The first thing that struck me about the Theta's sound - the thing that
continues to strike me every time I listen to it - is the transparency and
depth of its soundstage and the silence of presentation. The usual reference
to a blacker black does not suffice; the background is so silent, and the
colors so vivid, that I hear more noise from air conditioning in live concert
situations than I do from the Gen. VIII. This unit does an extraordinary job
of getting out of the way of the music.
Even non-audiophiles with indisputably
lousy sound systems - people like the
friend who dropped over today to listen to her old Chanticleer and brand new
Indigo Girls CDs and who prefaced her fledgling audiophile exploration by
saying “I'm sure my ears are nowhere near as able to discern things as yours”
- comment on how clear the system sounds. To quote that friend, “My system is
such much noisier than yours.” If an anything-but-audiophile can recognize the
difference between noise (with its concomitant dulling of colors and blurring
of detail) and silence, Secrets listeners certainly can.
Up until a month ago, David resisted listening to recorded music chez Serinus.
If I put something on, he chose to sit on the floor, complaining that the
futon hurt his back and that he had a short attention span. When I noted that
his ears were positioned well below the line of the tweeters, and that he was
missing all the system had to offer, he shrugged his shoulders as if to say
“so what.” He didn't even seem to mind listening to music lying on the floor
with only one ear turned toward the speakers, and his head far more to one
side of the soundstage than the other. In fact, I could often only get him to
listen to music late at night, when the reality of neighbors led me to turn
the volume down considerably. Most of the time, David preferred to watch DVDs
on my 18 year old 19” Quasar TV, and to disregard sound quality.
People who react this way usually don't care to listen to music for any length
of time. But David in fact received his BA in music, and is a tenor currently
preparing for a vocal competition. He loves attending live concerts, and never
complains about the seats, even in church pews.
As Bob Dylan has said,
"It doesn't take a weatherman to see which way the wind
blows." It's not music David resisted; it was the sound of my system.
All that has changed since the arrival of the Gen. VIII. David has now sat
nearly motionless on the futon through two one hour plus listening sessions
without complaining in the least about his back. Instead he has begun telling
people how incredible the system is. He looks forward to listening more. What
a difference a DAC makes.
Last night we attended a San Francisco Symphony performance that included John
Adams' My Father Knew Charles Ives and Rimsky-Korakov's Scheherazade. We are
talking two very different sonic tours de force that demand a large orchestra
led by a conductor who revels in highlighting the contrasting colors of
instruments. We were lucky enough to sit in seats K 101 and 102 in premium
orchestra, which is pretty close to ideal. The sound was glorious:
transparent, full, and at times nearly overwhelming in size, volume and
My system is incapable of producing a body of sound of similar size and
weight. Huge speakers in the $100,000 plus range, a pair of 400W monoblocks,
and a room far bigger than my 14.5 x 17 living room would certainly help
approach such a level of sonic splendor. Nonetheless, what I do hear when I
just played Valery Gergiev's 2002 recording of Scheherazade (Decca) and Eiji
Oue's twice Golden Eared Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances (Reference Recordings)
through the Gen. VIII approaches the transparency and color I heard in Davies
This brings us to the fullness of the Theta's bass, the richness of its
midrange and the clarity of its highs. As I listen to R-K's huge orchestral
outpouring, nothing seems muddy or congealed. I'm well aware that I'm
listening to a recording in a less than ideal listening room, but I am
I have so far spent many hours pulling out my venerated test CDs and listening
anew. This is a process I will continue to eagerly pursue over the next
several months. I marvel at how easily I can hear the texture of the guitar
plucks on Terry Evans' "Puttin It Down", how full the bass is, and how clearly I
now hear the slight hoarseness on his voice. The space between instruments and
the size and depth of the soundstage continually pull me deeper into the
music. I love the extra fullness on Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, the
newfound beauty of Karina Gauvin's voice on her Songs of the Auvergne. I'm
thrilled that, thanks to Theta's state-of-the-art technology, I can now fully
appreciate the sonic advantages of the 24-bit digital output on my cheapo
I recently borrowed my friend's latest Indigo Girls CD, All That We Let In.
While it ain't gonna' win any engineering awards - the voices sound distinctly miked and the bass could be clearer - I nonetheless marvel at the depth of
the drums as compared to the forward sound of the guitar. I hear the same
remarkable sense of depth on the CD layer of Michael Tilson Thomas' new Mahler
Symphony No. 4 and Gergiev's Scheherazade. I know this remarkable
sense of depth is in part a product of the Power Plant's P-1 setting. But
when I played the Theta Gen. V with the Power Plant having the same P-1
setting, I never heard anything approaching the Gen. VIII's engaging sense
of depth and three-dimensionality.
The Gen. VIII's huge dynamic range initially blew me away. You may find
yourself resetting your volume level if you begin listening to soft passages
that suddenly transition to triple fortissimo. Thankfully, because the unit is
so quiet, soft passages sound musical, full and colorful even at low volume.
But do be prepared to be astounded. It took me a few days to find the right
volume level for each of my reference recordings, recordings I had previously
played at identical volume levels. Shades of Gertrude Stein, there is so much
more there there.
I have switched back and forth between Theta's proprietary “Jitter
its alternative built-in reclocking technology numerous times. There is no
question that I prefer the Jitter Jail on CD playback. What is most marked,
to these ears, is what it does to highs. Cymbals and triangles are more
lifelike, with less digital “crispness”. Violins are especially wonderful. I
can't use the Jitter Jail option with my DVD-V player - if I select Jitter
Jail, I can't hear anything from the DVD player. However, selecting reclocking instead still makes DVDs sound light years ahead of how they
sounded through the Theta Gen. V.
The one review I have so far read of the Gen. VIII was written by a man who
these days spends most of his time listening to multi-channel recordings
because he finds them far more satisfying than two-channel. With the Gen.
VIII, however, he found two-channel listening so compelling that he felt no
pressing need to return to multi-channel. I don't have multi-channel chez
Serinus, so I can't comment on this personally. But when a veteran reviewer
such as Kalman Rubinson makes such a statement, it is well worth entertaining.
As a DAC/Preamp
Before I received the Gen. VIII, the sound of its built-in preamp was
initially a cause for concern. I had heard several digital preamps, ranging
from the preamp in the little $845 Benchmark DAC preamp (see review in
archives) to several stand-alone digital preamps costing many thousands of
dollars. In every case, I had bemoaned their lack of midrange warmth and
alteration of true timbre. In plain terms, the digital preamps I had heard up
until February 13, 2004 exemplified the worst aspects of solid state gear;
regardless of slam or bam, they did not sound very good at all. I thus
questioned if Theta could design a digital DAC preamp that would sound as
neutral, transparent, warm, airy and musically satisfying as the best tube
and/or solid-state analogue preamps I have so far heard chez Serinus.
I am happy to report that the answer is yes. I have so far tried the
solid-state Reflection Audio OM1-Quantum preamp and the tube Bruce Moore
Companion III preamp with the Gen. VIII. As much as I like the Reflection
Audio OM1-Quantum, so far the best stand-alone preamp I've heard in my system,
I find that, when connected to the Gen. VIII and powered from the wall as
opposed to its optional battery pack, it cannot approach the transparency of
immediacy of the one piece Gen. VIII DAC preamp. The same holds true for the
Companion III. (Before long I'll be trying the Manley 300B, Wyetech Pearl,
Edge and Messenger preamps as well).
I can only surmise that the reason these preamps come up second best to the
one-piece Theta DAC preamp is that they introduce another piece of equipment,
pair of interconnects, and power cable to the system, bringing with them
noise, distortion, RF etc. As fine as the OM1-Quantum may be, it muddies up
the sound of the Gen. VIII's DAC. When Kal Rubinson comments in his review
that the sound of the Gen. VIII's built-in preamp surpasses all but the finest
external preamps he has heard, he is probably referring to preamps that cost
well over $10,000. When one of those comes my way for review, I'll be sure to
let you know how it mates with the Gen. VIII. Until then, methinks the Gen.
VIII DAC preamp will suit me just fine.
SACD, DVD-A, and Multi-Channel
The Gen. VIII's chip is already capable of decoding DVD-A and SACD signals.
Theta had initially hoped that a universal SACD protocol would be arrived at
before the Gen. VIII's release that would enable the company to include a
standard interface on the unit to connect with outboard SACD, DVD-A, and
universal transports. Since no universal SACD standard yet exists, and no
implementation date has been set, Theta is currently developing a proprietary
DVD-A/SACD interface between its own universal transport, the Compli, and the
Gen. VIII that will allow for DVD-A and SACD playback.
In June 2004 at the earliest, Theta plans to offer board additions to the
Theta Compli and Gen. VIII - additions that can be installed quickly at
Theta's factory - that combined with software downloads to the Gen. VIII will
transmit and decode DVD-A and SACD signals via a proprietary link. At that
time, the Gen. VIII will play SACD as well as DVD-A in two-channel mode.
Unless an owner desires multi-channel SACD and DVD-A playback, in which case
stringing together a number of Gen. VIIIs with a Theta Casablanca or Casa Nova
is necessary, this will eliminate the need for a separate stand-alone SACD,
DVD-A, or universal player.
Given the Gen. VIII's extraordinary performance with two-channel CD, I can
only assume that it will excel with DVD-A and SACD. At the time the technology
is available, I will obtain an upgraded Compli, send the Gen. VIII back for
upgrading, and review the combo's DVD-A and SACD playback.
Meanwhile, I hope to review one-piece universal players as well as SACD units
from other manufacturers. I'm especially eager to hear how their two-channel
DVD-A and SACD sound compares to the Gen. VIII playing redbook CDs. I wonder
if I can obtain two-channel SACD playback on the same level as I'm now
experiencing with redbook CDs from anything less than a top-of-the-line, well
over $10,000 SACD or universal player.
An alternative to obtaining a new SACD player, one that many audiophiles
entertain, is to obtain either an older Sony 777-ES or Philips 1000 and
heavily modify it. (These units reportedly contain better transports than
those in the latest Sony multi-channel SACD players). That could end up
costing a good $3500 with upgrades and still not guarantee sound superior to
what Theta plans to offer later in 2004. How will the Theta on SACD compare to
the upgraded Philips 1000/Meitner SACD DAC that has been so highly praised by
other reviewers (and which I've been told doesn't do a super job with redbook
CDs). Only time will tell.
Is the Theta Generation VIII the ideal DAC preamp? Not quite. As fabulous as
its sound may be, there are a few things that would render it even more
I wish the Gen. VIII's preamp had at least one more set of analogue inputs. As
it is, I can only connect both my tuner and turntable to it because my tuner
has single-ended outputs while the Classé phono preamp has balanced outputs.
To play tapes or anything else through the Gen. VIII. I've got to disconnect
the tuner and switch cables. And, as we all know, many brands of audiophile
cables do not like to be switched around. They take awhile to settle in, and
their connectors quickly corrode when exposed to air. That means another round
of cleaning plus a long wait for optimal sound. Hardly the same as flipping a
Secondly, there's no tape loop for recording and playback. One's only choice
for playback through your speakers while recording is to simultaneously employ
both the Theta's single-ended and balanced outputs. One output would go to the
recorder and the other to the amp. But that only works if one of the devices
can accept balanced inputs and the other can accepted single-ended.
my particular case, neither recorder nor amp accepts balanced inputs. This
means that if I want to listen to music through my speakers while
simultaneously recording it, I have no choice but to either (a) use balanced
interconnects from the Theta to my amp
equipped with XLR to RCA adapters; (b) drive the amp from my ancient
Nakamichi tape deck's headphone jack output, again using adapters; or (c)
forego use of my speakers and listen through the tape deck's headphone
output. All three options compromise sound quality.
Thirdly, when used with an external preamp, unless you turn the Theta's volume
up very high (which in turn can overload the external preamp), the external
preamp's attenuator(s) must be turned way up, much higher than I had to set
them with the Gen. V. This can introduce noise, especially with tube
equipment. I expect this isn't a problem if you order the Gen. VIII with fixed
output volume, but then you're pretty much tied to an external preamp unless
you send the Gen. VIII back to the factory and ask them to switch back to
adjustable volume output.
With those gripes out of the way, there is only one thing to say: The Theta
Generation VIII DAC preamp is the finest unit of its kind I have heard chez
Serinus. It takes my listening experience one giant step closer to the real
thing than any other DAC, preamp, or one-piece DAC/preamp I have used. The Gen. VIII is so excellent that you can
easily hear what a change in amplifier, interconnect, power cable, or even vibration
support makes to the sound. That in one sense may be a reviewer's dream. But
it also creates a music lover's paradise. And love is what I feel when I play
music through the Gen. VIII.
Jason Victor Serinus -
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