Equipment Review No. 1 •  December 2002

SUNFIRE Theater Grand AV Surround Processor III     SRP: $3,495
Specs:
Surround Modes:
Dolby Digital 5.1 & EX, DTS 5.1 & ES, DTS NEO:6, Dolby ProLogic II, 8-channel analog throughput, Jazz Club ambience, Party (same stereo signal at surrounds as front)
Stereo Modes: Digital Sonic Holography, 24bit/96K PCM
Inputs/Outputs: 6AV inputs, 10 digital inputs, 3 stereo analog inputs, MM phono, FM/AM tuner, 2 AV outputs with choice of S Video/Component/Composite, 2 stereo outputs, single 8-channel analog bypass input, 2 digital outputs - Toslink & S/PDIF, 10 single-ended preamp outputs to amps, 8 balanced preamp outputs to amps
Other Features: Defeatable digitally-implemented tone controls, Zone 2 operation can play a different source, automatic selection of proper input for any source when it is turned on, 40 presets for station frequencies, 1394/FireWire connector, RS-232 connector for wired remote control or upgrading, Flash-CD-ROM upgradeable via audio CD or DVD player, 10 component learning/preprogrammed backlit LCD Remote, 2 12-v DC triggers, 3 subwoofer outputs, side-axis speaker feeds, available in either standard 19-inch width or Architect’s Choice 17-inch, comes with a heavy glass base on rubber feet for sonic isolation.
Tech Specs: THD: <0.03%; S/N in digital: 105 dB; S/N in analog: 97 dB, Separation at 1 K: 70 dB
Dimensions - Standard:19” W x 6.5” H x 15.5” D, 24 lbs.; Architect’s: 17” W x 5.75” H x 16.5” D, 22 lbs.

Made in U.S. by
Sunfire Corporation
1920 Bickford Avenue
Snohomish, WA 98291
425-335-4748

www.sunfire.com


Introduction

Since moving to a new home with a really large main room and no other room large enough for a workable audio-only system, I made the decision to combine my formerly separate home theater and audio listening rooms. So one of the new breed of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink AV processors seemed to be the order of the day. The Carver had a number of features that attracted me at the outset: a multichannel analog input, Dolby Pro Logic II, Sonic Holography, ability to feed a different program to Zone 2 than playing in the main room, a remote that promised to be able to truly replace my coffee table full of remotes, and upgradeability using a CD-ROM you play on any CD player (rather than depending on the RS-232 connection which was useless for us Mac users). After finally completing installation and hookup the one feature that I appreciated the most was one I could have gotten in a $199 Wallmart wonder - having a remote control at all! I recall having one for a time years ago with a gimmicky Acoustic Research remote adaptor, but now I realized I had left the realm of hair-shirt audiophilia forever and would never go back. (In spite of the fact I still have a table full of remotes because I haven’t yet had time to “teach” the Sunfire remote all the other remotes’ codes.)

I reviewed the Architect’s Choice model, it may be that the 19-inch version allows a bit more space between RCA jacks, I don’t know. The front display of the Sunfire is a bit different from other AV preamps. One of my colleagues said it lights up like a Christmas tree - that makes it appropriate for this month. But I disagree; the row of the 11 yellowish LEDs across the center plus the eight in two rows on the right look more like landing lights for mini spaceship (I’m listening to a surround CD of sci-fi themes as I’m writing this), and they’re not overly bright. The other LEDs are subtle and blue, as is the display screen in the center of the preamp. The blue matches well with the blue diamond on my Sony 9000ES player just above it and the Taddeo blue LED above that. There are a number of controls that can be operated on the front of the unit, but they are all flush-mounting with a little depression of the knobs so you can turn them. One of the low-wattage strip lights on the shelf just above the Sunfire might assist in reading some of the legends on the front. But normally you’ll be using the remote for nearly everything.


Setup

is not an easy matter with a back panel that looks like what you see above! There’s not much real estate there on which to splay out all the required input and output jacks and some are very close together. I had hoped to leave enough space between my component cabinets this time to actually walk in there and see what I was doing, but alas... My situation is doubled in complexity even though I am not using the Sunfire for video display (except for its own on-screen controls). I happen to have four or five different digital and analog recorder/players, four Laserdisc, DVD and/or CD players, a turntable and moving coil preamp, the Taddeo Digital Antidote, the Cantares Ambisonic processor, an RGR Expander and a Burwen noise reducer. Even with all the features of the Sunfire I have needed to use a RussSound switch box for the four tape recorder/players, and a pro patch bay for many of the other connections - more on that later. Did I mention the Beta and VHS VCRs? I thought not.

Better study the manual carefully for the rear panel features before you begin plugging in things. It is easy to confuse some of the terminology and end up plugging inputs into outputs and so forth. Both the Fixed Outputs and the Zone 2 Outputs can feed another room, but if you connect to the Fixed you won’t be able to play a different source there than is playing in the main room. Some explanation is due the three stereo audio inputs and two audio outputs. The input marked phono is for moving magnet only. I’m using an outboard phono preamp and moving coil but the hassle I’m so far having with hum makes me think perhaps I should have gotten a good Grado MM cartridge and used the Sunfire input. Next to the Phono input are two more labeled DAT (that’s a surprise) and Tape. They are actually paralleled, so I used one for the input from my RussSound tape switch box and the other for the input from my E.A.R. MC phono preamp. The two outputs are also labeled DAT and Tape and are also paralleled. They allow making analog recordings from digital sources as well as analog.

If you have both the digital and analog outputs from a particular player hooked into the Sunfire, it will default to the digital input. Therefore you might need a switch or a way to easily disconnect the digital if you want to feed the analog signal. My 9000ES has been highly modified and has a great analog output but the digital output is required for Dolby Digital and DTS DVD soundtracks. Fortunately this player has an Audio Direct button that disables the digital out. Also, the Zone 2 will only accept analog inputs, so if your CD changer - for example - is hooked up only with the digital connection it won’t work in Zone 2.

I believe I’ve only seen one AV preamp with two sets of analog multichannel inputs for those of us with separate DVD-A and SACD players, and until recently a couple of the very high end AV preamps still had not even a single multichannel analog input set. So in my situation, with three DVD/SACD players, I had to purchase a couple of Radio Shack video switchers ($15) which I fastened together. Using the composite video jacks as well as the stereo audio jacks, I use the top one to switch channels 1 - 3 and the bottom one channels 4 - 6. A pair of the handy 6 channel Rainbow cables from Harmonic Technology plus three taped together stereo cables handle the connections to the switches. The Sunfire would work best for those committed to multichannel SACD or planning on one of the new generation of truly universal high-res players.

I ran the front L & R channel Sunfire line outputs to my Celestion subwoofers crossover, which then fed channels 1 & 2 plus 3 & 4 of my five-channel Parasound amp. The center speaker output went to channel 6. The side-axis outputs were routed to a separate AudioSource amp located behind my listening sofa, the additional subwoofer output to a power sub in the same location, and finally the two surround outputs went to the rear of my listening area to feed a three-channel Parasound amp. The third channel was fed the same subwoofer signal going to the powered sub, and it powered the Clark tactile transducer in my sofa.

Remote Operation and OSD

Many of the settings are already programmed into the LCD remote, but you will probably want to change the names of the various inputs to fit your particular component use. This entails the laborious clicking thru the entire alphabet (in both lower and then upper case, plus numbers) to spell out your abbreviations one character at a time. From the factory they come with the designations: DVD, SAT, VID1, VID2, VCR, and CD. There are abbreviated displays on the front of the Sunfire for setting the various parameters, but the most complete one is provided on your TV on-screen display using the S-Video output from the Sunfire. The Main Menu includes Trims (adjusts individual speaker volume on the fly), Modes (for the various surround settings), Tone (treble & bass), Inputs (to set up each input’s trim level, default surround mode, enable or disable in the main or Zone 2, triggers), Settings (for volume and powerup settings in both zones; size, position calibration and crossover for speakers; video and OSD settings, software settings for upgrades, control IR and RS-232 setup).

Among the options you will find onscreen are bass management choices and settings for small or large speakers. It did seem unfortunate that the setting was required to be the same for the front L & R as selected for the side axis speakers since I would expect nearly all users of such would have Small speakers for the side-axis and Large for the front channels. About those side-axis feeds: My original understanding was that they were wired to reproduce the difference information between the front L and L surround as well as between the front R and R surround. This is the approach used with SMART Devices’ Dolby EX box which employs the Circle Surround matrix (and designed to provide the center rear surround signal whether there is a discrete one or not). Then not only are the important sides of the listening room filled in for a more seamless surround field, but any loud objects moving from the front to the rear on film soundtracks will more smoothly pass by without a “missing” area overhead. To my ears this is much more of an enhancement for both movies and music than the Dolby EX/DTS-ES center rear surround channels.

However, my understanding was erroneous - the Sunfire does not feed the difference information to the side-axis speakers. The L reproduces 80% of the L front channel plus 20% of the R front, and the R reproduces 80% of the R front channel plus 20% of the L front. The theory for that eludes me. But as they are - mounted high on the walls just a bit ahead of my sweet spot - the side-axes do provide a more seamless surround field and stretch the front soundstage into a bigger horseshoe. However, my main purpose for them is to reproduce the height channels that several of the multichannel SACD producers are including on their discs - Chesky, DMP and Telarc - using either just the LFE channel or both the LFE and center channels. To accomplish this I had to run the lines going to the separate side-axis amp thru my patch bay, allowing patching of the two channel outputs to the side-axis. The results of this effort are also quite subtle - more prominent on some discs than others - but I will be reporting more on this in later software reviews.

The versatile universal remote shows ten different options on its pre- programmed LCD screen when you press Setup. P-PRO allows entering a three-digit code to recall the commands for each of your system components. There is a chart for this in the back of the manual. Or you can teach the remote the codes directly from your existing individual remotes. FAV allows entering one’s favorite radio and TV stations. PUNCH allows setting up the volume, channel change and transport buttons so that they work for your main device no matter which of the devices the remote is set for. ERASE can delete all commands you have stored in the remote, with the exception of the pre-programmed ones. LIGHT turns the backlite on the remote on or off and adjust the length of time it stays lit. LEARN is used for teaching the remote codes to this remote. MACRO sets up sequences of buttons to carry out up to 20 separate commands at once automatically. RECALL lets you check the three-digit codes you have entered for various components. EDIT is the function allowing you to change the abbreviated names of your inputs onscreen. CLONE will allow copying all the commands of this remote to another identical remote.

The possibilities for specific adjustments in the onscreen display are almost staggering for the first-time user. But many would only be adjusted once; for example if you don’t have other zones, you would set all the Zone Two options you see to Disable and leave it. The speaker calibrations would be set once using a Radio Shack level meter and then left alone. Same goes for the speaker distances, which is handy in being adjusted via feet rather than delay times. Since my center front speaker is only about a foot behind my front L & R I set everything at equidistant because I didn’t want to engage the digital delay on everything for just that one foot difference. Some options seem unimportant or confusing; be sure to carefully read the manual descriptions before setting. For example if you choose the digital default powerup for your CD player it would not feed a signal to Zone 2. You can also select which surround mode or stereo is to be the default for each and every input device. This includes 8-channel, which feeds the six analog channels from multichannel hi-res discs, directly thru the volume control area without any digital processing of any sort or adjustment of speaker size, distance, or bass management. It also includes Source Direct, which is an analog stereo-only mode which also bypasses all the special processing.

FM & TV Sources

I opted not to run the video sources thru the Sunfire, although the specs claim that every effort was made to keep interference from the video sources out of the audio circuitry. If you do decide to use the video switching in the unit, you have a choice of all three prominent connection formats: Composite, Component and S-Video. And you can switch everything from your couch potato seat without involving a second remote. Bear in mind that not all AV preamps boast built-in FM tuners. I had previously owned a separate Carver tuner, and when hooked up to my rooftop TV antenna, the tuner portion of the Sunfire came out with high marks on the three or four local stations to which I listen. One lower-power jazz station which is sometimes iffy on my office radio as well as car FM came in strong at all times on the Sunfire. There is no AM stereo or noise reduction circuit as the stand alone tuner had, but FM quality was top rate. AM was so-so, as on almost all tuners nowadays. Having the tuner in the preamp makes it easier to hook up a recorder of some type with an accessory timer to time-shift radio programs you want to hear. Or you can use your Hi-Fi VCR or PVR.

Surround Modes and Listening Demos

Since for many the home theater aspects of the Sunfire III will be the primary focus, I’ll start with DVD video playback. The unit’s decoding of both Dolby Digital and DTS seemed cleaner and more dynamic than most other AV processors I have heard. The 6.1 center rear channel(s) feature of both data-reduction formats directs that signal - when it exists on just a few DVDs - to a phantom center surround between your existing surrounds if you don’t have a separate amp and speakers for that function. DTS decoding - when available - of both movies and music discs was always a little cleaner, more dynamic, at a higher level and with more aggressive surround use than the Dolby Digital option.

The first movie DVD I sampled was The Rock from The Criterion Collection’s reissue, with its DTS 5.1 soundtrack. The chapter with the wild car chase thru San Francisco streets (which trumped Bullet’s chase sequence) and the blowing up of the cable car really put my rather polite Celestion mini-monitors and twin subs to the test, but the Sunfire handled it with flying colors. I also have a Clark transducer mounted in my sofa, as well as a rear powered subwoofer behind the sofa, so these scenes were just about as involving as they possible could be without someone getting hurt. Music DVDs such as the Gil Evans Concert on TDK, also with a 5.1 DTS track, sounded clean and without noticeable artifacts, and the extreme low bass on this one was quite exceptional. For DVDs carrying only the normal Dolby Digital track, the Sunfire created excellent surround fields when the tracks called for them.

For the analog multichannel feedthru, the Sunfire allowed level control of the DVD-A or multichannel SACD sound only, and sonic quality sounded to me very similar to that I had previously experienced with a dedicated high end 6-channel preamp (with no other features whatsoever). There was a slightly higher hiss level thru the Sunfire but it would never be noticed in normal listening. Bob Carver’s Sonic Holography circuit has been around for many years. It attempts to compensate for the cross-ear arrival times of the signals we hear from the two stereo speakers in front of us when we are seated directly in front and equidistant from them. Previous versions were accomplished in the analog domain and while quite audible on certain material had an extremely narrow sweet spot. The Sunfire employs processing in the digital mode, is more accurate, and widens the sweet spot - all without changing the timbre of the sounds as some competing transaural processes do. Sonic Holography works best with purist-miked stereo recordings. Although the manual says the effect can added on top of various multichannel modes, I found that it often slightly degraded the sonic quality in that use and was most effective on strictly stereo sources, where it increased soundstage depth and width plus general clarity, but to an extremely subtle degree. When imposed over the ProLogic II setting it moved sounds away from the center of the soundstage and placed them more strongly at the left and right front speakers. Binaural sources were more effective when playing via ProLogic II than using Sonic Holography.

That brings us to the two pseudo-surround offerings in the Sunfire. Actually there are three - the third being just one of the “boingerizer” ambience options known as “Jazz Club.” It adds artificial digital delay to the stereo signals and that’s all I need say about it. I also didn’t test out DTS NEO: 6 which expands normal stereo sources into six channels, because I was busy enough testing out the various adjustments to Dolby Pro Logic II. As many others have now reported, this latest major improvement over the original Dolby Pro Logic is probably the best all around creator of a surround soundfield from basic two-channel sources. There are several adjustments to it accessed onscreen: Movie Mode, Music Mode - which includes three adjustable options: Center Width, Panorama and Dimension (the balance from front to rear).

Using the ProLogic II Music setting I sampled a number of CDs. The 96K DVD of Ravel Orchestral Works issued by Classic Records took on just as effective a surround feeling as many of the discrete multichannel discs. A disc from the Decca AMSI (Ambient Surround Image) reissue series - said to provide “an optimized sensurround sound experience” - sounded almost exactly like one of the multichannel classical programs on a discrete SACD. It was the Mozart Piano Concertos Nos. 25 and 27 with Vladimir Ashkenazy. One of the DMP Circle Surround-encoded CDs - the Robert Hohner World Music Tour - provided a fully enveloping surround field of percussion instruments around the listening room via Pro Logic II. Finally, one of the series of Tomita CDs reissued by RCA using the three channel matrixed Dolby Surround encoding: Kosmos. These had seemed quite a letdown after owning the four-channel quadraphonic versions on RCA pre-recorded tape for some years. However, with ProLogic II there issued forth astonishing surround effects, even to spinning sounds around the listening area, and all without a hint of the hiss and distortions the tape medium had entailed. It made me want to get out all my matrixed surround CDs and LPs and try them again via Pro Logic II. The Movie setting also does a fairly good job of creating a 5.1 soundtrack equivalent out of plain stereo soundtracks on DVDs.


Conclusion

The Sunfire is an extremely versatile, and once set up, easy-to-use AV preamp. The decoding of the standard codecs is excellent, plus you get to have surround sound for everything via either the Pro Logic II or DTS:Neo6 options. No one else has Sonic Holography and upgrades are a cinch even for us Mac owners using the CD-ROMs supplied by Sunfire. The remote - once you figure it out - is packed with possibilities and easy for anyone in the family to use. Few other processors provide tone controls anymore, and the second zone can be fed a program differing from that playing in the main room. Due to my own special needs I would have liked to see a MC input, a side-to-side and front-to-back balance control accessible on joystick of the remote, a more sophisticated feed to the side-axis speakers, a switchable second analog multichannel input, and a mono switch. But considering the reasonable cost and ease of operation of the Sunfire compared to some of the other AV processors out there, I would venture it merits serious consideration for a combined audio and home theater control center.

- John Sunier

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