Theta David II DVD/CD transport Page 3
The second David arrived overnight, factory-packed, and appeared to be bug-free. Scenes played through the David II's interlaced component output popped off the screen. A quick visit to Video Essentials showed nothing unusual or empirically negative, so I quickly jumped back to watching movies. I put one of my new references, Final Destination (NewLine N5061), into the player. In the opening airport scene, some of the camera pans don't leave the camera on the actors long enough to focus on details like their hair. Or so I thought. The David brought out subtle sculpted details in black hair that were absent or heavily glossed over on every other player I've noticed. So far, this second David was having a very good hair day!
The quality of most DVD players a few straps above the bottom of the pickle barrel is so good these days that subjective visible differences between players—even at widely varying prices—are likely to be extremely subtle. Still, the David II was visibly better than other players I have had in my system with real-world pictures. I set about trying to quantify the differences.
The Pioneer DV-626D player, the basic David II with its interlaced output, and the David II with the souped-up progressive outputs were, in some ways, three variations on a very pleasant theme. After all, the Theta players are based on a Pioneer platform, and the DV-626D is certainly no slouch. Just the opposite, actually, so price differences aside, the Thetas had their work cut out for them.
First I compared the diner scene in chapter 3 of Meet Joe Black on the Pioneer and the basic David II. The details in Brad Pitt's suit, and especially his tie, seemed more realistic on the basic David, the weave and texture of the fabrics more natural. Pitt and Claire Forlani stood out against the background of the diner more effectively over the Theta, making the cinematographer's exploration of depth of field all the more effective.
Next I dug out The Ninth Gate (Artisan 60747), a movie whose early chapters had looked heavily enhanced and edgy on the Pioneer. I selectively replayed the beginnings of the first four chapters on the 626 and then moved the disc into the basic David II. Any improvements offered by the David were so slight as to be inconsequential, proving only that you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear. Of course, that still left the progressive David. That David provided immediate improvements in black level, especially in the dark portions of the private library in chapter 4, and a very noticeable reduction in edge enhancement during the writing of the suicide note in chapter 1.
For the progressive comparisons, the David II drove the projector directly, the interlaced players were upscaled using the Dwin TranScanner—the latter set to 635 lines. (The David was routed through the TranScanner's RGB bypass input merely for switching convenience.) I believe the improvements in picture quality of the progressive-output David II, compared to either of the other players, are due in part to Theta's obviously well-designed progressive-scan circuitry. But another reason, one possibly even more important, is that the path from the DVD to the projector is, for all intents and purposes, direct. The Theta's circuitry works its magic, including recognition of 3:2 pulldown on film-based sources, entirely in the digital domain until the signal undergoes a digital-to-analog video conversion at the output. An outboard scaler such as the TranScanner must start with an interlaced player's analog signal, convert it to digital, perform the required processing and rescaling, then convert it back to analog before it can pass it on to the CRT projector. Obviously, if we learned anything in Audiophile 101, it is that we should first do no harm. Harm is what the David II doesn't do.
I put U-571 back in the David II and marveled at how sharp, accurate, and pure the picture was through its progressive outputs. The interlaced outputs of the less expensive but upgradeable basic David II were slightly softer—predictable, given the interlaced outputs' ultimate conversion to a higher-resolution line structure via the TranScanner. But there was something else. As good as the less expensive Theta was (if you can cope with the concept of a $5000 DVD player being "less expensive" than anything else), the progressive-scan unit was that much better. To borrow two audiophile phrases, themselves borrowed from visual experience, it was as if veils had been lifted, or a fine layer of grime washed off a plate-glass window.
One other area in which the Theta improved noticeably on the Pioneer DV-626D was signal level. Jim Doolittle of the Imaging Science Foundation informs me that he's not pleased with the output voltage of the Pioneer DV-626D; he points to the scene in the Video Essentials montage where a fish is seen hopelessly trying to scale a dam. The point at which the wall of falling water meets the more tranquil water below should be clearly delineated. The Pioneer's rendition is washed out, indicating that the player puts out too much voltage and overdrives everything downstream, so to speak. The Theta, on the other hand, showed significant detail, including a clear line of demarcation between the two intersecting bodies of water.
What do you buy for the home theater fan who has almost everything? That's easy: the Theta David II with progressive-scan output. He doesn't have one of those—yet. The one serious problem I had with my first sample, the progressive player, was its poor interlaced output, but I expect that problem will be solved and put to bed well before you read this. We'll report on it in a future "Take 2."
The basic interlaced David II is an excellent player in its own right. Its build quality and performance are most impressive. The progressive image created by the Theta David II more than passably recalled the eerie in-the-room realism I've experienced from bigger guns with more lines and seriously rivaled some high-definition demos I've seen—not in detail and sharpness per se (there, the well-heeled hi-def setup wins hands down), but in palpable presence. It produced the finest picture I've yet had in my home theater.