|Sunfire Ultimate Receiver|
|Home Theater AV Receivers AV Receivers|
|Written by Augie Bettencourt|
|Monday, 01 September 2003|
Bob Carver, the creative force behind Sunfire Corporation, has been rocking the audio world for the better part of three decades. Originally known for his amplifiers, and later as the inventor of the first mini-cube subwoofers, Carver now is shepherding the introduction of Sunfire’s first A/V receiver. It seems like a natural for Sunfire to develop a packaged brother to the widely-respected Theater Grand III A/V Preamplifier and Cinema Grand Signature Amp. What better name for such a product than the Ultimate Receiver, but can it live up to its own hype?
The Sunfire Ultimate Receiver is a seven-channel audio/video receiver, designed to perform at the same level as the better separates on the market at a price tag of $4,195. I unboxed the Sunfire Ultimate Receiver and was immediately impressed by its beautiful finish and impressive metal work. I was surprised by its size or rather its lack thereof. Considering its rated power of 200 watts x seven channels, I expected a bigger and heavier piece of equipment. At 17 inches wide, five-and-three-quarters inches high, 16.5 inches deep and weighing in at 32 pounds, it’s definitely not the “ultimate” receiver in terms of sheer mass, but as a man with a little receiver once said, size isn’t everything.
I found the setup of the Ultimate Receiver to be refreshingly simple, compared to past experiences I have had with receivers and high-end AV preamps. I had the Sunfire Ultimate Receiver hooked up and running in about 15 minutes. The layout on the back of the unit was intuitive and easier to set up than most lower-end receivers. Once I had all of the cables connected, it was just a matter of minutes before I had the onscreen display configured and ready to go. The screen menus aren’t exactly the cutting-edge GUI you see on some receivers, but they’re easy to navigate and configure and the speaker configuration was a piece of cake.
The Sunfire Ultimate Receiver is a real looker. Its front panel has two round, flush knobs for volume and source selection, an amber-colored array of small lighted buttons and a large, soothing blue fluorescent LED display for input selection, tuner frequency, volume level and other features. At 200 watts x seven channels, the Sunfire Ultimate Receiver has the distinction of being the most powerful receiver on the planet. Those who know Sunfire are aware that these 200 watts carry a punch. At a total rated output of 1,400 watts, the Sunfire is incredibly light and weighs just 32 pounds. This is accomplished by using an unusually efficient amplifier, which Sunfire calls a "tracking downconverter power amp" (another catchy name), that combines smart circuits with elements of switching-mode power supplies to eliminate much of the heat and bulk of conventional amps. For the user who prefers surround modes for two-channel sources, the options provided are Stereo, Dolby Pro Logic II, Party, Jazz Club, DTS Neo:6 and Source Direct. Surround modes for multi-channel sources include: Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX, DTS, DTS-ES Matrix and DTS-ES Discrete. One of my favorite features, the Full Automatic Operation feature, will automatically switch to the next input that starts to play. If you turn on your CD player and press play, the receiver knows you have done so and automatically switches to the CD input. The tuner is selected either by rotating the manual input selector on the front panel, or by touching the Tuner button in the remote’s Receiver mode. Tuner presets were unusually simple to program and modify. If you have a pair of speakers in a second room, the Sunfire Ultimate Receiver allows you to play a stereo source independently of what is playing in the first room, so you can have two separate parties going on at the same time, with two separate sources.
Besides an attractive face, the Sunfire Ultimate Receiver also has an abundant rear panel with connectivity to suit almost any user. The back panel includes seven speaker-level outputs with sturdy binding posts, and line-level outputs to connect to other amplifiers. There are eight channels of inputs for use with a DVD-Audio or SACD, as well as two additional subwoofer outputs for a total of three. On the video side of business, there are three wideband component-video inputs with dual outputs. As would be expected, Sunfire has a unique set of outputs called “side-axis” outputs. These outputs provide two optional front side channels to complement the left, center, right, surround and surround back channels.
The remote control included with the Sunfire Ultimate Receiver is excellent. It’s a customized Home Theater Master MX-500 with a LCD-screen and will control 10 audio/video devices (or your X10 home automation system) by pressing one of the customizable component buttons positioned around a brightly lit, customizable LCD display. Its five-way joystick makes navigating menus easy. A separate "light" button on the side activates the backlight every time you pick it up, so you won't have to press a function button to activate it. It has a sleek ergonomic design that allows the remote control to fit comfortably in one hand, with a strategically placed joystick for easy thumb navigation. All in all, it was a joy to use. Many manufacturers pay little design attention to their remotes. This is inexcusable, considering that the remote is the interface to your entire system.
The Music and the Movies
My current reference speakers, the Martin Logan Prodigys, Martin Logan Theater and Martin Logan Aeons, are very difficult speakers to drive with a wimpy amplifier. I was pleasantly surprised when the Sunfire Ultimate Receiver didn’t go into meltdown when I jacked up the volume. I started my listening session with Dave Matthews Band’s Busted Stuff. The first song I listened to was “Digging a Ditch” (RCA Records). The sound of Matthews’ voice had a very natural, open quality and the Sunfire Ultimate Receiver produced a convincing soundstage. It wasn’t quite the quality of my exponentially more expensive reference Krell amplifier and processor combination($18,000 retail value), but it was better than any receiver I have ever heard in my listening room by leaps and bounds. Matthews’ vocals came alive as the receiver created a seamless soundstage and as I turned the volume up, not only did the receiver not hiccup, but it was able to drive my reference system to surprisingly loud levels.
I next listened to Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me (Capitol Records) and her hit single of the same name. Jones’ vocals have a very lush, full, palatable sound that is easy on the ears. Her vocal tone and piano playing have a delicate, natural quality that made me feel as if she were right there in the room with me. The Sunfire Ultimate Receiver reproduced this reference recording with good harmonic texture and its wide-open soundstage was impressive. I’ve never been into digital sound processing for music, but how could I review a Bob Carver design without using his Holographic Image feature? When this circuit was engaged, it made the soundstage seem both wider and deeper, and I had the feeling that I was hearing deeper into the image. I had to keep reminding myself that I was listening to a receiver and not a separate amplifier and preamplifier combination.
The last CD I listened to was Keb Mo’s self-titled CD and the song “Every Morning” (Epic Records). Keb Mo’s vocals had a very open, natural sound, with excellent soundstage width and depth. His guitar had proper acoustic tonal balance with an airy quality. Every pluck of his guitar was heard with very distinct accuracy. The bass was tight and accurate, but as would be expected for a receiver, lacked some of authority and slam of my reference Krell amplifier.
I moved on to movie watching and started with “Minority Report” (DreamWorks), which has a very aggressively mixed soundtrack and is probably Steven Spielberg’s best film since “Saving Private Ryan.” All channels were active for most of the movie and the Sunfire Ultimate Receiver created a convincing, 360-degree soundfield that drew me in. John Williams’ incredible score was wonderfully rendered with a nice, open soundstage. I was again surprised at this receiver’s ability to fill my large listening room with sound and to drive my seven Martin Logan speakers to beyond acceptable listening levels.
“Gangs of New York” (Buena Vista Home Entertainment ) is a stunning visual treat, as is typical of films directed by Martin Scorsese. Separation across all channels was engaging, which made for an astoundingly rich, three-dimensional experience. U2's soundtrack contribution, the song "The Hands That Built America," sounded great, perfectly balanced in the mix and with plenty of surround activity.
The Sunfire Ultimate Receiver is difficult to fault, but at $4,195, it’s definitely not inexpensive and there are clearly many alternatives, including separates, in this price range. Bass and treble adjustment is a standard feature on this and all other receivers, but additional equalization settings with crossover adjustments for every channel would be a welcome feature, including THX re-equalization for high frequency roll-off of overly bright video sources.
Bob Carver is well known in the audio industry for innovative products, but he has really outdone himself this time. With a front as attractive as Monica Bellucci and a rear as abundant as Jennifer Lopez, the Sunfire Ultimate Receiver is a very attractive package. This lightweight receiver is crammed with more technology than I would expect, even for a Bob Carver design. It lives up to his standard of bullet-proof designs with great sound and, considering it’s a receiver with so many features, it’s a breeze to set up. I have never heard a receiver with a more natural, open-sounding midrange or a more convincing soundstage and I’ve definitely never known a receiver that could drive a complete Martin Logan home theater to such ear-splitting levels with almost as much authority as separate components.
At $4,195, it’s a bit pricey for any receiver, especially one that could use improved equalization features, but these are minor shortcomings for such an outstanding design that has deservedly earned its name as the Ultimate Receiver. I recommend this to anyone who wants the integration of a receiver and the performance of comparably priced separates, or to someone who simply wants to own some of Sunfire's magic in this price range.