Theta Carmen Universal Player Reviewed

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Bless Theta's sense of humour. By naming one player 'Miles' and another 'Pearl', the company showed how to appeal to a wide cross-section of customers and music tastes. The former could have been named for, say, Miles Davis or Buddy Miles or the Who, while the latter could be in honour of Pearl Bailey, Pearl Jam, Minnie Pearl, Janis Joplin or Tom Rapp. DaViD? Try Hal David, D W Griffith, David Lee Roth. Now we have Carmen, a DVD transport-only, which could be so-named for the opera, for Carmen McRae, or - and I'd like to think that this is the case given that it is a device purchased for visual as well as audible prowess - Carmen Miranda. This flexible nomenclature is no conceit: the Carmen is one of the most adaptable DVD devices I've ever encountered.

What's debatable is whether or not it obviates the DaViD player. Given that just about every worthy A/V processor on the market has an array of on-board D/A converters, transports seem a more sensible way of distributing one's funds; the savings in this case amount to over a grand: �3299 versus the DaViD's �4650. And, despite the DaViD's superior power supplies and chunkier case, Carmen boasts being "the next evolution of DVD transports by Theta. Using third generation DVD technology and new audio and video circuits developed in the last few months..." Hence, the video section be superior to the DaViD's, so a side-by-side demo is advised.

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Carmen has allowed for every implementation of the 5in disc bar DVD-A and SACD, including 96kHz 24-bit compatibility, while good old CD is not neglected as this uses Pioneer's dual-laser transport as its heart. It is therefore as careful of CD playback as it is of DVD. Moreover, it employs separate low-jitter crystal oscillators for independently processed video and audio. Taking this further, the audio and video circuits are completely separated to keep video noise away from the audio circuits and audio noise away from the video circuits.

Carmen uses fourteen highly filtered and regulated power supplies, comprised of multiple transformers for absolute isolation between circuits, and each supply and circuit features integral RF suppression for greater reduction of interference. The drive mechanism's twin laser diodes are specified as 650nm for DVD and 780nm for CD, CD-R, CD-RW and VCD; the player had no problems with any of the CD-Rs or CD-RWs I tried, but - as we are continually advised by Barry Fox - don't be too complacent, as writeable discs are hardly consistent. Special low-jitter digital servo circuits control the motor speed, laser tracking and focus, while other dedicated circuits use "sophisticated parametric statistical analysis" to correct errors on less than pristine discs bearing the ravages of fingerprints, dust and other ill-handling.

There's much to remind you that this is based on a Pioneer transport; I discovered it when I used the Carmen's nasty, crowded, non-illuminated, re-badged Pioneer remote and my DV-414 prang to life. Another ill-advised economy is that Theta, while adding a lavish metal front piece to the tray, stopped short of replacing the utterly shitty plastic tray with a metal one, and failed to improve its operation. The tray action, without question, the noisiest, roughest-sounding I've come across, worse even than the �179 Wharfedale machine and my two-year-old Pioneer DV-414 (under $200 Stateside). For �3299, this thing should operate like a Leica. It's enough to detract from the joys of ownership, like having a Ferrari with an incurable gearshift glitch. Shame on you, Theta.

As one who's not too fussed about the graphic user displays - I remember MS-DOS, so anything else is high art - I won't carp about the Carmen's. Basically, it's your standard fare with nested menus. In conjunction with the remote, you can deal with every single standard command known to DVD bar zoom facility. The minimalist front panel includes Stand-by, Display Dimmer, Stop, Play, Pause, Forward/Reverse Track, Low/High Speed Scan and Tray Open/Close. It's clean and very Theta-ish, with a lucid display and a misleading air of opulence - the latter dispelled as soon as that tray opens. You sit there wondering how much they pay the guy who has the job of pouring sand onto the tray's runners.

Carmen was slotted into two systems, both auditioned through five small Martin-Logans and a REL Strata III and viewed through a 29-in Panasonic 4:3 monitor. The first was the Lexicon MC-1 through Acurus and Marantz amplifiers, the second with the Musical Fidelity HTP processor and HT600 5-channel amplifier. Software ranged from a slew of new DTS-plus-Dolby-Digital-5.1-on-the-same-disc titles including and the first three movies, separate DTS and Dolby Digital versions of , and Dolby-only titles including , assorted Bond movies, and some remastered Elvis movies. Music-only material, in addition to straight CDs, included a handful of Classic 96/24 discs.

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