Sunfire Digital Surround Preamp Processor Review

Sunfire’s Theater Grand II is the Ginsu knife of preamp/processors. For $3,300, you get everything you’d expect from a high-end preamp and surround processor, including Dolby Digital, DTS, and Pro Logic decoding, five ambience-enhancement modes, a six-channel input, gold-plated jacks, and 96-kHz/24-bit playback.

But wait, there’s more! Sunfire also throws in an AM/FM tuner, a touchscreen learning remote, signal-sensing automatic operation, and a phono stage. But that’s not all! For the same low, low price (at least by high-end standards), you also get balanced outputs for all six channels, component-video switching, a generous complement of digital inputs, Holographic Image sound-enhancement processing, and a Seven Axis mode that lets you add two more surround speakers to your system.

Bob Carver’s designs have always had a big “Gee whiz!” factor. His Cinema Grand Signature multichannel amp delivers an ungodly 405 watts per channel, continuous, into 8 ohms without even breaking a sweat, and his True subwoofer crams 2,700 watts of power into an 11-inch cube.

Here the challenge was to create a preamp/processor that could satisfy the most discriminating audiophile, pack it full of features, and make it as easy to set up and use as any receiver you could pick up at your neighborhood megastore. All of that aside, with the Theater Grand II Carver has gone beyond his usual gee wizardry and created a component that’s just plain fun to use.
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Yes, fun as in, you’ll actually enjoy setting the TG II up; as in, there are so many buttons to press and adjustments to make and features to explore that home theater will be obsolete before you’ve exhausted the possibilities; as in, this is a wonderful piece of technology to just sit and admire as its deep blue and amber lights glow in the dark. If you’ve been thinking about sampling high-end wares, the ingratiating Theater Grand is a good place to start. I mean, this thing even has tone controls something no self-respecting audio snob would be caught dead using, but they’re there if you need them.

The TG II isn’t perfect, mind you, but it turns even its negatives into pluses. Its oversize chassis won’t fit into a lot of audio racks but that means there’s plenty of room for every imaginable connector on the back panel. The Theater Grand is actually easier to set up than a mass-market receiver because you don’t have to feel your way through the other cables to get to a connector. I hooked up the eight source components in my system to the TG II in less than half an hour and didn’t get a single connection wrong. I don’t know about you, but for me that borders on the miraculous.

All the controls necessary to set up the Theater Grand are on the touchscreen learning remote. Large, hefty, and easy to hold, the remote can control up to seven components aside from the processor itself. To keep the screen clutter-free, you can even delete controls you know you won’t need. The virtual buttons are big, intuitively arranged, and easy to find even in the dark, thanks to the green backlighting that comes on briefly when you touch the screen. The remote doesn’t have a code library, but it took me less than 15 minutes to program it with all the commands for my other components.

The Sunfire-designed tuner locked in a variety of weak signals even with the supplied wire antenna. The widely variable quality of broadcasts in the New York City area made judging sound quality a challenge, but on the strongest FM signals the TG II delivered everything you’d expect from a first-rate tuner.

The Theater Grand doesn’t have as many ambience modes as most flagship receivers just Dolby 3 Stereo, Jazz Club, Stadium, Cathedral, Party 4, and Party 5 but I don’t consider that a great loss.

Carver’s Holographic Image processing is another matter entirely. Using out-of-phase crosstalk signals to lessen the blurring that can occur when sounds from the left speaker reach your right ear, and vice versa, this two-channel mode is meant to place the instruments more precisely on a broader, more open soundstage. It delivered as promised on almost every recording I played using it, and it was especially effective (not surprisingly) on jazz and classical recordings that had realistic soundstages to begin with. The results varied much more widely (again, not surprisingly) on rock recordings, although it never made anything sound out-and-out bad.

Mated with the Cinema Grand Signature power amp, the Theater Grand II performed flawlessly on everything I played. No matter how hard I pushed them, both amp and processor kept pace and I doubt if I even began to tap the Cinema Grand’s power reserves.

For music listening, I took a trip back to the late ’70s. Discovery, a collection of more-substantial-than-they-ought-to-be ditties from the fading days of the Electric Light Orchestra’s glam-rock reign, features Jeff Lynne’s signature sprawling mixes and impeccable production. “Confusion,” with its layers of acoustic guitars, cavernous vocals, Phil Spector tympani slams, and plump, lumbering Brian Wilson bass, is so artificial and sonically complex it’s a bona fide preamp torture test.

If you listen to this track with anything less than a first-rate preamp, the wind-chime glissandi that come from the left speaker near the beginning of the song and from the right near the end will sit embedded in the mix, and the mix itself will be choked off, resulting in an AM-radio flatness. With the Theater Grand II, the chime strokes were startling, seeming to float in front of the speakers. I was also impressed by how realistic Bev Bevan’s drum kit sounded, especially during the song’s reggae breaks when the gracefully ham-fisted Bevan whales on the drums’ metal rims.

To test the TG II with more realistic material, I turned more classical kitsch. The “Rhinestone Kickstep” that opens composer Michael Daugherty’sLe Tombeau de Liberace (on American Icons, Argo) matches the ELO track for sonic density, but here the music is performed by an orchestra on a much more traditional soundstage. It’s tough for any preamp to untangle the track’s Stravinsky-and-Ives-Do-Vegas orchestration, with its almost autonomous groups of instruments duking it out for the same sonic space. But the Theater Grand did justice to the whole range, from top to bottom, and to every instrumental cluster spread across the stage.

The much smaller ensemble on the same composer’s Dead Elvis (from the same CD), which features a nimble bassoonist as the King, demonstrated the Sunfire’s facility with more intimate material. I was especially surprised by how much the sound improved when I used the Holographic Image mode. The rolling plucked-bass line, which rumbled with the standard setting, was cleanly articulated with the processing engaged, and the repeated bell and pipe hits throughout the first section were more resonant and more firmly locked into place.

The Theater Grand II did a terrific job with the Sleepy Hollow DVD. If you can endure the headless and heartless narrative, you’ll be treated to a visual feast.

The demise of Magistrate Philipse (Richard Griffiths) is typical of Hollow‘s monotonous decapitations. As he and Depp stand talking in a gloomy field, the distant sound of rolling thunder, the bleating of scattering sheep, a scarecrow creaking on its pole, and an owl’s echoing hoot signal the Horseman’s imminent arrival. A crescendo of pounding hooves follows, accompanied by a similar rising of the orchestra. Then comes the unsheathing of the sword and the scampering of the corpulent magistrate up a hillside the better to have his head come tumbling down into Depp’s lap once he’s uncorked. The Horseman then rides up to Depp, skewers the head with his sword (a sound effect not for the squeamish), and rides off whence he came as Depp hits the ground in a faint.

The TG II provided a dead-silent backdrop for this and every other piece of mayhem, didn’t seem fatigued by the demands of mare or massed instruments, and effectively reproduced each of the varied sound effects. It was superb with both movies and music, creating one of the most open and detailed soundstages I’ve heard.

There are other processors out there that can perform as well as this one, but they cost at least $1,500 more and don’t have many of the features that make the TGII so flexible. True, it doesn’t do 6.1-channel decoding, but give Carver some time. Given his unceasing and fanatical tinkering, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next iteration of this continually evolving product offered that, too. All you need to know is that the Theater Grand II is a winning overachiever of a preamp/processor that does an extraordinary number of things and does almost all of them extraordinarily well.