HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



February
2002

Reviewed by
Roger Kanno

 



Sunfire
Theater Grand II
Surround-Sound Processor

Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: Sunfire Theater Grand II

Price: $3495 USD
Dimensions: 19"W x 15.75"D x 6.5"H
Weight: 25 pounds

Warranty: Two years parts and labor

Features

  • Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby Pro Logic
  • 7-Axis mode
  • Holographic Imaging
  • Simulated surround modes

Features (cont'd)
  • Audio/video analog inputs (5) (all with S-video)
  • Six digital audio inputs (6 coaxial, 3 optical)
  • Digital coaxial output (S/PDIF)
  • Analog audio inputs (4)
  • Component video inputs (2)
  • Balanced XLR outputs (6 analog)
  • LCD touch-screen learning remote
  • Onscreen display
  • Auto-sensing input switching
  • MM phono stage
  • Tone controls
  • RS 232 port
  • AM/FM tuner (40 presets)

The Sunfire Theater Grand II (and all Sunfire products for that matter) are said to come from the "mind and soul" of Bob Carver. To some audiophiles the designs of Bob Carver, the man behind Sunfire, are components to be admired as much for their performance as for the innovation in their designs. Carver is best known for his work at Phase Linear and Carver Corporation. Most recently at Sunfire, his unique designs have had a reputation of offering more performance than might be expected from their reasonable prices.

Bob Carver left Carver Corporation many years ago, although he has since reacquired the brand and re-launched the company with a compact subwoofer and a surround-sound receiver. Sunfire, however, remains positioned above the Carver brand with products that offer high-end sound at lower prices. Sunfire products often include functions or options not seen in other gear.

For example, Sunfire Corporation was the first to market a compact, high-excursion subwoofer, which was based on the company’s patented "Tracking Downconverter" power supply found in its power amplifiers. Sunfire's power amplifiers also feature both a higher-impedance current-source output, which is supposed to mimic the sound of a tube amplifier, and also a conventional lower-impedance voltage-source output like most conventional solid-state amplifiers -- an innovative design feature indeed.

Sunfire’s current product line is quite organized, with both standard and "Signature" editions of their two-channel and multichannel power amplifiers. They also have a two-channel tubed preamplifier, three subwoofers, and, the subject of this review, the Theater Grand II surround-sound processor.

A big black box, but a nice looking one

The Theater Grand II is a handsome component with a black, brushed-aluminum finish. Although the front panel is a bit busy, with many tiny lights and labels that are sometimes difficult to read, I think it is one of the best-looking home-theater processors around. Fortunately, a large center-mounted display keeps you updated with all the necessary information regarding the operating status of the unit.

Although the Sunfire looks like a very hefty component, it is actually surprisingly light. The construction quality appears to be first-rate, but the high-end cosmetics give the impression that it should be even heavier than it is. That it gives this impression is a testament to its aesthetics and fit'n'finish. Being a relatively large component (it is 6.5" high), there is also plenty of space on the back panel for the multiple inputs and outputs that a well-outfitted processor requires, which are often crammed together on smaller processors.

Simple, but elegant design

The Sunfire Theater Grand II is a relatively straightforward surround processor and is pretty conventional by Sunfire standards, yet it still provides some useful and unique features. It offers basic Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 processing, a proprietary 7-Axis mode for seven-channel surround, several simulated surround modes, and "Holographic Imaging."

According to Sunfire, Holographic Imaging enhances the space and depth of stereo recordings by using out-of-phase information to cancel out unwanted "second sound arrivals so that the left ear hears mainly the left speaker and right ear mainly hears the right speaker." The Theater Grand II has six digital inputs and a digital output, two "wide bandwidth" component video inputs, and balanced outputs for the six main channels. Rounding out the list of features are auto sensing of signals and inputs, an AM/FM tuner with 40 presets, and even a moving-magnet phono stage.

The remote control is a fully learning, backlit touch-screen design. It can easily be programmed to control up to eight devices (including the Theater Grand II). I used it to control not only the Theater Grand II, but also my television, DVD player, and VCR. Although it worked quite well, I found the remote somewhat difficult to use because of its relatively large size and weight (a bit cumbersome to hold in one hand) and it was difficult to locate exactly where each button was positioned on the smooth touch screen. This though, is inherent in all remotes of this kind, and is no knock against Sunfire.

Set up

Set up of the Sunfire was a snap. Scrolling through the set-up options allowed me to quickly and easily configure the bass management, speaker levels, and channel delays. Delay times can be set in increments of one millisecond for both the center and surround channels. The level adjustments for the center, surround, and subwoofer channels can be adjusted via the set-up menu or accessed directly through dedicated buttons on the remote.

The crossover frequency for the subwoofer can be set from 80Hz to 120Hz in increments of 10Hz. I would have liked to see settings for lower frequencies, but I ran all of the Focus Audio speakers that I used for most of my listening as full range (set to "Large") so that the crossover setting was mostly inconsequential. I also used the internal DACs of the Theater Grand II for stereo listening, fed by the digital output of my Pioneer DV-626D DVD player. As with many processors and receivers, the subwoofer remained active in stereo mode whether the Theater Grand II was being fed a digital or analog signal, unless "No Subwoofer" was specified in the set-up menu.

I listened briefly to the FM tuner section of the Theater Grand II and found it to sound quite good even with the simple antenna supplied with the unit. It tunes in increments of 0.1 MHz, and it is said to have multipath and noise-reducing circuitry.

It sounds even better than it looks

The sound of the Theater Grand II is exceptionally smooth and refined. Sunfire’s own literature describes the sound as tube-like, but I’m not sure I would go quite that far. This warmth, for lack of a better term, does not obscure detail or imaging, which are both excellent on even the most demanding and complex movie soundtracks. When I was watching DVDs, the Sunfire stretched out the soundstage in all directions (including to the sides of the room) better than any other system that I have had in my home. In two-channel mode, the combination of the Sunfire and the Bel Canto eVo6 amplifier that I also have in for review rivaled, and in some cases exceeded, the sound of my Krell integrated amplifier.

Listening to movie soundtracks on DVD with the Theater Grand II was an absolute treat. Its retrieval of detail and the coherency of the soundstage are both excellent. When the music begins in chapter 5, "The Magi Strike" of The Mummy: Ultimate Edition, the shaker was placed precisely between the center and left-front speaker and seemed to float effortlessly in midair. The bongos were set well back and to the right while foley effects such as the bells on the camels were very distinct and not lost or buried amongst the well-recorded music soundtrack.

Other discs such as Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, which exhibits even more aggressive use of the surround channels, seemed to image from the sides of the room. Spaceships and pod racers screamed all around my living room and reached out to the back and sides of the listening area, as did the droning of light sabers in the duel between Obi Wan and Darth Maul, whicn made for a thrilling home-theater experience.

For two-channel listening, the internal DACs of the Sunfire did a good job of playing back 16-bit CDs. Normally I use a Krell KAV-300i integrated amp for my two-channel listening. I can only comment on the Sunfire’s preamp when mated to the Bel Canto eVo6 power amplifier. I actually preferred the sound of this combination over that of my Krell! The sound was every bit as detailed and robust as that of the Krell, but with just a slight touch of sweetness.

This performance characteristic added another dimension to the sound that the Krell (which can be described as a little on the cold, analytical side) could not match. For example, less-than-pristine recordings, such as Jewel’s Joy: A Holiday Collection [Atlantic CD 83250], were not glossed over or thickened, but instead took on a nice warmth that took the edge off of some of her vocals. The same could be said of Sarah Polley’s vocals on "Courage" from The Sweet Hereafter soundtrack [Virgin V21M 44955], which were fleshed out with plenty of body and a natural smoothness.

The Holographic Image circuit proved interesting. It did indeed provide sharper, more "holographic" stereo imaging, but the volume level decreased and the sound became more laid back. There did not seem to be any loss of dynamics (simply turning up the volume restored all of the sound without increasing the noise floor), but the presentation somehow seemed to lose some liveliness and punch. At first, I enjoyed the enhanced imaging, which extended further outside of the speakers, but the effect was program dependent and, ultimately, I preferred the sound of the Theater Grand II in stereo mode without Holographic Imaging. It’s worth a try, and some users may like it more than I did.

Comparison

The Sunfire is a truly high-end surround-sound processor, and I was thoroughly impressed with it. As I mentioned previously, in many respects the Sunfire Theater Grand II and the wonderful Bel Canto eVo6 multichannel amplifier made for better-sounding two-channel listening than my Krell integrated amplifier. All of the attributes that made the Sunfire/Bel Canto combo sound so inviting in stereo mode also carried over into its multichannel surround-sound operation.

My resident Sherwood Newcastle AVP-9080R processor ($1199 USD) simply was no match for the Sunfire. In comparison, the LFE bass from the Sherwood seemed less controlled when listening to well-recorded DTS CDs such as Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth [HDS 71021-54430-2-7] and the overall imaging seemed less focused with less precise placement in the soundstage. These differences were not as pronounced when listening to movie soundtracks, such as the aforementioned The Mummy: Ultimate Edition, but were still evident. With the Sunfire Theater Grand II there was tighter, more defined bass and better delineation of individual sounds and depth within the soundtrack.

Conclusion

The main limitation I found with the Sunfire Theater Grand II is that it has only basic 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS processing. Having only these modes suits me just fine, but others may want additional processing modes available today. This limitation should be considered by prospective buyers.

On the other hand, it certainly has strengths that make it an outstanding product. The Sunfire Theater Grand II sounds great and has some really nice features such as balanced outputs, a phono stage, and a learning remote control. These features, along with its excellent performance, may make it just the surround processor that you have been looking for. I thought that the sound quality of the Theater Grand II was so outstanding with both movies and music that it's suitable for surround-sound systems of almost any price.

Review System
Speakers - Focus Audio MT-1 (mains), Focus Audio MC1 (center), Focus Audio FS-68 (surrounds), Paradigm PW-2200 (subwoofer)
Processor - Sherwood Newcastle AVP-9080R
Amplifiers - Bel Canto eVo6, Krell KAV-300i
Sources - Pioneer DV-626D DVD player, Teac VRDS-T1 CD Transport, MSB Link DAC III with 24/96 Upsampling, Half Nelson and P1000 power-supply upgrades
Cables - Sonic Horizon, Audio Magic, Analysis Plus, Tara Labs, Essential Sound Products
Monitors - Toshiba CX32H60 direct-view monitor
 

Manufacturer contact information:

Sunfire Corporation
1920 Bickford Avenue
P.O. Box 1589
Snohomish WA 98290
Phone: (425) 335-4748
Fax: (425) 335-4746

Website: www.sunfire.com

 


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