Sunfire Theater Grand Processor II 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Kim Wilson   
Thursday, 01 June 2000

Introduction
It’s fairly common practice for manufacturers to re-issue an existing model with additional features. However, it doesn’t always make for an interesting or more enlightened review. Fortunately, there are exceptions, such as Sunfire’s Theater Grand II. Perhaps what is most extraordinary about this upgrade is that the driving force behind the new version was Sunfire’s determination to extend the sonic performance well beyond that of the first-generation product. This is evidenced in the increased dynamic range and reduced noise floor that was a direct result of revisions made to the internal circuitry and board design.

Dolby Digital and DTS encoders, along with basic DSP modes, are essential elements to the $3,295 TG II, though it is two analog features that distinguishes this processor from the pack. The inclusion of an AM/FM tuner with 40 presets and a phono preamp is a rare find these days on high-end digital preamps. Moving forward technologically is fine, but Sunfire remembers that there are still a number of us with ties to older technologies.

A learning remote is included, offering a few more programming features than the last model. Up to eight components can be controlled via the remote. When any component is activated, a separate screen for that component is displayed. A macro function is provided for a single sequence of 10 learned functions, such as turning on all your components and playing movies. All changes are indicated on the large vacuum florescent panel with bright blue lettering, which is readable from across the room.

Rear Panel
When judging the merits of a product, the amount of inputs on today’s digital processors is equally as important as its sonic characteristics. Even if the unit sounds fabulous, when it can’t handle the component load of a typical home theater or accommodate future growth, it’s just not worth the money. That’s just one of the areas where this processor shines, because it accepts signals from up to six digital sources [one more than the original model], four analog audio devices and five A/V components. It provides outputs for up to four recording devices from standard VCRs to D-VHS to CDR.

The video portion of the five A/V inputs provides both S-Video and composite connections. The two component video inputs accommodate both a satellite system and a DVD player. This does mean that your DSS receiver will need to have a HDTV tuner, since there is not a third set of component inputs for a HDTV set-top box. Of course, the component outs go to a monitor/TV with corresponding component inputs.

All inputs are marked and assigned to a specific component. For instance, the component inputs are marked DBS and LD/DVD. Only the digital LD/DVD input is linked to the video input marked LD/DVD.

Six single-ended and six balanced XLR outputs [L,C,R,RS,LS, LFE] are provided for interconnecting the TG II to separate amplifiers. A new addition to this model is the DB-25 connector for direct connection [without a bundle of wires] to an external processor or DVD player that has its own processor. This 6-CH input can be assigned to any component, ostensibly including the input, using the external decoder. The TG II is one of a few such processors to feed the LFE track to more than one subwoofer - three, in fact, eliminating the need for "Y" adapters. The seven-axis output adds two side-channel speakers, which can be an advantage in a large room where there is quite a distance between the mains and the surrounds. The result is a more coherent 360-degree effect.

No processor would be complete without the RS-232 jack [DB-9] that connects to a computer or a sophisticated wired controller such as a PHAST or Crestron touch panel.

Evaluation
So how does a preamp that got an A+ rating from me a year ago get even better marks today? Well, it would seem that I didn’t leave enough room at the top for a better performance. I think the main difference is the TG II is just a better overall value, primarily due to the improved sonic characteristics that rival preamps I’ve reviewed for two to four times the price.

Cleaning up the internal pathways and consolidating all DSP functions on Motorola’s latest 24-bit Symphony processor, the interior of the TG II is just plain sparse compared to its older brother. Eliminating many of the long signal paths with a four-layer board design, it’s not surprising that this processor has a purer and cleaner sonic signature. Crosstalk between source devices is significantly reduced with the new input selector circuit, which contributed to the lowering of the noise floor. Utilizing Analog Devices top-end 1853 DACs, the TG II is now 24-bit/96kHz compatible. With some changes in the unit’s circuitry, these DACs are capable of attaining 192 kHz when and if such bandwidth is needed on DVD-audio or SACD sources. The usual assortment of digital surround and hall effect processes are a given, but with the power of this processor, where’s the HDCD circuit, guys?

There is a greater delicacy on acoustic instruments, such as Oscar Castro Neves’ guitar on "New Hope" from ‘Tropical Heat’ (JVC XRCD), that is much tighter than it was previously, with a more pronounced transient response. At the beginning of "Persuasion" from Patti Smith’s recent release ‘Gung Ho,’ the electric guitar has an abundance of reverb ala 1966 that is delivered with a huge stadium-like effect within the TG II’s wider and more open soundfield. Rock music is solid and clean and less dense in the mid-range when compared to the original unit.

Pulling out a single instrument in a piece of music and commenting on how it sounds is relatively easy, but what about a complex and multi-textured piece like "Release" from the second album by Afro Celt Sound System (Real World)? Demanding superior separation with an expandable soundfield, each layer of this track comes alive and has its own distinctive placement. Sinead O’Connor’s vocals are ethereal, rising into the heavens, effectively demonstrating the three-dimensional soundscape that projected well into the sides of the room without any help from proprietary Holographic Imaging or any other DSP effect. Overall, compared to the original model, this preamp sounds much lighter with a greater sense of air, allowing instruments to breathe in their own designated space.

Five-channel speaker calibration is simple and part of the extensive surround sound setup sequence that includes all bass management functions, surround and center channel time delays and speaker configuration. (The latter was handled by a set of toggle switches on the previous model.)

Getting that truly coherent 360-degree effect is dependent on the listener’s position in relation to the speakers and the timing on when sound reaches the listener from each speaker. In many cases, the listener’s position is pretty much determined by the room itself, so a processor must have adjustable delay time to ensure that the sound from each speaker arrives at the same time to the specified listening position. With the TG II, the surround delay can be adjusted from 0-15ms and the center channel adjustment range is 0-5ms. This coherence is critical for realistic surround sound. A good test of these parameters can be found on Chapter 10 of ‘Being John Malkovich’ (Universal). When Greg Schwartz (John Cusack) discovers a portal to Malkovich’s mind, the sound emanating from the tunnel is a deep, reverberant hum that fills the room. The hum is slightly muted when Greg is actually inside Malkovich’s body. However, it then takes on an "in-your head" effect, putting you inside Malkovich as well. This effect is wonderfully contrasted when the camera goes outside the body and the hum disappears completely. To ensure a smooth and even fusion of sound from the front to the rear speakers [and back], the time alignment and volume between channels must be set correctly. Otherwise, there is a disjointed feeling, rather than the desired sense of total immersion.

Multi-channel music is even less tolerant of imperfect time alignment. The beautiful DTS remix of Lyle Lovett’s "Joshua Judges Ruth" exhibits a smooth blend of all channels for a compelling binaural effect. The tightly focused center channel just pops the vocals in a manner that is impossible with stereo, no matter how great the imaging.

The increased dynamic range of the TG II becomes apparent on Chapter 14 of ‘The Mummy’ (Universal). The sandstorm created by this resurrected corpse with god-like powers is so intense and furious that I could practically taste the granules as the gale whipped around the room, bouncing from speaker to speaker. Translating the cinematic experience for the home environment, the TG II efficiently delivers those musical and sound effect punctuations with forceful and threatening impact.

Downside
The remote I received was essentially the same as the one that was included with the original Theater Grand. It wasn’t the most intuitive design, and moving from screen to screen got cumbersome and even confusing. Just before press time, I was informed by Sunfire that the remote they had sent with my TG II was being retired for a newly updated model that includes up to 12 macros with 10 sequences each, a far cry from the single macro available on my remote. I was also surprised that my remote didn’t have the ability to engage their proprietary Holographic Imaging circuit. It is my understanding that the newer remote will have that capability. Still, trying to A/B the circuit without it on the remote was a pain, and the non-processed soundfield was so terrific I didn’t even bother writing up test results on this version.

I found it awkward to use the front panel to make adjustments, due to the tiny round buttons and even tinier nomenclature, though the round recessed knob and giant vacuum florescent panel readout makes selecting inputs from the front panel a simple process.

While the TG II includes a tuner and phono stage, it does not provide a RF demodulator for playback of Dolby Digital-encoded laserdiscs. This is just another indication that laserdiscs really are dead - they didn’t even pass Sunfire’s litmus test that determines which of the older technologies deserve preservation for future use. Since there are few digital processors with this feature, excluding the demodulator doesn’t make this unit any less attractive or competitive. If you own a large laserdisc library, you just need to know that you’ll have to add an external demodulator.

Conclusion
Even with the release of the TG II, Sunfire’s engineers are not finished and plan to offer many more software and hardware changes, such as an improved onscreen display, enhanced bass management and many more DSP functions, including four-channel modes for music playback.

Sonically, this is a major improvement over the original model. Firmly placed in the middle ground of the high-end arena at $3,295, the TG II is positioned for that discriminating buyer who’s ready to spend a moderate amount of money on a preamp with all the trimmings. The Sunfire Theater Grand II is a real contender and belongs on your short list with its future-ready I/Os, continued inclusion of features that seem long forgotten and continuous upgrades to both the unit and the remote.

If you already have one of the original Theater Grands, don’t feel downhearted - there is an upgrade plan for you. An extra $1,000 plus a $25 shipping charge will get you a brand-new unit. Many of the currently planned upgrades will be free of charge to all TG II owners. However, future upgrades may incur a charge. Eventually, software changes will be downloadable off Sunfire’s website, but until then, they’ll just replace your unit.
Manufacturer Sunfire
Model Theater Grand Processor II
Reviewer Kim Wilson





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