As recently as a year ago, any sane observer would have argued that the best thing that could happen to the home entertainment business would be an end to the format nonsense. The means of achieving this? The ready availability of 'universal disc players' at all price points. Successful UDPs would, without exception, play ANY 5in silver disc, including all manner of written-to and re-writeable types, with the exception of data rather than audio/video discs, e.g. CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs, which need computers to work.
Now it's gotten to the point where
OEM suppliers have decided to stop, or are about to stop producing CD-only
transports for smaller independents to buy, so nobbled universal drives will
probably end up in so-called 'CD-only' machines for purists.
SACD and DVD-A have proven to be complete and utter fiascos, beyond salvation, whatever anyone tells you. (One wag told me that their combined global sales in 2003-4 were LESS than the sales of LPs.) So UDPs no longer seem so appealing. Or necessary.
To make matters even screwier, the iPod has inflicted so much damage on
the entire notion of discs as music carriers that the market for disc players of any sort is disappearing.
The what happens? Along comes Theta's Compli, which seems like the answer to a raft of problems. And it has the sonic power to disarm even those who refuse to admit that, their commercial failure aside, SACD and DVD-A did have so much to offer. But it begs a question that cannot simply be waved away with a Gallic shrug and a whiff of Gauloise: who the hell needs a universal player costing £4482?
In my multi-channel system of Lexicon MC1 A/V processor, Sony TA-P9000ES line-level multi-channel pre-amp, Theta Intrepid 5-channel amplifier, Marantz plasma screen and five MartinLogan Speakers, I have a much cherished Denon DVD-2900 universal player. It has NEVER disappointed me, though its design brief is that of an affordable machine. I have used it without complaint. But I am not so easily pleased that I don't realise it can be bettered in part by a standalone SACD player dedicated to the task, a CD-audio-only player dedicated to its task, a DVD video player dedicated
So what does Theta's Compli bring to the table for five times the outlay?
Let's not even question the video side, because more and more we're learning that most brand-name DVD video players from £200 up deliver acceptable images, provided that you have a projector, screen or other display device able to resolve the images. I've even seen some superb results form the sort of unlicensed shite sold in supermarkets and newsagents.* I'm not trying to diminish the importance of video circuitry, when plenty of engineers will tell you that a video signal is far more complex to resolve than audio, but so much of a player - DVD or universal - is kit of parts made to an astonishingly high standard by the OEM supplier. I can't recall the last time I saw an unwatchable DVD player, yet I know of plenty that are unlistenable.
Please: I'm not trying to challenge the notion of garbage-in-garbage-out. But I have a sneaking suspicion that, for visual playback and with any given budget, the user is better off allocating greater expenditure on screen/projector than on the DVD player. But to guarantee that this isn't even an issue, the Compli provides sublime output from its S-video, component and composite outputs, while - in typical Theta fashion - making available options for a Serial Digital Interface (SDI) and the company's own Ultra Sync II 480p output board using Faroudja Labs' Directional Correlational Deinterlacing® (DCDi® ) technology. The review model was option-free.
Even so, it was immediately noticeable that the Theta showed obvious visual gains over the Denon. Which it should, of course, given the price differential. In particular, there was a reduction in the staircase effect on diagonals, primary colours were brighter, and there seemed to me an clear improvement in colour graduations, especially on sunsets, flames and others with high red/yellow or orange content.
While some might find this ludicrous, the Theta was positively magical when it came to resolving grey scales, a boon for those of us who cherish old monochrome movies be they film noir, silent-era or early Kurosawa. Grab the BFI's DVD of
You can take it as a given that the Compli is using a top-end transport section adapted to Theta's needs, probably a Pioneer. To this, Theta adds its own video and audio stages, audiophile output stages, a super power supply and the usual raft of high-quality designer components shunned by mass market makers. It's certainly a chunky, well-made machine, its 17.5x5.254x15in (WHD) belying a weight of 23lb.
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Yet while the back is filled with the socketry associated with a UDP,
even with the options blanked off, the front is rather minimalist. Its
controls include, along with the absolute minimum of necessary buttons
(play/pause/on-off/open-close buttons), on;ly two extras: one to choose
Pro-Scan for the optional video circuitry and another to defeat the
video display when listening in purist, music-only mode.
All other controls, including menu control, numeric keypad, etc., are
relegated to a rather tacky remote, with a teensy joystick for
manoeuvring the menus that will have you cursing in frustration. But
such is the price of being smaller than Sony or Pioneer: you get stuck
with generic, doggie-do for remotes. Odds are, the people who can afford
Complis will have custom-installed home theatres, with Crestron or
similar remotes instead of this plastic joke.
While the Theta certainly dazzled me sonically in the aforementioned
multi-channel system, it was more than just acknowledging that here was a
player that provided equal weight to the primary sources of DVD-Audio,
DVD (video), SACD and vanilla CD. I suspect that the latest Linns, the
new upscale Denon and a handful of others have also resolved the thorny
problem of curate's egg UDPs, where one format shines, one is OK and one
or two are crud, but, so far and in my experience, this is one of the
best to extract superb performance from all four. And the test was not
in the multi-channel system, but when using the Compli as...a
two-channel CD player.
Who knows: maybe this is the litmus test for universal players? After
all, most people have more CDs than DVDs - certainly than SACDs and
DVD-As - and more people spend time listening to music, even if just in
the background, than sitting down to watch films. So is it not logical
that CD playback should be as good as if not better than the rest?
I had ascertained to my satisfaction that the Compli worked
stunningly well with surround formats, be it DVD-A, SACD or Dolby and/or
DTS off DVD video discs. Theta products always have a characteristic
smoothness, sheen and coherence to disarm those who fail to give
surround sound a chance. The Compli has this in spades, exorcising the
hated-by-purist artefacts that suggest way too much processing, or sonic
trickery. If you want to experience truly all-encompassing, 360-degree
surround without holes, or a sense of five mono signals, a properly
set-up system with a Compli driving it could very easily convert you.
But back to the litmus test: vanilla CD. I shlepped the Compli into
the two-channel room and treated it as a CD player (and as an SACD
player for two-channel discs, such as those from Audio Fidelity). I was
warned that it would prove to be a thoroughbred with the oldest of
silver disc formats. And it did.
If musicality is the goal for audiophiles, replacing specifications, accuracy, low distortion, soundstaging or other
as the banner for this decade, then the Theta will rattle not a few
cages. However neutral I try to remain, in my heart of hearts I
universal players to end the bullshit, to unite every faction;
musicality is one of the missing ingredients so far. Believe me: the
Theta does for the high-end what the Denon DVD-2900 does for the real
Its CD playback is wholly audiophilic, with sound not unsurprisingly
reminiscent of golden age players such as its great-great-great
granddaddy, the CAL Tempest II. The Compli is sweet, warm and
natural-sounding, the sort of player you can alternate with turntable
playback and not feel nauseous when going from black plastic to silver.
It sounds like, well, a 4k CD player, the Compli's on-board DAC not
inspiring for a moment the acquisition of an outboard device. Its L-R
stereo spread is a seamless as its 360 degree surround envelope, its
resolution first-class. And it begs the following party trick: find an
anti-SACD type, slip in a two-channel SACD and don't say a word. If the
victim doesn't admit that it's among the best CD playback he's ever
heard, then tell him you know a supermarket where he can buy a 49 UDP.
Grumbles are few, mainly minor things like three-speed rather than
Ferrari-quick variable speed search on DVD, no zoom control and other
non-essentials. The remote is a piece of junk. But I'll say this much:
if you don't want to restrict your digital playback to CD, if a part of
you wonders what you're missing, the Theta Compli is one of the best
ambassadors yet for the new formats. The realisation that all flavours
of 5in disc can live harmoniously in a single chassis has to be the best
news an audiophile can hear.
*How do I know they're unlicensed? Easy: 1) certain format owners are
winning lawsuits hither and yon, and 2) any legitimate, law-abiding
manufacturer can tell you that if you pay for the rights to Dolby, DTS,
SACD, MLP, MPEG, THX and all of the other alphabet soup ingredients,
you're looking a fees that simply do not allow for the retail sale of a
player at 49 inc VAT. At least, not with the maths used in this
As is necessary with a universal player, the Compli provides six-channel
analogue audio outputs, along with digital outputs for PCM, DTS and
Dolby Digital. It incorporates Theta's proprietary High-Speed Digital
Interface, originally designed for Theta's two-channel Generation VIII
Digital-to-Analog Converter. The Compli is also be able to connect to
the sister processors, the Casablanca and Casa Nova, with their high
speed input options.
Theta itself describes the universality thusly: 'Compli lets you play
nearly any audio, video, and image format: DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, DVD-R,
DVD-RW, SACD, Audio CD, Video CD, CD-R, and CD-RW. The Compli is also
compatible with CD-R/RW, DVD-R/RW and MP3 formatted material, with some
restrictions.' I have not yet found a disc, in three months' heavy
usage, that baffled it. KK