Sunfire Theater Grand Processor V 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Ken Taraszka, MD   
Thursday, 01 March 2007

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. I pull out all the stops by fully decorating the house, buying enough candy to put a normally healthy adult into diabetic shock and generally reveling in the fun of dispensing goodies to those in need. It is possible Bob Carver felt the same emotions when he designed the Sunfire Theater Grand Processor 5. Available in a black or silver finish, the TGP-5 is designed to be the hub of a high-end, high-performance home theater, providing all the flexibility and connections you could need. Offering HDMI switching, video transcoding, an integrated AM/FM tuner, the ability to handle seemingly any surround sound format and direct stereo bypass for two-channel listening, as well as extensive options for controlling an independent second zone, few processors in the world of home theater offer what this one does, especially for its modest retail price of $3,499.

The TGP-5 provides both single-ended and balanced outputs for eight channels with the ability to control up to four subwoofers. It decodes 7.1-channel Dolby® Pro Logic® IIx, Dolby® Digital, Dolby® Digital EX, DTS®, DTS-ES®, DTS Neo:6® and Sunfire's exclusive side-axis outputs for 9.3 channels of total playback. It offers two-to-one HDMI switching, an AM/FM tuner with 40 presets and Bob Carver’s Dynamic Tuner Noise Reduction to improve clarity on weak radio signals, an eight-channel analog input, two analog stereo tape and one stereo coaxial digital out, tone controls, full-time two-channel digital down-mixing of multi-channel sources for tape recording and even a built-in high output MC phono section. It offers video transcoding of composite to S-Video and S-Video to component, Carver’s own Sonic Holography for enhanced soundstage, a Party mode that engages all speakers from any two-channel source and an independently controllable second zone. Also here are an Ethernet port that allows for software updates via Internet download, RS 232 control, 12-volt remote triggers and IR inputs for the second zone or for hiding the unit from sight. All these connections come fitted into a box 17 inches wide, five-and-three-quarter inches high and 16.5 inches deep, weighing 22 pounds.

Sunfire was kind enough to send me their new Theater Grand Processor 5 and the Theater Grand Amplifier TGA-7400 (review pending) to evaluate, and just like those kids at my door, I was salivating. I quickly went to work unpacking the processor and amp from their hefty boxes and high-density foam, carefully unwrapping the double plastic wrappers like they were fine candy. I gave a quick read of the manuals prior to tearing down and rebuilding my reference home theater. Sunfire changed their look from their former smooth rounded edges and brushed aluminum cases to a more traditional milled aluminum faceplate and steel chassis. The sides of the faceplate arc in, giving a slightly three-dimensional look to the front panel. While I was a big fan of the rounded edges on the prior versions, I was immediately impressed by the more grown-up look of the new gear. Gone are the flush-mounted volume and input selector knobs, replaced with more traditional controls. The front panel has also been rearranged from the prior versions. The LED display has been moved to the left side of the faceplate with the tuner and tone controls beneath it. On the right are the large volume and smaller input selector knobs. Signal lock indicators lie below with the audio mode; controls for the Sonic Holography, zone, panel dim and mute are above. The rear of the TG-5 is packed with six A/V inputs with stereo, S-Video and composite video, three matching sets of A/V outputs and three assignable component video ins and two outs. There are four optical and six coaxial digital inputs, stereo inputs for a high output moving coil phonograph, two loops for tape recorders, an eight-channel analog input, fixed and variable stereo outputs that can be used as a pass-through or to control the second zone’s amplifier, 12 single-ended outs for fronts, center, surrounds, surround backs and optional side axis speakers, as well as three subwoofer outputs. Additional sets of eight balanced outputs are present for the standard 7.1 outs. Two video-only HDMI inputs are present, as is one output. A coaxial digital output, multiple 12-volt triggers, an RS 232 port and Ethernet port are all here. Ground, antenna connectors, power switch and an IEC receptacle for the removable power cord finish off the back panel. Despite the large number of connections on this moderately-sized panel, all are well placed and easily accessible. I had no problem reaching them during my review.

Included with the TG-5 are the necessary power cord, FM and AM antennas, and a universal remote. The remote is the Home Theater Master MX-500, which is an excellent remote for controlling multiple components. It comes preprogrammed with the codes for most gear and is capable of learning IR codes if your devices aren’t in its extensive list. The remote came with the requisite four AAA batteries, but to my surprise, they were actual Duracell® batteries, not some generic brand. This might be a subtle point, but it has long bothered me to spend lots of money on new stereo gear only to find the cheapest batteries inside. I think Sunfire deserves a sincere thank you for paying attention to a small but appreciated detail here.

I said I like Halloween, but this one has been especially good to me. I got downsized from my position as an anesthesiologist, so I had some free time before starting a new job. The week of Halloween not only gave me my favorite Pagan ritual to celebrate and the start of that time off, but the arrival of all kinds of new gear. Transparent had just sent me a host of their Reference cables to demo and, the next day, the new Sunfire gear came. This was truly shaping up to be a great week.

I disassembled my home theater and rewired it with the TGP-5 and TGA-7400 with Transparent Reference cables to my Canton Vento speaker system (previously reviewed) and used my Teac Esoteric DV-50s, Toshiba HD-XA1 and Scientific Atlanta 8300 HD DVR as sources, all connected via their coaxial digital outs. The DV-50s also were connected via the 5.1 analog outs for SACD and DVD-Audio playback. Living in Florida, my power can be frighteningly bad, so all digital sources were connected to a dedicated 20 amp line via a Chang Lightspeed CLS HT 1000. The TGA 7400 had its own 20-amp circuit connected through a Chang Lightspeed CLS 9900 amp. Video was connected via the two HDMI ins and one out to my Samsung DLP rear-projection HDTV. I tested the video transcoding by connecting the TGP-5 to my display via the component output and connecting my DV-50s to the TGP-5 with the S-Video and then the composite video outputs. In all my tests of the video transcoding, video came through well and, to my eyes, it was just slightly brighter than either the native composite or S-Video when transcoded to component. A slight enhancement of color saturation, especially in the blues and reds, was subtle but appreciated. I didn’t see any degradation of image quality or sharpness, and the enhanced color and brightness was a welcome improvement. Had I needed to utilize the transcoding, I would welcome its convenience and feel it only further enhanced the flexibility and ease of use of this processor.

Once all the wiring was complete, I plugged everything in and powered it all up. High-end pre-processors can be frustrating to set up, to say the least. Assigning inputs and working through the set-up menus is often cumbersome and sometimes so difficult it should truly be left to those familiar with that particular unit. Sunfire breaks this mold; the Theater Grand Processor 5 is the easiest processor I have ever set up. You simply connect your sources to their labeled inputs and go. Speaker and further system set-up can be done on your display (though not via the HDMI output) or by using the front panel of the processor itself. As I mainly used the HDMI connection, I used the front panel for my initial set-up. I was able to maneuver through the menus without the manual, though this was easier when I used my display, as the front panel only has one line of text. I set all my speaker sizes to large, entered the distances to them in the allowed six-inch increments, calibrated their levels with a Radio Shack SPL meter and was ready to listen within a few minutes of wiring the system. I was glad to find no ghosts in this machine.

The TGP-5 can automatically select sources as they present a signal, which is a great feature, but I had to turn that off for the DVD, as it would default to the digital input while playing SACD and DVD-Audio discs, which I wanted to use with the eight-channel analog input. This was a simple fix and was the only glitch I encountered in my set-up. Otherwise, the processor worked just as I wanted. I wish all processors were this easy to set up. I let the whole system burn in for over 100 hundred hours, then replaced the Sunfire TGA 7400 with my reference Proceed HPA 2 and HPA 3 amplifiers to evaluate the processor’s performance.

Music And Movies
I first tested the Sunfire TGP-5 with Mission: Impossible III (Paramount Home Entertainment) on HD DVD, which impressed me. The TGP-5 was able to reproduce the subtlety of details and the ever-present background music, while easily handling the dynamics of guns and explosions throughout the movie. Voices were well-articulated and the helicopter scene demonstrated excellent transitions between speakers, while background music filled the room when the intense explosions and the deep bass rumble of chopper blades and turbines didn’t overpower the score. The effects when Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is held outside the flying jet shook my room, yet kept the sounds of the small items bouncing around the cabin distinct. The TGP-5 really made an exciting experience of this film. Video looked great when run through the TGP-5’s HDMI switcher, and to test it further, I compared the video run through the TGP-5 to the performance of running the HDMI output of my Toshiba HD-XA1 directly to my Samsung DLP and could see no difference. The TGP-5’s HDMI output retained all of the film’s beautifully saturated color palettes, as well as maintaining the appropriate amounts of texture and depth, in many of the film’s more historic locales. Skin tones looked natural with appropriate amounts of pop and sharpness, without becoming overly glossy in the way they can on some processors. The TGP-5’s HDMI switcher essentially takes itself out of the equation by passing the signal along with zero added and nothing taken away; more importantly, the TGP-5 had zero handshake issues with the infamous HD-XA1, allowing me to always enjoy the show instead of cursing it.

I so enjoyed the presence the Sunfire TGP-5 gave to the helicopters on this HD DVD that I moved on to Apocalypse Now Redux (Paramount Home Entertainment) to further test its abilities, and once again was impressed. The TGP-5 gave an enveloping surround field and seamless transitions. The rumble of arc light when Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) team meets the Air Cavalry shook the walls of my room. Helicopters flew around me while the subtle details of the dirt falling back to the ground from explosions remained. Later, in the interrogation scene, the chirping crickets came from all around me while Kurtz (Marlon Brando) scratching his head seemed so real; it felt as though I had just scratched my own stubble. Again, the TGP-5 rendered the video portion of the performance faithfully, with no signs of editorializing.

To test the TGP-5’s musical ability, I cued up Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral (Interscope Records) on SACD. Trent Reznor is known for making music out of chaos, so his albums can be difficult to reproduce. The ambient sound of “Piggy” pulled me into the music, the blowing wind was eerie and the drums kicked in with force. The final song of the album, and my favorite, “Hurt” makes for a great test of audio gear. The typical NIN bass is present, but the tamed-down vocals and guitars are contrasted with explosions of sound. The TGP-5 did a great job handling the loud passages as easily as the quiet ones and the intensity of the drums kept good separation from the quieter passages, while the wind flowed effortlessly and made for excellent reproduction of this song.

To test the TGP-5 on something a little softer, I moved on to the DVD-Audio disk of the Grateful Dead Workingman’s Dead (Rhino Records). Though I am not a huge Deadhead, I like this album, and they did a great job remixing it for DVD-Audio. During the opening track “Uncle John’s Band,” the echoes during the harmony were lifelike. Once again, the Sunfire gear easily handled the transitions. “Cumberland Blues” is my favorite song on this album, and the Sunfire TGP-5 did great justice to the fast and fun pace of it. The bouncing bass lines easily came through and I was able to distinguish the individual voices within the harmonies, while the guitar stayed off to the left of the soundstage.

On the title track of Yes’ classic Close to the Edge (Elektra), the bass shone, while the complexity of this piece was clearly reproduced and imaging was so good that I actually checked that my surrounds weren’t on. Bass was punchy and highs were sharp. “And You and I” had a smooth ease to the intro and individual notes remained clear, allowing the background to easily come through. As the rhythm of the song increased, nothing was lost, and the ringing bells seemed to chime from behind me. “Siberian Khatru” showed all the punch and liveliness it’s known for, while the vocals seemed to hover in the middle of my room.

The tuner section of the TGP-5 also performed very well, easily pulling in the more problematic stations in my area. The Dynamic Tuner Noise Reduction did a great job of lowering the noise floor of my Saturday afternoon radio sessions, making them even more enjoyable.

The Downside
I would like to see expansion of the HDMI switching to include at least three inputs – four would be ideal – and a second HDMI out for the second zone or complex systems that utilize both a plasma and projector. Having HDMI inputs that passed digital audio and video would have added to the ease of use and simplicity of set-up as well.

I loved the inclusion of balanced outputs, but would have liked a pair or two of balanced inputs as well. Video transcoding is a huge convenience for connecting various video sources to your display and the TGP-5 does it well, but I would have liked Sunfire to transcode video to the HDMI output, thereby allowing a single digital connection to my display, and to enable the use of the set-up menus via the HDMI output to make them easier to navigate.

The Sunfire Theater Grand Processor V provides amazing theater sound. It was able to clearly discern a wide range of dynamics and gave smooth transitions for an exceptional home theater experience, reproducing voices clearly through all my TV and movie use. It has a strong analog section, video transcoding, a powerful tuner, an independent second zone, a vast array of inputs and balanced and single-ended outputs with the ability to control up to four subwoofers, a great new look and abundant advanced control options for both the main and a secondary zone. Add in HDMI switching and even a high output MC phono input and you have the most versatile processor on the planet that even a home theater newbie could manage to set up solo.

The Sunfire Theater Grand Processor 5 is unquestionably the easiest preamp/processor I have ever used. From set-up to day-to-day use, you couldn’t ask for it to be simpler. The surround effects offered by this processor are a joy to listen to, and the video transcoding makes its use with older video sources a breeze, obviating the need for multiple connections to your display. I wish the video transcoding went to HDMI and that the set-up menus were output to this format, allowing a single digital video connection to your display with the use of set-up menus.

If you are in the market for a reasonably-priced home theater processor and tuner, want ease of use, loads of flexibility and future-proofing with HDMI switching, along with a strong analog section and excellent surround effects, you owe it to yourself to listen to the new Sunfire Theater Grand Processor 5. It comes full of treats, with no hidden tricks.
Manufacturer Sunfire
Model Theater Grand Processor V
Reviewer Ken Taraszka, M.D

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