Theta David II DVD/CD transport
The Theta David II costs $7000 in its full-blown configuration, so you'd be forgiven for thinking it begins life as a solid block of aluminum before being whittled into shape by a team of unemployed Russian nuclear physicists. The David II's true lineage is conspicuously less auspicious. Papa was a Pioneer, but fear not, Momma's got a brand new bag. Theta may starts with a Pioneer transport and control mechanism, but they then go to town. Theta claims to take particular care in upgrading individual capacitors, but that's only the beginning. By the time they're finished, the electronic circuitry is essentially all Theta's own. And the final result is considerably greater than the sum of its parts.
The basic David II ($5000) offers a set of interlaced component outputs. Unlike most DVD players catering to the consumer market, the David's component outputs employ BNC connectors. These connectors are far more easy and reassuring to use than the standard RCA-type connectors, and most professional gear, including high-end CRT projectors, use them. Because I was feeding my Dwin TranScanner line multiplier, which has RCA jacks for inputs, I used three runs of Straight Wire Silverlink II cable, each terminated with a BNC connector on one end and an RCA connector on the other. The David II also offers two standard S-video and two composite outputs (one RCA, one BNC).
If you think the David II is so expensive because Theta Digital has put its money into proprietary digital-to-analog audio circuitry, think again. The David is devoid of any analog audio outputs whatsoever. If you want Theta's legendary DACs, they can still be found, but you'll have to look elsewhere—in their multichannel Casablanca II and Casa Nova processors.
The David II features two lasers, one optimized for DVD, one for CD (including CD-R and CD-RW discs, which most DVD players will not play). The David has four digital audio outputs: The first is an RCA coaxial connection that outputs only a PCM digital stream. If you have a favorite standalone DAC that you think might be better than the one in your receiver or processor, try connecting the David's PCM digital output to your DAC and then routing the DAC's output to your surround processor (or receiver). As long as the latter has an analog bypass mode (a true one that doesn't digitize all incoming analog signals), you might wind up with better sound for regular CDs.
The David's other three digital outputs (RCA, BNC, AES/EBU) will pass all PCM, AC-3 (Dolby Digital), and DTS signals. The Theta will send a full 24-bit/96kHz PCM output (if it's on the disc) to your processor or receiver; or, if your processor can't handle that, the David can downsample it to 48kHz. There is also the option of ordering the David II with an optical digital output. Audiophiles frequently prefer coaxial or AES/EBU digital connections over optical, but among the optical choices offered for the David II they would most likely opt for AT&T or Theta's proprietary LaserLinque over the ubiquitous TosLink.
A 9-pin RS-232 port on the rear panel lets you hook up the David to a home automation system, an option I couldn't test. The clean front panel houses five transport control buttons on the right side and a panel-dimming switch and standby button on the left. The Standby mode switches the player between on and mostly off; the real power switch is in the back.
The remote is a re-labeled Pioneer, though not one with backlit keys. The relative sameness of the buttons made navigation in the dark more challenging than it should have been, but at least the main controls were grouped logically in optimal thumb range—about a third the way down from the top of the remote. The wide Play button, flanked by the Reverse and Forward Scan buttons, with the corresponding Skip buttons directly above those, make for a very short learning curve and safe nighttime driving. The same cannot be said for the adjacent Pause and Stop buttons on the row below Play. From my perspective, buttons that control Power, Eject, and Stop should be far away from the front lines, where most of the action takes place.
One of the things that made me excited about the David II was its $2000 progressive output option. I know, I know—you could easily buy an entire progressive-output DVD player for what Theta charges for the option alone. But the David II sets itself apart in some unique and distinctive ways from other commercially available players. The progressive players from Toshiba, Panasonic, Mitsubishi, and Sony offer only component outputs. The progressive David II offers component and RGB outputs.
Most CRT projectors expect an RGB (plus sync) input. A DVD player with progressive RGB outputs, like the David II, can connect directly to your projector. Of course, there are other ways to get a progressive image to your RGB-based projector. Pro video manufacturer Extron, for instance, offers a progressive component-to-RGB converter for less than $1000. Couple the Extron with a DVD player with progressive component outputs from one of the high-volume players like Toshiba or Sony, and you have a very nice setup for substantially less money than the Theta. However, the Theta's ability to natively accommodate both types of progressive output, free and clear of external switching and its requisite additional cables, will only skew the decision in the Theta's favor for someone in search of the best.
On its interlaced-only version, the David provides outputs to its composite and S-video jacks or to its component video connections, but not to all of them simultaneously. A toggle switch is provided on the rear panel to make the selection. The six additional BNC connectors Theta adds when you opt for progressive output are configured with the two remaining micro-toggles on the rear panel. One toggle switches the progressive output from component to RGB. If component video output is selected, you need use only three of the BNC connectors (Y, Cr, Cb). If RGB is selected instead, the same three BNC outputs are assigned to the green, red, and blue signals, while the remaining three are for vertical, horizontal, and composite synchronization signals. In the On position, the final micro-toggle overlays sync on the green signal, an operational restriction on some older projectors.