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Theta Universal Transport 2    Theta Universal  

December 2008

The search  of King of Transports continues

As  far as legends in audio go, this is one hell of a legend.  Theta for me is a symbol of absolute top level gear,  something inaccessible, expensive, cult symbol.
And it is so  macho, so american, so big. The fact that the drawer is half meter wide makes it a humvee of the CD kingdom. An overkill.

In the mid nineties, few US companies had that status of world superstars, popularized outside of the US by Stereophile magazine. Remember, there was no internet back then.
In CD  department Wadia and Theta were the two competitors for the crown, in amplifier department - Levinson and Krell.

The history of Theta is written HERE

Theta TransportThis pretty photo was stolen from internet. My Theta is black.

I never dreamed about owning a real Theta, but one day - I snapped it from US ebay.  Days seemed like weeks, but finally the box landed in my home. Or should I say the crate - because box is inappropriate word for the cube THAT BIG. 
To put things into perspective,  theta is half meter wide, half meter deep, and 20 cm high. It must hold the title of the largest CD player in the world, maybe only beaten by the Forsell Air Reference.

I don't remember how much it costed when new, but probably close to 5000 USD.  I paid 500 today.

Well, buying a childhood dream is like bouncing onto the Miss School -  40 years later. Can be  a recipe for big disappointment.

And it was.
Before I could hear how it sounds, I had a good look inside. Theta engineering, a whole ton of it ! I love to learn about honest engineering, to look over the shoulder of the world's best engineers, HOW THINGS SHOULD BE DONE.  I have seen enough of cheap players, and I was so disappointed after testing Wadia WT3200 which turned out to be a dressed up Philips CD960.
Now MY THETA is another story - this is the real McCoy.

theta data

After removal of the gigantic cover I saw the inside - and nearly fainted! Inside there is simply an entire Philips laser disc player even with own chassis. I mean not just the mechanism, not some PCB, but WHOLE PLAYER is put in the Theta oversized box.
Speaking of boxes, Theta box is the cheapest steel box you can have, nothing like Wadia overkill alu boxes. It is of lesser quality than the cheapest Chinese goodies of today, like Music Angel, Vincent or Shanling. The C shaped steel pressed chassis is not even properly welded. Horror.

If you want the original thing, here it is:
Philips CDV 400
CDV 400
I guess it would be easier for Theta as a company if they called themselves for example Hill and they wouldn't have to put a new logo, just remove the P and IPS from pHILLips and voila! You have a new marvel for Stereophile to rave about.
(even the additional small buttons right of the display are present inside the Theta but unused !!!)

Anyway, back to Theta - I knew that they use some sort of laser disc, I just did not know if it is the Pioneer, Sony, Panasonic or Philips. Now I know - its the Philips.

Wait a minute you may say, haven't they added inside a whole bunch of subtle improvements ?
Blackgate caps? - nope.
Any caps at all ?
- nope.
Precision clock ?
- nope.
Bituminous felt ?
- nope.
Oversized transformer?
- nope.
Shottky diodes?
- nope.
Low noise or low drop regulators ?
- nope.
ferrite rings ?
- nope.
Silver wires ?
- nope.
Unfortunately - absolutely nothing. Not one single point.

The only contribution from Theta is the luxury front panel - quite nice, and the bypass from the SP/DIF generator chip to the output PCB. They add some sort of buffer which forms SP/DIF.

Above- Theta's only contribution is the square  PCB which forms the SP/DIF output signal. They call it reclocking, but there is no quartz or clock, so I guess it is just a gate buffer.

There is a normal usual set of CD player Philips brand chips like in every 50 Euro Philips CD - decoder SAA7310 and digital filter SAA7220p/B

Above you can see how Theta steals the sp/dif and clock signals from the saa 7220 chip in a bypass fashion a'la Fikus.

Mr. Robert Harley, GOD KNOWS WHY considered to be the digital gear guru, (excuse me Mr. Bob, nothing personal, but if you think that taking a supermarket video player for 300 bucks and putting it into fake box, selling it for 5900 bucks is DESIGNING,  than I say you are an idiot).

Here is what Stereophile wrote:

I put the Linn CD player up against some very tough competition—the Theta Data Universal Transport driving the Audio Research DAC1-20. Both the Data and DAC1-20 are, in my opinion, some of the best digital playback products yet designed. Coincidentally, they are about the same price as the Linn CD player ($5900 vs $5590). During Linn's visit, they encouraged me to compare their player to any combination of processor and transport I wanted, regardless of price. Thus the Data/DAC1-20 seemed an appropriate reference.  (from Robert Harley review)

Back to the real world of Theta (digital done right !!!)

The SP/DIF is taken from leg 14th of SAA7220  (as it should have been) and some kind of 74HCXXXX digital chip replicates the square wave. The identity of that chip is removed by Theta genius engineer who knows no better but to scratch off the chip identity, oh puhlleeeze!.  it is a 20 cent worth of electronics.  It even has own transformer (3 dollars) and a regulator - another half buck. So the electronic contribution from Theta is worth maximum 5 dollars. OK, maybe 7.

Above: I added the Tantalum 100 uF / 16 V cap across the power supply of the SAA7220 to improve the squareness of SP/DIF signal.

Above: I added the Tantalum 100 uF / 16 V cap across the power supply of the SAA7310 to improve the performance and jitter.

I am ready to forgive Theta the whole stupid story if the extra board makes the stock Philips sound like the Theta Legend should. If their board for 7 dollars is doing the trick - I don't mind. Thats the way to do it. But what if it doesn't ?

I expect the laser disc mechanism to be very good for normal CD playback  because the servo and motor are better  than the ones we find in regular players.  The torque of that motor is 30 times bigger than that of a normal CD motor. In this player - the motor comes from Sony and the laser comes also from Sony (in my wet dream I visualized a gigantic CDM1 magnetic swing arm mechanism from Philips  ;-)

Khs130A laser assembly

Khs130A laser assembly

There is also another laser disk article about the Pioneer

Who knows, maybe we small mortals can buy the stock laser disk from Philips (or any other really) on ebay and do the SP/DIF bypass, maybe even add a fet buffer. So we can enjoy the sound of Theta without the bloody legend and attached price tag. I guess Laser disc can be bought today for less than 100 Euro, even wooden Pioneer Elite. And you can buy the video disks for nothing and watch them on TV.

Theta Data
Above: the Philips  player removed from inside of the Theta - just like the Alien out of Sigourney Weaver's guts. Theta my ass, that's my message to them.

Listening to Theta Data Universal 2 with Tube Satch 2.9 (nicknamed The Bitch 1.0) converter and compared to stock Kenwood DP 8010 cd player as transport.

My first impression was that it sounds average. but switching back and forth  to Kenwood a conclusion started to emerge. Theta bass is better defined, stronger and deeper. Sound stage is wider with the Theta. Separation of instruments is better with Theta. Highs are better with Theta, and most apparent difference - for me the MOST important one is that Theta draws me into the performance. Listening to Caetano Veloso Foreign Sound is a hallucinogenic experience with the Theta. My brain is immediately fooled that I am inside a vibrating cloud of sound, and Mr. Veloso is too real and too close for my heterosexual comfort.
Going back to Kenwood - as fantastic as it is as transport, and with the clock and everything like oscons everywhere - the music compared to Theta  is only OK,
merely good, its there.

The question remains, would a stock Philips laser disk with a bypass SP/DIF output sound equally good? How about much better laser disk machines like Pioneer Elite, Denon, or Panasonic ? What about better laser disc WITH clock , bypass blackgates and oscons ? With ferrite rings, bituminous felt, spike feet, and low noise low drop regulators???
That question you must answer yourselves...

Since I know exactly what the SAA7310 and SAA7220 duo is capable of, the magical difference of Theta must be due to the ultra precise and strong motor. So the general direction of laser disk transports is worth following. Especially that Laser disc movies have better quality than DVD and the movies are dirt cheap.
Or wait a minute - maybe the trick is inside that small additional PCB ? Maybe Theta engineers found a magic formula which makes a great transport from mediocre mechanism ?

If that is true, will that green PCB like a magic panacea make my other players sound that good ?
I am gonna test it both ways: The THETA without the magic board and the Philips CD player with Theta board added.
That seems to be just perfect experiment for the lazy hangover afternoon, january the 1st 2009.

story to be continued .....

Theta player without Theta PCB contribution

First, I traced the Theta SP/DIF with my scope. The signal is VERY low at below 0,5 V pp but is PERFECT SQUARE. The best I have ever seen.
Next, I disconnected the additional green PCB and I wired the SAA7220 output leg 14th directly to RCA of SP/DIF output and the ground to green PCB ground and 75 Ohms across the RCA,  in this case, the player becomes PURE Philips machine without any of the "genius"  Theta engineering.
In this mode it sounds as good as the Theta mode, or even slightly better. I switched 3 times and I think I marginally prefer Philips direct mode. There is better trebles, wider stage and more naturally flowing sound. It did not loose any of the magical properties. So the conclusion is: Theta company not only wanted to cheat us by putting the entire unmodded player inside their box and pricing it 20 x over, but also their questionable contribution - the small output buffer with 4 pieces of HC74XXX chips does not improve anything.
The whole product is a scam.  I just bought the original Philips laserdisc at ebay for 11 Eu today.
I know Theta company later produced many highend products and developed itself. Maybe - as they say - you must steal the first million to make money afterwards. We can still love Theta Data Universal but my message is - know exactly what you get - don't trust the American marketing. They are masters at that, more than masters of engineering.
After all - all good stuff has been invented by Philips and everybody used their products: Theta, Wadia, Jadis, Meridian, Cyrus, Sony, Quad, Marantz, Bang and Olufsen, Grundig, Loewe, Telefunken, Diora, Sugden, Nakamichi Micromega and even Audionote (transport). Shame that Philips could NEVER  utilize properly their own stuff. Their engineering was first rate, but marketing SUCKED big time.
I am very sorry, I must place Theta Data where it belongs - in the bunch of the biggest cheats in Audio history - together with Vincent, MHZS, Shanling 200, Wadia 3200 and Teac T1.