|Sonic Frontiers Processor 3 D/A Converter|
|Home Theater Accessories Accessories|
|Written by Bryan Southard|
|Thursday, 01 October 1998|
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For those that have been participating in the sport of high-end music reproduction for any period of time, the name Sonic Frontiers and high quality digital playback is synonymous. Since Sonic Frontiers inception, in late1989, they have had the industry’s attention with several digital products that have been considered to be amongst the very best. The opportunity to review the Processor 3 was met with anxious anticipation.
The first question that came to mind was whether the industry would tolerate another high priced digital front-end in this time of digital uncertainty, alluding to the eminent appending change of digital format. Much has been discussed in the past years about the change, and much discussion is to follow. Lets take a look at their latest digital flagship.
Sonic Frontiers has long operated under the philosophy that superior parts provide the best opportunity for superior sounding products, and apparently made no exceptions with the Processor 3. The overall design took into account potential future upgrades by designing multiple, separate PC boards. They spared no expense by fabricating the board containing high-speed digital signals, out of the ultra-expensive Arlon. The Processor 3 inside and out, appeared very well thought out, and was packaged in a seemingly indestructible chassis.
The Processor 3, originally released to the public in July of 1997, is a fully balanced, 20-bit, HDCD ready digital to analog converter with a tube output stage which uses four 6922 tubes. The processor 3 has a separable outboard power supply.
Sonic Frontiers uses the 20-bit DAC chips in the Processor 3 because they’re the best sounding chips on the market today. Seemingly, it makes little sense to compromise sonic integrity this early in the game. Because of the delay of DVD audio, and the lack of music available on DVD Video discs, the only real way to enjoy 24-bit music is to re-dither your digital word. Sonic Frontiers has a product in the works that can re-dither your word to 24-bit / 96 kHz, slated for production in early to mid 2000. Production 24 bit / 96 kHz versions of the Processor 3 are expected to hit the market in early 2000, which will allow the Processor 3 to process two-channel DVD audio discs.
The front panel of the processor 3 looks very similar to other Sonic Frontiers products. The Processor 3 measures 19 inches wide, 14-1/4 deep and four-and-a-half inches tall, the exact same dimensions as their Line Series Preamplifiers. The front panel is brushed aluminum with a black anodized panel overlay; (gold is available as an option if you desire.) The controls on the front panel consist of the input selector buttons, and a 180’ phase button which can optimize the sound depending on the recording. There is a button that dims the display for those of us that listen in relative darkness and prefer not to be blinded by unimportant display information on our equipment, and a standby button for pre-listening warm-up. When in operational mode, the front display will indicate that it has a digital lock, and display the recovered clock speed. It will indicate that the source material is HDCD encoded when supplied with encoded discs. It will also display the digital input source type. Varying color indicator lights in the display make for quite a nice look.
The unit is powered by a separable power supply measuring nine inches wide, 14 inches deep and four inches high. This very stout power supply is connected via a sizable five-foot long detachable umbilical.
The rear of the unit has a connector that receives the umbilical from the outboard power supply. Connecting the power supply cord has a solid feel, with very positive connector engagement, something that gave me much confidence. For digital input connections, there are several to chose from including RCA, BNC, AES-EBU, Toslink Optical (Fiber optic), as well as a standard optical input, and the much revered, and deservedly so, 13-pin I2S-E digital input for capable transports. There are also both single ended RCA, and balanced XLR analog inputs. The Processor 3 as reviewed retails for $6999 US.
Originally I was slotted to review the Processor 3 and the Transport 3 together. Because of delivery issues at the time of the review, it was decided that I would not be getting the Transport 3 for review. I received the Processor 3 knowing that I would not immediately be able to test the I2S-E mode even know I own the Sonic Frontiers SFT-1 transport. I was informed that the transport could be modified to the I2S-E specifications, but would require me to send the unit back to the factory for retrofit. Because the I2S-E connection was touted as the superior connection, I decided to listen to the Pro-3 for just a couple weeks before giving up my transport for modification. For those SFT-1 owners, the modification retails for $699 and includes a high-speed digital cable and return shipping.