Associated Equipment:
Projection
Digital Front End
Amplification
Loudspeakers
Cabling
The Sunfire Theater Grand Processor III

Digital Surround Processor

Michael Levy

6 May 2003

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):
Analog 97dB
Digital 105 dB
Distortion (THD): < 0.03%
Separation (at 1 kHz): 70 dB
Tone Control: Bass: +/ 10 dB Treble: +/ 10 dB

Audio Outputs
Frequency Response: Left and Right (Large): 20 Hz 20 kHz
Center and Surrounds (Large): 20 Hz 20 kHz
Subwoofer: 20 160 Hz (crossover set to 160Hz)
(The Sub plays the bass from the other channels using Bass Management)
Delay adjustment: Center: 0 25 mS Surrounds: 0 15 mS
(delay adjustment is automatic when speaker distance is entered)

Video Section
Video inputs/outputs: 1 Vp p /75 ohms
Component Bandwidth: 100 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 dBf
Audio output frequency range: 30 Hz to 15 kHz, +.5dB, 3dB

AM Tuner Section
AM frequency range: 530 1710 kHz in 10 kHz steps (9 kHz steps for some export models)
Usable sensitivity (30% mod.,S/N 20 dB):16uV / (600 uV/m)
S/N (30% mod., 1 mV input): 48 dB

Trigger Outputs
12V Main and Zone2 Trigger current less than 500mA total
Main zone trigger relay contact rating: 24 VDC 2A maximum

Power Requirements

120 VAC 50 60 Hz: 40 W

Dimensions
17” Wide × 5.75” High × 16.5” Deep (Architect’s Choice)
19" Wide × 6.5" High × 15.75" Deep (Standard Model)

Net Weight
22lbs. (Architect’s Choice)
24lbs. (Standard Model)

Warranty: 2 years parts and labor
List price: $3,495 U.S.
Address:
Sunfire Corporation
5210 Bickford Avenue
PO Box 1589
Snohomish, WA 98291
Telephone: (425) 335-4748
Fax: (425) 335-4746
Website: www.sunfire.com

Like many committed audiophiles, I am on a search for audio’s Holy Grail, the system that so totally overwhelms me that I forget I am listening to a recording and lose myself in the music. In order to achieve that sound, I own and have owned finicky tube preamps and power amps that needed frequent biasing and tube changes. After a while I would get tired of the work and buy a high quality transistor system, but it never quite satisfied. No transistor preamp or power amp could cross that threshold in musicality, and certainly no transistor processor, that is until now.

The latest incarnation of Bob Carver’s Sunfire Theater Grand, the (version) III is full of features and very well thought out. It is amazingly easy to install and use considering its high level of complexity. It has been expanded, and improved in its role as the centerpiece of a state of the art home theater. I was anticipating what it would do for my media system, but, while I am a movie buff, I am an audiophile first, and the sound must create that magic feeling. So, I tore my system apart, installed the new TGIII, and after some burn in, it was time for critical listening.

Physical Description

The Theater Grand Processor III sports Sunfire’s ruggedly handsome black powder-coated steel chassis and aluminum faceplate. It is available in either the standard 19” wide version (reviewed), or the 17” wide architect’s choice. The faceplate’s look is shared with other Sunfire Signature products, but is uniquely arrayed with yellow and blue lights and small buttons neatly laid out across the panel. Behind the center glass window is a blue display that shows the source being played, or any functions that are being accessed. The illumination level of the display and lights can be dimmed using one of the front panel buttons in stages down to an almost invisible blue display with the lights off. The back is solidly arrayed with gold-plated inputs, outputs and control connections that are enumerated on the features list. Like all Sunfire electronics, it comes with a bronze-tinted glass shelf with rubber feet to reduce vibrations, and the finish quality is first class in a subdued way instead of a high gloss “notice me” look.

First Impressions

Wow! I did not expect this kind of sonic improvement. I truly did not believe my own ears. The sound I was hearing could compete with much more expensive tube separates! Could it really be this good? Instruments stood clearly in three-dimensional space and sound flowed unimpeded from them to my ears with a new level of immediacy, and intimacy.

Before I continue in detail about the TGIII’s sonic qualities, let me tell you how I listen, and reference a product. First, I listen to as much live music as possible. By live I mean NO ELECTRONICS, no P.A. system—just the instruments and voices. I also go to rock concerts in good sonic environments to reference the sound of a rock band in concert. The ideal audio system would recreate the rock concert with all of its power and magic, while classical, jazz, and folk music would have the intimacy of the live performance with no amplifier present.

In the home theater, a processor should have that live feeling in a two-channel device and in its theater modes. As a reference, I hooked up my venerable VPI turntable using my Accuphase moving coil cartridge and HEAD transformer in the “sourcedirect” analog bypass mode. The VPI had sounded delicious in my analog tube system. I learned from the original Theater Grand, and the TGII to expect serious audiophile sound. Still, I was amazed. It took on a very tube-like sonic quality. Once again, my system had opened up into a 3-dimensional panorama with exceptional inner detail. You could hear the music reflecting off of the wall behind the performers, faint sounds were more apparent, detailed, and sonically etched in 3-dimensional space, and instruments gained a new musicality. I was anxious to pull out my favorite music on vinyl and CD, and listen to each of them in this new light.

Critical Listening

On the “Pictures at an Exhibition” CD, with Lorin Maazel conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Telarc 80042), not only could I hear music pages turned, the bassoonists breathing and the violinists’ fingers moving on the fingerboards, I could sense the motion of the air coming out of the bassoon, and a new intimacy. In comparison, the same recording on the turntable was slightly more musical, and the stage size and individual images were slightly larger.

The Rolling Stones have been re-mastered on SACD. While they sound smoother, more open and three-dimensional than the vinyl on every selection, I don’t know how much of that is the re-mastering. When played back as a CD, although not as smooth or open as the SACD, it still outperformed the vinyl.

“Silver Springs” is available on both The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac CD (Reprise R2 73775) and on an HD DVD-Audio sampler (Warner Brothers/Reprise Pro-DVD-A 100740). The HD-DVD-A had the three-dimensionality and detail of vinyl, with the CD a close second. The HD-DVD-A was more musical and open sounding, with clearer three-dimensional images. Unfortunately, as far as I know, Silver Springs was never released on vinyl to verify that comparison, but when I compared the original distribution vinyl of Rumours (Warner Bros BSK 3010) to the CD (Warner Bros 3010-2), it was not close. The CD trounced it. The vinyl sounded dull and lacked high-end energy.

The sampler also has “Old Man” by Neil Young and I have it on the Harvest album, both on vinyl (Nautilus NR 44) and CD (Reprise 2277-2). Ah…a direct comparison. The two-channel DVD-A was as musical, three-dimensional, and detailed as the record, but without the annoying ticks and pops; the CD still sounded great, but second best.

The original master recording of “The Pretender” on Jackson Browne’s The Pretender sounded more three-dimensional and musical on vinyl (Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-055) than on the CD (Asylum 6E 107-2). But it was close, and other selections, such as “The Fuse,” were almost identical.

The CD was not always second best. Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You” on the Blue album had more air and was more realistic on the CD (Reprise 2038-2) than the vinyl (Reprise MS 2038). I guess the differences in the mastering process prevent honest comparison, but overall, vinyl and HD audio sources were usually more three-dimensional and alive-sounding.

Speaking of alive-sounding, on “The Peacocks” by The Bill Holman Band from the JVC XRCD Sampler disc (XR0001-2), I could feel the body of the clarinet, the tappets were detailed and clear, without clacking or harshness, and I could hear their direction of motion. “Foolish Games” on Pieces of You by Jewel (Atlantic 82700.2) was more three-dimensionally engaging and real than it had ever been. And when I listened to “Songbird” from the Songbird album by Eva Cassidy (Blix Street Records G2-10045) it felt as though her voice went through me.

When I played Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” (Columbia/Legacy CK 65142) the stage presence was so palpable and the instruments so vibrant, that I got involved in the music, and lost my critical approach.

Sonic Comparisons

I needed some comparative reality. So I called Marty Appel, who had reviewed the TGII with me for Stereo Times. Marty lives near Columbia and Barnard Colleges, and frequents live music events there. He was kind enough to bring over his reference Birdland D/A and Innersound amp. I include his descriptions and feelings on the acoustic character and comparative sound of the two systems in this review:

“I received a call from my friend and colleague, Mike Levy. He had received the new Sunfire Theater Grand III Processor and was burning it in. I had just finished reviewing Birdland Audio's Silver Series Odeon-Ag DAC w/volume control and Innersound's ESL Mark II stereo amplifier and was greatly impressed with both units' performance. Mike asked me to bring them and the much-heralded Acoustic Zen cables and power cords from my system. Mike picked me up, with my gear, and we drove out to his house on Long Island with the anticipation of an uninterrupted afternoon of hi-fi fun.

We started listening to Mike's system with the Sunfire TGP III playing various sources including standard CD's, SACD's, DVD-Audio and vinyl. I was astonished! The improvement in sound quality between the II and the III was dramatic on initial impression. All the detail, separation and sound staging of the TGPII were there, but the palpability and musicality were of another ilk. I thought I was listening to tubes. That lifelike quality and presence that a good tube preamplifier can impart to the music was there in spades without any harshness and without giving up definition, articulation or bass control. Whether Jewel or Eva Cassidy's voices, or Miles, or John Faddis's trumpets, the live quality of their instruments was abundantly there.

By now, my electronics were warming up and we switched them into play. It's always been my experience with Acoustic Zen cabling that they take at least an hour of playing to settle down and this makes switching them in and out, for comparisons, difficult. We used a Pioneer DV-47A player as a source connected to the Odeon-Ag with AZ's Silver Byte and E=MC2 digital cables and a Toslink cable as well. We used AZ's Matrix Reference II's from the DAC to the amplifier, and AZ's Gargantua power cords connected both units to the wall power outlet. We didn't have another power cord on hand for the Pioneer and used the cord it came with. We disconnected Mike's system from his speakers and connected the AZ's Hologram II speaker cables from the Innersound amplifier. How did they compare?

The stand-alone separates had a different sound. (No surprise there) At first there was a dryness and cool quality and it took awhile for them to warm up. The sound became more refined and the soundstage expanded in both width and depth and became more three-dimensional than with the Sunfire, as if one moved from a third row orchestra seat to a mid hall seat. I was missing some of that tube-like immediacy that the Sunfire possessed. The ideal combination might be adding a good tube preamplifier to the Birdland-Innersound combination. I couldn't bring my Kora Eclipse Preamplifier with me, which is a single ended triode design that adds its own tube magic. As we played more music, the DAC/amp combo kept getting closer to the Sunfire's lifelike qualities but not all the way there.

In conclusion, Bob Carver has done something very special and has come up with a full surround sound, solid state, processor that has a truly enjoyable hi-end sound, rivaling the qualities of tube electronics. One can feel quite comfortable with this unit as your system controller for both high quality audio and home theater.
Kudos, Mr. Carver.” -Martin Appel

I agree with Marty on how the two systems sounded, and that a tube preamp might open the Birdland/Innersound combination’s musicality. Conversely, the Sunfire was using a standard power chord, and the speaker cable was an older XLO, while the interconnects were medium-level Harmonic Technology, not Acoustic Zen. So both systems could probably sound better. But right there, in the head to head comparison, if I had to chose one of these two systems, the Sunfire would definitely win. It was simply more musical, immediate, and engaging.

Features

The Theater Grand III has all of the features I would expect in a state-of-the-art unit. The ”sourcedirect” mode allows the analog pass-through of a two channel source, while the 8-channel bypass is available for the new high resolution DVD players when playing SACD, or high resolution DVD-Audio, and the processor will digitally decode practically any other format except HDCD, which plays, but without the extra information. The addition of a second zone capability with remote control and a second 12-volt trigger adds flexibility.

There are balanced audio outputs for seven channels and the subwoofer, RS-232 control, and an IEEE 1394 port (FireWire) for future expansion. It has a high-quality AM/FM tuner with 40 presets, and an incredibly good phono preamp for those of us who still appreciate vinyl. For multi-channel digital sources the TGIII decodes Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX, DTS, DTS-Matrix, and DTS-ES Discrete. Two-channel processing includes Stereo, Dolby Pro Logic II, Party, Jazz Club, and DTS NEO.6. Additionally, the Theater Grand III sports a Bob Carver-designed digital “Holographic” imaging circuit.

The Theater Grand III is not THX certified, nor does it offer HDCD decoding. With the advent of SACD and HD DVD-Audio, and new multi-channel standards, those two features have become less of a necessity. The TGIII is configurable to provide outputs for up to 9 channels, including the two front side channels (available only in the RCA outputs), and it has outputs for up to four subwoofers (one balanced, and three RCA). The extra two channels are placed at the sides in front of the prime seating position in order to increase the width of the front channel sound stage. There are also two outputs for speakers placed behind and 2 outputs for speakers placed to the side of the audience in balanced and RCA.

It sports six analog audio/video inputs with S-video and composite video inputs, and three sets of component inputs, three audio/video outputs with S-video and composite video outputs, and two sets of component outputs. It does not convert composite video, S-video, or component video, but outputs only those sources that have been connected to each standard.

In the digital domain, there are four optical, and six coaxial digital audio inputs. The processor senses the particular input being used and uses the highest quality connection for that input. It also has one coaxial RCA and one optical digital output.

Subwoofer management is excellent with four subwoofer outputs, one balanced and three RCA-type. The crossover point to the subwoofer is variable between 80Hz and 160Hz in 10Hz increments. The speakers can be designated as small (crossing over at 80Hz), or large (full range), and in either case you can decide to have all of the bass, or just the subwoofer track directed to the subwoofer.

The on-screen setup menu has been expanded, and now allows you to rename sources, set their gain, allow them to play in either or both zones, set the 12-volt triggers to go on, allow the auto feature, and set default mode. You can set the delay for each channel by inputting its distance from the listener, and an internal test tone generator allows you to balance the levels of all of the channels. A video delay feature sets system delay to match any video processor in the system.

The new remote control has an LCD display and a button layout similar to most of the new manufacturers’ remotes. It is programmable and can create macro sequences. Those who have remotes that are not in its huge memory for emulation can input their codes directly. It is neither too large nor too heavy, works intuitively, and sets up easily. Since every one of the source buttons is macro programmable, they can switch to control the appropriate unit after a source/macro key is pressed.

So how does it sound -- in surround?

As a two-channel aficionado, this is hard to admit, but I believe the promise of the new multi-channel high-resolution formats is unlimited. The music recording industry needs to adopt a standard for the number, type, and positioning of the speakers. You may say that this has already been done by THX, but THX is designed for movies, with the specific purpose of recreating the sound of a commercial movie theater. If the new surround formats are properly recorded and mixed for music, they can bring us much closer to the acoustics of the hall they were recorded in. Imagine, Carnegie Hall in your home.

The multi-channel playback now has detail, size, and positioning. The back wall has appeared. All of the new formats benefit in one way as compared to CD, in two channel or multi-channel mode, they lack the sonic signature of the 44.1 kHz 16 bit recording system. The 48kHz and higher recordings sound progressively better. I don’t have to explain it to those of us familiar with vinyl, or reel-to-reel analog tape. Every processor has tried to free itself from that sound. The D/A converter in this processor is very musical, and as good as any separate unit I have heard, but the higher resolution standards sound very close to the sound of master tape.

I was amazed to find the tube-like nature of the processor in all of the surround modes. The new Pro-logic II sounds much better than the original. It is more defined, image steering is better, and the presence and impression of hall size are greatly improved. Music as varied as Jackson Browne’s, “The Pretender”, Eva Cassidy’s, “Songbird”, Pink Floyd’s, “The Wall”, and Lorin Maazel’s, “Pictures at an Exhibition” retained their natural stage depth, tonality and perspective while bringing you into the audience.

Fleetwood Mac’s The Dance, (Warner/Reprise Video 38486-2), has both Dolby Digital 5.1 and PCM linear sound tracks. I preferred the linear PCM tracks to the Digital Dolby 5.1 tracks on the TG II, but now my preference is reversed. While the linear tracks are now more detailed, smooth, and clear, and sound even more musical, it is the 5.1 tracks that have better positioning, detail and air around the singers and instruments.

On The Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over, (Geffen Recordings ID5529EADVD), the linear PCM encoded track once again trounced the DTS Surround version of the performance. The equalization of Don Henley’s voice on the DTS version made it sound reedy and small, and the instruments were out of position with the images on the screen. The PCM linear in Dolby Pro logic II sounded natural and placed you in the audience.

Cinema and Special Effects

The sounds of battle in the Omaha Beach-landing scene in “Saving Private Ryan” (DreamWorks 84664) combine with the crashing waves and the images of the beach. The ocean, the bullets, the bombs, and the soldiers being torn to shreds make you want to run for cover. You feel like you are on that beach. You can’t tell how far away the sand is as you wade in the water with the troops, only that it is very far, too far. When the action finally moves off of the beach, you realize how hard your heart has been beating, and how fast you were breathing. I don’t remember the TGII doing that to me. It seems the DTS performance has improved greatly. When played in Dolby Digital, these scenes did not retain quite the same power to involve the viewer.

“Star Wars Episode II, Attack of The Clones” has a soundtrack that is engaging, powerful, and of huge dimensions. The direction of motion is clear in any direction, and the positioning of voices correlates with the images on the screen with a feeling of depth. Not only do the outer-space scenes feel huge, but the outdoor scenes in chapter nineteen, for example, give a great sense of space; the Dynamics are wide open, and the feeling of power carries the listener. Although it is in the THX format, I don’t sense any harshness or high frequency augmentation.

Conclusion

No single component has ever made the qualitative difference that Sunfire’s Theater Grand III has made. My system is clearer, more three-dimensional, and significantly more musical than it has ever been. Every mode of operation has improved, and the overall sound of my system has a mystically real property that makes you forget you are listening to a reproduction. It makes me want to listen to everything I love again. The added features are, as they say, gravy.

Among the great pioneers of the industry, like Saul Marantz and Henry Kloss, only Bob Carver continues to advance the state-of-the-art to this date. I can’t wait for what’s next.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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