|Sunfire Theater Grand Processor III|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Thomas Garcia|
|Friday, 01 November 2002|
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In the ever-changing home entertainment industry, it has become increasingly difficult for entry-level consumers and high-level enthusiasts alike to keep pace with the rapid development of new technologies and the changes that are ushered in by these advances. Nowhere is this more evident than with the audio/video preamp/processor.
With continually changing formats and encoding schemes, it is all too easy to find that your new piece of equipment is outdated a relatively short time after you purchase it. There will always be innovative new speaker systems being released and impressive power amps appearing on a regular basis. But in the grand scheme of things, you can get by for quite a while if you choose wisely and invest in quality loudspeakers and amplifiers in the beginning. However, if your processor can’t decode the newest formats or take advantage of the latest algorithms and surround processing techniques, you may spend more time regretting your purchase than enjoying your system. So an ideal preamp/processor is either so inexpensive that you don’t care if it becomes outdated soon (you could always use it in another room), or has all the latest features with the ability to be updated for the foreseeable future. The latter is far more desirable for individuals in pursuit of the best that current and future technology has to offer.
Considering those options, Sunfire has released their third-generation audio/video processor/tuner, aptly named the Theater Grand III (TG III). The Sunfire TG III is an admirable and truly versatile 24-bit - 192 kHz theater processor, designed to provide today’s user with the ability to take full advantage of current and future technology. It’s undeniable that Bob Carver has always provided a high level of performance, features and value for the consumer’s dollar. At a price of $3,495, the Sunfire TG III is no exception. This well-appointed component incorporates the most current processing modes, including 7.1 Channel Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX, DTS, DTS-ES, DTS Neo:6 and Dolby Pro-Logic II.
Packaged in a rather sleek enclosure with a soft-brushed finish, the TG III is quite attractive, its color bordering between charcoal and black. With its rounded edges, countersunk volume and input selector knobs, and faint colored labeling, the Sunfire Theater Grand III has a very unassuming yet elegant look when in the off position. Powered on, you are greeted with a cobalt blue processor display window and an array of tangerine-colored control buttons and various logos. The TG III is available in two sizes, depending on your space or decor requirements. The standard model dimensions are 19 inches wide and 6.5 inches high by 15.75 inches deep, weighing 24 pounds, while the Architect’s Choice(reviewed here) measures in at 17 inches wide, 5.75 inches high and 16.5 inches deep, weighing 22 pounds.
The TG III is very accommodating when it comes to equipment connectivity. There are six audio/video inputs with S-video and composite video, and three audio/video outputs, also with audio, S-video and composite video, three component video inputs, and two component video outputs for connecting various high-definition sources. In addition, eight channels of analog inputs are provided for connecting a DVD-Audio or SACD player. Digital connections are handled by six coaxial and four optical connections with a single coaxial and optical output, enabling you to output a digital feed of any source, including analog and down-mixed 5.1 sources. The latter feature will allow the processor to send a digital stream to a CD burner or computer. Sunfire also includes balanced outputs for the primary 7.1 channels of the processor.
Setting up the TG III was amazingly easy. I was able to completely rewire my entire home theater system from scratch in about one hour, and my system worked flawlessly the first time. That is no small feat. The inputs have dedicated digital connections, so there is no need to assign digital connectors to the inputs and keep track of them. As far as usage, a component as flexible and feature-laden as the TGIII is can be somewhat complex to operate. However, with the intuitive menu structure, front panel and remote control layouts, and the onscreen display (OSD), operating the TG III became second nature in a relatively short period of time. I did have a problem with the legibility of the front panel labels, and I wish the OSD could be configured to appear on top of the source video rather than defeating it. Perhaps it is possible to configure the TGIII to do this, but I have not figured out how yet
The TGIII is probably the most "future-proof," versatile processor I have come across. Software updates are possible via the RS232 connection. IEEE-1394 (Firewire) is also provided for future multi-channel AV formats once a standard is adopted by the major record labels and or the Hollywood movie studios. The 100 MHz + HDTV compatible component video inputs ensure quality switching for the new higher-resolution video formats. One of the coolest and cleverest features is the ability to upgrade the firmware implemented by simply playing a CD. I upgraded my TGIII in less than five minutes using an included update CD -- very easy, convenient and foolproof. Sunfire even includes background music for your entertainment during the process (Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries," in my case), a very thoughtful touch.
In addition to the surround processing modes, the TG III is loaded with many other unique and very useful features. Bob Carver's Holographic Imaging has been a staple feature that has been utilized by each of his successive companies. In a more refined version, the Holographic function can provide interesting and at times pleasing effects -- as always it will be source-dependent.
A moving magnet phono input is a very nice touch, especially for those such as myself who still have a large LP collection with recordings that will most likely never be re-released on any digital format. Multiple subwoofer users will enjoy the four subwoofer outputs, eliminating the need for the use of Y jacks. The all-digital bass management on the TGIII is very flexible, with adjustable crossover frequencies in 10 Hz increments between 40 and 160 Hz. A potentially exciting feature that I unfortunately have not yet checked out thoroughly is the exclusive side axis output, designed to provide a more enveloping 9.1 surround sound. The tuner features Bob Carver’s Dynamic Tuner Noise Reduction circuit to improve weak signals from distant FM stations, as well as 40 station presets. Similar to most other preamp processors, the TG III has independent second zone audio-only outputs available. Finally, the optional auto signal input switching mode turns the unit on when presented with a signal source, automatically selecting the source and surround mode. This is great for those technically challenged members of your family who want to just slap in a DVD or CD and have it all start up properly. The feel, functionality and layout of the remote control are pretty strong. It’s basically a re-branded TheaterMaster by Universal Remote Control. As with most multi-function remote controls, this has menus to navigate and TG III offers them in a fairly intuitive way. As always, I recommend reading the manual first to get the most out of this or any processor. Fortunately, Sunfire has done a great job of making the manual easy to read. The remote can learn the commands from other remote controls and has the ability to operate up to 10 different components. It also comes pre-programmed with control codes for a wide variety of audio and video equipment.