Sunfire Ultimate A/V Receiver
It's funny to me that so many people try to convince you that the high end is a relatively insignificant factor in the grand scheme of all things audio. Admittedly, if you put the sales figures of one large, mass-market manufacturer next to those of even several high-end manufacturers combined, the former will dwarf the latter every time. But when has audio ever been about sales figures? I certainly don't have space here to elaborate on everything that high-end audio companies do for the middle and lower ends, both tangibly and intangibly. However, one of those benefits is particularly relevant here: the issue of perception. It's hard to overstate the significance of high-end manufacturers getting into the receiver business. Certainly, high-end manufacturers have raised the receiver bar in terms of performance, the quality of internal componentry, and features, but they've also had a tremendous impact on the way that people look at receivers, legitimizing a form that many people consider to be inherently compromised for the sake of convenience and price.
Sunfire's take on the legitimacy issue comes in the form of their Ultimate receiver, a model that appears to walk the tightrope between offering separates' performance and quality and a receiver's convenience and price. If you know Sunfire, you know that they've always been adept at maximizing space. Two prime examples are their big-watt but room-friendly powered subs and their Cinema 7 amplifier, which packs seven channels at a whopping 400 watts per channel into a box the size of a standard five-channel-times-120-watts model. Thus, it should come as no surprise that they've found a way to load the Ultimate receiver with features and connections but still find space for seven channels of power at 200 watts per channel into 8-ohm loads.
The features list starts with processing, and there's plenty of it. The full Dolby and DTS contingencies are represented, including Dolby Pro Logic II, Dolby EX, DTS ES, and DTS Neo:6. There are also a few DSP modes, but they're not your standard, tossed-in fare. You may be familiar with Sunfire's soundstage-boosting Holographic Imaging mode from some of their other processors. The Ultimate offers it in digital form, and it provides yet another interesting output option for two-channel material. The internals are impressive: a 24-bit Crystal Semiconductor analog-to-digital converter, 24-bit/192-kilohertz Analog Devices digital-to-analog converters, a 32-bit/20-megahertz control microprocessor, and a 24-bit/150-MIPS Motorola Symphony DSP. An AM/FM tuner with 40 presets is also aboard.
The quantity of connections would be impressive for a pre/pro and is more so for a receiver. There are no less than 10 digital audio inputs (four optical, six coaxial), plus both an optical and a coaxial digital output. There are nine stereo inputs (including a phono input) and seven outputs (including one for a second zone), an eight-channel input, and 10 channels of preouts (including three subwoofer outputs), along with a pair of side-axis outputs that you can use to complement the main channels. The amplifier channels get five-way binding posts, and you can dedicate two of the seven channels to surround-back channels, the side-axis channels, or zone two. Video gets three high-bandwidth component video inputs and two outputs, six each of S-video and composite inputs, and three each of S-video and composite outputs. Control connections include an IEEE 1394 (FireWire) jack, a two-way RS-232 port, two IR inputs, and three 12-volt triggers. The RS-232 port allows for valuable software-upgrade potential via Internet downloads and Flash memory updates, and the IEEE 1394 port only helps the future-proofing cause.
The remote is a good one: a hard-button/touchscreen hybrid that's essentially identical to the units that have shipped with recent Sunfire pre/pros. The touchscreen section gives you plenty of programmed options (including macro functions) and learning capability, while the essential controls are readily accessible via the permanent buttons below. The remote is your key to some tricks that aren't altogether common on receivers, like the adjustable crossover (40 to 160 hertz) and tweaks for the various surround modes. Between the remote, a good onscreen system, and a well-done manual, you should be up and running in very little time. To many receiver buyers, ease of use is as important as, if not more so than, performance. This unit scores highly in both areas.
Right out of the box, the Ultimate pleasantly surprised me with a warm, easy-going musicality that I still don't expect from receivers, no matter how high-end they may be. Unbiased as I try to be, I sometimes suspect that receivers will, among other things, create a false impression of resolution and dynamic range. There's none of that here. Naturally, the Ultimate doesn't offer quite the boundless soundstage and seemingly unlimited dynamics with two-channel mate-
rial as the Theater Grand III processor and Cinema 7 amp, but it's in the ballpark—and that's highly impressive for a receiver. Plenty of separates combos don't provide the TGPIII/Cinema 7's soundstage and dynamics, which helps to illustrate what the Ultimate is really capable of. Even with less-than-pristine material from 50 to 60 years ago—Muddy Waters' Chess collection and the Stanley Brothers' Columbia sessions—the Ultimate never lost its sense of control. High frequencies remained fluid and smooth, while what bass there is in this material got its due attention without being forced.
Midrange performance was rock-solid with two-channel material, but it was even better with high-resolution music. As well as the Ultimate handled Muddy Waters in 16/44.1, it was nothing compared with the sound it coaxed out of the SACD or 24/96 DAD release of Folk Singer. There are times when the first-rate slide-guitar work that dominates this disc can sound more like a mere conglomeration of metallic noises. With some extra resolution behind it through a quality system, the album sounds like the beautifully crafted, full-bodied, harmonically rich presentation that it really is. It was all the latter here. I've run this disc through every high-end receiver I've had my hands on over the last year or so, and this was the best I've heard it sound, hands down. In terms of warmth and musicality, receivers have come a long way recently, but the fact that these traits operate with such an obvious sense of power and soundstage behind them is what makes the Ultimate so unique in my experience with receivers thus far. Some are warm and smooth, while others are powerful and punchy. This is the only receiver I've found so far that's consistently and effortlessly both.
As much as the Ultimate fooled me into thinking I was listening to quality separates with music, I was ready to cut it a break in this regard with movies. While 200 watts per channel is an impressive power rating, we're talking about seven 200-watt channels that aren't just packed into a single chassis—they are packed into a single chassis that they must share with processing, signal routing, several inputs and outputs, and everything else a receiver offers. As it turns out, the Ultimate needed none of my charity. Neither the primary listening room at our studio nor my main room at home is large, and the Ultimate more than filled each room with every speaker system I connected it to (I most often used the midpriced B&W CDM NT system). This wasn't nearly as impressive from a soundstage perspective as what it did with my cavernous (and acoustically challenged) living room, complete with a 30-foot vaulted ceiling and enough square footage to humble the soundstage of many contenders. The Ultimate attacked this challenge, driving this unforgiving space with much of the same effortless character that it displayed in smaller rooms.
The most impressive part, though, is that the Ultimate did so without resorting to compression, sounding fatigued, or even getting much past lukewarm to the touch. Even with my Energy Veritas 2.4s, metallic sounds like the clashing swords of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were well controlled and noticeably free of spit or sizzle. Bass was no problem in this large space, either. Even without a sub, the Ultimate pulled enough SPL out of the Energy system to give this big room a good shake without boominess or overhang. I can think of more than a couple of separate, multichannel amplifiers that haven't fared as well from the top of the frequency range to the bottom in this environment.
There's no doubt that having a high-end manufacturer produce receivers does a lot of good for the genre. But when a high-end manufacturer makes a receiver that truly lives up to the standards that people have for these companies, it does a lot more. Even at the loftier price points, the competition in the receiver pool is stiff. I have a feeling, though, that the Ultimate receiver is going to hit this pool like a cannonball. It's well covered in all of the traditional areas that one looks for in a receiver: ease of use, features, and flexibility, to name a few. It also offers performance that you can't reasonably expect from just any receiver. I don't claim to have heard every high-end receiver on the market yet; however, judging from what I've heard so far, my search for a top-shelf receiver would start right here.
• Receiver convenience; separates sound
• Legitimate 200 watts per channel times seven
• Loaded with features and ready for more