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Theta Digital Casablanca Surround Processor

See why Francis & Gordana rarely go to the movies anymore


Francis Vale

 

Gordana and Francis are listening to the glorious sounds of Elvis crooning away. Beautifully produced from the original 2 track masters, this gold compact disc [Elvis, 24 Karat Hits!, DCC GZS-117] sounds like no Elvis we ever heard before. No scratches, no radio hiss, just a lush, seductive voice asking, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" Meanwhile, as the old Presley hits are streaming off the terrific Meridian 508.20 CD player, the display of the Theta Digital Casablanca surround processor is indicating it's in "analog direct" mode. 1960's recordings marry 1990's techno-dazzle, and both are happy. Cool.

In the surround processor bestiary, this ultra pure analog signal mode of the Casablanca may be unique, and speaks worlds about the unit's meticulous design. This No-digital-domain-here! mode even worked its analog magic with vinyl. Astonishingly, Francis 's Cary SLP-90L tube preamp, long a favorite for its rich musicality, sounded thin and veiled in comparison to this special Casablanca mode. The loud thud caused by a thunderstruck Francis hitting the floor would have made a great LFE (low frequency effects) track.

Best yet, by just pushing a couple of buttons, a very pissed off T-Rex could come thundering through our living room, screaming its digital lungs out through five channels of surround sound, and stomping its two ton binary legs via multiple subwoofers. And therein lies the rub: The Casablanca fulfills an audionut's needs for purist two channel sound, while making happy even the most gonzo surround freak. The gizmo-lovers will also adore the Casablanca's multi-slot chassis and its add-in personality cards. This open architecture makes it very PC-like. However, unlike a cranky Win9.X PC, configuring the Casablanca is easy and straightforward. When you buy the base Casablanca, which retails for $3,495, you get six digital inputs, including six coax (S/P DIF) and two Toslink inputs (2 optical inputs are optional); six analog stereo audio inputs; and a six channel surround processing card.

Once you've purchased the base Casablanca unit, the fun begins. First, you start making choices about how good you want those digital bits processed. You can go the "Standard" card route, which gets you 18 bit DACs. Their performance is comparable, says Theta, to the company's $1,495 Prime IIA D/A converter. A Standard six channel, single ended card costs $1,000. Or, for $1,200 a pop, you could buy two Standard cards, each having a three channel balanced DAC. Yet another alternative is to choose a balanced "Superior" card featuring a 20 bit DAC. A three channel Superior card will set you back $2,300. Theta says the Superior DAC's performance falls between their $2,695 Basic IIIA and the (balanced) $5,595 Gen V. You can mix and match DAC grades, like using a Superior card in the first slot for doing the critical front, left, and center channel chores, with a Standard balanced card in the second slot handling the two surrounds and sub. The Casablanca is a very flexible system.

The Superior card's balanced signals are also summed and sent out its available RCA outputs, giving you most of the benefits of running balanced connections (the Standard balanced card doesn't do this trick with its RCA outputs). The Superior version also gets a Theta-designed DSP digital filter. Furthermore, the Superior unit has a discrete switched resistor volume control, while the Standard cards have a unique Theta design incorporating an IC-based volume control. Regardless of card choice, though, all the Casablanca volume control is done in the analog domain, so no bits are lost when you reduce the sound level.

Francis and Gordana can vouch for the great sound of the Casablanca's Superior DACs. When we used a high quality CD transport, like Theta's Data III, the Superior cards rivaled the Meridian 508.20 in sheer musicality. This was no mean feat, as this all-in-one Brit player has long been our reference mark. Moreover, this all-Theta combo offered deeper bass and better dynamics.

But maybe the lease payment on the new Bimmer is eating its way through your bank account; in which case, the Standard six channel, single ended DAC should still do nicely. However, whether it's a Standard or Superior configuration, you still must spend an additional $500 for an AC-3 (Dolby Digital) processing card. A Standard-level, Dolby-ready, six channel Casablanca can therefore run you just $4,995. Of course, being an open chassis design, you can easily upgrade that Standard card to Superior at any time. Now add a DVD player, amps, center channel, surrounds, a sub, and off you go to the movies. Of course, since the Casablanca supports up to six digital and six analog sources, there's all kinds of neat things you can hang off it besides that DVD player.

Or maybe your surround-reluctant wife is not quite ready to concede the living room to all those extra speakers, amps, and miles of wires (try Nordost's under-the-carpet flat cables for maximum sonics and spousal approval). In this case, an incremental, camel's nose under the tent configuration is in order: "Uh, honey, maybe Johnny Depp would sound better if we plunked a little center channel down on top of the set?" Just get a Casablanca configured as a stereo digital preamp by laying out $1,950 for a Superior 2 channel balanced D/A card. This setup will set you back $5,445, and can be upgraded at any time to full surround.

But let's say you're feeling flush. Well, have we got a Casablanca configuration for you. Pop out the AmEx card and specify a base Casablanca ($3,495) with three Superior three channel DACs ($2,300 each, x 3); a Dolby Digital card ($500); a RF Demodulation card for AC-3 laser discs (DVD players don't need it), which sports two RF inputs, AES/EBU and BNC digital inputs, and a Toslink optical input ($500); a DTS card ($500); a video switching board that supports both S video and RCA (composite) connections ($650); a D/A Tape Out card for recording from one digital source while listening to another ($250); and lastly (pant, pant), top it off with an extra $250 because you sprang for nine channels. It was this full boat, $13,045 configuration that we reviewed. If you think the Casablanca must be one big heavy mother to accommodate all this stuff, you're right. To securely hold this 40 plus pound behemoth, along with all our other A/V gear, we used a Billy Bags "I Beam" rack, the sturdiest and best looking system we have ever tried. (For the ultimate in rackdom, substitute Black Diamond Racing Shelves for the standard glass units, like we did.) You will need an earthquake-proof rack like the I Beam, for the Casablanca rocks the house, especially in its nine channel configuration.

Those three extra channels are the "lease busters" -- They're for three more subs! You can have two subs rumbling in tandem with the three front channels, plus have two more subs anchoring both rear surrounds. In other words, A REALLY BIG BOOM! (Can an evicting sheriff be far behind?)

Dolby Digital and DTS have transformed the role of subwoofers in surround sound. The Dolby Digital (AC-3) format -- when all the channels are used -- can send a full range 20 Hz to 20 kHz signal to five speakers, and also features a specially encoded LFE bass channel (the ".1" in 5.1 surround nomenclature) which can extend to 120 Hz. This LFE channel carries high level bass and augments the normal bass of the other five channels. The LFE is used mostly for special effects, like explosions or a run amuck T-Rex.

[An aside: DVD discs, as well the upcoming Digital TV sets, all use the Dolby AC-3 spec. But what is not usually said is that AC-3 only refers to the digital compression scheme specified by Dolby. There is no guarantee that the AC-3 label on a DVD label means you will be getting full 5:1 surround. In fact, it could even be a mono sound track! The only way to know for sure what you are getting on a particular DVD is to look at the very tiny print on the back of the package, which will tell you the type of audio playback mode (mono, stereo, full surround, etc.) contained on the disc. This is a marketing rip-off. None of the DVD licensees have ever gone out of their way to explain these fine print audio track nuances. Nor will you find many dealers willing to inform you about these less than stellar DVD issues. ("Hey, it's got AC-3, so how many speakers will that be today?") Similarly, when DTV arrives, don't expect 5:1 surround, as the broadcasters are already complaining that it will suck up the bandwidth, and the 5:1 surround broadcast encoders are too costly. So, with regards AC-3, caveat emptor. ]

When running multiple subs off the Casablanca, the LFE signal is equally divided among all the enabled sub outputs. If no sub is used or all of them are switched off via the Casablanca menu, then all the discrete LFE bass channel is routed to the speakers, but only to the channels set to operate full range (don't want any bass-shy surrounds blowing up). But if they can handle it, all five channels can be set to run full range. Finally, the newest iteration of the Casablanca software offers a -10 dB setting in the AC-3 configuration menu for dropping down the LFE bass level. The normal setting is 0. (In the Dolby Digital spec, 0 dB is +10 dB relative to everything else. Go figure.) By the way, there is no +10 dB kick-up in the DTS LFE channel.

The typical surround setup will have just one sub hooked up. Via the Casablanca's left front sub jack, the bass from all the filtered channels, plus the LFE channel, will go to it. Ditto the same arrangement for two or more subs. (The early Casablanca documentation was in error on this two sub configuration.) But whether using one sub or four, the Casablanca offers the same, extremely flexible, crossover management for the three front speakers and rear surrounds (note: this feature is not usable with Analog Direct mode). In the Casablanca, you can run any channel full range, or cross it over via a sub. High pass hinge points of 40, 50, 60, 80, 100, and 120 Hz are available, and each filter has selectable slopes of 6, 12, 18, or 24dB/octave.

Numbered one through four on the Casablanca menu, these slopes are first through fourth order, respectively. In the Casablanca, the low pass hinge point is mirrored by whatever high pass frequency you select. But the Casablanca always sets the low pass slope to 6 dB, regardless of which high pass slope you choose. Theta did this to take advantage of phase cancellation affects, wherein some of the signal from the main speakers and the subwoofer(s) will cancel each other out. According to Theta: "Through phase cancellation, you have derived a phase- and frequency-perfect crossover at the slope you specified."

This is all very cool stuff -- when it works as planned. Unfortunately, we ran into system matching problems with both the Hsu subwoofer and the Sunfire True Subwoofer. The inability to perfectly match either subwoofer's own slopes and filters with the Theta's caused both subs to bass bloat and excessively boom. We tried ameliorating these negative effects by playing with all of the Casablanca's filter/slope options and the adjustable settings in the subs. But no matter how much we fiddled, we couldn't entirely eliminate the erroneous bass energy when the Theta's crossover was engaged.

So, if you want to keep your sub-sanity, do this: If your main speakers are run full range, choose the Casablanca's "Full" sub setting, and use the electronics in the subwoofer to tailor its LFE output. But if your main speakers are bass shy and need deep help, then use the Casablanca's "Xover" setting, plus the processor's selectable filters, in conjunction with either "dumb" amp/sub, or with one that has a defeatable crossover. Theta is aware of these issues, and is modifying the software to give you selectable crossovers and slopes for both the high and low pass filters. This modification may be available as a dealer installed rev by the time your read this, and may also be in the latest versions of the Casablanca at your dealers (but double check, just to be sure).

For the main left and right channels, we used our all ribbon, full range planar speakers, the Analysis Omega's. For surrounds, we used Aerial Acoustics' SR3 ($2,400 pair). Likewise, we used an Aerial product for the center channel, their CC3 ($1,200). Both the SR3 and CC3 go down to 55 Hz. Mixing pistons and ribbons is never easy, but the highly configurable Aerials yielded stunning surround results.

Because we could run our front channels full range, we (ultimately) used the "Full" sub setting, and adjusted the subwoofer's knobs and switches as needed. We also tried, with great success, using two Sunfire subs, stacked one on top of another (the Sunfire True Subwoofer is explosive bass nitro wrapped up in a small, one cubic foot package.) The best bass results were achieved when we put them both in a rear corner. Normally, the bass signal from the rear surround speakers didn't pack much of a wallop. This may change, though, as movie makers get used to the new discrete channel formats and decide to "design" more bass into the rear channels. When that bombastic moment arrives, full range speakers all around will be the order of the day.

Once properly set up, the Casablanca delivered clean, prodigious bass, with a quick punch to the solar plexus (and to the sofa, windows, pictures, and most everything else.) For a really good time, check out the bridge blowing up finale in "The Long Kiss Goodnight." This may be the most thunderous thing we put through the Casablanca, and its guts, unlike ours, never quivered once. But whether it be a lawyer snacking dino's footsteps, or an awesome cinematic explosion, the Theta's deep bass was never some dimwitted thump! thump! It had definition and individual character. The same quick, well defined quality was also heard in the upper and midbass.

Apart from the bass configuration issues, we found setting up the Casablanca to be a breeze. Whether we used the unit's hard to discern at a distance display, or our TV via the video switcher, there was a nice, elegant rhythm to all the configuration menus. Essentially, the same Casablanca buttons that get you into the menus and submenus get you back out. You get menus for setting analog input levels (good for Dolby Pro logic decoder input level matching); menus for renaming source inputs; and menus for setup, like AC-3 configuration, reference level noise (but not for subs), time delays, and speaker level settings.

The Casablanca's listening modes, in addition to analog direct, offer matrix, special matrix, Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital, DTS, stereo, analog matrix, and mono. All these modes, except analog direct, process the signal in the digital domain, so all the Casablanca's bass management features are available. In the mono mode, all the signal is sent to the center channel, or you can send the mono signal just to the left and right fronts by using a phantom center speaker, or turning the center off. The Pro Logic mode worked super, with no detectable leakage from any of the channels. The astonishingly good DTS mode (don't believe a word of that "Dolby Digital/DTS, it's all the same" nonsense) also deserves a cautionary word in the pre-1998 release of the Casablanca software.

The Casablanca automatically switches modes when it detects a DTS signal. However, there was a scare-you-witless, several second buzz while it did the switch. This used to happen a lot, as most of our movie reviewing was done with DTS-encoded laser discs. So we had to either put the Casablanca in DTS mode before hand, or hit the mute button at program startup. But Theta has since fixed this problem, and we recently had a chance to try it out. All you get now is an extremely brief "zzzip" when it switches modes. Should you have a version of the Casablanca that still exhibits this raucous buzz, rush on down to your dealer and get the new DTS software installed.

The Theta-developed analog matrix and digital matrix modes that originally came with the review unit were also just ho-hum. Essentially, they are Hafler sum/difference circuits. Mind you, they were not wah-wah reverb bad. But our first thoughts were to wait for Theta's Circle Surround implementation if you wanted really good surround sound out of stereo. But then along came that DTS buzz-fix, which required changing several chips. And also included in the upgrade kit were several other software/chip modifications, including some for the video board; changing the operating software (but intended only for units with operating software revs above CB1xx); new chips for the six channel processor board; new software for the three Superior Balanced D/A boards; new software for the Main Digital Input board and the Analog Input Board; and lastly, new stuff for the Auxiliary Input board was also installed. In addition, some new chips for the AC-3 board, and for the main processor board's bass management system also came with this extensive upgrade. (Don't try this at home, kids, unless you're really, really good at pulling out lots of chips and putting in new ones without creaming those oh, so very tender little pins.)

Lo! The overall sound of the Casablanca, whether it be in matrix, DTS, Pro Logic, or Dolby Digital modes significantly improved. An already very good system suddenly became even better.

Those critical essentials of music -- timing, rhythm, and pace -- all substantially improved. Some otherwise lifeless surround music tracks now became foot-tappingly good. We queried Theta about this, and apparently, we weren't the only people who noticed these musical improvements. Finally, the clarity of center channel dialog, which was already quite good, also improved. Somewhere along the software way, something wonderful happened. Such is the magic and mystery of the high-end (and computers --sometimes).

By the way, it's also appropriate to mention that some DTS laser discs are THX-labeled. Theta looked at the THX spec, and passed. Instead, they developed their own EQ settings which are shelved in the midrange (at 2K). The four settings yield a high frequency roll-off of either 1.5, 3, 6, or 9 dB. Theta says that the 6 dB selection roughly corresponds to a THX setting. But frankly, the sound from the Casablanca was so consistently sweet, so detailed without edginess, we used EQ only infrequently.

Obviously, there is much more to successful surround sound than just shake and bake bass and a proper high frequency roll-off. The true power of the Casablanca shows up in the way it handles sound track dynamics and creates you-are-there spatial coherence. Even more remarkably, with all the new software patches, spatial distribution among the surround channels, overall soundstage, and image coherence also improved. And this improvement was true of all the Casablanca's surround modes. Who says bits are bits? Timing, as they say, is everything.

One minute, Casper's haunted home is quiet and tranquil. The next, all ghostly hell breaks loose, accompanied by startling surround atmospherics. The Casablanca's ample, well designed power supplies effortlessly handled such explosive shifts from one audio "scene" to another. Meanwhile, the holographic surrounds put you right inside this friendly ghost's creaking, highly dysfunctional mansion. There was also a fun scene where Casper's three malevolent uncles "helicoptered" in (to Wagner's "Valkyrie," -- shades of Apocalypse Now) that had Francis and Gordana looking up at the ceiling and to the sides as they made their ghostly entrance.

Another example of the great spatial illusions created by the Casablanca was found in "The Shadow." Our superhero shows himself for the first time in a scene on a bridge where a few bad dudes are about to launch a hapless guy over the side in his new cement overshoes. Taunted by the everywhere-at-once Shadow, the head bad boy, Duke, opens fire with a hand gun, Tommy gun, and whatever else he can lay his hands on. The ricocheting bullets danced around our living room as we almost ducked for cover.

Such seamless spatial effects, plus jump out of your seat dynamics, are what great home theater is all about. Indeed, the Casablanca is so effective, so compelling in its cinema presentation, that you stop to think every time a good movie comes out, "Hmm, go see it now, or wait for the video?" Here is a telling anecdote: Francis and Gordana saw Jurassic Park when it was on the big screen, with full surround sound. Incredibly, seeing it at home via the Casablanca, even on just a 34" TV, was more emotionally draining. When the small screen experience is superior to its big brother, you know something special is going on. (For getting that TV picture right, buy Joe Kane's "Video Essentials," now on DVD and laser disc.)

But lest we get completely caught up in Hollywood magic, let's also mention that some people are trying to make effective surround sound music on CDs; and in particular, the DTS folks. Quite frankly, most DTS CD producers treat the surround format like a toy. But a couple of DTS CDs really show the potential for multichannel, audiophile sound. In both CDs, the virtual space was extremely well designed, and as importantly, properly recreated by the Casablanca. One of these stellar recordings is the Eagles' "Hell Freezes Over." [DTS Entertainment, CD 1006] Not only is this a knockout musical performance, the ambiance of a live event, plus the "feel" of sitting among rock crazed fans, is spot on. (It's so good, you can even forgive those few tracks when they put some instruments up there on the back channel wall). Collapsing this recording back to just the front channels is like having all the bubbles go out of the champagne. Bummer. The other DTS recording of merit is the DMP Big Band and its "Glenn Miller Project." [Music As Software, CD-802] Francis 's mother and her boyfriend, who are swing dance mavens and go to hear live bands all the time, were astonished by this surround CD. To them, "it was like being there!"

The jury is still out on whether DTS surround can make a significant market impact, especially with DVD. But there is no denying that DTS and its full 20 bit recording (vs. Dolby Digital's 16), its more lenient data compression (typically four times less than Dolby), and its higher maximum data transfer rates (over six times faster than Dolby) add up to great audiophile potential. Moreover, it now seems that multi-channel, audio-only DVDs are on the horizon (fingers crossed). But whether it's a CD or a DVD, the marketing trick is to make sure these new audio-only formats bear music produced with minimal spatial gimmickry. If that happened consistently, then high-end processors like the Casablanca could become a staple item in every audiophile's home. (Let's just hope that the compression-crazed AC-3 scheme doesn't succeed as the "purist" audio DVD format.)

But even before that hopefully happy multichannel day arrives, consider the fact that with the Casablanca you get superb two channel sound, and pure Hollywood excitement. So who needs two rooms and two separate systems? For us, the Casablanca is a sold out performance.

Copyright 1998, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

This Article Feedback: 21st


Theta Digital Casablanca Surround Processor

Manufacturer: Theta Digital, 5330 Derry Ave. Suite R, Agourra Hills, CA 91301

Tel. 818 597 9195, Fax 818 597 1079

Review Unit Configuration: Nine Channel, all Superior DACs, with DTS card, Dolby Digital card, RF Demod card, video switcher card, and D/A tape Out card. Price as tested: $13,045


Theta Digital Casablanca Specifications

Inputs:

Analog audio:

6 stereo pairs (RCA)

Minimum Input Level: 50 mVrms

Input Impedance: 10 K ohms

Digital Audio:

Main Digital In Card:

10: 6 coaxial (RCA), 4 optical (2 TosLink, 2 open for optional AT&T or Theta Digital proprietary Single Mode)

AUX Digital In Card:

6: 2 AC- 3 RF (RCA), 1 AES/EBU (Balanced XLR), 1 BNC, 2 optical (1 TosLink, I open for optional AT&T or Theta Digital proprietary Single Mode)

Video: 10: 6 composite (RCA), 4 S- Video, NTSC and PAL compatible, Input level & impedance: 1Vpp, 75 ohm

IR Receiver: 3.5mm stereo phone jack (rear panel).

Outputs:

Analog audio:

Speaker outputs: 9 channels max.: Left, Right, Center, Left Surround, Right Surround, Left Front Sub, Right Front Sub, Left Surround Sub, Right surround Sub (All balanced XLR along with separate + and - single ended [RCA] outputs for each. The Single- ended outputs on the Superior card consist of a + [RCA] output for each channel).

Speaker outputs: 6 min on Standard quality single ended card: Left, Right, Center, Sub, Left Surround, Right Surround.

Speaker outputs:

2 min on preamp version (Balanced XLR available in Superior Quality only).

Output Impedance:

Superior Card: 10 ohm each SE output, 20 ohm each balanced output.

Standard Cards: 36.5 ohm each SE output, 70 ohm each balanced output.

Maximum Output Level: Balanced: 20 Vrms, Single Ended: 10 Vrms

2 stereo (RCA) pair (Tape Out) on Analog In card.

Digital audio:

2 coaxial (RCA) Tape Out's on Main Digital In card.

Video: 4: 1 Main, I Tape out (both composite [RCA]), I Main, 1 Tape out (both S- Video), all on Video In card, NTSC and PAL compatible

Remote Power: 3 rear panel 3.5mm mono phone jacks: + 12VDC (continuous) triggered.

Conversion:

A/D Conversion: 20- bit Delta- Sigma, D/A Conversion: 20- bit Ladder (8X over sampling) with superior quality card, 18 bit Delta- Sigma with standard quality card.

Frequency Response: 20 Hz- 20 kHz, +/- 0.2dB, Ref lKHz

THD+Noise: Less than 0.002% @ IKHz, maximum output level

Dynamic Range: 120dB minimum, 20KHz bandwidth, Ref. IKHZ

Signal to Noise Ratio: l20dB minimum, 20KHz bandwidth, Ref. IKHz at maximum output level

Power Requirements: 117 VAC, 50- 60 Hz, 120 watts with all options installed.

Dimensions: 19"W x 16"D x 7.5"H (483 x 406 x 191 mm)

Weight: 43 Lbs (19.5 Kg) Stand alone, 50 Lbs (22.7 Kg) Boxed with accessories

Environment: Operating Temperature: 32 to 95 F (0 to 35 C)

Storage Temperature: - 22 to 167 F (- 30 to 75 C)

Relative Humidity: 95% maximum without condensation

Remote Control: I hand- held, battery powered control unit uses 2 AAA batteries


Associated Gear: Theta Digital Casablanca review

Speakers: Front right and left: Analysis Omegas, full range ribbon loud speaker

Aerial Acoustics CC3 center & SR3 surrounds; Hsu HRSW12V subwoofer, Sunfire True Subwoofer

Amplifiers: Sunfire Cinema Grand, Sunfire stereo amplifiers

Preamps: Cary SLP-90L tube linestage

Laser Disc player: Pioneer CLD-D702

VCR: RCA VR730HF, Super VHS

TV: 34" direct view Mitsubishi, CS-35601

Tuner: Rotel RH10 'Michi'

Digital Playback: Meridian 508.20 CD player, Theta Data III transport

Analog: All Wilson Benesch, including turntable, ACT Two carbon fiber arm, Carbon cartridge, and Stage One Phono Preamp

Cables and interconnects: Nordost SPM Reference interconnects and SPM speaker wire; Nordost Red Dawn speaker wire and Red Dawn interconnects

Equipment stand: Billy Bags "I Beam"

Tweaks: Black Diamond Racing: The Shelf, The Source, Cones Mk 3 & 4, and Those Things; Joe Jane's "Video Essentials"

21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com

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