Theta Compli Universal Disc Player Reviewed

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Theta_Compli_universal_player.gifAs 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 , as opposed to non-license-paying universal players can be had for under £300. So far, so good for the revolution. But a lot of other stuff has also happened alongside the arrival of this expeller of consumer confusion. In no particular order:

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.

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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 task, and so on. But, hey, for £800 or whatever it's retail was, the machine is a delight - surely to be regarded as a future classis, if the DVD era is to produce any.

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 and check out the rainiest, muddiest scenes. View Criterion's , especially the shadows in the Vienna street scenes. Details come through that just vanish with lesser players. But not £3600's worth over, say, the Denon - unless you're either extremely critical, or have a superior display device.

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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