Sunfire Theater Grand Processor III 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Thomas Garcia   
Friday, 01 November 2002

In the ever-changing home entertainment industry, it has become increasingly difficult for entry-level consumers and high-level enthusiasts alike to keep pace with the rapid development of new technologies and the changes that are ushered in by these advances. Nowhere is this more evident than with the audio/video preamp/processor.

With continually changing formats and encoding schemes, it is all too easy to find that your new piece of equipment is outdated a relatively short time after you purchase it. There will always be innovative new speaker systems being released and impressive power amps appearing on a regular basis. But in the grand scheme of things, you can get by for quite a while if you choose wisely and invest in quality loudspeakers and amplifiers in the beginning. However, if your processor can’t decode the newest formats or take advantage of the latest algorithms and surround processing techniques, you may spend more time regretting your purchase than enjoying your system. So an ideal preamp/processor is either so inexpensive that you don’t care if it becomes outdated soon (you could always use it in another room), or has all the latest features with the ability to be updated for the foreseeable future. The latter is far more desirable for individuals in pursuit of the best that current and future technology has to offer.

Considering those options, Sunfire has released their third-generation audio/video processor/tuner, aptly named the Theater Grand III (TG III). The Sunfire TG III is an admirable and truly versatile 24-bit - 192 kHz theater processor, designed to provide today’s user with the ability to take full advantage of current and future technology. It’s undeniable that Bob Carver has always provided a high level of performance, features and value for the consumer’s dollar. At a price of $3,495, the Sunfire TG III is no exception. This well-appointed component incorporates the most current processing modes, including 7.1 Channel Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX, DTS, DTS-ES, DTS Neo:6 and Dolby Pro-Logic II.

Packaged in a rather sleek enclosure with a soft-brushed finish, the TG III is quite attractive, its color bordering between charcoal and black. With its rounded edges, countersunk volume and input selector knobs, and faint colored labeling, the Sunfire Theater Grand III has a very unassuming yet elegant look when in the off position. Powered on, you are greeted with a cobalt blue processor display window and an array of tangerine-colored control buttons and various logos. The TG III is available in two sizes, depending on your space or decor requirements. The standard model dimensions are 19 inches wide and 6.5 inches high by 15.75 inches deep, weighing 24 pounds, while the Architect’s Choice(reviewed here) measures in at 17 inches wide, 5.75 inches high and 16.5 inches deep, weighing 22 pounds.

The TG III is very accommodating when it comes to equipment connectivity. There are six audio/video inputs with S-video and composite video, and three audio/video outputs, also with audio, S-video and composite video, three component video inputs, and two component video outputs for connecting various high-definition sources. In addition, eight channels of analog inputs are provided for connecting a DVD-Audio or SACD player. Digital connections are handled by six coaxial and four optical connections with a single coaxial and optical output, enabling you to output a digital feed of any source, including analog and down-mixed 5.1 sources. The latter feature will allow the processor to send a digital stream to a CD burner or computer. Sunfire also includes balanced outputs for the primary 7.1 channels of the processor.

Setting up the TG III was amazingly easy. I was able to completely rewire my entire home theater system from scratch in about one hour, and my system worked flawlessly the first time. That is no small feat. The inputs have dedicated digital connections, so there is no need to assign digital connectors to the inputs and keep track of them. As far as usage, a component as flexible and feature-laden as the TGIII is can be somewhat complex to operate. However, with the intuitive menu structure, front panel and remote control layouts, and the onscreen display (OSD), operating the TG III became second nature in a relatively short period of time. I did have a problem with the legibility of the front panel labels, and I wish the OSD could be configured to appear on top of the source video rather than defeating it. Perhaps it is possible to configure the TGIII to do this, but I have not figured out how yet

The TGIII is probably the most "future-proof," versatile processor I have come across. Software updates are possible via the RS232 connection. IEEE-1394 (Firewire) is also provided for future multi-channel AV formats once a standard is adopted by the major record labels and or the Hollywood movie studios. The 100 MHz + HDTV compatible component video inputs ensure quality switching for the new higher-resolution video formats. One of the coolest and cleverest features is the ability to upgrade the firmware implemented by simply playing a CD. I upgraded my TGIII in less than five minutes using an included update CD -- very easy, convenient and foolproof. Sunfire even includes background music for your entertainment during the process (Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries," in my case), a very thoughtful touch.

In addition to the surround processing modes, the TG III is loaded with many other unique and very useful features. Bob Carver's Holographic Imaging has been a staple feature that has been utilized by each of his successive companies. In a more refined version, the Holographic function can provide interesting and at times pleasing effects -- as always it will be source-dependent.

A moving magnet phono input is a very nice touch, especially for those such as myself who still have a large LP collection with recordings that will most likely never be re-released on any digital format. Multiple subwoofer users will enjoy the four subwoofer outputs, eliminating the need for the use of Y jacks. The all-digital bass management on the TGIII is very flexible, with adjustable crossover frequencies in 10 Hz increments between 40 and 160 Hz. A potentially exciting feature that I unfortunately have not yet checked out thoroughly is the exclusive side axis output, designed to provide a more enveloping 9.1 surround sound. The tuner features Bob Carver’s Dynamic Tuner Noise Reduction circuit to improve weak signals from distant FM stations, as well as 40 station presets. Similar to most other preamp processors, the TG III has independent second zone audio-only outputs available. Finally, the optional auto signal input switching mode turns the unit on when presented with a signal source, automatically selecting the source and surround mode. This is great for those technically challenged members of your family who want to just slap in a DVD or CD and have it all start up properly. The feel, functionality and layout of the remote control are pretty strong. It’s basically a re-branded TheaterMaster by Universal Remote Control. As with most multi-function remote controls, this has menus to navigate and TG III offers them in a fairly intuitive way. As always, I recommend reading the manual first to get the most out of this or any processor. Fortunately, Sunfire has done a great job of making the manual easy to read. The remote can learn the commands from other remote controls and has the ability to operate up to 10 different components. It also comes pre-programmed with control codes for a wide variety of audio and video equipment.

I started auditioning DVD-Video material with director Peter Jackson’s sonic and visual blockbuster, "Lord of the Rings" (New Line Home Entertainment). The beautiful themes and brooding score from Howard Shore’s award-winning soundtrack were exhilarating through the TG III, while the startling sound effects and unbelievable subterranean bass plastered me to my seat, making me gasp at times. With the TG III operating in 7.1, my system was used to great effect when Gandalf confronts the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-Dum in Chapter 30. My viewing room seemed truly cavernous, the special effects enveloping me in a positively convincing manner. Complex scenes such as the battle at Balin’s tomb were rendered with power, yet the smaller detail and intelligibility of the fight, such as the clangs of swords and spears, the swish of arrows, and the dialogue were still maintained. I felt truly immersed into the center of the maelstrom, finding myself bombarded and engaged from all directions. The dynamic capabilities of the Sunfire were impressive indeed throughout this entire movie.

Following was the intense true-life drama, "Black Hawk Down" (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment). In this film, director Ridley Scott collaborated with action producer Jerry Bruckheimer to bring the true story of the battle of Mogadishu that took place in early October of 1993. A military mission by U.S. Army Task Force Rangers and the Delta Force, intended to quickly capture and remove Somali warlords from the regime of Mohamed Farrah Aidid, soon developed into sheer terror and horror when the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters throws the entire operation into total turmoil. Visually, the movie was stunning and the sound effects were equally impressive. The explosions and gunfire placed me squarely in the midst of the battle, exactly as director Scott intended. As authentic as these effects sounded, they were surprisingly not over the top, always clean and unruffled, and never creating any sense of aural fatigue. The pinging of gunfire and the peripheral sound effects were extremely realistic, adding to the overall sense of involvement. In short, "Black Hawk Down" was an intensely moving, emotional experience that left me speechless after experiencing it through the TG III.

Next up was the DTS concert DVD, The Eagles - Hell Freezes Over (Image Entertainment). "Hotel California," the opening musical track off the 1994 Eagles reunion concert, offers a dazzling acoustical rearrangement of this '70s classic. The Sunfire displayed all the delicate detail of this acoustical number, particularly the subtle, crystal clear sound of the multiple guitars, and kept Don Henley's voice focused solidly up front. As the concert progressed, the Sunfire effortlessly delivered the power and dynamics of the latter electric tracks, culminating in the powerful trio of "Life In The Fast Lane," "In The City" and "Get Over It" (tracks 18 – 20). I was planning on just sampling a track here and there, but after a few minutes, I sat back and enjoyed the entire show.

Finally, I enlisted Stevie Ray Vaughan’s concert Live From Austin, Texas (Sony/Columbia) to evaluate the performance of Dolby Pro Logic II on the TG III. For the most part, the audio on this DVD is poor, with one exception. The disc finishes with a spellbinding studio recording and video collage track set to the music of Jimi Hendrix’s "Little Wing." Using Dolby Pro Logic II on this track made the sound more visceral and, at the same time, less aggressive than in two-channel-only format. Drums and cymbals on this were incredibly lifelike in size, weight and their physical placement through the TG III. Bass notes blossomed, yet were tight and controlled, creating a solid foundation and background for the rest of the instruments. The TG III seized the power and wrath of SRV’s guitar crescendos while effortlessly deciphering the dynamics and raw emotion that emanate from this masterful cut.

Steely Dan’s DVD-Audio version of Two Against Nature (Warner) was used to evaluate the TG III analog inputs for multi-channel sources, such as DVD-Audio and SACD. In general, this disc places you inside of the performance, with considerable direct information placed in the surrounds. "Jack of Speed" (Track 6) does not place you as obviously in the middle of the ensemble, but still displays the enveloping characteristics and higher resolution of DVD-Audio. The snap and shimmer of the percussion and bite of the brass were stunning and effortless without being overly bright or spitty. Moving down in frequency, the midrange was fluid and focused, while the powerful lower octaves anchored and balanced the presentation, allowing the rest of the music to float in three-dimensional space. As always, Steely Dan's studio recordings are meticulously produced and the Sunfire TG III captured all the distinctive nuances of this impressive recording.

I was greatly impressed with the TG III’s ability as a two-channel preamp. The TG III provides direct analog pass-through inputs, which bypass all DSP, tone and bass management circuits. Various sources were used to assess the TG III, including several average yet well-recorded 16-bit/44.1kHz CDs. I began with "Where To Now St. Peter," the sixth track off Elton John’s 1971 release, Tumbleweed Connection (Island). In this poignant tale about a man’s contemplation of his afterlife’s destiny, the TG III beautifully resolved the slow piano intro, then gracefully introduced the guitar during the first line of the song. The artistic elements and musical interweave of this song were fantastic, with the TG III conveying every nuance of emotion in Elton’s soaring vocals. On Track 2,"Come Down in Time," the TG III did a phenomenal job of layering vocals and instruments, positioning each singer front to back, leaving each instrument clearly occupying its own space. Overall, I found the TG III sonically equal to many two-channel-only preamps that I’ve recent used and would be completely satisfied using it for all my audio requirements.

The Downside
Though most functions will be accessed via the remote control, the limited contrast between the faceplate and selector labeling makes the TG III impossible to read in any environment other than a well-illuminated room. Additionally, the processor display window may be difficult to read from some listening positions. Sunfire also chose to forgo THX certification, therefore excluding any THX features, including THX Ultra II. The exclusion of bass management for multi-channel analog input continues to be a shortcoming for most processors on the market.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with the Sunfire TG III. This was the easiest processor to set up that I have experienced to date, and also the most intuitive to operate. Sonically, the TG III leaves nothing to be desired, comparing very favorably with any of the fine, competing processors at or well above its asking price. At times, I found it difficult to review the TG III, never wanting to interrupt my listening or viewing enjoyment of music, concert videos or movies to stop and take notes. The TG III is truly intoxicating and engaging, offering the user endless possibilities for achieving audio bliss. The sonic signature of the TG III remained extremely neutral, always sounding dynamic and effortless, without creating any sign of fatigue. I could listen to my system with the TG III as the centerpiece all day long, and as a matter of fact I often did. Add in the extensive, unique features set, the very nice remote, and the clever and foolproof upgradeability, and you have a slam-dunk recommendation. I will punctuate my endorsement of the Sunfire TG III even more poignantly by writing a check to make my review unit part of my reference system.
Manufacturer Sunfire
Model Theater Grand Processor III
Reviewer Tom Garcia

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