"Old" vs. "new" digital equipment

Some recent posts about how far digital has come have got me thinking. I have a Theta DS Pro Gen III dac fed by a CEC TL5100Z as a transport. (The rest of the system is ARC LS2B Mk II into ARC VT-100 Mk II into Vandy 3a Sigs and 2WQ sub.)

I wonder what improvements I might hear if I were to go to a newer dac or newer cdp. In my current system, I hear grain when I listen to massed strings, some congestion on orchestral peaks, but otherwise most generally like what I hear.

Would newer digital stuff mitigate or eliminate these issues?

If I were to upgrade, where might I head next?

More generally, can anyone characterize the differences between my "old" Theta and newer digital equipment?


I listen to a lot of orchestral music and, like you, noticed the grain in massed strings, and the congestion, exactly as you describe, and it began to drive me nuts. My system (at least an earlier version) was pretty similar to yours, except it started with a Linn CD12, and I used various different pre-amps...but same speakers and amp (except mine is a MK III).

I became more or less obsessed with trying to straighten out the string sound (some of which is reported in other threads). I thought the CD12 would do it, and was disappointed, etc., etc. Bottom line: I didn't get the grain and congestion under control to my satisfaction until finally (after 15+ years of disuse) I re-habbed my Linn LP12, bought a new Koetsu black, got an EAR phono-pre (can't rememeber the number -- the $1500 model) and started playing Decca, EMI, Phillips and other well-made Lps (including many Speakers Corner Lps).

Probably not really the answer you want to hear, but...And I should add that one of the CDP's I'm still working with is an EMM CDSA (which retrieved noticeably more info than the Linn CD12). But massed strings still don't (to me) sound quite right on it, compared to Lps. I think it must have to do with the limitations of the CD medium.

I did, however, just a few days ago order an EAR Acute CDP, based upon all the positive reports of its "analog-like" sound, and based upon my very positive reaction to the EAR phono-pre. I did that because in the last 6 months, I've hardly touched my CD collection, and I need some way to enjoy them. Too much good material out there...

(Isn't it kind of annoying that you spend a bunch of money on getting better and better gear, only to find that, at a certain point, maybe you're almost getting too much information?)
Bikecommuter, take a look at my thread entitled: Reference DACS: An overall perspective along with my reviews of the Accustic Arts DACS ( MK4 and the Tube Hybrid reference) for lots of details concerning new/old digital front ends and the difference in DACS sonicly.
If you are looking for the best digital playback definitely the Nova Physics Memory Player is a must hear. Short of that a Raysonic 168 with cryoed NOS tubes, and Herbie Tube Dampers is an outstanding compromise. And a mere $2500!

You're right -- not the answer I was hoping for, but one I suspected might come. Thanks for the response.


Will do. Thanks.

Any other thoughts or ideas out there?

With CD being the "Flawed" source it is, it is amazing how much money we spend trying to make a format better. I know I have over the years. The problem is, as you go up in quality, the more flaws become apparent. If you offer every last degree of transparency in a player, you might not like what you ultimately hear. I suppose the best players are for the best CD's only. Otherwise, we have surpassed the quality of the source itself (and for what?)
With that said, some CD's just don't sound natural and all the CD players in the world are not going to change that.
Contrary to what a lot believe, SACD is the better format and strings sound realistic (of course they are poor SACD's too.) Go for pure DSD. I know SACD is a niche market but there's still a lot out there available and it does sound better (lot of the music you are refering to here.)
Otherwise, good vinyl is the only way to go.
I think you will chase your tail and spend a lot of money with CD and never get where you want to be.
I used the Vandersteen 3a Sigs with a pair of 2WQ's for years and your system is very good. My suggesdtion would be to upgrade your preamp to a ARC Reference II or III. I personally feel it would be money well(better) spent (other than on a CD player.) You would be surprised at the improvement over the older ARC preamp.
If you MUST go for a new CD player, I would spring for a Wadia 861 or 861se. They go around less than 5k for the 861 and a touch over for the se model(which is a substantial upgrade.) If they don't sound correct, you're just out of luck with CD!
I'll say it again-"without exceptional power conditioning & isolation of your digital souces AC" you simply have not heard 'anywhere near' the potential of CD playback.
WADIA 581 provides "twin 'fully balanced' sheilded toroidal transformers that are electrically, mechanically and accoustically isolated from the other components"...
Bigtee, not to argue, I continue to find that enhanced digital playback makes "most" of my CD's more enjoyable, revealing more of the artists 'art' and depth of sensitivity-and I'm feel we have not reached the playback potential of digital sound yet. Just reviewed the April/May TAS and found interesting items in digital playback. I too preferred the sound quality of SACD.Cheers
I will second Psacanli's observation that quality AC conditioning is a must. I would further add, try experimenting with vibration control devices for all components. Good listening. Jeff

Thanks for your thoughts. I am thinking about preamps as well, just not the subject of this thread. The Ref II and III are definitely on the short list there. I know that I will hear improvement with a newer preamp, although my LS2B and I have been happy for quite a while. You and eweedhome may be correct that there comes a point where more transparency and information isn't such a good thing. BTW, eweedhome, I would be interested in hearing how you like your EAR CDP when it arrives. Maybe you will post about it?

Psacanli, I am running dedicated power lines with digital separate from other components, but no other line conditioning. Maybe I will try to borrow something from a friend and see what I hear.

Yoby, I am using SRA stands to address vibration -- big difference with and without.

Anyone have thoughts on the differences I might hear between my (old) Theta and newer DACs and/or CDPs? I understand that at some point we bump up against format limitations, but I am wondering if newer and cheaper DACs are going to give me improvements compared to my older technology (even though they may not make strings sound like strings or strings on vinyl). If so, what kind of improvements? That was my original question, although I appreciate the other information you all have given.

I don't have easy access to other digital equipment at this point to audition, which is why I am trying learn from others' experience. Thanks again.

Over the next few days I will be comparing a Bel Canto Dac 3 to a Theta GEN V. I wish it had an optical input, I could just hook it to the PC. I'll have to test using a basic Denon DVD player instead.

I will be very interested in your comparison -- I hope you will post something about what you hear. Thanks.

I have done a lot of experimenting and I've found between most decently designed CD players, the differences are rather small. At first you might think there's a big difference but after a while, you'll find it's not as big as you thought. The first thing you have to do is make absolutely sure that the compared players are at the exact same volume. Small differences in volume make huge differences in the perceived sound.
I think the price of digital has come down with a lot of players now where you are getting close to the best for a lot less money.
The biggest differences I've noticed between expensive players like the Wadia and others is in soundstage depth and shear transparency. I just can't agree with people who come up with the HUGE differences in sound unless there is some distinct coloration they prefer.
I have never heard HUGE differences but smaller differences that add up to a better sonic presentation.
I still love my old Sony XA7es for just listening. It is one of the more analogue sounding players around.
To directly answer your question, yes, I think technology has advanced somewhat. Is it better in absolutes? Well, that depends on the player. There are some that have all this lovely technical garbage but actually don't sound as good as as some older players. So, it is a BIG DEPENDS!
You can spend 10 times the money for a 2% improvement. If it's worth that to you, go for it.
I have listened to the DCS stack at length and actually had people say they didn't like it as much as some much cheaper players. To me, on good CD it sounded great. On bad CD, well, it sounded bad!
There's a lot at play here and you really just can't make blanket statements. Is your total system resolution up to snuff? How about cables. There's so many things that can tilt to one player or another old or new technology. Unless you put the player in your enviroment and compare directly at exact levels with the exact same equipment you are not getting the true picture. So what is the answer to your question? Honestly, you need to decide!I've been at it 40+ years and they're some old players that I really like and they're some new ones I like. BUT, personal preferences play a BIG part in audio and a lot of times honest reproduction is certainly not what everyone wants. Otherwise, they wouldn't be so many pieces for sale.
BTW, I do beleive in some power conditioning with certain products but with well designed power supplies in excellent products it doesn't make all that much difference IMO.
I also feel the older transports were built better. Everybody likes to use the computer drives for all their upsampling/oversampling garbage.
Re: Wadia, which some folks think is the answer, I agree that the 860 is pretty good, once it's been modified by Great Northern Sound. I thought it was too strident in stock condition. Because of that, a couple of years back I replaced the unmodified 860 with a Linn CD12 demo, which to me seemed to sound more rich and natural. Over time, however, it still, too often, seemed unnatural in the highs. As my frustration mounted, I decided to have GNSC modify the Wadia 860 (which I'd kept). I liked the results better than the Linn. During that process, I also got hold of a used Tri-Vista SACD player. Didn't much like it for CDs, but was impressed with the SACD sound. So I started thinking SACD might be the answer. I was about to sell the Linn, but took the time to compare it with an EMM CDSA. As noted above, the EMM gave the sense of retrieving more detail than the Linn for redbook. So I sold the Linn (and also the Tri-Vista), and eventually got an EMM demo. So now I have the modded Wadia, and the EMM. And yet, neither of them are as pleasant to listen to as many, if not most, Lps, particularly when it comes to massed strings.

If this sounds like the crazed wanderings of a music junkie, you can imagine what my wife has been thinking.

But, my point is, here's at least one listener that was frustrated by the problem described by David, decided to solve it, tried several of what are supposed to be amongst the best CDP's available, and remained unsatisfied. But thank goodness somewhere in the process I decided to give Lps another try (after 15 years of nothing but CDs).

I should add that I also tried various equipment changes to try to minimize my issues as well. Tried Avalon and Harbeth speakers in addition to the Vandys (and now use the Harbeth M30's), tried VTL, BEL, Cary, Joule, BAT and ARC electronics (that I can recall), and BEL, Audioquest, Purist Audio, Kimber, Cardas and some other cables (prefer the Cardas Cross, NOT Golden Cross), tried various methods of vibration control (now using Symposium stands with BEL hard rubber feet--the Symposium metal feet were too bright and hard sounding), several different power cords (now using Cardas Cross), and have a dedicated circuit, and use PS Audio Duettes (sp?)(mainly for surge protection).

(You know, looking at that list, my wife might be right...I might be crazy...certainly was determined...)

But here's something funny: Back in 2004, I moved to Holland for 18 months, and took with me only a one-box, 2 speaker, CD-only, Linn Classik system, which was fairly rolled-off seeming in the top. And night after night, I was quite happy listening to it. I could listen for hours. Fatigue was NEVER an issue. Which gets back to the point several folks have raised...the higher you go up the "hear everything accurately" chain, the more you buy trouble for a larger and larger percentage of the music you want to hear. Catch-22.

(And, in fact, it was after 18 months of music-listening happiness overseas that I came home and began the maddening quest described above.)
“OLD” vs “NEW and “LOW” vs “HIGH”
Here’s a point of view from a low end user.
YBA Lecteur CD 3 Alpha (old but a bit high)
Minimax tube pre-amp
Exposure SS amp
Nordost SPM interconnect and speaker cables

When I trying to get a new CDP to feel the different between “old” vs “new” and “SS” vs “tube” technology, I got myself a MHZS 66 Chinese tube CDP (new but a bit low). Why chose MHZS*, it’s almost in same price range with old YBA for tube CDP. *3 difficult setting for up-sampling.

The new MHZS 66, gave me a very bright, detail and clear sound image during entire classical orchestral. Not just strings, everything is so clear divided--left and right, front and back. But, to me, it’s too detail and clear and doesn’t have the tube’s warmness. I lost the feeling to enjoy this new CDP. Maybe lost the feeling of the analog sounding?

So I got no choice to switch back to my YBA. It’s an old school CDP. Not as clear divided out the mass strings that you were talking about, but its warm and bit more analog sounding.

To me, vintage or “old” is always better then “new”

So......I decided to audition my first LP. It’s a very basic turntable, plug and play.
Music Hall MMF 2 (new and low), Marantz 2010B (old and low) and Nordost Red Dawn II speaker cables (mid)
I love it so much and I haven’t turn on my YBA for a period of time.

Enjoy the music
Eweedhome, And I thought I was bad. It is nuts! That's why for music (just listening and not being critical) I love my old 20 bit Sony XA7es. I've noticed a good many old 20 bit players have a nice warm, more analogue sound than 24 bit players. Most 24 bit newer players seem to be a touch strident overall which I personally think is just a by-product of the median. I can give up some transparency for a richer overall sound.
The one thing to me that divides the players is sounstaging, both height, width and depth. This is where some of the pricier players live. Of course, your speakers must be up to offering this depth. Not just in the middle between the speakers but behind and even depth outside the speakers. Some speakers offer up an inverted "V" type of soundstaging depth with the max in the middle. I like a speaker that delivers more of a square where it's the same from side to side. This will let you know about cd players. David's system above is perfectly capable of this. I would also mention your room acoustics. I know for a fact the Vandersteen's David uses will offer up more than enough depth for a realistic soundstage. Some of your edginess in the strings may be reflections in the room.
I've been listening to the Theta DS Pro Va for roughly 3 hours comparing it to the BC3. Very tough here ...I detect no grain what so ever from the Theta. It is one musical Dac for sure. It never sounds harsh or vague too me.

It has more gain than the BC3, so it is tricky getting the proper volume between the two. As far as resolution goes there's no clear winner. The Theta may be a tad warmer in sound, but not enough to distract or make the music any less enjoyable. This Dac is easy to listen too..it just flows.

By the same token the BC3 may sound a little cooler in comparison. Again this is nitpicking.

I used a Promitheus TVC preamp with both units. I prefer to use my BC3 by itself. I wish this Theta model had a built in preamp. I'm sure a separate preamp would be unnecessary for it if it did.. at least in my system.

So the bottom line is, if I were you Bikecommuter, I would either have the unit upgraded depending on cost if possible or just buy a newer version. The Theta Va is a terrific Dac! Unless you're hunting for super high sampling and bit rates other than whats currently available on the market. Once you get to this level of sound..spending more is basically pissing in the wind IMO.

If you're hearing grain something is wrong with your current Dac or another component or it is just bad recordings.

Off topic, after running back and forth from the player to change CDs...I've come to the conclusion..I'll stick with the PC server as a transport. lol
This is way more work than I've become accustom too! ;-)

Good listening!
Bikecommuter, unfortunately the problem with massed strings lies with the speakers as well. While the vandy 3a sigs are great in so many ways there are speakers that handle strings quite a bit better.
Everyone is entitled to there opinion but after owning the 3A Signatures for years and comparing them to speaker after speaker, I can say without a doubt, they are one of the better speakers available at any price for reproducing mass strings (realistically.)In fact, this is one of the time and phase designs biggest attribute.
agree completely with bigtree....the more things change, the more they remain the same. the dna in every digital front end is not terribly different.
As we mature in our quest for the newer,better, bigger this, that, and the other,ultimately,I think, you reach a point of diminishing returns. When someone is new to our noble hobby,the quest can and is a lot of fun,but, when one comes to terms with what makes one "happy" with what they now have(own)then, the whole idea of pursuing our audio lust seems to narrow to a point of being content with what you have, and not how much you think you "need". I think after years of pursuit I'm content with audio being what it is,a hobby,not my life...ymmv... ;^)...
I believe you will find a 'dramatic' reduction in 'stridency' with some additional significant AC power isolation for your digital. A simple experiment may be to just try an MIT Shotgun AC2 power cord for digital. If you like it try comparing results by changing it to your preamp.
I hope it's informative & enjoyable. pete
I agree with Rotarius that reproduction of massed strings is a weak area for the 3A's, at least with a digital source. That was my experience. In fairness, it's a weak area for lots, if not most gear. (Especially if your reference is Carnegie Hall, or Symphony Hall in Boston.) The Harbeth M30's proved to be, for me, significantly easier and more pleasant to listen to for massed strings. That having been said, I don't necessarily disagree with Bigtree that the 3A's are better than a lot of speakers in that area. I suspect that most manufacturers don't voice their speakers with hard core classical listeners in mind...and, because the recording of massed strings seems to be a tough and imperfect art, an issue of concern is balancing between forgiving speakers and detailed speakers. The 3A's were what I would call very revealing speakers. For me, in fact (in the long run), TOO revealing. (One dealer, when I told him I'd gotten the Harbeths, said "But they aren't high end!?" I don't agree with him, but that sure got me thinking, maybe I don't really WANT "high end." At least not what a lot of people refer to as "high end."
Hey Guys,
Thought i might chime in here since i am playing the digital game. I have had a few nice units over the years. Starting with a Theta Gen 3 modded and then lately went to Audio Horizons DAC 3.0 and then older Altis Ultima with sep. power supply which was very nice to a Bluce Circle DAC with huge outboard supply and it blows all the rest away. Bigger is Better in my case. Of course pricey too!Also in regards to old vs new. Does anyone know much about using ATT Glass vs AES BAL vs RCA. I was pleasantly surprised when I hooked up my old ATT cable just to see after remembering what the guy I got the DAC from told me. I was hearing more inner detail and the sound is just fabulous! I do not know much about Glass cable but it obviously is newer than COAX. Thanks, Larry
Bigtree,Very well written
Hi, Bikecommuter.

You asked a question that has been on my mind as well.

I have a Gen II Theta DS Pre (not DSPro - the Pre includes a passive attenuator for our non-Theta brethren & cistern) fed by a Proceed PDT II. Should I move up the food chain to a Gen Va, & new disc spinner, etc.? So I added a few toys to play with in the interim(and to solve other problems)including:

* TaCT 2.0 RCS DAC (24/96 & well reviewed)to take out the bass humps in my room. It also functions as a preamp)
* Acurus 5.1 Preamp-processor for multi-channel / HT (not S-O-T-A & never really was, but OK for HT)
* Oppo 980H Universal player based on the reveiws.
* Plus two important tweeks I'll mention later.

Here's what I found
The Theta is still a slammin' good machine. While 'different' from the TaCT 2.0, it is every bit as good, especially 'tweaked' (see below).

The Oppo is far inferior as a CDP, especially in bass slam, timing & dynamics. It is quite good, though, on DVD-A & OK on SACD. The Oppo, however, is a wonderful transport, driving any of the other DACs.

Two things REALLY helped the theta (& the TaCT & Acurus for that matter)in the following areas:
*sibilance on female vocals,
*a certain hardness on upper registers of piano when played very dynamically / fortissimo
*Your massed strings :-)
They were:
* Camelot 5.1 Jitter reduction box used between either the Proceed or the Oppo and any of the DACs(Theta's linque & the Genesis Digital lens were also on my shopping list, but the Camelot does 5.1 for surround, so that's where I went)and;
* Musical Fideltiy V3 Tube buffer. (A note of caution here: since I am running the Theta passive pre directly into the amps, the MF may be helping the impedence matching between the Theta & amps more than would be the case with a 'true' preamp. Or maybe it's just cool).

So, not the newest or state-of-the-art, I suppose, but I've improved on the problems mentioned above, plus, added better imaging, more dimensionality & depth of soundstage to the Theta's orginal performance. Still on the 'accurate' side of things, but warmer, sweeter & easier somehow.

In terms of inertia & general laziness, the configuration I use most is the Oppo driving the Camelot & TaCT (for the remote control when watching films & sports on the front projector, passed through the Theta passive attenuator.

Now, shall we talk vinyl??? ;-)



I agree that the electronics or even cables can easily cause the grainy massed strings. I base my earlier opinion on the fact that I have heard the 3a sigs at the dealers place driven by top notch ARC tube or Rogue gear and state of the art digital. I heard superb sound with jazz and vocals. When I played classical that I am familiar with, this problem was quite evident. I also heard some Triangles at the same place with the same electronics. They were not in the same league as the vandys obviously but the strings were smoother!