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Sunfire Theater Grand Processor/AV Preamplifier Print E-mail
Monday, 01 February 1999
ImageAlong with both Dolby Digital and DTS decoders, the Theater Grand from Sunfire is the only high-end digital processor/preamp I've reviewed with a 40 preset AM/FM Tuner and phono stage. When you consider that the Sunfire offers many more features than many heralded (and ultra-expensive) processors, it may surprise you that its price tag is well below the competition at $2,995. Proof that it doesn't require a second mortgage (just a good credit line) to have a terrific sound system.

Interfacing Details
When it comes to I/O connections, the Theater Grand is extremely well equipped. There is a total of five digital inputs (5 coax, 2 Toslink) and nine analog audio inputs (including the five grouped with composite and S-video connectors). There are two pairs of component inputs and a single set of component outputs. This is smart. If you have both a DVD and a DSS, you'll need a switcher, since most TVs equipped with component inputs only have one set of connectors.

Balanced outputs (as well as single-ended) are provided for all six channels, not just the mains. The Theater Grand also offers an unprecedented option of three subwoofer outputs (all singled-ended) for incorporating multiple subs in a home theater setting. Connections are provided for external processors such as an EQ, and the RS-232 port facilitates the use of sophisticated controllers like Crestron and AMX. Two extra speakers can be added for an effect Sunfire calls Seven Axis, which derives a surround effect from the front channel signal, for a greater sense of envelopment.
Sometimes low-tech solutions are still the best. Are you using center, sub and surround speakers? Just flip the rear panel toggle switches to engage the speakers present in your system. It's that simple. There is no complex on-screen menu to configure speakers. In fact, there are no on-screen provisions at all; settings are displayed on the front panel's large LCD window.

Packed with an intelligent touch screen remote, you can program all your existing remotes into this compact controller.

While the Theater Grand acts as the central nervous system for a multi-channel home theater, it's still a hell of a preamp. As much as I thoroughly enjoy my multi-channel sources, I primarily listen to 2-channel. On occasion, I get nostalgic and sentimental and want to pull out some of my old LPs and the Sunfire makes that possible.

When using digital inputs, the DACs of the source device are bypassed in favor of the processor's DACs. While this prevents double processing, it also means that the quality of the processor's DACs is critical to the system's overall sound signature. Knowing this, Sunfire installed 20-bit DACs in the Theater Grand to ensure superior performance from all but the rare 24-bit/96kHz sources.

When a signal is detected, the input is switched automatically, as is the correct digital surround process. Even the DTS white noise that often creeps in at the beginning of a track is never audible with this processor. Just be careful not to give it two signals at once, or it gets confused.

Wide, natural imaging, an accurate tonal balance and crystal clarity are my key benchmarks for evaluating any preamp. The Theater Grand gets an A+ in all three.

Lorenna McKennitt's "Night Ride Across the Caucasus" from her successful Book of Secrets (Warner Bros.) exhibits a delicacy of execution with exquisite tonal accuracy from the guitars to the lilting vocals, all underscored by the subtle power of the rhythmic drums. In fact, if it's powerful dynamics you're after, try putting a Big Band in your living room. It's that realistic when I pop in Arturo Sandoval's "Hot House" (N2 Encoded Music) of big band Latin jazz tracks. Every note of Arturo's horn is sharp and crisp, projecting forward, rather than being confined to the limits of the speaker plane.

You'll discover how similar John William's score from the Death Star sequence in Star Wars is like Holst's Mars: the Bringer of War in this exciting 5.1 mix found on the latest DTS CD sampler. Now this is the way to listen to orchestral music: total immersion. The Truman Show (DVD, Dolby Digital, Paramount) isn't a big-budget blow-em-up, but the skillful and subtle use of music to set the emotional tone with unpretentious and realistic sound effects demonstrates the enormous advantage of discrete surround in any film.

In addition to Dolby's Pro Logic and Stereo 3 modes, there are three Hall effects, plus the inclusion of the exclusive Holographic Imaging, designed to improve stereo imagery. Oddly, the remote doesn't activate the effect, making it a challenging A/B. I rather like it on Natural Flow, a frenzied guitar duet from Strunz and Farah off their last release Wild Muse (Selva). The battling virtuosos appear in the far left and right for an interesting effect. However, on All the Way to Heaven from Melissa Etheridge's Your Little Secret (Island), her voice is lost in the expanse and the track lacks its usual tight, intimate feel. While the image is extended, it's also more diffuse. Forward radiating energy feels as if it's being sacrificed in favor of the wider soundfield.

The Downside
While it's future ready, the Theater Grand isn't completely backward compatible due to the omission of a RF demodulator. Now I can play LPs, but my Dolby Digital encoded Laserdiscs are collecting dust. You can find yourself a demodulator from a number of sources, but Sunfire isn't one of them. Convenient or not, one way for manufacturers to cut costs is to exclude the demodulator. With the diminishing supply of Laserdiscs in favor of the increasingly popular DVDs, it's likely that many folks purchasing the Theater Grand won't even miss this feature. Unfortunately, until I can replace on DVD some cherished Dolby Digital Laserdiscs like the newly enhanced Star Wars trilogy, Titanic and the X-Files movie, I still need a demodulator.

For my processor reviews, I use a CD with test tones along with a SPL meter to calibrate speaker levels. I was rather stunned that I couldn't do that with the Theater Grand. Generally, I don't use built-in tone generators because their cycling time is in 2-second increments, making it difficult for the SPL meter to get an accurate reading to ensure precision adjustments. The Theater Grand does continue emitting a tone in any given channel as long as the adjustment buttons are in use. It was still more cumbersome than my usual procedure, since I couldn't get a good reading before I had to start fine-tuning.

A lack of setup flexibility aside, the Theater Grand delivers features and first-rate sonic attributes that rival other processors that sell for two to three times its price. With digital inputs galore, balanced outputs on each channel, multiple digital surround decoders and automatic input switching, this processor is sure to deliver exemplary cinematic and musical performances for many years to come from DVD, DSS and HDTV sources.

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