.II, which sounds constricted, bright, thin, and artificial in comparison. The increased sense of ambient space and open, transparent acoustic supplied by the Pro III/Data II allows every fine nuance and dynamic shading to be physically experienced by the listener. (If you haven't yet heard the NSO play Tchaikovsky—or any Russian piece, for that matter—go out and buy this recording today!)

Bela Fleck's Flight of the Cosmic Hippo (Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Warner Bros. 26562-2) is a "must hear" with the new Theta duo. A wonderfully funky combination of electric banjo, harmonica, electric bass, and SynthAxe Drumitar makes for a tuneful experience you can't get out of your mind. The results were OK with the original Theta II and Data, but the clearer transients, much deeper bass impact, and more open transparent characteristic of the new Pro III/Data II brought these four fabulous musicians to life in a spacious, vibrant soundstage. Similarly, k.d. lang's beautiful, seductive voice never sounded so good (Ingénue, Sire 26840-2). Although I always enjoy listening to this recording—especially after an evening of performing stuffy classical music with the NSO—hearing it through the new Theta front end transported this listener to a higher plane of sonic serenity.

The most dramatic demonstration of the Pro III/Data II combo's improvements was supplied by Reference Recordings' CD of Malcolm Arnold Overtures (RR-48CD, Malcolm Arnold, London Philharmonic). Among the best (if not the best) recording of an orchestra I've heard, it will severely test the ultimate dynamic capabilities of any system. This is where the new Theta components clearly outclass not only their older siblings, but all other similar products auditioned, reproducing the awesome dynamic orchestral transients and low-level harmonic details so beautifully captured by Keith Johnson.

Listening comparisons using AT&T optical vs coaxial digital interface yielded some dramatic results. I prefer the optical cable, even though various coax interconnects do some things very well indeed. The XLO and Adjustable Digital Interface from MIT both offer musically acceptable but very different perspectives, the former favoring deep soundstage, the latter retrieving an amazing amount of inner detail. In fact, you may actually prefer one of these over the more neutral-sounding AT&T in your system. Try them all—it's a lot of fun, and you may just end up using different interfaces for specific recordings (footnote 2). But when all is said and done, I still think the optical interface is the most musically accurate and sonically satisfying: deeper bass, more dynamic impact, and a holographically palpable soundstage. The overall presentation is more "liquid," but at the same time better focused, with sharper transients.

Last April, while I was at the Stereophile High End Show in LA, Armando Martinez (of Laser Illusions fame), who said he worked with Theta, shoved a couple of very small plastic boxes into my hands. He said they contained a gel that, when placed on the ends of AT&T optical connectors, would enhance the transfer of the digital signal across the small air gaps between the CD drive, cable, and D/A convertor. Since high-end audio does not exactly lack weirdness and bizarre products, I dismissed the whole thing as another case of sonic witchcraft.

When I got home, I examined the contents of the two small boxes, and found, to my amazement and amusement, a thick, clear gel. According to the instructions, the user is supposed to dip the two male ends (receiving and terminating) of the AT&T cable into this stuff before inserting into the receptacles of the CD drive and D/A convertor. Somehow, the whole idea seems a bit kinky. The real question is, does it work?

Yes. Although the difference may not blow you away, it clearly produces a more open, yet smoother quality, without sacrificing any clarity (which is actually improved). According to Armando, who does indeed work with Theta, and is quite an expert in laser technology (see RH's review of the Laser Illusions Spatial Filter in the June 1992 Stereophile), this stuff reduces the reflections that occur between the various discontinuous fiber optics within the digital bitstream chain. Theta sells Optigue (pronounced Opti-goo) for about fifty bucks a container. Buy some. But please, don't try to use K-Y jelly, Vaseline, or any apparently similar substance as a more cost-effective substitute; the refractive index of Optigue is critical to its effect. In addition, be careful handling it: Optigue contains small amounts of arsenic, which just might cause problems when applied to certain parts of the human anatomy.

What the Theta Generation III achieves that I haven't previously experienced in digital replay is that flesh-and-blood palpability so often missing from this format. Analog proponents would probably say that digital sounds cold and brittle. In many cases they're right. The Generation II Theta certainly avoided most of this unwanted artifact, although hindsight (hindhearing?) now shows that it suffers from this affliction to a greater degree than I thought. Many lesser processors I've heard also sidestep this problem, usually by adding various types of sonic syrup to cover up the digital nasties.

The Theta Pro Generation III/Data II combination offers, without a doubt, the most sonically impressive and musically accurate digital replay I've yet experienced in my reference system. No, I haven't auditioned every D/A converter and CD drive available in the high-end marketplace in a controlled situation, so I can't, with any credibility, tell you that these components are absolutely the best in all instances. But there comes a point when you have to draw the line. Different doesn't necessarily mean better; it may be possible to find another digital front end that excels in a single parameter. It's more a question of balance, and the subjective recreation of a recorded musical event. As someone who makes his living by playing in a symphony orchestra, I regard such things as properly reproduced transients, harmonics, and ambience to be of utmost importance. Only when all of these are presented in a natural order do we begin to hear more of the music and less of the equipment.

The highly volatile world of digital audio moves quickly. Sam Tellig would probably tell you not to spend so much money on a digital front end, since the future will, no doubt, hold many more advanced products. I have conditionally agreed with him until now. With the Pro III and Data II, Theta has made a giant step toward the yet unrealized promise of digital audio. Of course, you could go with a "budget-driven" digital source for years, waiting for that elusive magical component. But you'd be missing a hell of a lot. Give the Theta a listen. If your reaction is anything like mine, you're going to find it damn hard to live with anything less.—Lewis Lipnick

Footnote 1: The AT&T data output is a $400 option.

Footnote 2: Yikes! Talk about audiophila nervosa.—John Atkinson

Mars2k's picture

Interesting product of course I agree about differing DAC qualities..huge. (Just for fun compare to Lumin please) Would like to add the following point about DAC investment.

The digital reproduction space is where the movement has been in audio and video. Think of it...

Hi Res catalogs are growing not just in selection but also quality and resolution as well as format.

Delivery options are growing Tidal, Qubuz, and more download sources. Compression/decompression protocols MQA and don't forget Music server...Roon Plex, Serviio take you pick.

Think of DAC evolution. Processing power,sample rates and word length are now exponentially greater just in the last 5 years. DAC selection is exploding and price is moving in a direction that puts very hi quality reproduction in more hands than ever before in point Theta gen3 with all the bells and whistle $5500 . Compare and price a specific vinyl rig turntable, MC cartridge, phono stage that competes and beats.

Consider all that and and the fact that I would have to get up from my sofa walk to my system and turn the record over or change the disk from a finite selection of those albums that are physically present to keep listening vs swiping and tapping on my iPad to access what is essentially an infinite library at my finger tips.