|Theta Casablanca AV Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Kim Wilson|
|Sunday, 01 March 1998|
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Your next preamp, digital-to-analog converter and surround processor are most likely going to be housed in one chassis thanks to the trend set by the Theta Casablanca. For ten years, Theta Digital has been setting high end performance standards by designing digital processors and transports capable of the highest level of performance. The Theta Casablanca is a high end audio-video preamp which can execute all of the most cutting edge music and film playback formats of 1998 while maintaining an open architecture for growth into future technologies.
The Theta Casablanca is a PC-inspired high end audio-video preamp. Physically, the Casablanca is quite tall; and you'll need all eight inches of height to accommodate all the cards you'll want to elicit the best from your 5.1 surround formats and future upgrades. Available in either silver or black anodized aluminum, no one will miss the that fact you've invested in a dramatic new addition to your home theater system. Yet, the true beauty of the Casablanca isn't its striking appearance, but Theta's assurance that you won't be replacing this processor for a very long time.
Clearly, the most unique feature of the Casablanca is its modular design. You can add to or upgrade the Casablanca by simply, sliding in another computer-like card. This makes it easy to keep up, as futuristic technologies such as six channel digital surround equalization and line doublers are outfitted for the Casablanca. This 'future proof' architecture ensures your A/V system can always be state-of-the-art without ever having to submit to the continual torture of selling good high end gear for pennies on the dollar in order to keep your system up to speed.
In spite of its complexity in design, setting up and installing the Casablanca is quite simple. I love how Theta cleaned up the rear panel by numbering the inputs rather than attaching labels. For instance, let's say you have a Laserdisc player and both the audio and video outputs from the player are fed to the respective audio and video inputs labeled "1." Later you can actually designate the name of the input (for example: LD1) on the front readout.
The front panel's appearance is elegantly understated with a minimum of controls that seem to blend right into the face plate. The LCD panel is in the middle, where all your menu options are displayed. The four buttons that form a circle to the right of the LCD readout are the most prominent and most used controls. All adjustments can be made from either the front panel or the remote control. There are two small buttons marked `Mode' and `Set-Up' that will guide you through the various menu layers and the six buttons below the LCD screen pick your options. It's really quite simple to navigate and make your choices once you get used to the menu hierarchy.
The Casablanca offers an impressive array of options for configuring your speaker system. The L,C,R and SUR speakers can be individually adjusted for a full range audio signal or be crossed over at a specific frequency and slope for comprehensive bass management. Surprisingly, up to four subwoofers can be configured with the Casablanca.
Most processors with Dolby Digital offer compression to limit the overall dynamic range. Usually this is a simple on and off switch. When set to `on,' a fixed amount of compression is applied reducing the range from soft to loud. Theta, however, gives the user control over the compression parameters so you can adjust the dynamic range to your preference.
Listening to the Casablanca
In listening to the Casablanca for music, one quickly hears that the best attribute of the Casablanca is its ability to present imaging to the level that one would expect from a big-dollar, audio-only preamp. The Casablanca may have all the latest 5.1 audio circuitry, but for two channel music listening, it was a dream machine. On every cut I played, ranging from audiophile grade-2 channel tracks to dedicated 5.1 music, the soundstage was expanded beyond anything I have ever heard in my A/V reference system. Previously, when the Casablanca had been seen at trade shows but had yet to hit the market, there was speculation as to whether or not a respected digital leader could actually pull off making a great analog preamp. This concern was put to rest within the first few seconds of listening to the Casablanca. Theta's latest creation is an excellent music preamp, powered with some of the best digital conversion available.
The spread of Enya's layered vocals on "Pax Diorum" from The Memory of Trees album (Reprise) took my breath away. Not only is there plenty of "air" between each layer, but the layers don't sound stacked. It was as if each layer was localized at different points within the wide soundfield, creating a virtual chorus of Enya's. The stereo rhythm guitars on "Seven Nights in Rome" from The Rippington's latest release Black Diamond (Windham Hill Jazz) can be heard on the far right and left with the solo guitar directly in the center, just like a discrete mix.
On the track "You", from Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope (Virgin), Janet whispers the beginning section of the cut; yet rather than getting muddled in the tightly mixed, sampled bass track from War's "Cisco Kid," the whisper rises right to the forefront of the soundstage. You can subtlety sense the detail of the strong consonant sounds because of the amazing microdynamic resolution capabilities of the Casablanca.
For me, there is no sweeter sound in the world than stand-up bass. From the XRCD (JVC Music) release of 88 Basie Street, the bass on "Bluesville" through the Casablanca was soulful, clear, articulate and resonant. Once again the image is wide, each instrument's position in the soundfield was easily distinguished with a light airy quality. Aside from imaging, what really separates mediocre processors from the sublime is the purity of tonal balance. Highly refined tonal balance is evidenced in the smooth performance of the piano, sax and muted trumpet on this Basie track.
While I'm a big fan of Melissa Etheridge, the recording of the title track of her last CD, "Your Little Secret" (Island) has always bothered my ears at high levels. The mid-range is boosted too much in an effort to over emphasize the normal sibilance, the whole track is heavily compressed for optimum radio airplay, and to top it off, the kick drum clips.
Yet, with the Casablanca, I was amazed at how alive this track sounded. The guitar had a palpable hard edge without an annoying spike in the mids and the dynamic range didn't seem so squashed by the compression. With the Casablanca, Melissa's vocals were smoother and more consistent with the rest of the tunes on the CD, and even the kick didn't clip at extreme levels. I thought the clipping problem was embedded deep in the recording, but instead I quickly learned the real problem was, that I hadn't heard this Melissa Etheridge recording through the Casablanca.
To completely blow my mind, I dropped in Boyz II Men's 5.1 DTS recording of their II record (DTS Entertainment). This multi-platinum pop record isn't exactly my cup of tea, but anyone with ears attached to their head can immediately hear the awe-inspiring, 360 degree, discreet surround effects that make stereo seem outdated and technologically lame. The Boyz's background vocals reached out over my shoulder and merged with the lead vocals in a way that just isn't creatively possible in stereo--no matter the price. Alan Parson's, On Air (HDS) features serenading guitars that once again use the entire 360 degree soundstage to create a dynamically engaging musical experience. With 24 bit DVDs for music right around the corner, the Theta Casablanca made me wish that every new record would be remastered in 5.1 surround.