Sunfire Theater Grand Processor II - Processor / Preamp/ Tuner

      Date posted: November 17, 2000

Sunfire Theater Grand

Sugg. Retail: $5,599.99
CAD, $3,495 USD
Manufacturer: Sunfire Corporation

5210 Bickford Ave., Snohomish
WA 98290, USA
TEL (425) 335-4748 FAX (425) 335-4746
Canadian Distributor:
The Evolution Group, Jonic Intern’l Inc.
1025 Tristar Blvd., Mississauga,
Ontario L5T 1V5, Canada
TEL (905) 696-4100 FAX (905) 696-4144

Reprinted from the AV Almanac 2001 Audio Ideas Guide issue

Follow-up comments added February 25, 2002

     Visually identical to its predecessor (Sunfire Theater Grand, reviewed in the Winter 99) and very handsome indeed, is the Sunfire Theater Grand Processor II. However, it’s not identical inside, with a streamlined circuit architecture that shortens signal paths and reduces the number of circuit boards. It’s also easier to use, with most operations performed in one setting of the remote control, that for Amp.

     It’s the same remote, a touch-screen type that has appeared under Rotel, Cambridge and other brands as well, which can learn individual commands and Macro sequences. It does not, however, learn complete code groups with a single 3-digit code like many other universal remotes. Of course, it comes programmed with all necessary codes to operate the Grand II.

     With both Dolby Digital and DTS a given, the Sunfire also plays 96-kHz DVD-Audio discs with full resolution via its Crystal Semiconductor DACs. A 32-bit control microprocessor and 24-bit Motorola Symphony DSP processor are the heart of the switching and DSP operations. There are 3 A/V inputs with S and RCA composite video inputs and a pair of component inputs, with an additional 4 audio-only inputs. On the digital side, we find 6 coaxial RCA inputs and 3 optical Toslinks.

(Rear panel, Sunfire Theater Grand Processor II)

     After having some problems with bass management in the first version of this processor, Bob Carver, along with his new digital specialist engineer, has provided 4 subwoofer outs in version II, and made them work in all modes but Stadium, Jazz Club, and Cathedral DSP modes, “to avoid over-complicating the listening environment”, according to an addendum to the owner’s manual. Three of these sub outs are coaxial, the fourth a balanced XLR.

     There also balanced outputs for all the other channels, and that’s how we hooked things up to the Cinema Grand Signature amplifier. But more than 6 channels can be had from the Processor II, with Carver’s 7-Axis configuration that derives matrix side channels in addition to the 5.1 configuration. As well, an improved, and much quieter Holographic Imaging circuit is provided to get a similar effect from 5 channels.

     I won’t belabour the DSP options, but should note that Bob has added a pair of new ones called Party 4 and Party 5, the former providing rear stereo identical to the front channels, and the latter adding front centre fill. Party, Dude!

     There are also discrete Bass and Treble buttons that work with the Increase/Decrease ones that are also used to set delays and other surround parameters. Just about everything has been considered in this very complete HT heart. With oodles of digital and analog inputs, a 40-preset tuner, and oodles of analog outputs, the Theater Grand II can anchor the most elaborate of home theatre systems. (There is a full rear panel photograph at bottom.)

     In evaluating it, we started with the tuner, which brought in about 24 stations, all in stereo, since there are no mono or muting defeat controls; that is, if a station is too weak to be received in clean stereo, it’s not received at all. Though this brings down the number of stations received, it also ensures that those you get are listenable, in fact, very listenable. It was simple to program presets for the half-dozen classical stations I listen to, though Buffalo’s WNED-FM tended to pop in and out with varying reception conditions. This is not a particularly sensitive or selective tuner section, though a pretty good sounding one.

     And good is definitely inadequate to describe the sound of the whole system, the TG II feeding the superb Cinema Grand Signature, with its whopping 405 watts per channel for extraordinary clarity and effortless dynamics. I think these characteristics were aided by the capability of using balanced cables between them, with Museatex interconnects on the front channels, and Wireworld Meteor at rear, both microphone cables from our pro complement. Speakers were, of course, Newform R645 ribbons up front and R830s at rear, with the deep bass handled by the Sunfire True Subwoofer.

     I tell ya, this is a system that can really boogie, with all that power, and the superb digital playback that the TG II can provide. I also liked the fact that it’s a smart processor, able to recognize and switch to whatever digital format it’s fed. It’s very instinctive in operation, once it’s been set up properly, which is itself quite a simple process using the Surround Setup and Increase/Decrease buttons on the front panel.

     Reproduction of 96/24 audio DVDs was very good, too, this an upgrade from the previous generation, which had 48-kHz-only DACs. Like some other processors, the Sunfire does not provide Pro Logic when decoding 96/24, but the rather unfortunate DSP environments (Stadium is truly ludicrous, and Cathedral worse) can be used, the best of these being Jazz Club. Of course, as noted earlier, you then lose your subwoofer.

     I also felt the sound of Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks was exceptional, as good as I’ve heard from any home theatre component since the Linn AV-5103, which is about three times the price. I could go on about various effects in various movies, but what I really want to stress is the overall uniformity of excellence heard from the Theater Grand II/Cinema Grand Signature system, whatever was playing. And I shouldn’t forget to note that DTS CDs sounded better here than through most other processors I’ve reviewed, though the unfortunate mixes and overbearing rear channels on classical discs were still omnipresent. And, as with the Myryad system, the lack of audio resolution with DTS was quite obvious, especially next to high-bit recordings.

     There are a number of features I’ve not mentioned, such as the RS-232 port for integrated automation, a trigger output for screens, an MM Phono section, component video inputs (2) and outputs (1), and probably a few other things I’ve missed. The Sunfire Theater Grand II is one of the best home theatre components in our experience, and coupled with the matching Cinema Grand Signature amplifier, makes for fabulous watching and listening.

Follow-up (added February 2002)

I’ve been using this processor for over a year now, and have grown very accustomed to its user friendliness and extensive input and output flexibility. But until last June, when the new TV, a Pioneer Elite PRO 710HD with its 380 pounds of Urushi wood* came into the house carried on straps by three burly piano movers, I hadn’t encountered its capabilities with either component video and HDTV switching, nor had I used its analog 6-channel inputs.

These latter, because of limited rear panel space (much of it taken by the generous complement of balanced analog XLR connectors), are concentrated into a 25-pin computer input, requiring an appropriate DB25 cable with 6 RCAs on the input end (see illustration, below). Sunfire was kind enough to send me a pair of these special cables, which proved subsequently to be very valuable when assessing the procession of DVD-Audio and SACD players that came and went in successive months, the reviews of which continue to appear in these pages.

Receiver or processor rear panels are daunting enough in setup, but when things have to be plugged in and out on a regular basis not in twos but sixes, it can become a real pain. Well, the pain is much lessened by being able to, after carefully getting the output channels right in the device under test (DUT), then just swap one multi-pin plug on the Sunfire rear panel. This has turned out to be a real reviewer’s bonus, and the extra cable has made it even neater. It also simplifies ongoing audio comparisons with our reference Pioneer Elite DV-AX10 DVD-A/V player, since there’s minimal jiggery pokery between listening comparisons. Maybe having these connectors at both ends, that is with jacks on players in addition (as shown in the drawing from the Theater Grand II owner’s manual, would be a good industry standard, and ensure that people could instantly get all their channels right all the time.

Another facility of the Grand that I had not exploited is its component video switching, but suddenly having the need for 3 inputs (DV-AX10, ExpressVu 6000 HD receiver, and ongoing component or progressive component DUTs) presented an initial problem. The TV also has only 2 component inputs, so the solution became using the processor’s inputs for satellite and DUT, with a dedicated cable with BNC connectors at the source end with the AX-10 going direct to the TV.

When setting this up I sat down to watch the HD feed from their sampler channel 285, noting picture resolution and colour values. Sunfire specifies a component bandwidth of 30 MHz, +/-1.5 dB, which should easily pass an HD signal, particularly the 1080i broadcasts from satellite; both Bell ExpressVu and Star Choice convert all off-air broadcasts to this standard (see more on this elsewhere in this issue).

Well, I needn’t have worried. The picture was as detailed and pure in colour as before. Also helping in the component setup were WireWorld Ultraviolet and CinemaQuest YIQ4 cabling with silver contact surfaces and high quality connectors.

By the way, the Grand is specified at 18-MHz bandwidth through its S-video switching, and also passes the picture unaltered.

*I’ll let you in on a little secret: Urushi may sound like an exotic hardwood that comes from the dense forests surrounding Mount Fuji, and I won’t deny this; but consider the fact that it is really just the Japanese word meaning “shiny”.

Andrew Marshall

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