Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II Architectural Multi-channel Power Amplifier 
Home Theater Power Amplifiers Multi-Channel Amplifiers
Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Monday, 01 July 2002

Bob Carver is back with a new version of his most beefy home theater amp, the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II. There are now two different ways you can order up this 425-watt-times-five-channel powerhouse – as a 19-inch “Standard” unit or a 17-inch “Architectural” version. The Architectural version is pretty much the same internally as the Series II standard unit, except for the fact that it is slender enough to fit into an equipment rack. In the golden age of audio, no respectable audiophile would think of hiding his power amp. Power amps were presented in full glory, often on a polished chunk of granite, on the floor of your listing room directly between your most lust-worthy two speakers. Things are different now. Movie and music enthusiasts (and wives) require their gear to be visually stealthy and most of their equipment to be rack-mounted neatly in a custom cabinet. For those who demand the unobtrusive look of a rack-mounted system but demand the power and performance of a mannish amp, there is the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II.

Priced at $3,995 (either version), the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II Architectural is physically small (17 inches wide x 5.9 inches tall x 16.7 inches deep) relative to its power output. The Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II takes both XLR and RCA inputs, has gold-plated and well-engineered inputs for interconnects and thoughtful outputs for even the most pricey speaker cables. Sunfire is a company based around the cult of personality known as Bob Carver, and this top-of-the-line amp actually bears his physical signature on the faceplate of each unit.

Despite the slimmer size and audio celebrity signature, the real draw of the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II is its 425 watts of power times five channels. How can this amp be so physically small yet create so much power, you ask? The answer is Bob Carver’s patented Tracking Downconverter power supply. The way that Carver’s patented design works is by regulating the voltage needed in the amp, distributing it out to the channels as needed. More traditional amps power the entire amp at, say, 60 volts, whereas the Carver design powers the amp more efficiently with about five or six more volts than needed. The added efficiency allows for power ratings as high as Sunfire reports. The advantage to this abundance of this power is the ability to drive speakers with extremely demanding loads, such as Martin Logans, Final, B&W, THIEL and others with enough horsepower to keep up with the most balls-to-the-wall car chases, train wrecks or even surround sound mixes on DVD-Audio discs that drive all six speakers to their limits all at once.

Music and Movies
While my reference loudspeakers, Wilson WATT Puppy V6.0s ($20,000 per pair), are known for their thrifty use of power, they are also about the most revealing speakers you could hook up to an amp. To make the evaluation of the amp even more difficult, for months I have listened to my WATT Puppies with the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II, replacing a $9,500 Mark Levinson No. 336 350-watt-per-channel stereo power amplifier. At $3,995 for five channels of power, the Sunfire was in for an AB test with the big boys during this review. Immediately, I noticed a difference in flavor between the Levinson No. 336 and the Sunfire. The Levinson is definitely more accurate and controlled. The Sunfire, on the other hand, is pleasantly laid-back and mellow. Both amps have boatloads of juice, which proved useful for 100 dB-plus jam sessions.

On “Doralice” from Getz and Gilberto (Verve), the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II presented an impressively warm and open sonic image on my Wilsons. Stan Getz’s tenor sax floats above the physical boundaries of the speakers, while at the same time, the careful listener can hear the subtle strokes of brushes on a slightly opened high hat.

Small jazz ensembles are good for warm-ups, but Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” from Talking Book (Motown) is a much better test of dynamics. The Sunfire’s tube-like, reserved sound matched well with this 1970s recording. At impressive levels that do in fact piss off my neighbors, the highs remained smooth and open in ways that I remember stereo amps like the $5,000 Jeff Rowland Model 112 couldn’t achieve. Amps that are designed around a more conventional way of producing power, instead of the Tracking Downconverter design, can’t quite go reach the extreme volumes as easily as the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II at the same price or physical size.

Moving a decade forward, “Rio” from the Duran Duran album of the same title, showed some audible signs of compression, specifically as the cymbals panned on the right side of the sound stage. Simon Le Bon’s vocals are pleasantly smooth and wonderfully present in the middle of the soundstage. The harshness of this mid-1980s CD is definitely helped by the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II’s laid-back flavor.

In searching for even better-sounding stereo recordings, I spun “So Far Away” from Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms (Warner Brothers) CD. This was the best attack I have heard, relative to the bass, when auditioning the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II. The low end was robust yet tight. The snare sounded thinner than with the similarly-priced Proceed AMP5, but the overall sound was cohesive and fun. I had the levels consistently pegged at way above the reference level on my Proceed AVP preamp.

The Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II was tested to its limits with “One Little Victory” from the new Rush album, Vapor Trails (Atlantic/Anthem), with an onslaught of Neil Peart drumming and poundingly low Geddy Lee bass riffs. The Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II never relented, providing continuous power throughout a tune that goes all out from start to finish. Much like a movie soundtrack in five channels, this stereo track showed me that the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II is up to the challenge of any genre of music at live concert levels that make other amps roll over and play dead.

With the goal of driving all of five channels of the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II to their limits, I loaded up the new DTS DVD-Audio re-release of Queen’s Night At The Opera (Hollywood Records – DTS). Using the DTS default surround mode because my Proceed AVP and PMDT aren’t DVD-Audio ready yet, I started off with the classic rock opera anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The difference the 24/96 audio makes is apparent to both the trained and untrained ear. As the tune builds, the little details like the “shivers down my spine” lyric, followed by chimes, are enough to give you actual chills down your spine. 16-bit CDs really don’t compare to this level of music reproduction. As the track builds up to its crescendo, more and more vocal effects swirl from channel to channel. At the apex of the tune, the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II fires into fourth gear and floors it, giving my Wilson WATT Puppies and WATCH center channel enough power to blast musical images beyond the physical limitations of the speakers. The overall mix is coherent and uniquely loud. At the end of the tune, my girlfriend, who should have been packing her bags to go home after watching me dorking out with my system, said, “I never really liked that song until I heard it like this.” This is clearly a real-world complement to the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II and the DTS DVD-Audio mix.

For feature film soundtrack testing, I looked to "Ocean's Eleven" (Warner Home Video) for a complex mix to see how well the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II could keep it together. When Danny Ocean goes to get Frank from Atlantic City, the sounds of the casino literally surround you. While the dialogue is present and the image is in front of the center speaker the way I like it, the most impressive elements of the soundtrack are the tell-tale details of slot machines and table games in the background. The Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II is capable of resolving both the immediate audio challenges of a feature film soundtrack and the more subtle details in the background.

I was lucky enough to have gotten a pre-release copy of "Black Hawk Down" (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment), which is a home theater audio masterpiece. While a few critics bashed the movie for its prolonged violence, the fight scenes make for an outrageous test of audio in a top home theater. From the low-level resolution needed to reproduce the cocking of a big rifle to the explosive power of concussive fire ripping an enemy in half, the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II has the power and finesse to reproduce any movie soundtrack.

The Downside
Despite design changes to make the amp more quiet relative to a signal to noise ratio, I still find the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II to be noisy in comparison to amps that don't employ the Tracking Downconverter concept. If you want the power and the finesse at this price without the heat in a small package, you have to sacrifice something and that compromise is a tiny fraction more noise than you will hear on a Proceed AMP5 or other amps in the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II’s class. For home theater applications, I don’t think this amount of noise is much of an issue, but for extremely critical musical listening, especially on more sparse productions like some jazz and small-scale classical albums, audiophiles might object to the ever-so-slight hiss.

In an industry where there haven’t been too many innovations in the past 50 years, Bob Carver is still coming up with unique solutions to age-old design problems. He reinvented the subwoofer and his Tracking Downconverter amp design now allows music or movie enthusiasts the ability to get tremendous power from a two-rack, high-power amp without excessive heat and/or a ridiculous cost. The laid-back, tube-like sound of the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II will appeal to those who are looking for an amp that is musical, engaging and fun. If you are looking for an uptight, serious audiophile amp, look elsewhere.

For the price, the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II is a serious contender even for systems with the most demanding speakers. For those with smaller systems or speakers with greater efficiency, try out a Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II for the effect of having a hugely powerful amp, even when you don’t always need the power. The result is the kind of increased finesse and control that you will never hear from a receiver or a moderately-priced home theater amp. Unless you can buck up for super-high-end power amps from the likes of Mark Levinson and Krell for all five channels, you might want to audition a Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II. Even if you already have a bad-boy stereo power amp, you may find that the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II is a suitable amplifier to use for center, rear and side channel applications in conjunction with a monster stereo amp. With its rack-mountability, you can hide it out of the way in a system where it isn’t playing the starring role. One way or another, the Sunfire Cinema Grand Series II is one hell of an amp for value and performance.
Manufacturer Sunfire
Model Cinema Grand Series II Architectural Multi-channel Power Amplifier

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