Theta Chroma Digital to Analog Converter Reviewed

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What's caused the aggravation is the camp favouring the pure sonic quality of the non-HDCD Theta Chroma over the HDCD-equipped version. The cause of these audiophiles, reviewers, designers, etc, foaming at the mouth is the 6dB cut which affects the output of a non-HDCD signal going through an HDCD system. According to Pacific Microsonic spec, this is necessary to account for the allegedly greater dynamic range of HDCD playback vs normal CD playback, though conspiracy theorists might smell a rodent, i.e. giving HDCD discs an unfair advantage when A/B'ing them with non-HDCD discs of the same material.

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As the non-HDCD Chroma doesn't suffer this, and as it uses a different filtering system, there's a cult of non-HDCD Chroma users arguing that it blows away the HDCD edition . Which it most certainly does. In spades. On the other hand, Theta has built into the HDCD version a little feature which - provided that neither Theta, nor its dealers, nor its distributors actually activate it, thereby pissing off Pacific Microsonics - can be used to override the 6dB cut. According to the redoubtable Pedro at Absolute Sounds, any audiophile who can solder should be able to do it. More importantly, Pedro points out that the HDCD version is outselling the non-HDCD version 4-to-1. (How many customers are performing the tweak, I can't say.)

It would appear, then, that the prevailing wisdom calls for buying the HDCD Chroma 396, which you then circumcise. Now that's something you would have to undertake making a purchase, and dealers aren't supposed to do the mod, so you'll only be able to audition an unmodified version in a shop. Even so, I've opted for the HDCD Chroma the modification for the review (see sidebar). I've even heard of one canny dealer who performed the mod and fitted a switch to bypass it...which makes you wish the Chroma came that way. Whatever, I used it with the Marantz CD-12 and Theta Data III transports, as well as feeding into it the digital output of the Marantz CD-63SE. Comparisons were made with the Marantz DA-12, Audio Alchemy DAC-In-The Box, the CD-63SE's DAC and Theta's Pro Gen V, the latter equipped with HDCD.

So subtle were some of the differences between Chroma and Pro Gen V that I spent as much time monitoring through headphones - the DACs fed directly into a Stax energiser driving Omegas - as I did through the Krell KRC-3 driving a GRAAF 5050 and the Sutherland 2000 pre-amp/power amps, into Wilson WATT/Puppy System V. What caused the confusion wasn't the way in which the Pro Gen V bettered its baby sister but the similarities between the two. The modified HDCD Chroma sounded just like a scaled down Pro Gen V, much in the way that a Sonus Faber Concertino sounds like a baby Extrema.

In the first paragraph, I said that the Pro Gen V 'astounds me with its transparency, speed, coherence and freedom from digitalia.' The same words apply to the modded HDCD Chroma, but by degree, relative to what is the norm at a far lower price point. Make no mistake: the Chroma isn't a 'compromised' Pro Gen V. While it lacks the latter's ability to resolve the very finest detail and the lower register power which makes the Pro Gen V a natural with systems bearing a surfeit of wooferage, the Chroma can emulate the V's prowess in a smaller, less-revealing system.

Played through less bass-intensive systems, the sort unlikely to exploit the full impact of Pro Gen V-derived bass, the Chroma still manages (with both HDCD and non-HDCD material) to deliver as much low-end information as is required to convey
weight and rhythm. You'll find yourself, time and again, recognising the sound of the Pro Gen V in the Chromasomes. [ANDREW: PLEASE LEAVE THE 'C' IN CHROMASOME UPPERCASE!!!!!] More impressive still is the transparency, allowing you to hear through the performance so much so that you'll find yourself willing even to do some A/B listing to the cables accumulating in your spares box. This is genuine high-end performance on the cheap, limited only in absolute terms.

For those who still harbour the fear and loathing which keeps LPs a'spinning, the Chroma is analytical yet warm, fast yet non-aggressive. If anything tells you categorically that you're not listening to a 4000 DAC, it's a slight lack of refinement at the frequency extremes - both ends . And that aside, the Chroma has enough resolving powerto all but hand you, for example, a list of the differences between, say, a CD and a direct CD-R copy, or gold-vs-aluminium. For my money? That makes it the best sub- 1000 DAC in the land. And I'm keeping it as my entry-level reference.

Oh, and another thing: it's one sweet way to add HDCD to the Marantz CD-63SE from which you'd rather not be parted...


Distributed by Absolute Sounds, 58 Durham Road, London SW20 0DE. Tel 0181-947 5047. Fax 0181-879 7962. E-mail 73064.1710@compuserve.com

*Why do two ex-Buffalo Springfield members have HDCD-encoded CDs? And Hendrix didn't play on Stills' first solo? Do I smell a plot? I think we should be told...)

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STOCK VERSUS MODIFIED
Let's deal with this as succinctly as possible: the modification takes - literally - about five minutes to perform. You simply cut one track and link two points with a small jumper. That's it. Armed with a couple of Chromas - stock, modified, witha nd without - I arrived at the following:

Best Sound: HDCD Chroma the modification
Best Value: Non-HDCD Chroma

Quite simply, the non-HDCD Chroma is cleaner, sweeter sounding and more detailed (with non-HDCD discs, of course) than the unmodified HDCD Chroma. But perform the modification and they're so close as to be nearly indentical. If nits need picking, then the modified HDCD Chroma still sounds a slight touch colder and more sterile than the non-HDCD Chroma. (Again, this is using non-HDCD discs.)

Perhaps the most telling experience of all is this: through the modified HDCD Chroma and using the test CDs which offer the same recordings in both HDCD and non-HDCD form, the non-HDCD recordings the HDCD versions. Sorry, gang, but I've just joined the anti-HDCD camp. MC, one of the first to object vocally, was absolutely right.


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HTR Product Rating for Theta Chroma Digital to Analog Converter

Criteria Rating

Performance

3

Value

3

Overall

3

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