Theta DS Pro Generation III digital processor Page 2

Overall, the Generation III's outward appearance is utilitarian and businesslike, in sharp contrast to its tweaky circuitry and build quality. It is obvious that Theta chose to put all the money into audible improvements—over $50 worth of Vishay resistors, for example—instead of cosmetics.

I've had the Generation III in my rack for a few months, but it had to wait until recently to become my primary digital processor—I've had so many other products to audition. This turned out for the best: While the review was in progress, Theta upgraded the review sample to reflect current production. This description of the Gen.III's sound is therefore based entirely on the updated sample.

I was immediately impressed by the Gen.III. It was clearly in a different league compared with all the other converters I had around the listening room (footnote 3). In fact, the Gen.III was nothing short of stunning: I hadn't heard digital reproduction on this level since the $14,000 Mark Levinson No.30 left my listening room. More on this comparison later.

Soundstaging has always been a Theta hallmark, but the Gen.III was clearly a step up from previous Theta processors in soundstage width, depth, and portrayal of space. The Gen.III's huge, spacious, three-dimensional rendering made the loudspeakers and listening-room walls truly disappear. The sheer sense of instruments hanging in space, completely free of the loudspeakers and unfettered by room boundaries, was awesome. Music I had gotten to know recently through other processors was a revelation when reproduced by the Gen.III. A good example was Mike Garson's The Oxnard Sessions, Volume One (Reference Recordings RR-37CD, footnote 4) The way the hall envelops the instruments, the placement of the musicians, and the feeling of vast space were beautifully conveyed by the Gen.III. There was just so much more spatial information revealed. In addition, the Gen.III's ability to clearly distinguish individual instrumental lines within the whole was extraordinary by any measure. The presentation was made up of individual instruments, not a synthetic, homogenized continuum. Images were surrounded by a "puff" of air, further establishing their individuality.

The icing on this soundstaging cake was the Gen.III's remarkable transparency, a crystal-clear picture window on the music that allowed me to look deep into the soundstage. I could go on and on about the Gen.III's remarkable soundstaging ability, but I'm sure you get the idea.

Although I've always been a Theta fan, their products have exhibited certain characteristics that made them immediately identifiable—characteristics that weren't always in the best interests of the music. The soundstage has had a tendency to be almost overblown, excessively "vivid" and "Technicolor"—words I've used in previous Theta reviews. Further, Theta processors have never excelled at sweetness, delicacy, or natural presentation of instrumental timbre, particularly in the treble. There has always been a slight edge and hardness in the upper octaves, a characteristic that could make long-term listening fatiguing.

I'm happy to report that these traits are greatly ameliorated in the Generation III. The new processor sounds less "Theta-like" than their previous products. Beginning with the difference in soundstaging, there was a newfound subtlety to the presentation; it was less "sculpted" and overt than that of early Thetas. Although the music still had a hugeness, the Gen.III's portrayal of size tended to come from revealing such fine spatial information as reflections and reverberation decay. Rather than being hyped, low-level information tended to be presented more subtly and delicately. The result was a greatly increased involvement and intimacy with the music; it drew me in more.

The next area in which the Generation III was vastly superior to its predecessors was in timbral accuracy and smoothness. The tendency toward glare in the upper mids and treble was replaced in the Gen.III by a greater smoothness and liquidity. Saxophone, for example, had more of a round, warm sound than a glassy edge. Despite the improvement over earlier products, I wouldn't call the Gen.III lush or sweet. The treble still tended to be a bit forward and slightly aggressive compared to the smoothest processors I have heard—the Linn Karik/Numerik and Mark Levinson No.30. The Theta was definitely brighter than the No.30, with cymbals taking a more prominent role in the music. The treble also had less delicacy, instead having a slightly chromium-plated character when compared with the No.30's rendering. The leading edge of piano transients also had a bit of an edge when compared to the No.30, but this was far less apparent than in other Theta processors.

Despite the overall improvement, the Gen.III's overall presentation still exhibited a trace of forwardness. It was a different kind of forwardness than I hear from the PS Audio UltraLink, which seems to push only midrange instruments to the front of the soundstage. Instead, the Gen.III positioned the whole presentation slightly in front of, rather than behind, the loudspeakers. This could give the music an involving immediacy, but in the long run I preferred the No.30's slightly more distant and less forced perspective. Nevertheless, I wouldn't characterize the Gen.III's presentation as aggressive.

One aspect of the Generation III's presentation that greatly contributed to its musically involving quality was its ability to resolve fine detail. Nuances and subtleties barely hinted at by other processors were revealed with clarity by the Gen.III. This is one area in which analog clearly beats digital—the ability to hear very low-level information. This detail can be spatial, transient information, instruments playing very softly, vocal nuances, or an instrument's subtle harmonic shadings. The Gen.III excelled in all these areas, revealing so much more of what's on the CD. The first time I heard such a wealth of information from digital was with the No.30. Hearing the Gen.III brought back memories of my first revelatory experience with the No.30.

Still, though the Gen.III's resolution of detail was superb, it was not quite as musical as the No.30's. The Theta tended to be slightly etched, more forward, and less delicate than the No.30.

The Gen.III's bass set a new standard in digital playback. Low frequencies were tight, well-defined, and detailed, with a very pleasing roundness and warmth. The punch and pitch resolution of the lower toms on my drum recording on Stereophile's Test CD 2 was superb. Music in which the kickdrum and bass guitar work together was driving and powerful, with a tremendous sense of pace. Moreover, the Gen.III seemed to add another octave of extension to the Hales Signatures—the bass went that deep. With the Gen.III in the system, I couldn't hold still while listening to music that cooked.

A direct side-by-side comparison with the Mark Levinson No.30 (borrowed back from Larry Archibald), each driving the Levinson No.23.5 in balanced mode through the EVS Balanced Ultimate Attenuators, put the Gen.III's performance in perspective.

First, the Gen.III had a warmer bass and midbass than the No.30. Bass guitar had more purr, and the entire presentation was weightier. The No.30 had slightly better pitch definition in the midbass, but didn't have quite the "center of the earth" extension of the Gen.III. The lower toms on my drum recording were tighter and better defined through the No.30, with a steeper attack that was more like how the drums actually sounded. Overall, I tended to prefer the Gen.III's bass on most music program, at least through the Hales/Muse system, which, in my room, tends to be a little lean between 50Hz and 100Hz.

The No.30 clearly excelled in treble smoothness, ease, and portrayal of instrumental timbre, an area where it is unequaled, even by the Gen.III. Cymbals had more delicacy and subtlety through the Levinson, and were less prominent in the presentation. This made long-term listening less fatiguing through the No.30. In addition, the No.30 had a musical "rightness" that is hard to describe.

Despite these tradeoffs, both processors shared some remarkable qualities not heard from other digital front ends I've auditioned. These were:

• The loudspeakers completely disappeared, replaced by the musicians surrounded by the recorded acoustic in transparent space.

• Music emerged from a "black" background. Quiet passages had more drama when the music seemed to hang in black space. In addition, the silence between notes was deeper, a quality that greatly added to conveying the music's essence.

• Music was infused with a wealth of detail and nuance. The Gen.III is the only processor I've heard, other than the No.30, to reveal such a wealth of musical information.

• Individual instrumental lines were presented as distinct entities rather than as variations of the same cloth.

Overall, the No.30 was clearly the better processor. But considering the huge price difference ($13,950 vs $5400 for the full-blown Theta), the Gen.III is a bargain. Even though they may not be able to afford the Gen.III, I urge all listeners to hear it for themselves. It will greatly increase your awareness of what digital can do, and attune your ears to what to listen for when auditioning lower-priced processors (footnote 5).

To put the Generation III's performance in perspective: I found it slightly less musical than the Mark Levinson No.30's. The No.30's more relaxed, laid-back presentation, smoother treble, greater sense of ease, and better portrayal of instrumental textures confirmed its continued standing as the state of the art. Nevertheless, the Gen.III shared some of the No.30's remarkable qualities.

The AT&T ST-type optical input should be considered mandatory, as should the balanced option, provided you have a fully balanced preamplifier. Note that these options can be added later at no penalty: the ST-type input costs $400, and balanced outputs are $1000 regardless of when they are added. Listeners can therefore get into the Gen.III for $4000, upgrading as finances permit.

The Theta DS Pro Generation III is a superb product worthy of my highest recommendation. Listening through it, I consistently crossed the threshold from good sound to total immersion in the music. This was digital playback of the highest caliber. Moreover, the Gen.III had much less of a distinctive signature than previous Theta processors, with a smoother treble, better portrayal of instrumental textures, and a more refined, yet bigger, soundstage. In addition, the Gen.III's bass performance—extension, control, power, and warmth—was beyond reproach.

In my opinion, the Generation III is vastly superior to the many $1500-to-$3000 processors I've heard. If you're contemplating a processor anywhere near the Gen.III's $4000 price, an audition is mandatory.

The Theta Generation III is perhaps the best processor I've heard except for the Mark Levinson No.30. If you can afford the No.30, buy it—it's that good. But for those watching their budgets, the Generation III knocks on the No.30's door at a fraction of the price.—Robert Harley

Footnote 3: These have included the Kinergetics KCD-55p and KCD-55 Ultra, Wadia 2000, PS Audio UltraLink, Bitwise Musik System Zero, Naim CDS, and EAD DSP-7000, as well as the inexpensive processors reviewed elsewhere in this issue.

Footnote 4: Corey's "As We See It" in July about not liking audiophile recordings notwithstanding, this recording is a paradigm (for me, anyway) of what can happen when great music is combined with superb sonics.

Footnote 5: There's another reason for auditioning products yourself: "Why speak of things which can be known only through experience?"

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.