Sunfire Theater Grand Tuner/Preamp/Processor

      Date posted: March 17, 1999

Sunfire Theater Grand

Sugg. Retail: $2999 U.S.
Distributor: The Evolution Group,
A. C. Simmonds & Sons,
580 Granite Court,
Pickering, Ont. L1W 3Z4
(905) 839-8041 FAX 839-2667

(Reprinted from the Winter 1999 Audio Ideas Guide)

      I thought it was the prettiest thing at CES last winter, and now it’s the prettiest thing in my home theatre room. The Sunfire Theater Grand (I’ve deferred to the American spelling because it’s a product name) has essentially the same chassis and finish of all Sunfire products, a brown burnished brushed aluminum case with rounded corners, with the same recessed window at centre front, and the addition of numerous pinpoint indicator lights, many of which are also control buttons. At bottom left are red rear-lit Dolby Digital and DTS logos; some of the front panel lights are blue like the window display, but those that are also buttons are red, clustered in a line below the LCD window and to its right in two vertical rows. Flush knobs can be used to control input and Volume, but most users will not want to mar them with fingerprints, and will use the remote control.

      This remote had a familiar look for me, identical in all respects physically to my Rotel touch-screen remote that lay idle for 6 months because the batteries died when I was away in the summer and all the programming got lost; I just hadn’t had the time to tediously re-program it, which shows up its main weakness: the inability to learn whole component code groups. No such problem for the Sunfire version, which is pre-programmed with all commands for the Theater Grand. It will also learn other components’ commands in the same tedious fashion. Needless to say, I haven’t programmed it for other components, either, but by the time this review is actually completed in a few weeks, I will have done so.

      The Theater Grand is more than just a surround processor, incorporating AM and FM stereo tuner and digital processors that handle up to 20-bit/48-kHz data, these all Crystal Semiconductor chips. There are 5 audio/video inputs using 5 digital audio inputs (TosLink and RCA coax), 4 audio-only inputs (including a Phono section), and 2 component and 2 S-video inputs. There is also a set of component video outputs for TVs having this capability.

      Audio outputs are also many, with both balanced XLRs and unbalanced RCAs for all channels except the extra 2 Seven Axis side ones, which I’ll say more about presently. Tape and external processor outs are provided, as well as 4 subwoofer outputs, 3 RCAs and the 4th XLR (Seen any balanced subs lately?). This is indeed a versatile and well thought out product, an impressive debut tuner/processor from Bob Carver’s engineering team.

      It’s also fairly easy to set up, with rear-panel switches setting large or small front speakers, phantom centre, and other initial parameters, as well as pots for adjusting Dolby Pro Logic centre and rear delays; those for Dolby Digital and DTS are adjusted from the remote. In addition to these, for those who really wish to be lost in space, there are 3 DSP modes labeled Cathedral, Jazz Club, and Stadium; the only one even moderately tolerable was Jazz Club, though if you really must have an artificial environment ruining your music or soundtrack, you can at least adjust these to taste. Enough said about that.

      What does add a subtle, but nice spatiality is Bob Carver’s own Holographic Image circuit, which increases the out-of-phase content in the front speakers during stereo play (it also lights another pretty blue light on the front panel; I have to admit that the look of this component is better than Christmas for me; that’s why it’s on the cover!)

      Turning to the tuner, we find 40 presets available for AM or FM, these remotely controllable. Having a Terk AM-1000 tunable AM antenna on hand for review, I hooked it up to the AM inputs, and I’ll say more about this synergy below. Our outdoor Lindsay bowtie antenna was connected to the 75-ohm FM input.

Final features to describe are the rear-panel TV-screen trigger outputs to operate a front-projection screen, and an RS-232 jack for connection to home theatre and household computer control systems. If there’s anything the Sunfire engineering team has forgotten, I don’t know what it could be, though we’ll probably find something sooner or later.

      And I almost forgot about the Seven Axis feature, about which little is said in the manual. There are a pair of left and right RCA outputs for what appears to be a matrixed difference signal derived from the front and rear signals, designed to drive side speakers. However, there are no level controls for these, so anyone hooking up side speaker will need an amplifier with the same gain characteristics as the Cinema Grand 5-channel unit, or one with its own gain controls to allow level matching. This, of course, presumes speakers similar or identical to the front, and, hopefully, the rear ones.

      Initially, I checked the FM tuner out for sensitivity, finding 40 stations coming in on the Lindsay outdoor antenna, which is an omnidirectional double dipole type. Most of these were listenable in stereo, with very good selectivity, allowing weak stations near strong ones to be heard. It’s also a very good sounding tuner, a little more transparent in audio character than the Pioneer Elite VSX-09TX receiver in this respect, as well as in sensitivity (both were checked out at the same time and with similar reception conditions).

      The AM tuner was much improved by the use of the Terk AM Advantage antenna, which uses a tunable resonant circuit to increase the signal that goes to the tuner input at the tuned frequency, and it helped overcome our basement location reception problems. AM fans will be pleasantly surprised by this tuner, especially with the Terk hooked up to it.

      In setting up the Theater Grand (Let’s call it TG for short) for surround operation, I found things quite straightforward, though the preliminary manual is less than forthcoming about some things. I suppose this can be expected in a component so complex. One example is the use of the Test mode to adjust surround and subwoofer levels: if you hit the + or - buttons on the remote while the tone for any channel is playing, you can quickly adjust levels of that channel up or down, with dB + or - indications appearing on the unit’s LED display. This can be handy, though I found interrupting the sound of a movie or program to adjust levels on the fly a little annoying. Direct access buttons for each channel would be much preferred. I’m not having a hissy about a GUI, but the more menus and other crap that you throw at me before I can balance channels, the more annoyed I get. In fact, the Rotel remote does provide just such buttons, but there’s no way to program the direct access to channel levels into them because you have to be in the Sunfire cycling noise mode, anyway. Other setup stuff was pretty easy, including getting rid of the centre channel, and it stayed away during DTS playback, something impossible with some of the earlier DTS-capable gear I’ve reviewed. Here you simply flick the toggle on the rear panel to Off.

      I did find a problem with the subwoofer outputs when I tried to use more than one: only output 1 operated consistently with both the effects channel and the bass output from Pro Logic. This may be a software glitch, and since it’s already been mentioned to Bob the man (who recently, in a corporate coup, bought back Carver Corporation, and hence his name), so I’m sure it will be fixed in future production.

      A little confusion can also be encountered when hooking up digital sources, especially in cases where they also have analog outputs, for example both my Star Choice dish and Pioneer Elite DVL-90 LD/DVD combi player. The TG defaults to the digital input when it senses lock, and there may be cases where you want to listen to the analog out in each case. With the player, I sometimes listen to 24/96 DVD audio discs, so here, I simply connected its analog outs to the CD input. The satellite dish’s digital output can tend to lose lock or disappear on some stations or services, so I needed the analog alternative, and the only way to solve this problem was to remove the digital input plug on the TG.

      In all other respects the ergonomics and operational performance of this component were sensational. It sounded great in all modes, Dolby Digital, DTS, and Pro Logic. The wonderfully open and dynamic quality of the Crystal chips was well conveyed through the Sunfire circuitry. I was impressed by the contribution of the Holographic circuit to Pro Logic playback; it gave a nice sense of breadth to the front, and seemed to add some space to the mono rear channel (There’s also that neat little blue light). However, a hiss just audible at the listening position accompanied the Holographic breadth of sound; the circuit seems to be rather noisy.

      There was one quirk with DTS that I hope is not permanent: on the only DTS DVD I own, an early sampler, the DTS sound cannot be decoded by the TG. It works fine on DTS CDs and LDs. Until additional DTS small silver discs come my way, I guess we won’t know for sure whether they are playable on the Sunfire system. A feature on DTS is upcoming in these pages, as is one on the two Canadian satellite systems, now that both are up and running chez AIG. Look for these in the Spring issue, come April. And as I look out the window at all the snow, come April!

And, speaking of long winter days, I did spend an afternoon over the holidays not only programming the Sunfire remote control with codes of my other components, including TV, LD/DVD player, and satellite systems, and then did the same with the identical Rotel RB990, adding all the TG codes in this case. This assured backup in the event of a battery failure, something I recommend to owners of a Sunfire system. If you don’t have an identical programmable remote control as I do, you can buy one for under $200, and it doesn’t have to be a touchscreen type, as long as it is capable of learning individual codes as well as code sets for a given component. Though the complete Sunfire set of commands probably does have a 2- or 3-digit code for programmable remotes, it is not revealed in the manual.

      Were there any other things I didn’t like about the Theater Grand? A couple. First of all, there are a few peculiarities of this remote. I found that the combination of its never lighting until you touch the screen and button proximity meant that when trying to adjust volume or engage mute, one could easily turn the unit off, all 3 buttons (Power, Volume and Mute) clustered in the upper right corner of the remote. As well, in certain subdued light conditions the remote became indecisive about turning its back lighting off, and simply flickered until introduced to normal room lighting; since the flicker light condition approximates an ideal viewing situation, I found this tendency troublesome. The otherwise identical Rotel remote does not have this problem. And then there was that hiss with the Holographic mode, which made it unacceptable with music, especially classical, where its spatial effects were most pleasant.

      But there were lots of other reasons to be very happy with the operation and sound quality of the Sunfire Theater/Cinema Grand combination and I hope I’ve adequately articulated them. Clean, powerful, and dynamic, this home theatre system is among the best I’ve heard, and easily the best looking. Apparently a receiver with as many as 8 200-watt channels is coming from Sunfire soon. I can hardly wait.

Andrew Marshall

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