Viewing just one movie—any movie— through Theta’s Casablanca explains why it is widely deemed the Big Kahuna of controllers. The Casablanca’s dynamic verve is riveting; its ability to envelop the listener, unprecedented. But that is not our concern today. For now, the question is whether the latest generation Casablanca III, given its pedigree and price (which varies due to configuration but averages $10,000–$15,000), can match the best of stand-alone analog in creating music. The answer is that the CIII, all by itself, gets most of the way there. Add the new Six Shooter ($2000), and you’ve really got something.
The Six Shooter requires some explanation, since it is unique in the realm of controllers. This black box is essentially an outboard, multi-input, multichannel, fully buffered analog volume control. Having no user interface of its own, the Six Shooter is slaved (via an RCA-terminated cable) to an upstream Casablanca, from which it receives orders for source selection and volume. Internal circuitry is identical to the corresponding assemblies within the CIII, so the Six Shooter’s mission is not to out-gun the controller. Rather, its objectives are to add multichannel analog inputs to the Casablanca, and to completely separate analog signals from what Theta’s Neil Sinclair calls the “digital bath” of the controller itself.
The Six Shooter is stationed directly in the path between the Casablanca and the power amps. The first of its three 5.1 channel inputs is dedicated to audio connectivity with the controller, which provides a route to the amps for Casablanca-connected sources. The two remaining inputs are available for other stereo or multichannel analog sources. For them, the Six Shooter serves as a pure analog linestage whose signals never traverse the Casablanca. Rounding out the rear panel is a 5.1- channel output which, like two of the inputs, is offered in both balanced and single-ended configurations.
Together, the Casablanca and Six Shooter encompass every feature that a music-minded controller should include: universally available analog bypass; analog volume control; comprehensive bass management and surround modes that don’t compromise the main channels’ sound; the ability to set levels for phantom channels (on most controllers they’re fixed); a readily accessible balance control; and shielding of analog signals from digital and video pollution. The Six Shooter concept mimics the increasingly popular technique of kludging together a controller with a dedicated analog linestage in order to reap the advantages of each. Except that there is nothing kludgy about Theta’s implementation. The integration between the two elements is seamless; they act as one piece from the user’s perspective, as separates from the music’s. Furthermore, the controller/linestage approachdegrades controller-based sources by sending them through two linestages and volume controls. Theta’s approach circumvents this situation entirely—the Casablanca bypasses its own unnecessary circuitry when a Six Shooter is present. Not surprisingly, even after meticulous comparative listening, I could detect only a negligible toll being exacted by the Six Shooter’s presence—one attributable to the extra set of interconnects it necessitates.
There is, however, one drawback to Theta’s approach. While the Casablanca alone is capable of handling as many as twelve discrete audio channels, the Six Shooter clamps that down to, well, six. But before you dismiss it on that basis, ask yourself whether you really need more than 5.1 channels, because the sonic benefits of the Six Shooter are manifest.
If the Six Shooter could be used as a stand-alone analog multichannel linestage—which it cannot—it would qualify as a true high-end achievement. Its performance, in terms of resolution and dynamics, betters the Aesthetix Calypso and comes breathtakingly close to the Goldmund. Listen, for example, to the acoustic guitar on Bright Eyes’ “First Day of My Life” [I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, Saddle Creek CD]. The Six Shooter matches the reference’s rarefied ability to depict the full measure of the instrument’s body, overtones, transient plucks, and warmth. Likewise, both units capture the subtle vocal inflections and room reflections that other controllers and preamps miss.
The Theta also excels at big dynamic changes, both gradual and sudden. The steady, powerful crescendo in “Bydlo,” from the Classic reissue of the RCA Pictures at an Exhibition LP, may not be quite as back-to-the-wall terrifying as through the Goldmund, but the Six Shooter version still gets my heart pounding. Meanwhile, Ray Brown’s bass on Soular Energy is solidly punchy and can change personalities on a dime. Such shows of force and finesse are all the more effective for their contrast with the Six Shooter’s dead quiet background. The Theta lets you hear every instrument, clearly distinguished, and provides a smooth, glare-free, white background on which it displays its dazzling colors.