The Sunfire Theater Grand Processor II
Digital Surround Processor
Michael Levy and Martin Appel
20 November 2000

Specifications

Line Level Inputs
Sensitivity (for 0.5 V output): 125 mV
Sensitivity-Phono: 1.6 mV
Frequency response: 20 Hz - 20 kHz +/- 0.5dB
Signal to Noise (relative to 2V out): 88dB
Distortion (THD): < 0.03%
Separation (at 1 kHz): 70 dB
Tone Control:
Bass: +/- 10 dB (at 100 Hz)
Treble: +/- 10 dB (at 10 kHz)
Audio Outputs
Frequency Response:
Left and Right (Large): 20 Hz-20 kHz
Center and Surrounds (Large): 20 Hz-20 kHz
Subwoofer: 20-120 Hz (crossover set to 120Hz)
(The Sub plays the bass from the other channels using Bass Management)
Delay Adjustment
Center: 0-5 mS in 1 mS steps
Surrounds: 0-15 mS in 1 mS steps
(15mS is automatically added in Dolby Pro Logic mode)
Video Section
Video inputs/outputs: 1 V (peak to peak) /75 ohms
Component Bandwidth: 30 MHz, -1.5 dB
Composite Bandwidth: 6 MHz, -2 dB
S-video Bandwidth: 18 MHz, -1.5 dB
FM Tuner Section
FM range: 87.5-108 MHz, 0.2 MHz steps (0.05 MHz for some export models)
Usable sensitivity (Mono): 1.6uV (75 ohms) 15.2 dBf (75kHz DEV,30dB)
50dB Quieting sensitivity (Stereo) 31.6uV (75 ohms) 41.2 dB
Audio output frequency range: 30 Hz to 15 kHz, +0.5dB, -3dB
AM Tuner Section
AM frequency range: 530 - 1710 kHz in 10 kHz steps (9 kHz steps for some export models)
Video Function Relay: 12V Trigger out: 50mA maximum
Relay contact rating: 24 VDC 2A maximum
Power Requirements: 120 VAC 50-60 Hz: 40 W
Dimensions: 19" wide x 6.5" high x 15.75" deep
Net Weight: 25 pounds
Warranty: 2 years parts and labor
List Price: $3,495 U.S.

Manufacturer:
Sunfire Corporation
5210 Bickford Avenue
PO Box 1589
Snohomish, WA 98291
Phone: 425.335.4748
Fax: 425.335.4746
Web: www.sunfire.com

Sometimes in this crazy audiophile/videophile world you run into an answer to a question you were not asking, and discover a diamond among lumps of coal. Jaded by the products usually mentioned for state-of-the-art honors, I was not expecting to keep the original Theater Grand Processor (version I) when I purchased it. I expected it to hold me over until I could decide on a more expensive processorósomething exciting. So, I hooked up the Sunfire with little fanfare, and did not listen to it critically for about two weeks while it burned in.

When I got around to more serious listening, boy was I in for a surprise! My system had opened up into a 3-dimensional panorama with a level of inner detail I had never heard before. Faint sounds became apparent, detailed, and sonically etched in 3-dimensional space. So much new information was available, that recording after recording was presented as if I was listening to it for the first time. On Pictures at an Exhibition, with Lorin Maazel conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Telarc 80042), I could hear the bassoonists breathing and the violinistsí fingers moving on the fingerboards. On Fleetwood Macís Rumours (WB 3010-2), on "The Chain" Lindsey Buckingham buzzes a string in the opening chords of the song. While I was aware of its presence in the past, it now stood out with obvious clarity. On the JVC XRCD sampler disc (XR0001-2), the tappets on the clarinet on "The Peacocks" by The Bill Holman Band were detailed and clear without clacking or harshness. I could sense their motion and I started to giggle. That was when I called Martin Appel.

My first listening to any processor is done as a pure 2-channel device. I want to hear how well the Digital to Analog converter operates. Without good D to A conversion, no surround parameter could be expected to be correct. The performance of the Sunfire Theater Grandís processor is exceptional for a stand-alone unit. Further listening with Marty confirmed this evaluation. We called Randy Bingham at Sunfire to acquire a second processor for Marty to evaluate in his system. Randy advised us to wait for the new series II processor, as it would be available soon with important updates. It took a few months, but it was worth the wait. After the new Theater Grand Processor II had burned in for a couple of weeks, it opened up to the same detailed and spacious panoramic presentation that I had witnessed with the original Sunfire processor.

As a surround processor, the Theater Grand offers most of the features I expect in a state-of-the-art unit: balanced audio outputs for all channels and the subwoofer, RS-232 control, and a screen trigger. It has a high quality AM/FM tuner and a fairly good phono preamp for those of us who still appreciate good vinyl. It plays 5.1 Digital Dolby, DTS, and 96/24 digital audio. Analog processing includes Dolby Pro Logic, and 3 configurable room settings that are preset for stadium, cathedral, and jazz club. Additionally, the Theater Grand II sports a Bob Carver designed "Holographic" imaging circuit.

However, I did find some features lacking. I wish one could assign the screen trigger to any input, go directly to 2-channel stereo, or turn the center channel on and off in surround mode without going into the setup menu from the remote. Although there were no operational or sonic differences I could detect, the Theater Grand II is not THX certified, nor does it offer HDCD decoding. It is configurable to provide outputs for up to 7 channels. The extra 2 channels are a matrix derivative of the front and rear channels. They are placed at the sides in front of the prime seating position in order to increase the width of the front channel sound stage. This differs from other 7-channel systems that place 2 channels behind you and 2 channels to the side (in the same position where the THX rear channels are placed). One can argue the benefits of either system. I have found that both systems are able to create a very realistic surround image.

The new processor offers lots of inputs and outputs. It sports 5 analog audio/video inputs with S-video and composite video inputs, and 2 sets of component inputs, 3 audio/video outputs with S-video and composite video outputs, and one set of component outputs. It does not convert composite video, S-video, or component video, but only those sources that have been connected to each standard output in that standard.

There is a 25-pin connector for direct bypass input from a DVD playerís surround output. It has 4 analog stereo audio-only inputs and two outputs. Amplifiers can be connected with RCA-type or balanced XLR connectors for all channels except the side channels, which are only available via RCA connectors.

In the digital domain, there are 3 optical, and 6 coaxial digital audio inputs. The 3 optical inputs are for CD, LD/DVD, and DBS/BS. The processor senses the particular input being used and uses the highest quality connection for that input. There is also one coaxial RCA digital output.

Subwoofer management is excellent with 5 subwoofer outputs, 1 balanced and 4 RCA-type. The crossover point to the subwoofer is variable between 80 Hz and 120 Hz in 10 Hz increments. In this area, I wish there were more flexibility. I would like to see the range of adjustment from 40Hz to 150Hz.

There is a setup menu and an internal test tone generator that make setup easy. You can configure the processor for your system, adjust all channel levels and set the rear and center channel delay.

The remote control is of the LCD display/touch keypad variety. It is programmable and can create macro sequences. It is neither too large nor too heavy. It works intuitively, and setup is easy. The hardest part is inputting all those commands. I wish they were preprogrammed and accessible through a code, like the Thompson remote controls. After all this complexity, you might think it takes quite a while and some studying of the manual to set this processor up, but it came together rather easily. The worst part was the tedium of programming the remote control, and programming the tuner presets.

So How Does It Sound ó In Surround?

I started by playing a variety of music videos, and movies recorded in Digital Dolby 5.1 and in DTS. The results were so surprising that I had to delay this review to gather more information. Fleetwood Macís "The Dance", (Warner/Reprise Video 38486-2), has both Dolby Digital 5.1 and PCM linear sound tracks available. They are on either side of the disc. While the 5.1 version is smooth, clear, and musical, the linear tracks on the other side give a much better sense of positioning of the singers and instruments. There is a much better sense of detail, and the size of the stage in width and depth are more evident.

The Eagles "Hell Freezes Over", (Geffen Recordings ID5529EADVD), has both a linear PCM encoded track and a DTS Surround version of the performance. I also have this concert on laser disc in Dolby 5.1 Surround. When I listened to it in PCM linear I used Dolby Pro logic decoding. My impression on listening to the DTS version is that the new mix had totally lost the best qualities of the original Dolby 5.1 mix.

The Dolby 5.1 version produced an acoustic image of the performance where you are sitting in a premium seat, say 5th-row dead center. Not only was the audience sitting all around you (you could almost hear their seats creak), but the instruments and vocalistsí voices were coming right from their images on screen. When camera angles changed, the voices and instruments moved accordingly. Itís done so smoothly that youíre left unaware unless itís pointed out.

The DTS version put some of the instruments behind you and rarely followed the images on the screen. I found this very disconcerting. I have been at live performances of "theater in the round" where the audience is seated around the performers and the stage rotates, but never have I been at a performance where the musicians were arranged around the audience! The image on the screen also displayed the normal audience-to-performers arrangement, making the DTS version all the more unbelievable.

The tonal equalization on the DTS version had also changed. The bass was so much more powerful that it made the drum in Hotel California unbearable. The treble had been equalized up so much that Don Henleyís voice became thin and reedy. I could only listen to it long enough to evaluate it before it grated so much on my ears that I had to turn it off. What could be the cause of these differences? Was it the recording? Was it the processor? Was it a quality inherent in DTS? I ran out and bought a few more DTS recordings to compare.

Santanaís "Abraxas" was available in DTS High Definition Surround Sound, (HDS 7102154434-2). This premium recording cost $25. It better be great! I have the Original Master Recording CD (UDCD 552) of this disc so I was able to compare them directly. The DTS version of this great recording was worse than anything I could have imagined! The rear channels were too loud, they tended to breath louder and lower, the equalization was even more radical, and the instruments and vocals were all over the place. Where the chimes on "Singing Winds, Crying Beasts" were clear, and stood out realistically in 3-dimensional space on the original version, they crashed, sizzled and were all over the place on the DTS version. The guitar no longer carried its note through the audience in the opening. It was thin and without body. What was going on here?

The new reference DVD of Terminator II, (Artisan 10967), has both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround versions on it. They compared closely. The DTS was a little louder, but the overall dimensionality and positioning were the same. Tonality seemed similar too. Well, what about music? Roy Orbisonís, "Black and White Night", (Image D882606DVD), DVD has three; DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1, and linear Dolby stereo tracks on it. You can stop in the middle of a song to change the audio and return to where you were. This made for a perfect comparison and resolved the DTS versus Dolby debate. The sound tracks were very similar, with the DTS slightly louder and more detailed than the Dolby Digital 5.1. The Stereo Dolby track was, though, the most detailed, and the most realistic, since instruments were not prone to walking to the back of the room.

Therefore, both the processor and the DTS recording system were exhibiting no abnormalities. The problems I heard were caused by the way some recordings have been mixed. Why would anyone ruin those recordings in this way? It reminds me of early stereo. I have some early Beatles recordings, for example, where the voices and some instruments would end up on one side or the other and sometimes they would move from the left to the right. It was done to point out the fact that you were listening to STEREO. Could the DTS surround versions have been mixed this way to emphasize the discrete rear channels in SURROUND? Had artificial equalization also been employed to impress the inexperienced listener? If so, I find it annoying and an insult to the intelligence of the consumer.

As a designer of products, there are some parts of my system that are unusual. My projector is a custom-designed 100-inch rear, and operates through a Vidikron BRS-2800 scaler at 1280 x 1024 progressive. I have a Pioneer DV-09 DVD player, 7 channels of amplification using Sunfire Signature amplifiers, and Straightwire cables. My surround speaker system is of my own design using ribbons from 200 Hz and up and a constant-pressure design woofer and subwoofer system. My room measures 25 by 16 feet with a vaulted ceiling, and is moderately well controlled acoustically.

I am no longer looking for that exciting state-of-the-art processor that I had mentioned earlier. I have found the level of performance I was looking for at a far lower price. Bob Carverís Sunfire Theater Grand II produces state-of-the-art sound quality at a moderate price. So, Itís "lights off," for hours of home theater and music videos as they were meant to be enjoyed.

ĖMichael Levy

Further Thoughts on The Sunfire Theater Grand Processor II
Listening as Pure 2-Channel Preamplifier!

Martin Appel

As a music lover and audiophile, there are times when good fortune strikes out of the blue. Sometimes we discover a new piece that hits us with its magic and fall completely under its spell. I know I did when I heard this product!

Over the years weíve all gotten those phone callsóand have read reviews, with that joyous message, "Youíve got to hear this!" This could be about any category of component that will "save your life". After calming down, the caller in this case was my friend and colleague Mike Levy, a founding member of the Imaging Science Foundation. He related to me the story of his new find in the Sunfire Theater Grand Processor II. The unit he had under evaluation had not yet been designated MK II. He told me about the incredible sound he was getting using it as a 2-channel DAC and I just had to hear it. Skeptically, I responded with "Iím not about to use a surround sound processor DAC for my 2-channel system and do not have any aspirations or the cash to get into home theater." After all, I was using the very well regarded Camelot Uther DAC, in my system and was enjoying its first rate performance.

Mike challenged me to do an A-B comparison at his house and so I unhooked the Camelot along with the Harmonic Technology Cyber-Link Copper digital cable, and the Pro-AC 11 power cord. I was on my way to a showdown! First, we set up the units side by side, and letting things settle before doing any serious listening. Switching back and forth commenced, and it became apparent that the Sunfire bettered my beloved Camelot in overall musicality with even more detail and subtlety. Plus, it wasnít as hard sounding and reduced the impression of "digititis". This event happened around Nov. Ď99.

After getting back home I called Perry, related the story, and told him I thought this would make an interesting product for review. Soon after I made the call to Randy Bingham at Sunfire and informed him that we wanted to review the piece. He agreed, but asked me to hold off until the early part of 2000 because they were coming out with an improved Mk II version that (he claimed) would measure 20 dB quieter, and offer more flexibility with better overall performance. Naturally I agreed.

Now, I want to reiterate that my review concentrates only on its 2-channel performance, because this unit is a full-function preamplifier, with a Moving Magnet phono stage, AM-FM tuner, and an incredibly complete home theater surround sound processor. Also included are various modes of digital sound processing that for my needs proves to be only icing on the cake! Letís not forget the palmcorder-like universal learning remote that comes with this digital dynamo for a mere $3,495. Chump change! How can they do this?

Initially, the Sunfire Mk II was used solely as a link between my Sony S7000 DVD player, and the InnerSound ESL amplifier. Analysis Plus Silver Oval speaker cables and interconnects were used in the evaluation, along with Harmonic Techís Truth Link and Pro-AC 11 and MagicPower cords. My speakers are the fine, but no longer produced, TMS Adiabat 8.5 speakers. All electronics are run through the Monster HTS 2000 power conditioner. Itís important to note that the IEC AC receptacle on the back of the Sunfire contains only two prongs, so some experimentation with after-market power cords for compatibility might be necessary.

Physical Description

The Theater Grand Processor is solidly constructed with a black powder-coated chassis and a substantial aluminum faceplate. The basic faceplate display is shared with other Sunfire Signature products, but it sets itself apart with its myriad of yellow lights accenting its serious design and aesthetics. One can adjust the light level of the display by using the "dim" button on the faceplate, which provides 4 levels of illumination. Fortunately, this function is also available via the remote. Excellent! Additionally the unit comes with a bronze-tinted glass shelf with rubber feet that the unit is designed to rest upon to reduce unwanted vibrations. I preferred using the Vibrapods by a small margin.

The Sunfire has a full range of balanced XLR audio outputs, including one for a subwoofer. Of course a full range of gold plated RCAís, inputs, outputs, and digital ins and outs along with an RS 232 jack for computer control. These are only a few of the options available. The unit can be operated manually or in automatic mode where the source is seen by the processor and chooses the appropriate path. Ah, those magic chips. The instructions are well written and complete, and with all the options available, mandatory. I must say that for the average audiophile seeing all of these inputs, with all of the possibilities, could be a little daunting but hang in there, itís worth it.

Now letís get to the sound. Well in a word, "eye opening" (I guess thatís two words). First, let me say the unit required about 100 hours of burn-in to show its true colors. During the burn-in process I experimented with, and verified, the performance of all the DSP modes and the Holographic Imaging setting. There is no traditional balance control. Instead there is a test tone sent through each channel and you adjust up or down in 1dB steps. This is all achieved via the remote control. Bass and treble settings are likewise controlled by the remote in single-dB steps.

Initially, the Sunfire TGP II sounded a little closed in and cool but it still delivered loads of detail. After burn-in, my system took on an increase in clarity, musicality and dimensionality that was truly enjoyable. We all can appreciate the qualities of live musicóthe effortless detail we perceive, including spatial cues, with subtlety and dynamics that we naturally accept and take for granted. We donít ask ourselves, at a live performance, if that was a trumpet or a coronet; we just know. That is the kind of natural information the Sunfire delivers. You donít ask yourself if that was digital or analogue because youíre spending time in musical enjoyment land. Isnít that what this is all about?

Listening to Frank Sinatra on Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely on Capitol reissued to CD, proved to be enlightening. The "Voice," is so beautifully captured and redefined with more subtle shadings and textures as he caresses and shapes each note. Many systems tend to smooth out voices by masking that information and some audiophiles prefer it that way. I donít. Additionally, imaging became more precise and solid. Frankís 3-dimensional presence was standing right in front of me with that lush orchestral back up, recessed in the soundstage, with clearly defined instrumentation. The experience of playing CD after CD gave that thrill of rediscovering the music that kept the smile on my face for hours on end.

Large orchestral works were stunningly reproduced. Playing Rossini 8 Overtures-Dutoit Montreal (London D164382), was extremely convincing. The weight of the brass in The William Tell Overture was rock solid with incisive transient attack, and that blatty, brassy sound that brought me to the edge of my listening room seat. It had that life that the concert hall imparts.

Phil Schaap, a world-renowned jazz authority, educator, mastering engineer, and host of his own radio show on WKCR in NY (at one time an aspiring trumpet player as well as an audiophile), came over the house for a listen. Phil, is a very congenial guy, who also teaches my daughter, a jazz studies major at Barnard College at Columbia University. He brought over some CDs he had mastered from various sources and we started listening.

With the proviso that he was unfamiliar with my amp-speaker-cable combo, he was very impressed with the systems ability to portray all the musical detail as accurately as he had created in the studio. He commented on the spatial qualities, sound stage depth and imaging in a most positive light. Additionally, he was very impressed with the bass performance of the system, not only in regard to its impact, but with respect to the timbre and detail he heard from his CDs. Overall, Phil was impressed with the all the fine nuances the Sunfire exposed and the life it brought to his recordings. He also stated that he couldnít perceive the unit doing anything wrong to the music and this comes from a man who can here the differences between an original CD and a CD-R copy.

We, in the audiophile community, are bombarded with claims of exceptional performance for cost-no-object gear, with many of them being valid. The problem is, how the hell do you afford it? When a component like the Sunfire comes along and displays such an elevated level of performance along with so many features and functions, one wonders whether those cost-no-object pieces are really worth it.

Up until now Iíve only focused on CD playback, but I did mention that this unit has phono inputs as well. My vinyl system, ancient as it is, consisting of a Thorens TD 115 Mk II and a Shure V15 type-V MR cartridge, would be considered "quaint" by todayís standards. I was quite impressed with the level of sound I was getting out of the unitís phono section. I wonít tell you that it is state-of-the-art, but you will not be embarrassed by its performance with vinyl, at all.

The amazing thing is that the analogue output from the phono cartridge is first converted to a 24-bit, 48 kHz digital bit stream. I know this will definitely irk analogue purists but the sound might just surprise. Below youíll find the description of the signal paths for both digital and analog.

Signal path using digital inputs: Digital input jacks, to high-speed digital multiplexer, to Crystal CS8413 S/PDIF receiver IC, to Motorola 56362 DSP IC, to Analog Devices AD1853 24-bit DACs, to Crystal Semiconductor CS3310 volume control ICs, to the output buffers.

Signal path using analog inputs: Analog input jacks to Crystal Semiconductor CS5394 24-bit A/D converter, to Motorola 56362 DSP IC, to Analog Devices AD1853 24-bit DACs, to Crystal Semiconductor CS3310 volume control ICs, to the output buffers. Both the digital and analogue signals are passed through the DSP to allow bass management, surround modes, and tone control functions.

When the tone controls, bass management circuitry, or surround modes are not engaged, their DSP code is bypassedómaking the signal path digitally "clean." The top-shelf 24-bit Crystal A/D runs at 48 kHz and all 24-bits are utilized throughout the digital signal chain. Four-layer glass-epoxy circuit boards are used in all signal areas with separate solid ground planes for each of the digital and analog sections. The noise floor, linearity, and frequency response specifications are claimed to be world-class.

For those who just can't live with the notion that their signal spends any time in the digital domain, a direct signal path can be achieved by utilizing the 6-channel input. This input can be assigned to any source, and is designed to allow outboard processors or decoders to be passed through the Theater Grand. It fully bypasses all digital processing.

I hope this explains the units operation for the more technically-minded out there. Thank you Randy Bingham for providing this information.

A few words must be said about the AM-FM performance. For those of you requiring a state-of-the-art FM tuner do not dismiss the qualities of this piece. The FM tuner is a lot more than a throw-in. Just as the phono stage is a quality part of this unit, so too, is the FM tuner. Naturally, living down low, in the canyons of Manhattan, a good antenna is a must to take full advantage of the radio performance. The unit has the capacity for 40 station presets. I seriously doubt one would be able to use that many, but theyíre there. The AM performance was adequate in my environment, but since I hardly ever listen to it, I wasnít that critical.

The TGP II offers neither HDCD playback nor upsampling. To be fair, I have not heard Camelotís upgraded UTHER DAC (I believe it retails for $3,000.), but the value and performance that Bob Carver has designed into this product for $3,495,* is astonishing. Audiophiles who might want a home theater processor will probably be dissuaded from using this unit in their stand-alone 2-channel systems. Donít be. You might be shocked at how good digital playback of the old 16/44 CD can be. It might be interesting to do a comparison with a few of the latest inexpensive and excellent stand-alone DACs, such as the previously reviewed Odeon, by my colleague, Jim Merod, or the well-regarded Bel CantoDAC-1, recently reviewed by Frank Alles.

With the new digital formats evolving, and with advances in standard CD reproduction being made almost daily, this might be just the ticket for that ride to piece of mind. Bob Carver has done it again. Keep listening.

*Editorís Note: Over the course of the extended review period and the update to version II status, the MSRP of the Theater Grand Processor had risen from $2995 to $3295. On November 14, 2000, we were informed by Sunfire of another price increase to $3,495.