Sunfire Ultimate Receiver

      Date posted: October 18, 2003

Sunfire Ultimate Receiver

Sugg. Retail: $6999.00 (CAN)
Distributor: Evolution Audio Video
250 The Esplanade, Suite 302, Toronto, Ontario
M5A 1J2
(416) 603-9090

(Reprinted from the Fall 03 Audio Ideas Guide)

      A look at the back panel of the Ultimate receiver immediately tells you that this is a serious piece of audio/video gear; I’ve never seen a space so crammed with inputs and outputs. To run briefly through its main features, the 200-wpc unit offers 7 channels of amplification, Dolby Digital EX and Pro Logic II, DTS ES and NEO 6, capped with Bob Carver’s proprietary Sonic Holography in a new DSP-based version. The digital signal processing supports rates up to 96 kHz.

      24-bit Crystal Semiconductor A/D converters are used to digitize incoming analog signals, while 24-bit, 192-kHz Analog Devices D/A converters, 7 in all, are used for reproducing digital signals. There’s also a”32-bit, 20 MHz control microprocessor and 24-bit, 150 MIPS Motorola SymphonyTM DSP Processor.”

      Inputs and outputs, 6 in all, include full digital coaxial and Toslink arrays, while analog ins and outs are all gold-plated RCAs. For video we see 3 component inputs and 2 outs, unusual in a receiver, along with the full array of composite and S connectors. What is more unusual, the component through-path is rated for 100 MHz, roughly 10 times the bandwidth of the signals going through it. Oh, and I almost forgot: there’s an 8-channel analog input, this time with RCAs, adding to the jack count (on the Theatre Grand II that is our HT reference, a DB-25 connector is used for the 6-channel input that I use for DVD-A and SACD playback). The Ultimate also provides an IEEE 1394 (Firewire) port for “future expeansion”, and a “RS-232 control port with discrete codes”.

      This receiver also provides twin zone operation, and a number of other interesting features, some not seen in other receivers. One is the ability to “record a downmixed 2 channel output from a 5.1 digital source”. This is a nice feature for anyone who has invested in a DVD recorder, especially if the downmix were Dolby encoded for surround playback in Pro Logic II. This is not specified in the manual. And as far as speakers go, the 6th and 7th channels can be employed either as side or rear locations, the former suiting Bob Carver’s inclinations, or for proper EX or ES reproduction. They can also be used to feed a second zone in stereo at speaker rather than line level. This is extraordinary flexibility.

Sunfire Ultimate Receiver - rear

      And I know of no other receiver that offers this kind of power, using Sunfire’s proven digital tracking power supply technology. I’ve been living with the 405-wpc Signature power amplifier since it was first introduced, and in home theatre there’s no substitute for clean, effortless, and almost limitless power, especially when you’re driving the almost indestructible Newform ribbons.

      Being a receiver, the Ultimate has an AM/FM tuner with 40 presets and it was one of the first performance areas I checked. With our outdoor tower-mounted Lindsay bowtie (double dipole) antenna, it brought in 34 stations, most in clean, quiet stereo, with excellent selectivity. It may not be a McIntosh, but what came in was good. There is no RDS display, but direct numeric access is offered, a feature I find invaluable. Just put in 3 or 4 numbers on the remote and you’re there; I find this better than presets, since there’s no scrolling through to find a station. It’s a good sounding tuner, with clarity and warmth, these slightly enhanced with the Holography engaged.

      I listened to the Sunfire through the Totem Dreamcatcher speaker system, and they were a very good match. The tiny subwoofer is quite amazing, and I was listening to it and the system the day that the news came down that Bob Carver had lost his lawsuit with Audio Products International about his patents on small subwoofers. I guess Totem and its founder, Vince Bruzzese were small enough (corporately, that is) to escape the Carver wrath. But the result of this decision in a Seattle court will probably be a profusion of small subs from many manufacturers.

      The remote control for the Ultimate receiver is a departure for Sunfire, who have provided a touch screen type with no hard buttons. Here we have a smaller LCD screen flanked by buttons for various functions. I’m of two minds about this remote, having become so used to the original one, which has been used by other manufacturers (being outsourced), including Rotel and Cambridge Audio. Both old and new use the same codes, and simply for convenience, I tended to reach for the older remote, but did become used to the new one eventually.

      That is not to say that I came to like it very much, however…I was put off by its GUI menu hierarchy of function, the older touchscreen more direct in access with fewer button pushes. The buttons and display do light up, making it easy to use in the dark. It can also be programmed with the codes for your other HT equipment. The ten device labels on the LCD Main display can also be customized to your own specific gear. Frankly, I would insist that an integral part of acquiring this premium-priced receiver be the dealer’s specific customization of the the remote control, with a customer training session to follow.

      The overall performance of the Sunfire Ultimate receiver is, in a word, stupendous! It has oodles of effortless power, and a clarity and depth of image you don’t normally associate with receivers; it’s just a cut above the best offerings from other manufacturers, the Pioneer VSX-49TX coming the closest in our recent experience.

      I watched a number of movies, from the mesmerizing Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring to The Thomas Crown Affair, both visual delights and extraordinarily vivid and detailed video transfers. I also put on sections from The Fifth Element that challenge systems both visually and auditorially, and the Ultimate did very well with them, with no artifacts and very clean, dynamic sound.

      Listening to CDs and DADs, starting with Ray Montford’s superb new Many Roads, and graduating to some of the Chesky discs that started the 96 kHz high resolution phase of digital audio before DVD-A. All sounded great, as did anything else I played on my Elite DV-AX10, and fed digitally to the Sunfire.

      One of the nice features of the Ultimate (and the TG II and III) is the automatic switching of inputs when you fire up an outside component such as a VCR or CD player, and the recognition and correct selection of digital formats. Both can be fooled occasionally, especially if you have a slightly unorthodox connection setup, but this feature almost makes up for my perceived shortcomings of the remote control.

      Though it’s not probably what you would mate with this receiver, the Totem Dreamcatcher surround system, with its 4 identical speakers, centre channel and amazingly small subwoofer, was more than excellent in terms of clarity, dynamics, and able to generate very satisfying deep bass that seemed to come from all channels. Measurements will tell us more, but they were not yet done as I write.

      If you crave a high powered home theatre system that is all in one box (except for sources, of course) that runs cool and sounds hot, and has just about all the flexibility and features you could possibly need, consider the Sunfire Ultimate receiver. When you look at comparable processor/amplifier combinations, you’ll see that you could spend almost twice as much money for equivalent power and performance. Think about that when you ponder the Ultimate price.

Andrew Marshall

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