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Theta Casablanca AV Preamp Reviewed

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'Specifications', to me, is a euphemism in audio for 'license to tell whopping great lies'. But one number will tell you more about Theta's Casablanca than all the ad copy the company can muster: 41. That's the number of pages in the owner's manual, and you'll have to read at least 30 of 'em before you're fit to operate one of the most comprehensive, facility-laden devices since that classic 600-series Nakamichi pre-amp of yore. When a pre-amp occupies a space of 19x16x7.5in and weighs 43lb (specs, I know, but ones which can't be misinterpreted), it has to offer more than a massive case.

Especially when it costs £3998 just for the 'bare' chassis.

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That's the key to the Casablanca: You can include or delete as many options as you like. Credit goes to Cello for pioneering this approach with the original Suite, but it's the computer era which has turned modularity into something less-rarified than studio practice. In the newest pre-amp/processors, you get what is more-or-less the PC-card approach to system building. The Casablanca, Krell's KAV and the forthcoming Meridian 800 series have built on PC architecture to create what we can only hope will be components even more resistant to obsolescence, by virtue of 'upgradeability', than the computers they emulate.

Right after the Hi-Fi Show, I borrowed the importer's well-worn, certainly burned-in Casablanca, one complete with just about every analogue, digital, and video option, including the superior (nearly Pro Gen Va) level D/A converter and a selection of phono and XLR inputs and outputs. The choices were bewildering: balanced or single-ended, coaxial or TOSlink, S-video or RCA-phono, PAL or NTSC.

I ended up treating the Casablanca as if it were a high-end audio pre-amp which just happens to preclude the need for an external DAC, surround processor, or video routing system. For optimum performance, I restricted my A/V use to the S-video connection of a Theta DATA III laserdisc transport with NTSC discs and both DTS and Dolby Digital software. Then I dropped the Casablanca straight into a system employing a separate pre-amp, processor, and D/A converter, immediately enjoying the benefits of the need for two fewer mains outlets and a bunch of interconnects. (No, I'm not about to start extolling the virtues of receivers over separates; the Casablanca is about convenience rather than compromise.)

It's apparent that Theta, unlike Meridian, wanted to make the Casablanca easy to use rather than to cloud its operation in arcane rituals. A big f'rinstance: The analogue-to-digital selector, which chooses between the analogue or digital sources which share input numbers, is marked - surprise! - 'A-D'. No hidden commands, no seeking the function in the small print of some unlikely menu. Another f'rinstance: Whatever button you might hit for a sub-menu (all of which appear on-screen) will get you back to the main menu if you press it again. And you find yourself surfing through the wrong menus until you get the hang of it. What's so reassuring about this simple approach to menu selection is that you needn't worry about fouling up the configuration settings which your installer spent an afternoon establishing with SPL meter and tuned ears. If, for example, you accidentally find yourself looking at the rather daunting menu for the output levels of your five subwoofers, set to the nearest decibel, you needn't run out of the room screaming. Just hit the set-up button one more time and you're back at the previous menu.

Not that Theta is unique in this regard; I found the Lexicon DC-1 - after a 15-minute briefing from the UK distributor - to offer a similarly logical approach, and even the cheapest A/V receivers feature diamond-shaped up/down/left/right combined playback level/balance controls. (Oh! for the joysticks of 4-channel receivers of days gone by!) What Theta did was isolate the minor, less-often required functions while providing prominence for the most common (source selection and mode, for example), teaching the machine to do the rest.

This was made clear after I spent ages trying to get DTS discs to deliver something other than silence. Had I read the manual first, I'd have known that the Theta has to re-align itself between Dolby Digital and DTS when you have one laserdisc player with two digital outputs: one for DTS and normal digital sources, the other an RF connection for Dolby Digital. I didn't realize that the Casablanca was clever enough to select between them automatically, probably because there was a good 15 second delay. I spent more time than I care to admit scrolling through menus...

Eventually, I ended up with the Theta routing signals to and from the aforementioned DATA III, a second CD transport from Marantz, a Panasonic hi-fi VCR and monitor, both NICAM-equipped. The Theta's output fed, at various times, a six-channel Marantz power amp or a couple of Acurus amps, one with three channels and the other with two. The only aspect of performance I didn't sample was its control over subwoofers, simply because my 14x22ft room is well-served by three Apogee LCRs across the front and a pair of Apogee Ribbon Monitors for the rear. I may be an American, but I share not my nation's thuggish passion for stomach-churning bass. And if eight 6in woofers ain't enough for that room, well, it'll have to be no more dinosaur movies for me, I suppose.

Continue reading about the Casablanca on Page 2.

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