What is high-end? Is it defined by price? Performance? There is a purported direct relationship between the two, deeming that as one increases, so must the other. In recent decades, a handful of manufacturers in the audio industry have managed to establish reputations for top-tier superior performance—albeit at like-tiered (read: stratospheric) prices. Theta Digital Corporation is one such manufacturer. Within a complete product line running the gamut from tower-esque monoblock amplifiers to robust digital-to-analog converters, their sole multi-channel preamp/processor is the Casablanca III HD Music and Cinema Controller. The Casablanca, now in its third incarnation, is by no means inexpensive, and when an organization demands a five figure price for a product, the customer has every right to demand that the performance is commensurate with its price. Does the Theta deliver this performance? Well, yes; however, getting there isn’t easy.
What drives a man to purchase a piece of equipment that costs more than his first car? I'll tell you. Earlier this year, I purchased a Marantz AV-8801, which I reviewed here. At first, I simply could not imagine sound getting any better. Movies were dynamic; music was smooth and sublime; it was A/V perfection to my ears. However, after a period of complete bliss with the AV-8801, I began to inexplicably want more. This was due in no part to a performance deficiency; I had simply reached a level of personal satisfaction so potent, I wondered how it might possibly be surpassed. Woe unto he who enters this wallet-threatening mindset in which sheer satisfaction itself can breed, of all things, dissatisfaction. I then began to casually research high-end processors. This process was initiated purely out of curiosity, with the understood notion that these machines are all overpriced money pits that barely deserved the time it took to research them.
My research brought me through the usual roundup of high-end manufacturers: Classe, McIntosh, Anthem, etc. This high-end research was purely academic, as I have oft-times spoken against spending large amounts of money on A/V processors—primarily because they are generally out of date within months of release. I remembered reading about modular designs promoted by NAD a few years ago, and I began to wonder if any of these high-end companies had the foresight to take the same approach. My research brought me to Theta Digital Corporation. Once I visited the website and clicked my way through the Theta Casablanca Configurator, I closed the window immediately after seeing the configured price. But then, I decided to find what existing users had to say, which invariably led me to search online forums where I was able to ready pages of owner testimonials and experiences. Shortly after learning that the Theta Casablanca platform would be receiving Dirac Live room correction in its fourth iteration, I decided that I was going to purchase one.
Ordering, Design, and Setup
I purchased my Theta Casablanca III HD from Theatermax (see footnote), which was a remarkable experience because the point man for Theatermax is also a long-time Theta owner. Upon receipt, unboxing the Theta Casablanca III HD was an absolute joy. The chassis is aesthetically pleasing from every angle; however, the design of the faceplate is a model of perfect industrial design (as always, the unboxing video is posted at the end of this review). There are no logos sullying the faceplate of the Casablanca, save for the single winged “T” that is the Theta emblem. In lieu of the basic, symmetrical faceplate is an asymmetrical design that boldly announces the class within which this processor exists.
Frustratingly, setting up the Casablanca III HD was not nearly as easy as the unboxing was. Upon installing it into the system and attaching the HDMI cable to its single HDMI output, I got the dreaded snow effect on my display. My heart sank to the Earth’s core as I restarted my display, only to be met by the same effect. After extensive troubleshooting, I found out that the length of the HDMI cable run was the issue in my setup. Thankfully, I had an active HDMI extender lying around, so inserting that into the video chain fixed things completely.
With the video out of the way, I was ready to get into the on-screen display (OSD) to dial in the Casablanca. I quickly learned that there is no OSD. While this complicated setup quite a bit, it also came with a level of satisfaction because it let me know that HDMI passthrough truly is passthrough here. Any pre/pro that claims pure passthrough but superimposes a menu or volume display over the displayed image is processing the video at some level. Satisfied with the video capabilities, albeit chagrined that I had to use the Casablanca’s on-unit display, I proceeded to get started.
You will need the owner manual, a tape measure, a sound-level meter, and a pair of wax-free ears in order to set up the Theta Casablanca properly. I set delays and speaker levels based on a sound level meter, selecting which volume number I wanted to represent reference (I selected 50 for reference). I then set crossovers, assigned DAC outputs, and made a plethora of configuration modifications to fine-tune my listening experience. This took some time; however, one must not lose sight of the fact that the Casablanca III HD is a technical powerhouse, and the feature list differs from that which a mass-market processor possesses. The feature list is too extensive to list in its entirety; however, I will list the five most interesting product features here:
1. The ability to assign one subwoofer to each of the five core channels for a total of five subwoofers, independently configured to blend with its assigned channel
2. The ability to select separate crossover types (Butterworth, L-Riley, etc.) and sub-configurations (slopes, etc.) for each channel individually
3. Analog volume control—this is a big one, as volume control that takes place in the digital domain risks taxing limited MIPS resources
4. The modular, crystal clear digital-to-analog converters (DACs) which is Theta’s claim to fame.
5. The ability to switch between HDMI and a digital-audio input source at will. This is one of my favorite features, as when I'm using one visual source (say, a computer), I can listen to another source while maintianing the HDMI video on the original source.
Bring a No.2 Pencil
I approached my initial tests with a mix of excitement and skepticism. On one hand, I was excited to finally listen to what a truly high-end pre-amp sounded like; on the other hand, I wondered if the sound I did hear would be commensurate with the fiscal demand of ownership. Let me get this out of the way right now—the Theta Casablanca III HD has provided me with the best audio I have ever heard in any room. Bar none. I played a battery of test material through the Casablanca III HD, and I was pushed to rediscover my music. My ears have been opened to vocal textures that exist in recordings that I simply didn’t know existed. Kelly Clarkson’s O Holy Night was a revelation, as her voice was more lifelike than I’ve ever heard; Selah’s You Are My Hiding Place, with the Casablanca, had all the gravitas and emotion that their vocals could demand. For music, no better A/V processor exists. As much as the Casablanca III HD impressed me for music, for movies, my system was taken to new heights that words cannot describe. Whether it was the titanic clash of otherworldly warriors in Man of Steel, a gripping starship attack in Star Trek into Darkness, or the spacious concert acoustics of Hit Man: David Foster & Friends, the Theta Casablanca delivered detail, precision, and soundstage with aplomb. I’m trying not to gush its praises incessantly, but truly—the Theta Casablanca III HD is a cut above any other A/V processor that I’ve heard.
I’m going to leave you with this: The Theta Casablanca III HD is, in my opinion, the best A/V processor in existence today.
THETA DIGITAL CASABLANCA III HD: UNBOXING VIDEO
Footnote 1: My dealer is Craig Shumer of Theatermax. They were a joy to work with and I highly recommend them.