Theta DSPro Basic – Oldie but Goldie DAC

I’ve been following a lot of discussions on headfi that lead me to a very old DAC, the Theta DsPro Gen V, which really got my attention, as lots of people thought it to be quite better than most of the DACs today, even if it was made in the 90s.

Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get my hands on a gen V yet, but I did find a dspro basic which was a cheaper version of Generation II:

DS Pro Basic and DS Pre Basic

Shortly thereafter, a new product line was released. The DS Pro Basic and DS Pre Basic, lower priced versions of the Generation II predecessors, allowed many more music lovers to obtain satisfying digital sound. A Basic unit had a thin-line chassis containing a single circuit board, which had all three of the required sections (power supply, digital, and analog), on it. The digital and analog sections were similar to the DS Pro Generation II, so the Basic had a very similar sound, but didn’t have as much resolution as its larger sibling.

Theta Digital Dspro Basic Review (3)

Introduction and Specs

While this is not the gen V that I was looking for, it was still a very good DAC and it was highly regarded in its time. It used to cost 2000$ and was a lesser version of the flagship from Theta Digital at that time, the DSPre digital processor/preamplifier.

The designer of this DAC is Mike Moffat, one of the co-owners of Schiit. He also designed the recently  very hyped Yggdrasil that I can’t wait to hear for myself.

Specifications

Description: 8x-oversampling, dual 18-bit digital signal processor. Inputs: two digital coaxial on RCA jacks.

Output: 1 digital (S/PDIF) on RCA. Analog outputs: unbalanced RCA jacks. Sample rates handled: 44.1kHz, 48kHz. Frequency response: 20–20.5kHz +0, –0.1dB. S/N ratio: 104dB. THD at full output: Less than 0.001%. Output level: 3.4V RMS minimum.
Dimensions: 19″ W by 2¼” H by 14″ D. Weight: 17 lbs (shipping).
Price: $1995 (1990); no longer available (2009). Approximate number of dealers: 66.
Manufacturer: Theta Digital, Agoura Hills, CA 91301 (1990); Theta Digital, 1749 Chapin Road, Montebello, CA 90640. Tel: (818) 572-4300. Web: www.thetadigital.com.

I want to remind you that this is a DAC designed in 1990. It’s more than 25 years old. How do you think it would sound? Should it be any good today?

Theta Digital Dspro Basic Review (4)

 

Tests and Listening Impressions

The tests have been done with   Audio-Gd Master 9,  AG500 Power Regenerator, Sennheiser HD800, HiFiMAN HE-560, Oppo PM-2,  MSB Analog Dac, Piega Premium 5.2, AudioByte Hydra-Z with ZPM Power Module.

What I want to point out here is that Hydra-Z was wonderful with this DAC and managed to get everything out of it. The usb input / interface is extremely important to get the most out of a DAC and Hydra-Z was excellent. 

Theta Digital Dspro Basic Review (1)

Rodrigo Y Gabriela – Angelica

The first thing that hit me was the impact of the notes. This old DAC has a lot of energy and punch. The transients are quite amazing, with one of the strongest impact and fastest decays I’ve heard until now to be sincere. Other than that, the instruments had very good texture and details.

Hugh Laurie – Battle of Jericho

The drum from the beginning was quite impressive, showing excellent bass extension and control but also reverberating in the scene showing a deep soundstage. The guitars were very impactful, tactile and detailed. Hugh’s voice was  natural with great texture and presence.

Noon – Close to you

The guitars from the beginning are very tactile and you can also hear subtle things from the scene like the artist’s movement, breath, etc. When the voices started, it just hypnotized me. The texture, extension and presence are just amazing, creating a very intimate and pleasant atmosphere.

ACDC – Boogie Man

I’ve head banged hard on this song. The drums hit hard and fast, the voices are present, textured and hoarsely detailed while the guitars were dense and extended.

Vivaldi – Autumn – Allegro (La Caccia)

As expected this song was very enjoyable as well. The violins were amazing along side the other instruments, as they sounded natural and  extended. The details again were quite impressive. I’ve often heard something in the scene and thought it was in my room. The transients were again amazing, showing incredible leading edges. You could hear the chords vibrate. Every instrument had a life of its own, a clear purpose: to tickle your audiophile senses.

Infected Mushroom – Mambacore

This song almost floored me. The bass is just insane. It has such impact, control and depth that it stunned me when it began. Every sound is incredible controlled. Weird song, but addictive. Laser fast transitions between sounds and the headphones drivers were vibrating like crazy on this song.

Summary

Bass

The bass has a very strong punch with very good control and speed. When it needs to it can get really aggressive. It’s just insane on electronic music. Love it.  

Mids

The midrange is another very strong point of this old DAC. Everything from instruments to voice sound rich and nicely detailed.

Treble

The treble is quite detailed. It knows when to sparkle and to when to shine. Nicely extended, but not in a disturbing way.

Voices

The voices are nicely textured and extended, with good presence and emotion, but they are still on the neutral side. Their presentation is addictive, as they can create a very intimate bond between the listener and the singer.

Transients

These transients are just amazing. Exploding attack and laser decays, leading to a fast, energetic & exploding sound signature. I find this DAC to be quite unique in this department. Can’t wait to listen to the newer versions.

Details

The details are not something to ignore either as this is another chapter where this old theta shines. You can hear subtle things in the scene, like the movements of the artists, or their breath. But this also extends to instruments and voices which just let more sound get to you.

Soundstage and Imaging

The imaging is very good showing very good precision. The soundstage seemed natural to me, with good depth, but I felt that it would need a little more width.

Neutrality

This R2R dac has a neutral sound signature. It doesn’t fall into either bright nor warm categories.

Textures

Both voices and instruments have very detailed and quite natural textures. Wood sounds like wood, metal sounds like metal, etc. It’s less digital harshness that you usually find in delta sigma DACs.

Energy

The energy transmitted is amazing. I was a little tired when I started this review, but it really managed to energize me. Coffee? Who needs it? Get a Theta!

Theta Digital Dspro Basic Review (6)

Conclusions

I was blown away by this 25 years old DAC. I never expected this quality from it. Actually, I consider it to be one of the best DACs I have ever heard and it sounds better than lots of high end / expensive DACs today.

This was another dac that proved to me why I should be a R2R fan. I just loved the textures, voices and natural tonality this DAC was capable of. Most of the delta sigma DACs today tend to have a digital sound, unnatural and harsh.

Another thing that amazed me at this DAC was the energy,  transients and slam it was capable of.  I found it unique in this department and the amazing PRAT is definitely an energy booster.

I was a little scared of the outcome of these tests. From my perspective, the progress made globally in last 25 years in the DAC industry weren’t so significant, and I can even say that it went in a wrong direction.

These being said, I really can’t wait to hear a newer but still old Theta Gen V which is said to be considerably better than the dspro basic, but also can’t wait to hear the newly launched Schiit Yggdrasil.