Component Reviews

Sunfire Theater Grand Processor TGP-401 SRP: $3500

A versatile luxury-class AV processor with some exclusive extras.

Published on August 13, 2009

Sunfire Theater Grand Processor TGP-401
SRP: $3500

Sunfire Theater Grand
Processor TGP-401

SRP: $3500

SPECS
Line Level Outputs =
Sensitivity (.5V output): 125 mV
DACs: 192kHz/24-bit
Freq. response: 20 Hz-20kHz +/- 0.5 dB
Signal to Noise (2V out): analog 97 dB; digital 105 dB
THD: <0.03%
Separation at 1 kHz: 70 dB
Tone controls: +/- 14 dB
Delay adjust, all channels: 0-25 ms

Video Section =
Video inputs/outputs: 1 Vp-p, 75 ohms
Component bandwidth: 100 MHz, -1.5 dB
Composite b.: 6 MHz, -2 dB
S-video b.: 18 MHz, -1.5 dB
Sunfire Universal Video – transcoder/upconverter is fully automatic
HDMI switcher max resolution: 1080p

FM Tuner Section =
Range: 87.5-108 MHz in 0.2 MHz steps
Unsable sensitivity (mono): 1.6 uV (75 ohms); 15.2 dBf (75 kHz DEV, 30 dB)
50dB quieting sensitivity (stereo): 31.6 uV (75 ohms); 41.2 dBf
Audio output freq. range: 30 Hz to 15 kHz, +.5 dB, -3 dB

Trigger Outputs – Current less than 250mA total
RS-232 – 19200 baud simple ASCII control
Infrared Inputs – Optically isolated; 1/8” mini-jacks; standard 12V signal level
Power Requirements: U.S. Model: 120 VAC 50-60 Hz, 60W
Dimensions – 17” W x 5.75” H x 16.5” D
Net weight: 32 lb.

Features =
SIRIUS Radio-ready
AM/FM tuners with RDS feedback
VIA!migo support for native iPod control via OSD
Two touchpad ports for Olé-2SF Film Interactive touchpads; feedback for SIRIUS and iPod functions
Automatic setup and room correction with supplied mike
Input volume matching
AV sync to delay audio to match video

Connections =
4 analog inputs & 2 outputs
4 video inputs & 2 outputs
4 optical digital inputs & 1 output
4coaxial digital inputs & 1 output
7.1 multichannel inputs
7.1 unbalanced RCA preamp outputs
7.1 balanced XLR preamp outputs
Balanced and unbalanced Zone 2 preamp outputs
Assignable HD-ready front panel input

Processing =
Sonic Holography
Dolby Digital EX and ProLogic IIx
Dolby Headphone
DTS-ES, Neo:6 & DTS-96/24
SourceDirect mode bypasses DSP processing

Video =
1080p HDMI v.1.3a switching only
100 MHz component switching
Video upconversion to component out

Miscellaneous =
Bi-direction RS-232 input
2 IR inputs & 3 outputs
3 assignable 12V trigger outputs
Solid aluminum front panel
Blue LEDs for visual feedback
Removable IEC AC cord

Universal Remote Features =
Fully backlit
Pre-programmed for many brands of AV components
Learns commands from your other remote controls
Macro feature
Operates up to 19 components
Memory is not lost when replacing batteries
RC capable

Sunfire =
1300 E. New Circle Rd., Suite 150
Lexington, KY 40505
859-514-8290
www.sunfire.com


Intro

I’ve been using Sunfire’s various AV preamp/processors for many years now.  As the number of first digital and then HDMI digital sources burgeoned, I began to run into the problem of there simply not being enough inputs to handle all my various legacy components – including laserdisc and Betamax.  I had to hook up various Radio Shack analog switches to run two analog sources into one input. The previous Sunfire processor was the Theater Grand 5.  The Theater Grand TGP-401 replaces it as Sunfire’s luxury flagship model, and adds a host of new features and options based on Sunfire’s lineage of audiophile-quality processors that they have turned out for at least 15 years now. Its sleek industrial design is echoed in the Sunfire basic amps which can be used with the 401.

At first I was disappointed to see that there were only four main AV inputs instead of the six which were on the TG-5.  But then I discovered that each of the four inputs is totally configurable for any combination of inputs, which was not possible on the TG-5.  For example, I ran into trouble running my laserdisc (with digital audio out) and my BetaMax (with analog audio out) into the same input on the TG-5.  With the 401 both are programmable and can be set up in the on-screen display (OSD).  The versatile OSD menu allows you to set up each input individually, and the user manual has several charts showing clearly all the various ramifications and translations of these settings.

The connections to be made on the rear of the unit are fairly standard.  If you have basic amps that  use balanced XLR inputs, you will want to use the XLR outputs on the right upper corner of the 401.  If not, you’ll be using the RCA jack outputs in two rows about the center of the back panel. There are multiple sub output jacks. There are 3 HDMI inputs and one output across the top of the unit’s rear; they handle only switching and no more. The 4 AV inputs have S-video ports at the top, below them composite video jacks, and below that the L and R analog audio input jacks. At the right end this row is the output of these 4 inputs plus the output for Zone 2. At the bottom left of the back are eight RCA jacks for analog multichannel inputs, which usually produce the best sound if your SACD, DVD-A or Blu-ray player has multichannel analog outs.  To the left of these are the 3 component video inputs and the component output jacks. Below these are the 4 coax audio input jacks and the 4 optical audio input jacks, plus the single output jacks for both.

Other Special Options
I’m not using these, but you may find them right up your alley. The first is a series of front panel input ports which are behind a clever little brushed aluminum sliding door. They consist of video inputs which can be switched between component and composite, optical audio, S-Video and a mike input. You can use them for HD gaming, or for composite/S-Video camcorder inputs. Sunfire is unique in offering this easy front panel option. The mike jack is for the supplied Audio EQ feature, which sets up and performs EQ on all of your five or seven channels plus subwoofer. There are also detailed manual adjustments for each channel pair.

I have neither SIRIUS Radio nor an iPod, but if you have either, the TG401 is ready for you.  Of course you have to have a SIRIUS Radio subscription and their kit which include the satellite radio tuner and an outdoor antenna.  Its audio data of over 120 channels then is transferred to the TG401 and controlled by its universal remote. To use the iPod interface you need a VIA!migo iPod Dock which also hooks up to the TG401 and allows you to control your iPod using the Sunfire remote and a OSD using either the component or S-Video output.  You are then able to view all the songs, artists and music details on your screen.  The Olé-2SF Touchpad connections allow you to operate Zone 2 controls in other rooms using an internal IR receiver. The Touchpads can be programmed with a PC running SunTools software.

General Operation
Once you have all your components plugged into the TG401 and its outputs also connected, you will use the special Theater Grand Series remote to set up all the different inputs.  You will see that there are five of them on the left and five more on the right on the remote’s LCD display, with a button next to each. The default names it comes with are HDBD, SAT, DVR, MP3, DVD, CABLE, VCR, CD ZONE2 and TG401 and should be self-explanatory. You can change any of these names easily by putting the remote in Setup Mode and clicking on Edit. You should match your component inputs roughly to the generic options already set up on the remote, because when you press the Page button on the left, different pages some up with up to 10 different functions which hopefully will cover most of the functions of the component you are using.  However, you must be careful to choose appropriate buttons – for example, don’t feed a video component into the button labeled MP3, because the generic functions already set up there are only for audio – not video. I changed mine to: OPPO, HDTV, left the DVR and CD as is (but also fed the Beta audio into the CD input, programming the digital coax input for my CD changer and analog audio for the Betamax). Of the other inputs on the MAIN screen, I changed one to LD (Laserdisc) and one to TAPTT, which has an accessory switch for feeding in either my three tape sources thru a RussSound switch box or my turntable with a MM cartridge in its SME-V arm.  I already had a phono preamp for my old MC cartridge, and now that I switched to a MM cartridge I could use the MM input provided on the TG-401, but since the Phenomenon preamp has many loading options not provided by the TG-401, plus a higher level signal for the rather long cable I need to have between my turntable and the TG-401, I stayed with the separate phono preamp.

The bottom right-hand button on the remote is to control each input into the 401. When you press it, the top designation changes from MAIN to TG401 but the nine input labels you have set up remain on the display. You may be asking by this point, where is the FM Tuner?  Well, after pushing the TG401 button you have FM in the upper right corner of the display. (I’m stumped why it’s not one of the eight main inputs on the remote.) Pressing that switches to the FM/AM tuner and you change channels using the channel rocker button on the remote. FM reception was excellent with my rooftop antenna, and I could quickly access the five stations I had programmed into the OSD using the channel rocker button. I didn’t bother with the AM setup as there is no AM station I want to hear and anyway AM sound quality of most such components is minimal.

The TG401 remote is very versatile – so much so that I no longer use my former touch-screen Harmony remote – having taught the Sunfire remote the most-used commands from the remotes for my Oppo and Sony decks and my Samsung 56” HDTV display. My other components are either not remotely controllable (my turntable or my tube amps) or are used so seldom that it is simpler to just pick up their own respective remotes the few times I use them.  All it takes is selecting LEARN in SETUP and pointing one remote at the other while hitting the proper commands.

I have an unusual situation due to the truly universal Oppo Blu-ray player, which is also my CD deck via my Benchmark DAC, as well as my SACD/DVD-A multichannel player. Therefore I required not just one but three different inputs from the Oppo into the TG401. For the one I labeled Oppo I chose the bitstream audio out in the detailed OSD that appears on your screen when you hit the Guide button. Next I created an input labeled DEFEL, which stands for Direct and Felston. The Direct signal is the analog stereo audio out from my Benchmark DAC, but on the same input screen I have options for my Felston audio sync delay, which allows more convenient changing of the amount of audio delay than that built into the 401 – to sync up with the frequently-delayed video images of both broadcast and DVDs. I programmed two buttons to switch between inputting the Felston from the Oppo or from the HDTV audio.  Finally, I programmed an input labeled 6CHAN, which obviously is for the 5.1 channel analog outs from the Oppo, whether it is playing SACDs, DVD-As or DTS or Dolby lossless codecs which it has processed internally for Blu-ray soundtracks.

The VOL and MUTE buttons on the remote operate no matter what mode you are in, but to control the operation of the Oppo at each of the three inputs I had to teach it the Play, Pause and Stop, Menu and Info commands from the original remote, and then create two sets  of new commands up in the display screen. Later I found I also had to teach to each of the three settings the GoTo and Page Up and Down commands from the Oppo remote in order to be able to display the total times of discs on the video display (for review headings).  Since there is no Page rocker on the TG401 remote I taught them to the channel-changing rocker. At the bottom of Page 1 the remote came with SKIP- on the left and SKIP+ on the right, so I taught the first the chapter/track previous and the second the next chapter/track.  Due to the other eight positions already having useful commands I didn’t need to change – such as Pure Audio, Eject and Zoom – I had to go to Page 2 and in the same bottom location (left and right) I put <FAST and FAST> – meaning fast reverse and fast forward. There are five different stepped speeds possible with the Oppo and all five were transferred with the commands and appear as 1 thru 5 in the upper left corner of the HDTV screen when it is on.

It took some hit and miss learning efforts to program the TG401 remote. I received some assistance from the helpful Sunfire/Elan customer support.  To quote a fellow reviewer whose coverage of a similar component recently ran into some similar problems: “The instruction manual failed to speak English to me.”  The main points of my struggle revolved around my not grasping two very important points. Although the inputs of the TG401 are customizable for almost anything, the component you plug into a particular one should be similar to the generic setup, such as plugging a Blu-ray player into the input which is already labeled DVD. The other point is that once you have all your components hooked up and you go to program the remote, you can teach almost any button on the TG401 remote any command from your original remotes. However, I spun my wheels for some time attempting to program the chapter/track commands to the < and > buttons on the TG401 “joystick” area, along with programming the fast reverse and fast forward to the << and >> buttons just to the left and right of the joystick area. That was a failure, partly because the << and >> are set up to change the audio modes on the TG401 (from stereo to mono to Dolby, etc.)  You need to set up those commands in the display screen on the remote instead.

Rather than SIRIUS, I have an HD Radio tuner, and also a Phoenix Wi-Fi radio, plus an analog stereo line running from my Mac in my office to the TG401.  I installed a three-way stereo switch for these three inputs and ran it into one of the TG401 inputs. Most of the generic commands on the display are beside the point since I need to tune the two radios manually, and have no control on the feed from my computer. With both radio inputs and TV, you may find the five levels of FAV pages a useful feature on the TG401 remote.  As expected, they allow you to enter up to ten different favorite stations on each page to access instantly. You could have three pages for video and two for radio, for example.

Finalizing Setup and other Options
The TG401 offers a high-quality measurement mike that plugs into the front panel mike input.  When you use the automatic setup it measures your system by preserving the levels of a series of test tunes which you select on the display screen in the automatic setup mod. I tried it a number of times but was unable to get it to work. However, manual setup is much more accurate and can be customized more precisely to fit your needs. The OSD menu is crammed with options and the manual does a good job of describing them and what you should select for your special situation.

One of the LCD display buttons on the remote is for Zone2, and there are a raft of different setup parameters for that zone in the OSD. You can also interchangably use the two-channel analog out from the TG401, although you won’t have all the setup parameters. You could have Zone 2 feed your most-used other room and the plain stereo output feed the other room.  If you need to send audio to even more different rooms you can always invest in the some of the excellent solid one-piece Y-connectors from Vampire Wire and use them at the RCA ouput jacks.

The upconversion of legacy video inputs is only to component level rather than HDMI, but let’s be frank – upconversion of any sort really can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and some of the unusual music laserdiscs and Betas I still have in my collection are pretty sowish. In addition to all the usual audio processing options (except DTS-HD & DD TrueHD) the TG401 has Bob Carver’s proprietary digitally-processed Sonic Holography.  It carries out cancellation of some of the left front speaker sound from reaching your right ear, and vice versa, to create a more binaural effect. It should only be used for the highest quality two-channel sources – it has little effect when using any sort of surround.  And it requires you to sit exactly centered at the apex of your two L and R speakers and rather close to them. On certain recordings which were made with purist mike setups, the enhancement of the three-dimensional quality can be quite surprising. When you are centered you should move your head forward and back – just a few inches can make a difference – until you reach the focus point with the most dimensional sonics. An LED on the front of the TG401 lets you see when Sonic Holography is enabled.  Another option is that when you plug stereo headphones into the standard stereo phone jack on the right front of the TG401, you have a menu option of either standard two-channel sound or Dolby Headphone technology. The claim of the latter is to replicate the effects of five to seven-channel surround thru stereo headphones, whether the source is actually multichannel or not.  The added artifacts of Dolby Headphone are so disturbing with many sources that my suggestion is to choose standard two-channel mode instead.

Sonics, continued

When I want to achieve the highest fidelity possible when playing standard stereo sources, I usually use Source Direct.  This short signal path bypasses all the processing for Stereo, Mono, Party, two DTS options and four Dolby ProLogic IIx options as well as the single reverb setting, Jazz Club. It gives the most transparent signal possible, which I find identical to routing a stereo signal (in which its level can be controlled) directly into my basic amps and speakers.  It is especially effective when passing the stereo signal processed by the Benchmark DAC.  There is one other tweak that may enhance any sonics just a bit further, and that is to select the Pure Audio option when playing music CDs or SACDs.  It completely disables all the video circuitry in the TG401.  I’m a big fan of Dolby ProLogic IIx. Yes, it does very slightly fuzz up the sonics of some two-channel sources, but the surround effect is so good with many recordings that it can on occasion even outdo some discrete multichannel SACDs. I find the better the stereo source, the more realistic the surround field created by ProLogic II on the TG401, such as with 96K/24-bit DVDs or F.I.M.’s K2HD CDs.  The only other audio mode settings I ever use are switching ProLogic II from Music to Movies for DVDs with two-channel soundtracks, and using Mono for mono SACDs, xrcds and CDs. There are many more modes automatically selected for digital multichannel sources, with freedom to change settings to others you might prefer. When using the 6-to-8 channel analog jacks you have only two options – one allows for processing of the signals, such as the delay settings for speaker distances you have entered in the OSD.  The other bypasses all the processing, similar to Source Direct for two-channel. Since all my speakers are the same distance from my sweet spot, I always use the latter for its even more transparent reproduction.

Since the TG401 only switches HDMI inputs without processing, I run my HDMI connections directly into my Samsung display rather than going thru the TG401.  Many AV perfectionists feel sonics are improved when you do not mix video and audio in processors and receivers. The only video output connection I have is one 3-wire component out cable to my Samsung HDTV for both the OSD and the upconversion of both my laserdisc and BetaMax sources.

WrapUp
Most audiophiles are surely familiar with the advantages of using a separate AV processor/preamp feeding separate basic amps, rather than an all-in-one receiver. (We’ve already reviewed the Sunfire receiver version of the TG401.) There is more flexibility and a wider choice of matching up components when you can afford a separate AV preamp and amps. Also, for those us getting up in years, we must consider the sheet weight of some of these AV receivers, even though advances such as Carver’s own tracking downconverter amps or Class D amps have made most of them smaller and lighter in weight.  Many additional recent features have been added to many AV components such as this.

If I had SIRIUS satellite radio instead of Internet radio, or an iPod instead of the thousands of audiophile cassettes I collected over the years I would be even more enamored of this gorgeous industrial-designed AV processor. If you do go with Sunfire amps, its design complements their series TGA amps perfectly, and you can get up to 400 watts per channel and up to seven channels. My filmmaking career is behind me and I no longer own a videocam and neither do I play computer games, so the unique front panel of the TG401 is not terribly important to me. However, I am into multichannel audio for music and many different stereo audio sources, and the TG401 handles those well. Some receivers no longer have 6 or 8-channel analog inputs and the TG401 not only has those inputs but feeds those signals thru completely untouched if you want.

While I had some difficulties programming the LCD-based universal remote, once I grasped its setup and glitches, I found it fairly intuitive to program and operate. It comes already heavily pre-programmed and has full learning abilities.  If you have some components tucked out of sight the 401 is equipped to operate them using optional RF capabilities.  Once you grasp the basic operation of the universal remote, it is a pleasure to program and use to control all your components – putting aside in a drawer all the original remotes for emergencies.  It’s also really nice to have, finally, a backlit remote. The fact that my Oppo universal player decodes all the latest lossless codecs internally – combined with the TG401’s 6-channel analog inputs – make them a perfect match which is free of the unreliability of many HDMI cable hookups.  I would say if you are planning a state-of-the-art home theater system and have internal decoding of the lossless codecs on your Blu-ray player, you should give consideration to the versatile and beautiful TG401 as its control center.

 - John Sunier

 

 




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