Sunfire Theater Grand IV AV Preamplifier/Processor 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Tim Hart   
Friday, 01 October 2004

Introduction
Technology for home theater preamp/processors and receivers is fairly mature now that the addition of new surround sound formats has settled down somewhat. The risk of buying a preamp/processor that doesn’t have the latest decoding scheme has definitely diminished. At a certain price point, most components have all of the necessary capabilities to handle the different surround sound and high-resolution formats. The surround sound speaker format discussion, i.e., how many channels do we really need, has seemingly run its course. There was a time when DTS-ES and Dolby Digital EX clouded the consumer’s view as to which processing option was best, as well as raising the question of how best to enjoy it. These two options have been around long enough that most savvy consumers understand what they represent. Then another question was which high resolution format was going to be the clear winner: SACD or DVD-Audio? Well, the equipment manufacturers settled that by providing the ability to do both. So, other than some proprietary DSP and other little bells and whistles, it seems that it is a lot easier today to make a preamp/processor choice that is not fraught with the danger of the equipment becoming outdated. Sunfire provides a choice that falls into the “almost future-proof” category with the Theater Grand IV, an audiophile-grade preamp/processor/tuner, that incorporates the latest technology and processing software and still remains true to the sound.

The Sunfire TGIV (Theater Grand IV) packaging has changed very little from the prior model, the TGIII. It is 17 inches wide, five-and-three-quarters inches high, 16.5 inches deep and weighs 24 pounds. The TGIV retains the charcoal gray anodized faceplate, chassis, and top cover. The faceplate has a horizontal linear grained texture that continues to the top cover for a uniform look. This styling has been with the Sunfire products for a while and still looks relevant today. The radius corners give the TGIV a refined and unique presence that speaks of pride in brand recognition. The front panel controls are identical, sporting the same bright orange buttons. The exception is an elliptical shape to the display recess that frames the familiar blue characters, as opposed to a rectangular one on the TGIII.

Looking at the back panel you’ll find it also remains similar. To connect to various high-definition sources, there are three 100MHz+ HDTV compatible high-bandwidth component video inputs, and two component video outputs. Six audio/video inputs, with composite video, S-video and audio, and three composite video, S-video and audio outputs gives you plenty of connectivity, and a new feature allows the ability for video format conversion that automatically up-converts composite to S-video and S-Video to component video to keep you from having to change inputs on your TV. Eight channels of analog inputs are provided for connecting a DVD-Audio or SACD player. There are six coaxial (S/PDIF) and four optical digital connections with a single coaxial and optical output, providing the ability to send a direct digital signal, whether it is 5.1 or analog, to a CD burner or a PC if you choose. Need more than one subwoofer? The TGIV gives you the ability to run four. Do you like Firewire? The TGIV has an IEEE-1394 port.

Although the TGIV has their proprietary “side axis” channels, which are matrixed from the front left and right channels that work in two-channel as well as surround. I’m not sure how many people will actually use this feature, especially when only a small percentage of users actually take advantage of 7.1. The cost of more speakers, amps and cabling often makes the monetary decision an easy one. Sunfire keeps things simple and cost-effective in comparison to other high-end AV preamps.

Thoughtfully, the Sunfire TGIV has separate high-c
urrent trigger and infrared outputs for both zones. Sunfire also includes, much to my delight, balanced outputs for the main 7.1 channels of the processor. This robust interconnect exceeds the performance of RCA interconnects with their inherent noise cancellation.

Gizmos and Gadgets
The confusing formats for decoding movie and music seems to have settled down, so it is a little more clear-cut as to what to get when you’re shopping for a preamp/processor. Both DTS and Dolby Digital appear to be happy with their architecture, whether it is Dolby Digital EX or DTS ES, for up to eight channels of discrete information. The changes the buyer needs to be aware of mainly center on playback of older, two-channel material. The TGIV incorporates both DTS Neo 6 and the newer Dolby Digital Pro Logic IIx. Both provide matrix 5.1 and 6.1 playback of two-channel source material, such as VHS tapes, cassettes, CDs and, in the case of the Theater Grand IV, vinyl. These decoding options give the user probably more than he or she will ever use to create satisfying multi-channel playback from older libraries of movies and music.

Yes, I did mention vinyl. The TGIV has a moving magnet
phono stage, which is a peculiar feature on today’s preamp/processors. Who plays vinyl? Well, I can now, with the TGIV. I’ve ignored my 300+ album collection, which has been sitting in the closet over the years, due to the fact that I didn’t want to spend the cash it would require to get analog to sound better than my digital rig, because if it didn’t sound better than CD, what was the point? Well, the point is I have a lot of records that may never be released on DVD-Audio, SACD, or even CD, and I like them. And also I’ve relaxed my outlook a bit when it comes to vinyl playback, especially when a phono stage comes along that is already a part of another component. At that point, you have to ask yourself, “Why not?” So I did.

The TGIV sports a 40-preset station AM/FM tuner section, with Sunfire’s Dynamic Tuner Noise Reduction to help bring in those weak FM stations. The dual zone capability allows a separate set of speakers and an amplifier to utilize the components hooked up to the TGIV, independent of what is playing on the TGIV. This i
s a good way to leverage your equipment, provided it is easy to get a pair of RCA interconnects to the second zone.

The TGIV has digital bass management with crossover frequencies of 40 to 160Hz at 10Hz increments, which was adequate for my situation. My biggest gripe is with the bass management and the fact that there is no bass management when in direct analog mode. However, Enhanced Bass mode will output a signal to your subwoofer when listening to two-channel source material, as long as your main speakers are set to large. That would force you to make adjustments at the subwoofer, which is not very desirable, but it is doable. Most other products at this level suffer from the same malady.

At the heart of the TGIV are a 24-bit A-to-D converter and 24-bit/192kHz multi-bit D-to-A converters take full advantage of all of the high-resolution formats you’re liable to run across. This is a very flexible set-up.

A nice feature is the auto signal input switching mode that turn
s the unit on when presented with a signal source, automatically selecting the source and surround mode. I like the idea of the system being smart enough to switch to the correct source. The problem with the TGIV is, if you are using a universal player like my Denon DV2900, the TGIV does not sense the frequency of the digital stream to know what format is being played. I had to manually change the TGIV to the right input for DVD-Audio and SACD, as well as CD, to get the right processing.

The remote is a strong point on the Sunfire TGIV. The look, feel and layout of the remote control compliments the other aspects of the TGIV. The control, made by Universal Remote, is basically a re-branded TheaterMaster. One of the biggest snafus many manufacturers repeatedly fail to recognize is the backlighting on the remote. If you are running a front projection set-up like I am, turning the light on to view the remote kills the movie-going experience. How else are you expected to know where all of the functions for their powerful preamp/processors are if there are no backlighting options? Brail? The Sunfire remote is one of the better ones in this respect. A cool blue backlight allows the user to easily see all of the remote functions with the push of a button that is conveniently by itself on the right side of the body of the remote. The light remains on approximately 10 seconds, then shuts off. Sunfire also did a nice job with the manual, explaining every function very clearly. Using the pre-programmed codes, I was able to get my Denon player working in less than a minute. The three macro buttons allow customization of your system. It can learn commands from other remotes and can also control up to 10 different components.

Set-up
The rest of the system set-up is very straightforward – possibly the easiest of any AV preamp on the market today. The hardest part about setting up the Sunfire Theater Grand IV is sorting out all of the connections on the back panel, but any AV preamp has that issue. I had absolutely zero problems integrating the TGIV into my system. Once all of the components were plugged in, I turned on the power and checked each of them to make sure that they were communicating properly with TGIV. Then I pressed the Menu button on the remote, which brought up the onscreen display to access the functions of the system set-up. I ran the TGIV in balanced mode with Cardas Golden Cross two-meter balanced interconnects and the eight analog inputs. For DVD-Audio/SACD, I used Cardas Golden Cross two-meter RCA interconnects. I followed the quick start guide to see how well this worked.

Starting off from the main menu allows you to access speaker settings and the modes you want to set up for Dolby Digital and DTS playback, like the output level adjustment to level match all of your components or the speaker configuration you want to use for that component and the DSP for that component if so desired. In the settings menu, you can set up all of your speaker’s parameters, such as size, distance adjustments within one inch and level match in .5 dB increments, which is an improvement over the 1 dB increments that the TGIII gave you. As mentioned earlier, 40Hz to 160Hz crossover adjustments are made with 10Hz graduation. This I did first, setting up the correct distances, crossover frequencies and speaker size. Then I level matched all of my speakers, using a Radio Shack analog SPL meter.

There is a fine level adjustment you can do outside of the set-up menu called Trim adjustments. It lets you fine-tune the speaker and subwoofer output levels on the fly for fine-tuning your system after the initial level matching is done for a total of +10dB to –20dB of adjustment. After that was done, I then went back and adjusted the level for each component that was hooked up to the TGIV. If you want, there is a tone setting, allowing for bass and treble adjustment. However, I’m not a big fan of this.

Music and Movies
I started with a CD to baseline the TGIV. Peter Gabriel’s So (Geffen Records) was chosen because I also have the re-mastered to SACD version and I wanted to compare the CD version in standard stereo mode, direct mode and Neo 6 mode, then do the same with the SACD version, and note the differences.

In stereo mode, “Mercy Street” didn’t sound bad, yet it didn’t sound great, either. It was a bit flat and uninvolving. The bass line and organ lacked the resonance and timbre I’ve heard on my reference Audio Research LS2B MKII stereo preamp. In direct mode, it was a lot different, for the better. The dynamics and transients came out of hiding, while most of the warmth, resonance and timbre returned. Gabriel’s voice was more accurately located in the soundstage, whereas in stereo mode, his voice was less fleshed out. The cymbals also benefited with more sparkle and shimmer.

I was mildly surprised when I played the CD in Dolby Digital Pro Logic IIx and DTS Neo 6. I’m not always a fan of these formats, but they did a reasonable job converting the two-channel information to multi-channel surround. The sound quality was about the same as the stereo mode. I could see using this to wow the natives at a party or function, but for serious listening, I personally would not use it.

The SACD version was a whole new ball game. The TGIV delivered “Mercy Street” in a new perspective and basically destroyed the CD version. The textures and tones become more three-dimensional. The sibilance and breathy quality of Gabriel’s vocals are mesmerizing. I would compare it to changing from standard NTSC television broadcasts to HDTV. The TGIV was able to handle all of the information required to pull this delivery off in an effortless way, so that you want to hear more. I guess that is the point, eh?

Todd Rundgren’s Liars (Silverline Records) DVD-Audio was next on my hit list. I really like “Sweet.” The tune starts off with bongos and a seesaw bass line that sounds as if he is playing in a large space. The space allowed the instruments to sound set back behind the front speakers, defining the depth and ambience of the recording. An underlying organ fill that I had heard on other set-ups became its own well-defined entity, along with other elements of the song that wove in and out with clearly defined paths. The air around the vocals and instruments were more apparent with the TGIV than I’ve heard with other preamp/processors, such as the soon to be discontinued Classe SSP30 MKII. The Classe sounded a bit more electronic, but faired better in high frequency definition. The TGIV sounded warmer, with better midrange presentation, layering and a more relaxed presentation.

I wanted to get a feel for female vocals so I turned to Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions (DTS Entertainment). This recording was done in DTS ES and sounds great. “Riverwide” with Crow’s acoustic guitar and adds vocals as the song progresses. I could hear the body of the guitar resonate as she slid her fingers up and down the strings. I hadn’t heard this quite to this level prior to the TGIV being in my system. The decay of the notes did not sound edgy or clipped, the way I’ve heard on a good receiver I have been using, the B&K AVR 307. The B&K tended to truncate the natural decline of a note prematurely, whereas the TGIV sustained this effect in a way that makes it sound live. Crow’s voice was laser focused in between the front main speakers and was warm and detailed, capturing the nuance of her vocal style and providing a compelling reason to sit down and listen.

Nightcrawler’s antics in the beginning of “X2: X-Men United” (20th Century Fox) seemed like a good place to test the TGIV’s ability to hand off information from speaker to speaker. If you remember, Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) is a teleporting mutant who wants to give the president a message to leave the mutants alone, and do this in a most unique way. The noise he made when he disappeared and re-appeared in another place traveled all around me, giving the impression that he was flitting around the room. But the source started off in one speaker and traveled to the next in a way that allowed you to easily trace the movement. I’ve previously heard this effect sound as if he was at one speaker, then the next, without the audible transition on other gear. The TGIV allowed me to hear the transition as well. When the shooting started in the Oval Office, the TGIV gave a rousing dynamic rendition of bullets hitting objects, shells hitting the floor and Nightcrawler transporting hither and yon. The TGIV did a good job of keeping all of this information from merging into just a lot of noise. Pretty impressive. The cathedral scene where Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Storm (Halle Berry) were trying to trap Nightcrawler had some interesting effects where he was transporting like crazy trying to scare them off. The reverberation in the big cathedral was taking the transport effect and adding a holographic resonance to it. The TGIV played the subtle aspects of this nicely.

I wanted to stretch the legs of the TGIV, so I chose “Saving Private Ryan” (DreamWorks Home Entertainment). This DVD has been my reference for many aspects of sound reproduction, from subtle and discreet to dynamic and in-your-face sound reproduction. This movie is not for the faint-of-heart, as is depicted in the Omaha Beach landing. From the first bullets striking the amphibious boats and the solders in them, you couldn’t help wanting to duck and run. Whether it was ricochets or mortar explosions, it didn’t seem to matter much what you threw at the TGIV. Its ability to sort out the cacophony of sound and keep it coherent was never more apparent than when Tom Hanks’ character is making his way from the beach to the rally point further inland. Bullets plinking off of the steel structures he was hiding behind made me blink. The leading edge transients cut through you as the bullet whined away, to be followed by explosions and screaming. The music soundtrack also sounded rich and detailed, underscoring and adding detailed effect to the action.

The Downside
As I mentioned earlier in the review, there are a few things that didn’t appear to add to the benefit of owning the Theater Grand IV. One was the inclusion of one IEEE-1394 Firewire port. This has dubious use for anything other than maybe updating the software in the TGIV, which already has the ability to do that via a CD. I would have preferred HDMI and DVI video-switching, but in Sunfire’s defense, HDMI was likely not the format du jour when they were working up the TGIV. Nevertheless, having digital video-switching would make an easy to use AV preamp even easier to use. Now you’ve got to hope your HDTV has enough inputs for your HD-DVR, D-VHS and other HD sources. If not, you’ll need a switcher or you can run your HD sources through the TGIV via component video without noticeable video degradation.

The lack of bass management when you’re in direct analog mode for DVD-Audio and SACD is still an issue, but the TGIV isn’t the only product that lacks this ability.

The OSD is mandatory if you want to make configuration changes to the TGIV. The display on the front panel will give you an idea of where you are at in the menu structure, but some words are abbreviated and I soon became lost without the ability to see the OSD. And it would be nice if you could call up the OSD while watching a movie and have it overlay the image. A small LCD screen in your rack can help alleviate this problem at a few hundred dollars’ cost.

The TGIV component-sensing feature didn’t work for me as well as I thought it would. It would sense my Denon universal player, but could not tell the difference between CD, DVD-Audio or SACD, which I had to manually select. Also, it would not sense my turntable, which leads me to believe that the TGIV will only respond to a digital signal.

Conclusion
The level of performance that the TGIV gives its owner is staggering. The sonic characteristics alone are worth the price of admission. The TGIV’s transparent music presentation and neutrality will win over even a jaded audiophile, and to get this performance with movie soundtracks puts the TGIV up at the top of its peer group. The fact that it decodes all of the current formats and is easy to set up speaks leagues about the engineering involved to make a product interact with the user in this way. The remote gives you a nice interface for interacting with your TGIV, with a nice look and feel that gives the owner a feeling that the money was well spent. Despite the few issues I mentioned earlier, like the lack of bass management for DVD-Audio and SACD, the OSD requirement, component sensing and the side axis channels, the TGIV performed very well and was a snap to integrate into my system.

The real endorsement for the Sunfire TGIV comes from dealers who sell not just Sunfire but other more high-end brands of AV preamps. While the Sunfire can cut it with the big boys in terms of audio chops, it is Sunfire’s reliability that makes it the installer’s choice. The TGIV is a rock solid, great-sounding AV preamp that can hang with the best of the best for a fraction of the cost. Mark another one up for Bob Carver – this preamp rocks.

The current MSRP for the Sunfire Theater Grand IV is $4000.
Manufacturer Sunfire
Model Theater Grand IV AV Preamplifier/Processor
Reviewer Tim Hart





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