Sunfire Ultimate AV Receiver II

by | Aug 1, 2005 | Component Reviews | 0 comments

 Sunfire Ultimate Receiver II

SRP: $4,995.00

Sunfire Corporation
1920 Bickford Ave.
Snohomish, WA 98290


Basic Description

7.1 channel 200W x 7 Digital Surround Receiver with DD EX, DTS ES, DPL
IIx, DTS Neo:6, Side Axis Holographic Imaging (9.1 w/ amp), Party Mode,
Source Direct two channel bypass, Auto Signal Sensing input and power
on, Two Zone Control w/ two channel rerouting for 5.1 + two channel
second zone, digital downmix capability for digital to analog recording
or Zone 2 output, 24-bit and 192kHz A/D conversion, video upconversion,
Six A/V inputs w/ composite and S-video, Two audio tape inputs and
outputs, three component inputs and two components outputs, four
optical digital inputs, six coaxial digital inputs, phono input, and
built-in AM/FM tuner, optical and coaxial digital outputs, RS-232
control, IR ins and outs, 12V triggers, eight channel input, 10 channel
preamplifier outputs (including three subwoofer outs), one fixed stereo
output, LCD Learning/Universal Remote Control with hard buttons, Flash
Memory upgradeable, Panel Dim (four levels including off), Treble and
Bass Tone Controls, black or silver finish.  Two year
warranty.  17” W x 5.75” H x 16.5” D, 32 pounds.

Equipment

Denon DVD3910 Universal Player, Musical Fidelity A308 CD player,
Monster HTS1000 Power Conditioner, Bowers & Wilkins 703, HTM7, 705,
ASW750 surround speaker system, Music Hall MMF-5 Turntable w/ Goldring
1012GX Cartridge, Audioquest, Linn, Monster Cable, and Revelation
cabling.

Setup and Options

The design of the Ultimate Receiver places a lot of importance on
simplicity.  This is evident even when connecting the source
components to the unit.  Instead of Video 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and
digital 3, 4, 5, 6, etc. there are labels like the old days (CD, DVD,
SAT, etc).  This makes figuring out which digital cable goes with
what source a piece of cake.  If you don’t intend to use a
satellite receiver for instance, you can always re-label it to indicate
you are using cable instead.

Because of the use of Bob Carver’s “tracking downconverter” (a design
element that eliminates much of the heavy power supply), the receiver
is much lighter weight than the big behemoth models that normally
occupy this price range.  Yet, in listening, you’d think there was
a much “bigger” amp behind the speakers.  Another advantage to
this design means elimination of heat vents on the top of the
unit.  There are some vents on the side, but you could put
something on top of the receiver or slide it into a compartment without
worry.

Some of the differences between the older Ultimate Receiver and the
newer model include video upconversion, and a newer chipset.  The
A/D converter is a 24-bit Crystal Semiconductor chip while the D/A
converter is a 24-bit 192 kHz Analog Devices component.  The
processing is handled by a 32-bit, 20 MHz microprocessor and a 24-bit,
150 MIPS Motorola Symphony DSP Processor.  Additional technology
includes Sonic Holography and a special FM noise reduction circuit.

The remote that comes with the unit is one of the Home Theater Master
remotes.  It is ergonomic and can be programmed to control your
entire system (10 components) with macros if you desire.  I only
used it to control the receiver and it worked easily and
effectively.  The manual is written simply and clearly and details
all of the functions and how they operate.  It should make a
master of those who take the time to read it thoroughly.

The on-screen menu is easy to navigate up/down and left/right. 
The speaker distance calibration lets you adjust placement to the
closest inch!  The crossover for the left, right, and center
speakers is adjustable in 10 Hz increments from 40-160.  These
only seem to function in the surround modes (or perhaps it was because
I set the speakers to large with the subwoofer off).  I almost
overlooked an important setting within the menus—the Enhanced Bass
option.  This allows you to listen to the subwoofer (in the stereo
mode) even if the main speakers are set to large.

There is a video delay adjustment that can compensate for the use of an
external video processor (and delay the audio to properly match up with
the video)—this is a highly useful feature.

FM Tuner Listening

I attached a dipole antenna to the receiver to take a listen to the FM
performance.  I’ve come to not expect all that much from modern
surround receivers in this department, but the Sunfire managed to
surprise me.  88.1 is a relatively hard station to receive and
some units can’t get it at all.  With some antenna fiddling, the
Ultimate Receiver had some noise in the background, but otherwise the
sound was impressive.  I tried a classical station (which is
usually less compressed than other stations) and a few rock
stations.  Strong stations came in well and the difference between
stations that were heavily compressed and those that were not was
audible.  

With an outside antenna my guess is this tuner would sound great. 
I wouldn’t be quick to add an external tuner unless radio is way up on
your list of sources.

Phono Listening

Normally I wouldn’t bother to listen to phono preamplifier sections in
A/V receivers, because normally they are a joke—an afterthought for
those who hook up cheap, plastic turntables to play beat up old
records.  I find myself listening to more vinyl than ever lately,
so I decided to give the Sunfire a try.  After listening to the
Music Hall table on what many would consider a lower-high end system, I
connected it to the Ultimate Receiver.

I started with Dave Grusin/Lee Ritenour’s Harlequin.  I put on
band one and two, “Harlequin (Arleqium)” and “Early A.M. Attitude”—a
tune that is played on lite jazz stations often.  The sound was
quick, slightly lightweight, but musical and less mushy and muddled
than I’m used to with this table.  Even with its limitations the
sound was so good it made me want to toss half my CDs in the trash.

Next, for fun, I put on ABC’s Lexicon of Love “The Look of Love (Part
One).”  I have to admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for
80s music and this track embodies the early part of that period as much
as any.  The disc was a little crackly, but was not bad.  I
don’t know what came over me, but I had a sudden urge to try some of
the surround modes—audiophiles try to stay with me.  Party mode
plays the same stereo sound through the surround speakers and brought
back all sorts of memories from Junior High dance parties with four big
speakers and parents watching over the partygoers like hawks.  At
least with this system the fidelity was much better.  

The jazz club setting produced too much reverberation even at the lower
settings for my taste although the Neo:6 mode was decent.  In
order to adjust the parameters for each mode, you have to go into the
setup menu of the receiver.  At first I felt the Dolby Pro-logic
II mode was inappropriate for music, but once I adjusted the controls I
got improved separation and sense of space.

One of the drawbacks of the Sunfire receiver became apparent while
making these adjustments.  When I set the Pro-logic mode to music,
standard, or movie, it would stay that way on all sources.  This
meant that if you wanted to use a particular mode with CDs and a
different mode for your VCR, then you’d have to go into the menu and
switch it each time.  That’s unfortunate.  Another thing I
discovered is that the Source Direct function that bypasses the tone
controls, digital processing, etc. is only available on analog
sources.  Audio purists who don’t want to simulate surround would
want to set this mode on and leave it that way for two-channel sources.
“Full Automatic Operation” (explained later in the DVD section) does
not activate with the turntable or tape input.


DVD Listening

Most people buy surround receivers to actually listen to surround
material—what a surprise!  Keeping this in mind meant selecting
some favorite DVDs and multichannel music to try.

I started with I Am Sam in DTS.  Although this disc isn’t heavy on
surround, the lovely covers of Beatles tunes and additional background
music is hard to ignore.  While other, lesser receivers produce
excellent sound that is often hard to criticize, when you hear a
soundtrack (or music) presented in such a way that is just right you
tend to sit up and take notice.  For those who believe that it is
impossible for a “receiver” to deliver audiophile sound…you’re in for a
big surprise.  There was no doubt that the Sunfire Ultimate
Receiver was delivering high-end sound—the kind of sound that reminds
you what it is you like about music in the first place.

Another disc I haven’t heard in a while was Lauryn Hill Unplugged in
DD.  One of the big knocks against receivers is lack of strong
power output.  Sure, there are tons of models that are rated 100
Wpc plus into 5, 7, 9 channels, etc.  But hook them up to real
speakers whose impedance can drop to four ohms (or below) and listen to
what happens—a jumbled, compressed, distorted mess.  The Sunfire
was able to deliver both music and video sound at a realistic level and
much louder.  Not that I wanted Lauryn’s guitar blaring, but on
peaks the dynamics were preserved without giving ground to low level
detail or impairing transient response.  Tonally the sound leans
towards warmth and has an attractive smooth quality.  That’s not
to say that you are losing out on high frequency performance, sense of
space, resolution, or focus.  I didn’t have a set of $10,000+ of
separates for comparison, but if I did, I bet the Sunfire would acquit
itself quite well.

At this point I checked for noise from the receiver and I heard a low
level hiss from the speakers (equally) that was not clearly discernible
from four feet away.  It seemed completely unaffected by volume,
so would appear to be the component’s noise floor.

Lastly, I tried another older DVD—the DTS track of Se7en Special
Edition.  I engaged the “Full Automatic Operation” feature on the
receiver to check it out.  Just by turning on a connected source
component, the Ultimate Receiver will turn on and switch to the most
recently activated input.  This can be turned off completely or by
individual source.  As soon as I started a DVD the video came on
and the sound switched as well.  This is a major focus of much of
Sunfire’s advertising and makes what might be a daunting purchase for
some an easy one.  

Back to the movie…This film has an aggressive surround mix that shifts
from scenes of extreme quiet to scenes full of sonic cacophony. 
This disc highlighted one of the characteristics of the Ultimate
Receiver related to its presentation.  Some components are
designed to bring out every last detail (hyper-detail) from the
media.  At first this is an eye opening experience, which can
later turn to listener fatigue—an uncomfortable listening experience
over long sessions.  Although I would not consider the Sunfire
soft or lacking in detail, its strengths lie in its ability to elicit
involvement and enjoyment in what is clearly not fatiguing
reproduction.

DVDA and SACD Multichannel Listening

I shifted my attention back to music and put on the DVDA disc of
Queen’s The Game.  One of my surround favorites on this disc is
track 3, “Another One Bites The Dust.”  The sound from this
material was even more impressive than was what previously heard with
the DVD material (as was expected).  I just kept wondering how
much better it would sound with a better source component.  I
tried the DTS ES 96/24 mix via a digital connection to the Sunfire, but
it wasn’t quite as good as the DVDA mix.  In any case it might be
a moot point—who knows what format the record companies/hardware
manufacturers will come up with next?

On the SACD side I tried Philip Bailey’s Soul Jazz, track 2, “Dear
Ruby.”  I’ve always been fond of this track even though there is
some background hiss and an extra little bit of crispness.  The
vocal harmonies are excellent as is the instrumentation—and there is a
wide variety of different instruments.  If anything, the Sunfire
made it a little more listenable than to what I was accustomed.

CD Listening

First on the CD hit list was Howie Day’s Stop All The World Now. 
With the Denon as a CD player via the analog outputs the performance
was good, but with the digital input into the Sunfire the sound was
better.  I’d expect that with better players this would be
opposite, and it all fairness I felt that anyone using the Sunfire
would most likely have a higher performance CD player.  Luckily, I
was able to borrow the Musical Fidelity A308.  After the switch I
noted how much more fleshed out the images were and the guitar was much
more natural.  Just take a listen to track five.

With track 1, “Is You Is, Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” from Diana Krall’s
Only Trust Your Heart disc I was struck by how silky smooth and clean
the sound was.  Diana’s voice was big and rich without
sibilance.  Dynamics were very good and horn was brilliant without
irritation, hardness, or compression.  It was easy to sit back,
relax, and let the disc spin.

I was checking for some older female jazz vocal tracks to listen for
midrange quality and overall sonics when I came across another example
of the Ultimate Receiver’s resolution abilities.  It was on
Atlantic Jazz Vocals Voice of Cool Volume 1 from track one to six to
nine to fourteen it was easy to discern the wide range of quality
difference in the various tracks (because they are from radically
different recordings).  This definitely reassured me that the
Sunfire was staying out of the way of the music and letting me hear
what was on the disc.  By the way, this two-disc set makes a great
casual Sunday afternoon listen.

Conclusion

It’s always hard to write a conclusion when there is an obvious flaw
with a product that will mean it can’t be recommended.  With the
Sunfire receiver I never had any serious trouble or found any fatal
flaws.  There’s no doubt that when you review more expensive
products you tend to hold them up to a more stringent review standard,
yet I’d have no trouble recommending this product to a close
friend.  Above all, it sounded great.  Sonically, it leaned
towards warmth, ease, smoothness, and a strong sense of power and
dynamics—a perfect combination of characteristics for movie
watching.  On music it was equally impressive.  It had a good
tuner section, a completely usable phono preamplifier, and aside from
the tonal qualities above, did very little to interfere with the
sound.  With the Ultimate Receiver the goal is not to extract
every last detail, but to make listening enjoyable and easy.

Setup was a breeze, and as for operation, in the case of the Sunfire,
less is more.  It is compact, runs cool, and the silver finish
makes it look as high end as it sounds.  If you plan to use it
only in a five channel configuration then you have 200 watts of power
to use to drive other speakers throughout the house.  If Sunfire
will let me keep it I’d gladly use it to drive the surround system in
my own home.  Recommended!

— Brian Bloom
big_brian_b@hotmail.com

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