Theta Casablanca AV Preamplifier 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Kim Wilson   
Sunday, 01 March 1998

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.

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.

The Downside
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.
Manufacturer Theta
Model Casablanca AV Preamplifier
Reviewer Kim Wilson

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