|Theta Casablanca AV Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Kim Wilson|
|Sunday, 01 March 1998|
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The Home Theater Experience with the Casablanca.
Imagine an insanely detailed microdynamic resolution drawing you to the edge of your seat while extreme dynamics resonate deep inside your chest cavity. You now have had your first taste of how much fun it was to audition movies with the Casablanca.
Everyone's favorite moment from Jurassic Park (DTS, Laserdisc) is the "Where's the goat" scene featuring that lovable T-Rex who escapes from its paddock and playfully sneers at everyone in sight. The classic test for how good your surround steering is the snapping of the electric fence cable in the scene. On the Casablanca, in DTS, the snapping captured accurately, the stress and metallic grinding sounds as well as the quick, sweeping effect of the cable popping across your soundstage.
Still, one can only audition the "Where's the goat" scene so many times. That's why I prefer a scene that shows off the more subtle aspects of this film's soundtrack. Much earlier in the film, when Dr. Hammond flies his guests onto the island, John Williams' broad orchestral arrangement, with its wide dynamic range, complex accents and powerful bass energy, pulled me right into the theater experience like never before.
The Casablanca's exceptional channel separation and localization was evident in movies with a great deal of detail and multiple sound effects. For instance, inside the auto repair shack from a sequence in the disaster film, Twister (Warner Home Video, Dolby Digital, DVD), dialogue is remarkably audible in the center channel, despite cars and giant neon signs being tossed about.
In Independence Day (Fox Home Video, Dolby Digital, Laserdisc) when the Black Knights fighter squadron, led by Will Smith, initiates an attack against the alien vessel, every music cue and sound effect is heard with crystal clarity. In another scene, Jeff Goldblum conducts an experiment on how he'll insert a virus into the mother ship by directing a soldier to fire a shot on a captured alien fighter. After the bullet is fired, it ricochets off the fighters hull, into the right rear speaker, into the left rear, and bounces back to the right rear before finally resting in the front right speaker. At this moment in the film, you'll nearly find yourself ducking with the rest of the cast as a bullet seemingly zips through your own living room.
Configuring your Casablanca
The base price of the Casablanca is $3,500 ($4500 with DACs) but with premium options it can easily exceed $12,000. Let me walk you through your options in configuring a Casablanca and what the options do.
A basic Casablanca package comes with an analog card that incorporates a 20 bit A/D converter, six stereo inputs and two stereo tape outputs. The main digital card provides six coax and two Toslink (optical) inputs, plus two optional optical inputs. The six-channel surround processing card provides several modes (matrix, special matrix, Pro Logic, stereo, mono, analog direct, and analog matrix) plus a high frequency shelf EQ, phase and crossover circuits.
The Casablanca's matrix surround mode combines left and right signal to create a pseudo-center. Left minus right channel signal creates the mono surrounds. The special matrix is similar to Pro Logic with more ambiance retrieval in the surrounds. Analog direct takes the left and right audio signals (analog only) and routes them directly to the outputs via the volume control bypassing all processing circuits including the crossover circuitry. Analog matrix works the same way, except it routes the signal through an analog-to-digital converter to derive center and surrounds. These derived channels can have EQ and crossover for the sub channel, but not for the mains. Circle Surround is an optional feature that differs from the other matrix surround processes because it creates stereo instead of mono surrounds.
Beyond the basic Casablanca, the sky and your bank account are the limit. As you may have noticed, your Casablanca still isn't ready for a test run, as it has no Digital-to-Analog converter (DAC) or outputs. At this point you have to decide on the standard or superior DAC. The standard DAC card is an 18-bit Delta-Sigma digital processor. From there you have two choices of outputs, either single-end or balanced. The superior DAC card is a 20-bit ladder DAC with balanced outputs (balanced cards also have balanced to single-ended outputs). The most basic card is a six-channel single-ended module for $995. So, you really need $4,500 to purchase a Casablanca that works.
Now here is where it gets tricky. You can then opt for two separate 3-channel balanced cards. When you do this, it is possible to mix and match, superior and standard DAC's. This is what was done on the review unit I was given. The balanced superior DAC was used for the L, C, R and the balanced standard was used for surrounds and sub. The two cards would run an additional $2,300 and $1,200, respectively, bringing the price of a Casablanca with preimum DACs to $7000.
At this point, stereo and Pro Logic will sound excellent, but you're still not ready for Laserdiscs or DVD's encoded with 5.1 audio. The Dolby Digital and DTS cards are $495 a piece (other surround processing circuits are also available for the Casablanca such as Circle Surround and Spatializer's N-2-2 Virtual Surround). Also, if you plan to have more than one video source you'll want to add the video switcher for another $650 (required for on-screen menus) and then there is the Auxiliary digital input card for an additional $495 that contains RF inputs required for Dolby Digital RF demodulation for Laserdisc use. All totaled, my review unit topped out at $9,135.
As described, the Theta Casablanca's strongest point may be its weakness as well. Its high end competitors, the Meridian 861, Krell KAV and the Proceed AVP are less like a mainframe computer with PC card features and upgrades. They are easier to understand because almost all of the features come in one package. To Theta's credit, the Casablanca did beat the competition to the punch, getting the first high end DTS solution on the market and the Casablanca can also accommodate future upgrades, like digital EQs and line doublers, that may never make it into the competition's products.
Before you think this unit is out of your league, you might want to consider that the Casablanca is by far the best sounding and most flexible processor I have heard to date. The Casablanca is capable of the highest caliber performance as a digital-to-analog converter, an audiophile grade preamp and a cost-no-object surround sound processor. Add to that, the flexibility of being able to start small and add premium upgrade cards to your existing Casablanca and you'll end up with a product that will eliminate huge monetary loses when upgrading to more cutting edge digital A/V products.
The Casablanca fully loaded, is perfect for the home theater enthusiast who wants to see and hear it all. A more scaled down version ($4,500 and up) is available for the music lover who knows they will definitely be experiencing 5.1 sound for music and film in formats as advanced as 24 bit DVD and beyond. The Casablanca has set the high end standard for flexibility and performance which no other amp, DAC, or preamp I have reviewed has come close to.