Given that Theta's sublime Pro Gen V is a device which consistently astounds me with its transparency, speed, coherence and freedom from digitalia, there should be no surprise that it's my reference converter. Much as I adore the Marantz DA-12 KI Signature, it's not exactly a production model, so the Theta flagship serves perfectly as a currently-available yardstick.
You can imagine, then, the joy with which I received the news that Theta has a new entry level converter, replacing the three-year-old Cobalt 307. Just why it was felt that the Cobalt - one of the few affordable DACs able to challenge the bargains made by Audio Alchemy - needed replacing I'm not sure, but the Chroma 396 ups the ante while retaining 'entry level' status. In other words, it's a better than the Cobalt but not a lot dearer, at £849 versus the Cobalt's £699. If you're of the Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Width School Of Perceived Value, you'll see that £150 is but a nominal fee for the physical gains, before even considering the sonic ones.
Chroma, unlike the 'big paperback'-sized Cobalt, is a 'proper' 430x50x210mm (WHD) device. Conveniently if not coincidentally, it's just the right width to rest atop a Marantz CD-63SE, and low and sleek enough to be unobtrusive. The restricted depth, however, limits the number of components which might rest on top of it, in case your stacking plans differ from mine. What this larger-than-Cobalt case means is that there's space for a much bigger power supply and an improved circuit layout. And that alone is enough to justify the extra yard-and-a-half. Chroma is to Cobalt, in a number of ways, what a Marantz SE is to a non-SE model: better power supply, better chassis, sane price increase.
Two power supplies, one for the analogue section and one for the digital, reside to the left of the case, both capped with layers of vibration-deadening material. Indeed, it's stacked so thickly that the cover makes contact with it when screwed into place, adding to the unit's rigidity and the mutual damping of both the chassis cover and transformers. In addition to improving on the Cobalt's power supply and housing, Chroma also features better jitter rejection and a 'refined analog filter'. The motherboard fills the case, and it contains - despite the price of the Chroma - selected components for the brand-conscious consumer, like Wima polypropylene capacitors throughout the analogue section and Vishay bulk-foil resistors in the current-to-voltage conversion stage. The DAC is Burr-Brown's well-respected PCM-67, the 18-bit, x8 oversampling device found in the Cobalt.
If you study the Chroma 396, you see that it is absolutely straightforward and minimalist, as are most of the DACs on the planet. There's no on/off switch - you just leave it powered up all the time if you wish to avoid its tolerable 15-minute warm-up time - and you need only to choose between coaxial and optical inputs via a push-button on the beautifully finished 8mm thick front panel. Thoughtfully, Theta has included phase inversion (in the digital domain, of course) via the second front panel press button, and two LEDs to indicate lock and power-on. That's it - basic D/A conversion with frills. (And anyone who considers phase inversion a frill needs a session with ear syringe.)
At the back, an IEC socket accepts the three-core mains cable, and phono sockets are fitted for main (analogue) output, coaxial digital input and coaxial digital output. The standard model also comes with TOSlink optical input. You'll see, too, blanked-off apertures for the optional balanced outputs available for the professional version and for a second optical digital input (either AT&T or Theta's Laserlinque). So far, so normal. Now we come to the part where par-for-the-course audiophile paranoia enters the picture. The review sample featured the third and final option: HDCD.
This is not the place to get into an HDCD-vs-non-HDCD argument, for the simple reasons that (1) it's here, (2) many companies swear by it and (3) HDCD discs are (so they say) fully compatible with non-HDCD players. Basically, you can take it or leave it, needing to address it only when you want to hear a CD which is not available without HDCD encoding, eg Neil Young's latest, . And what the hell - it'll still play OK on a non-HDCD CD player. Slightly more arguable is non-HDCD discs allegedly sounding better through HDCD-equipped players and DACs because of superior filtering.
Whether or not want to spend the extra £100 for the Chroma's 396 HDCD option depends on your feelings about the pitiful trickle of HDCD discs from the major labels. Considering that I can only name a few HDCD-encoded titles worth owning (the Tom Petty box set, the aforementioned Neil Young CD, some Stephen Stills reissues, a Hendrix compilation*), I'm no longer so sure that the man/woman on the street has any great incentive to 'go HDCD'. But I digress.
Continue reading about the Chroma DAC on Page 2.