Sonic Frontiers Processor 3 D/A Converter 
Home Theater Accessories Accessories
Written by Bryan Southard   
Thursday, 01 October 1998

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.

The Music
Utter amazement is the word that best describes enormous amount of information that the Processor 3 provided on my inaugural listening session. Like with most new pieces of equipment, I find myself wanting to rediscover my CD collection as if it were all-new. It’s like reacquainting myself with old friends.

I will start with one of my musical references, Harry Belefonte, "Return to Carnage Hall," RCA Victor. This recording has a tremendously live stage, and serves as a good test for overall spaciousness and 3D imaging. The Processor 3 had the ability to supply the added detail required to not only produce a truly believable three dimensional stage, but produce the crowd and the space between the crowd, making you easily believe that you are present at the show. The presentation had incredible width, creating a stage that was considerably beyond the walls of my room. Many products are capable of incredible soundstages, but what separates the best of the best is how little effort is required for you to believe that you are at the show. The Processor 3 can take you there without question. The individual vocalists were superbly defined with wonderful and natural timbre. The voices had a very natural bloom, or surrounding air, that made them not only appear present in your room, but very musically inviting as well.

While listening to one of my current favorites, Cornell Dupree, "Uncle Funky," Kokopelli Records, a live jazzy R&B, HDCD encoded recording, possessing outstanding dynamic range, I found myself cheering at the end of songs as if I were there. The Processor 3’s extremely quick attack and decay, made transient details appear dynamically live, extraordinarily real, and natural. Never did my system seem congested even in the most complex situations.

The horns in this recording were reproduced with authority, and with huge dynamic impact. The piano, an instrument that can be extremely hard to accurately reproduce, was well defined but more impressively, had a great sense of percussive impact, a byproduct of the actual hammers hitting the strings. When compared to the $3495 Audio Research CD2, I found that the Processor 3 had a greater sense of detail, and considerably more dynamic impact and resolution, as you might expect from a product which in combination with a CD transport, costs in the neighborhood of three times more.

The I2S-E Connection
Pronounced (Eye-Squared-S-Enhanced) is an interface alternative to the standard, S/PDIF, which has long been used for transmitting digital audio between your CD Transport and the Digital-to-Analog-Converter. The problem with the S/PDIF interface is that there are timing errors introduced at the point where the digital samples are converted to music, causing an edgy, less than musical presentation. This form of distortion is referred to as Jitter. I2S-E is an alternative whereas the master clock is contained in the DAC rather than the Transport, then separately sends the clock information to the Transport, forcing it to sync with the digital processor.

The next question is "How does it sound?" After its six thousand-mile trek to and from the Sonic Frontiers factory, my SFT-1 had arrived. Equipped with a new high-speed digital cable, which was included with the modification, I was ready to listen. While my SFT-1 was out for modification I experimented with the Audio Research CD-2 as a stand-alone CD Player, and as the digital transport with the Processor 3. The difference between the I2S-E and the previous S/PDIF connection was fantastic! The overall texture of the music was improved. Images were more focussed and possessed a much greater and more realistic sense of depth. The midrange and treble became very sweet and liquid sounding.

After comparisons with the S/PDIF digital interface, I concluded that this connection was not only superior in every way, but to the extreme that the Transport 3, and the modified SFT-1 transport from Sonic Frontiers were the only transports that I would personally consider for the Processor 3 DAC. There are other manufacturers that are selling I2S-E digital transports, including the Muse Model Eight CD/DVD transport, but are not compatible with the Sonic Frontiers I2S-E version.

The Downside
The processor 3 DAC is a product that although designed with upgrade flexibility in mind, will not be state of the art forever. Exactly where the future will take us is far from certain, but there are hints of many new directions, which this product may or may not have the capability of expanding too. So then why would someone lay down hard cash, and I mean lots of hard cash, for a product that has a limited life? It’s because they want the very best for as long as they can have it. Not the decision for everyone, but for those that spare no expense in their quest for sonic nirvana and the ultimate recreation of music.

The Processor 3 has a separate power supply enclosure, an unquestioned sonic benefit, yet for some could present the problem of not only finding the room for an additional component, but finding it in a well ventilated area. Like other similar products, I find this to be no issue.

Is the Sonic Frontiers Processor 3 expensive? "Sure it is, it’s enormously expensive." Is it the most expensive? Not even close. Is it a smart decision to spend $7000 on a product with a potential limited life? I can’t answer that for you but I can tell you that this processor is terrific. It is capable of startling realism. Unfortunately if you want uncompromised sound, you pay big dollars, a painful but true reality. I found the Processor 3 to be irresistible and purchased it for myself. One dangerous aspect about auditioning source products such as digital processors, is that it’s often like going to the optometrist, once you try on corrective eyewear, its hard to live without it. Perhaps I can classify the Sonic Frontiers Processor 3 as corrective earwear.

If you are like myself, in constant search of perfection, I recommend the Sonic Frontiers Processor 3, and very strongly recommend the Processor 3 when used with either the Sonic Frontiers Transport 3, or the I2S-E modified SFT-1 transport. This product is my likely vote for next years "Audio Revolution's Digital Product of the Year."
Manufacturer Sonic Frontiers
Model Processor 3 D/A Converter
Reviewer Bryan Southard

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