Component Reviews

Sunfire Theater Grand Receiver TGR-401 SRP: $4000

A few problems with Sunfire's latest multichannel receiver

Published on March 16, 2009

Sunfire Theater Grand Receiver TGR-401
SRP: $4000
Sunfire Theater Grand Receiver TGR-401
SRP: $4000
 
+ Sunfire VIA-100SF VIA!migo iPod Cradle
SRP: $600


Sunfire
1300 E New Circle Road
Suite 150
Lexington, KY 40505
859-514-8290 (voice)
859-269-7972 (fax)

www.sunfire.com


Basic Description

Surround Receiver with 200 watts x 7 channels, SIRIUS ready, AM/FM with RDS w/ 40 presets, VIA!migo iPod control, touchpad ports for Ole-2SF with feedback and metadata for SIRIUS and iPod, automatic setup and room correction with microphone, input level trim, A/V sync, 8 analog inputs, 2 outputs, 8 digital inputs, 1 output, 7.1 multi-channel input, 7.1 preamplifier outputs, HD-ready front panel input, Sonic Holography, Dolby Digital EX, Prologic IIx, Dolby Headphone, DTS-ES, Neo:6, DTS-96/24, source direct function, HDMI 1.3a video switching and 100 MHz component video switching (both 3 in/1 out), video upconversion to component, bi-directional RS-232 control, 2 IR inputs, 3 outputs, 3 12V triggers, detachable IEC cord, universal/learning remote control.  17” W x 5.75” H x 16.5” D; 32 pounds; 2-year warranty.

Associated Equipment

Pioneer Elite BDP-05FD, Paradigm Studio 100 fronts, Paradigm CC-590 center, Paradigm ADP-590 surrounds, Bowers & Wilkins ASW750 subwoofer, Bowers & Wilkins 703 front speakers, Musical Fidelity A5.5 CD Player, Audioquest cabling.

Description

Sunfire has gone to a simpler, cleaner front panel design in comparison to the receivers and preamplifiers they used to make.  There is a front panel input that is hidden behind a solid sliding door.  The larger of two round knobs controls volume and has a very solid feel.  The other control can change input, surround mode, or control the setup.  There are buttons for mute, Sonic Holography, and selecting between main and second zones.  The display is rather large and readable from a distance.  The headphone output will work with Dolby Headphone processing for a surround effect, but can also be disabled if wished.

The information in the manual on connections is extremely easy to understand (as has been the case in their manuals of the past).  See below for specific information about the Sunfire’s video capabilities and HDMI connections.

I like the flexibility offered by the Sunfire’s speaker terminals.  There is an option for a bypassable powered Zone 2 set (i.e. you can power Zone 2 or it can be bypassed when seven channels are activated).  And the user can set up the receiver to power two sets of front speakers (one for the video system and one for the audio) or a second set of surround channels.  The surrounds can both be active or you can switch between them.

Unlike some surround receivers of the past, the TGR-401 allows the Zone 2 to play digital sources (without an added analog connection), but only if the Main Zone is playing the same source.  Zone 2 can be controlled by optional Ole-2SF ($600) keypads that are preconfigured to control the Sunfire receiver.  Bass, treble, and balance are separately adjustable on Zone 2.

In addition to the receiver I was sent the matching iPod cradle.  It connects via a Cat5 Ethernet cable and analog audio and analog video (for video iPods).  It will stream metadata to the touchpad and song information can be displayed on the monitor.  It is a charger, has IR and RS-232 control capabilities, and works out of the box with Sunfire’s remote.

The Sunfire remote is the same model by Universal Remote that has been used for years.  I have always liked this remote, although many may want to opt for a higher-end pre-programmed remote control.

HDMI Compatibility & Video Capabilities

The Sunfire does not do ANY audio decoding through the HDMI connections!  It is necessary to hook up optical or coaxial digital cables for all the digital audio sources unless you use the multichannel analog inputs.

In a unit capable of decoding Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio it is just a matter of connecting a single HDMI capable to the receiver and video and audio are handled all together.  With the Sunfire, in order to take advantage of these formats, it is necessary to use the multichannel analog input (assuming that your Blu-ray player offers multichannel outputs—some of them don’t.)  If you have a separate DVD-A or SACD player then you will need to invest in a multichannel switcher like the Zektor reviewed back in April of 2004.  ADA also makes one called the LLSM-1.  [You can also throw a cheap manual one together using two Radio Shack video switchers...Ed.]

If you don’t have a DVD-A or SACD player then the lack of connection is not an issue.  If you have a Blu-ray player and don’t have multichannel outputs then you can never get Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio which might make this receiver a non-starter.  Also, for those who are looking to take advantage of single HDMI connections (and abandon the many analog cables of the past) for all their components, then this is not an option either.  

There is an upside to the Sunfire 8-channel input.  There is a bypass mode for the highest fidelity with a straight pass-through as well as a processed mode that will do bass management and allow the user to adjust surround modes.

The TGR-401 does not upconvert analog video signals to be output through the digital HDMI video connection.  This means that for every analog source you’ll need at least one component video cable out of the Sunfire and for all the HDMI sources you’ll need an HDMI cable out.  In other words, you’ll have to switch inputs on the TV when you want to watch analog or digital sources.  Of course, a programmable remote control would take care of this and anyone investing $4K in a receiver should not hesitate to get one.  If you only have very few sources then there is always the option to go directly to the monitor (which of course requires switching anyhow).  However, the On Screen Display is only visible from the analog video outputs.  This means it is a necessary connection, otherwise setup would be virtually impossible and on-the-fly adjustments are only visible through the trim menu on the on-screen display—a real letdown in my opinion.


Setup


The amount of options available in many of today’s AV receivers is mind-boggling and the TGR-401 is no exception.  Rather than repeat pages and pages of features (that are available if the reader would like to download the manual from Sunfire’s website), I will touch on some of the adjustments that are useful or unique.

Inputs.  Gain trim is available from -20 to +20 dB on all inputs.  There is a video delay available from 0-180 ms in 5 ms steps.  (This delays the audio relative to the video to propery sync up when the processing in the display or by the station causes the video to get behind the audio.)  There is auto-detection available for analog/digital and video signals.  For instance, when the VCR is turned on you can have the receiver detect the composite video signal and switch the input to VCR.  (This did not work for the analog and digital audio or for the video I tried).  Even with help from Sunfire tech support, I was not able to get this feature to work properly.  (Perhaps you’ll have better luck.) [I’ve had the same problem...Ed.]   There are different stored sound mode settings available for 2-channel analog, 2-channel digital, Dolby, DTS and DTS96 modes, so that the receiver will retain desired mode settings whenever it detects these different signal inputs.

This is the first Sunfire receiver that does not offer a phono section which means one less thing to have to test, but also seems to come at the worst time (when analog is making somewhat of a resurgence).  You can always add a high quality outboard phono preamp like some of the ones we’ve reviewed recently. [Previous receivers and preamps only had MM phono inputs anyway - not MC...Ed.]

Speaker Settings. 
Frequency options are fullrange and 40-150 Hz high-pass in 5 Hz steps.  The subwoofer can be set to the same range low-pass.  Speaker distance is adjustable in 6” or .15 meter steps.  Levels are adjustable in .5 dB steps.

Automatic Setup and Equalization.  The days of listening to pink noise over and over with a Radio Shack meter may be over—or not  Components that offer a quality microphone and sophisticated speaker analysis can take all the pressure off.  Just set the mic at your seating location (near your head) and away we go!  Luckily, all the settings can be altered manually if (as in my case) the results are less than ideal.  The TGR-401 also offers equalization—an 11-band speaker EQ (independent for front, center, surround, rear) and 4-band for the subwoofer.  Adjustment range is -14 dB to +14 dB.  There is also an EQ Global option that can be used more for advanced tone control.

Setting up the basics in a surround receiver isn’t really that hard (if you’ve done it quite a few times), but it can be tedious.  The automatic setup detects polarity, speaker size, distance, and level in about two minutes.  I took the manual’s recommendation and tried moving the microphone around to get a few different readings.  The difference in the readings was huge and I kept getting a “fail” until I switched phase on the subwoofer.  Thankfully, the subwoofer offered that as an option otherwise I would not have been able to save the settings–I didn’t like that at all.  When I left the setup the way the Sunfire thought it should be calibrated, the system just sounded plain wrong.  I didn’t agree with the crossover choices nor did I think the levels were set correctly.  Once I changed them, I thought the whole system sounded better.  My advice would be to give the auto setup a try, but be willing to do things the old-fashioned way.

After my bad luck with the auto calibration I checked out the EQ functionality, but left the EQ off.  The EQ’ing process takes about four minutes.  No harm in trying it as it lets you set it to manual/auto/off.  A big complaint I have with the auto EQ is that the receiver never lets you know what it has adjusted—at all.  I was inclined to start with its EQ curve and make some changes, but without knowing what the EQ is set to, this was a no-go. [I was unable to get either auto setup to work on the Sunfire preamp...Ed.]

Since I only planned to do critical listening with two sources the connection was straightforward.  I connected the CD player to analog inputs.  The Blu-ray player required a bunch of cables.  I used one digital cable and then ran six analog cables directly input the multichannel input on the Sunfire (so I could get the hi-res multichannel formats).  I didn’t need the digital cable, but I wanted to hear if this sounded better or worse with music and movie material (that wasn’t hi-res) in comparison with the multichannel output from the Pioneer.  It turned out the sound was mediocre in comparison so I decided to use the CD player exclusively for music.

The manual alludes to a PC software application for setup, but it was not included with the receiver, nor was it on the website.  After I contacted Sunfire I was sent software that allowed me to update the software version of the receiver, do the set up (if desired), and program the optional keypads that work with the receiver.  For anyone who is comfortable working a computer, the software makes setup a breeze.  It allows for saving system settings as well which should help out custom installers. [Sunfire’s entire approach now seems oriented toward custom installers rather than individual users...Ed.]

Sound Part I – AM/FM

On the front of the receiver it is easy enough to turn the left knob (while in the input mode) to the tuner, but once you are there you can’t do anything else!  The remote layout could use some work although it had really good range and responded well in all modes  Who needs both CABLE and SAT on the main page?  Also, VCR and ZONE2 are there, but no AM/FM!   Page 2 will have it I thought.  Nope.  There are useful choices like TAPE, LIGHT, TV2, DVD2, SAT2, etc.  So what do you have to do?  Select MAIN, and then make sure you are on Page 1.  Then select TG401 and Page 2.  A-ha!  Now that’s not counterintuitive at all you say!  You have to use the remote in order to move through stations and select the correct band.  

At last it was time to tune a channel.  That scan button on the display is just a trick.  It didn’t do anything.  What about the CH +/- buttons.  That would make sense wouldn’t it?  Nope.  You can enter the frequency directly with the numbers or use the toggle up and down buttons.  If you push down a while then it will engage a seek function (one that was utterly too fast and just whizzed by a few stations before settling on one I didn’t want).  

While I was trying to figure out how to advance the station I accidently pushed the MODE button and the surround mode audibly changed.  There was no way to tell by looking at the on-screen display or the front of the receiver.  Pushing INFO on the remote put the surround mode up on the front panel display.  This should be a default.

As I listened to the radio I encountered my first major problem with the Sunfire TGR-401.  The Source Direct mode and the Stereo mode sounded radically different.  Source Direct had a center image and played in stereo while the Stereo mode seemed like everything was out of phase.  Actually, it seemed as if the unit was producing only L and only R.  I checked to make sure that the EQ was off and the Sonic Holography was not engaged.  This needs to be addressed.  Luckily, upgrading the software on the receiver fixed the issue, but no one could figure out what caused the problem in the first place.

So what about the radio?  Well, I used the supplied antenna and while strong stations sounded okay, weaker stations were noisy.  I couldn’t find any sort of stereo/mono switch which may have helped.  [The preamp version has one... Ed.] My test station for this area is 88.1.  The sound would distort on higher volume material and the background was extremely noisy.  In all, FM performance was average to below average.  An outside antenna would probably help, but I do all my testing with the supplied antenna.  AM was simply abysmal, as with most tuners.  


Sound Part II – Two-channel Music

My first comparison was the internal audio conversion offered by the Sunfire and the external conversion offered by the Pioneer Elite player.  Right away I was disappointed with the sound while listening to track 10 from Christina Aguilera’s Stripped.  Not only was the internal conversion not much different than the Elite player, neither of them sounded very good.  The sound was compressed, somewhat edgy, and there was bothersome sibilance on the vocals.  It made me want to just turn the system off.  I realized that I was going to have to make some adjustments to get the sound to the level I’d expect.  I added a Musical Fidelity A5.5 CD player and a pair of Bower and Wilkins 703 speakers to use strictly for stereo listening.  Once I made this switch the sound was elevated to another level, sibilance was reduced and the listening experience improved tremendously.

A better recording like “Searchin’” from Latin on Impulse! (IMPD-263) fared better and with the added components sounded perfectly acceptable.  Differences within the tracks on the disc were readily discernible and the level of resolution was now closer to what an audiophile might expect although it was still not as good as what high-end two-channel components would provide.

“Dreamboat Annie” from Heart’s Greatest Hits was another indication that the equipment change was a smart one.  With the better CD and speakers the sound more focused, smoother, voice was more three dimensional and overall the recording didn’t have a bothersome edge to it.

Track one from Mutations from Beck offered the best sound so far.  Voice was perfectly centered and separation was purposefully wide and distinct.  Everything in the soundstage was “right there” and this was about as close to an audiophile presentation as this system could get—and it did it rather well.


Sound Part III – Surround


One of the things I discovered early on was that when adjusting the trims on the remote (center, rear, sub levels and bass and treble) there is no way to know what setting you end up at.  If you want to see the adjustments, you need to go into the trim menu and view the settings with the on-screen display.  Again, the problem occurs if you are viewing through HDMI as the on-screen menu only displays via analog video connections.

As most consumers will use the Sunfire primarily in a surround configuration this was where I concentrated most of my time.  I had a Dolby Blu-ray sampler disc that has a few decent movie clips.  The first clip I listened to was from The Last Mimzy in TrueHD.  The scene starts out quiet and then elevates to high volumes with lots of bass.  Dynamics and level are clearly not a problem with this piece (as you’d expect putting out 200 watts per channel).  Another disc in the same vein is The Bourne Ultimatum.  Surround effects were smashing (pun intended) and it was easy to get lost in the middle of the mix.

Next was another Dolby TrueHD excerpt from Ghost in the Shell 2.  The scene is a parade sequence and was characterized by an excellent sense of space and air where reverberation and decay was easily discerned.  Drums came across very realistically.

I switched over to conventional DVDs and listened to the DTS track from I Am Sam.  Any hesitations I had with the TGR-401/BDP-05FD combination with music slipped away on this disc.  The movie is full of Beatles’ cover songs from well-known artists and every one was like a rediscovery of the music.

I have to admit to a fondness for soundtracks from movies and TV shows from the 70s and the one from the original Dirty Harry film is quite juicy.  I was surprised (while in the Dolby Pro Logic IIx mode) how much surround information was present on this disc from the Clint Eastwood Collection.  I ended up watching the entire film!

Sound Part IV – iPod Dock

The original series I iPod Classic that I have would not sync up with the VIA!migo dock.  I borrowed a new iPod Nano to try instead (and make use of the video output).  As soon as you stick the iPod in the cradle all the front panel controls deactivate and you are required to use the Sunfire remote control to operate the iPod.  As far as seeing what is playing, you are required to use the video output from the dock to the TV; otherwise there is no way to see what is going on.  (Only the title of the song appears in the Sunfire’s display window.)

Remote operation is confusing at best.  You have to select TG401 on the MAIN page to then go to the page and select MP3 as the input.  Then you go back and select MP3 from the MAIN page (instead of TG401) and then you’ll have iPod control available.

Initially the video through the receiver was black and white and the picture itself would intermittently drop out completely.  It took a call to Sunfire to find out that I needed an upgrade again.  How many people out there currently have malfunctioning receivers and don’t know about this?

Once the display was up and running there were quite a few buttons that are inoperable.  I assumed that these would function if you use the optional Ole keypad, but they really shouldn’t have been on the On-Screen display if there was no use for them.  Functionally, the Sunfire remote controls the iPod just like the iPod control itself, so it should be easy for someone to figure it out.  You can toggle the full display to show just the cover art, track title, album title and artist.  Strangely, the OFF and ON buttons seemed to be reversed on the remote so the one you think turns the display on, turns it off.  The displays are static, so if you are worried about burn-in on your plasma then you will want to turn these off—there wasn’t any screen saver function/option that I found.

Sound was as you’d expect from an iPod which is to say, for most people, not as good as CD (due to the lossy recording)  I listened to a variety of material and all the controls worked well.  Still, if you aren’t using the keypads $600 for a dock seems a bit pricey (unless you want the integrated remote control) which could be a big plus in an integrated custom installation.  Once you have an aftermarket remote though, it is not a necessity, as you can program the separate remote to control any remote-controlled dock as well as the Sunfire receiver.


Conclusion

From the beginning the Sunfire TGR-401 receiver was plagued with problems from difficult operation to actual problems with the sound.  If it sounds like I’m coming down hard, then so be it.  Sunfire has been making surround receivers for years and there is no excuse for poor user interface, bad auto calibration (don’t use it!), features that don’t work and necessary software upgrades to a product working that should have been working from the start.  The previous models offered longer warranties, simpler operation, better feedback, and the back panel even had sensible labels for the digital inputs like CD, SAT, etc.  It seems someone at Sunfire should go back and revisit their advertisements that said, “Just press play.”  Unfortunately those days seem to be over.

The Sunfire points to a problem with high end multichannel audio these days:  A loss of realization as to what consumers want.  They want performance.  They want simplicity.  They want flexibility.  They want quality!  Sure, the iPod dock integrates nicely.  Sure, the multi-room can be controlled by a dedicated keypad.  But what about turning the system on and being blown away by the sound?  What about plugging in my turntable?  What about changing the radio station without having to read a manual?  This review is disappointing for me after so many positive previous experiences with Sunfire products.  Although I don’t have another recommendation in mind I’d think twice about this one.

– Brian Bloom




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