Sunfire Ultimate II AV Receiver Page 2
Well-recorded 2-channel music CDs played in Source Direct mode produced impressively solid, 3-dimensional images, with perhaps not quite as much air and sparkle as some other top-shelf receivers. Switching to Carver's Holographic Image circuitry produced a wider stage, and even greater image and soundstage dimensionality, but at the expense of some transient snap and overall transparency.
The MM phono stage proved to be more than just a cheap afterthought, driven by a ClearAudio Aureum Wood Classic cartridge fitted to a ClearAudio Emotion turntable with Satisfy arm that I was reviewing downstairs for Stereophile. The phono input was quiet, fairly dynamic, and smooth, but not surprisingly, it couldn't compete with the liquid performance of the $700 Gram Slee Era Gold phono preamp run into an aux input.
Norah Jones Live in New Orleans (Blue Note 72434 90427 9 7), a well-recorded music DVD, was one of the first Dolby Digital 5.1-channel discs I played. Recorded live at the House of Blues in August of 2002, the disc offers an intimate sonic portrait of Jones and her group playing before an appreciative audience. If you're not a fan, this won't make you one, but if you dig her breezy, understated sensuality, adding video imagery goes a long way toward explaining both her appeal and her technique.
The Ultimate II receiver produced a richly drawn, coherent, somewhat compact 3-dimensional picture, with Lee Alexander's bass having a nice balance of warmth and articulation, while Jones's piano had a pleasingly percussive yet woody quality. The sense of the room's space was nicely rendered and when the audience applauded, the sensation of sitting in the audience at the club watching the performance live was effectively delivered.
Switching to Dolby Digital and DTS movie DVDs produced no surprises. The Sunfire has power to spare and I didn't mind using it. I watched a bunch of stinkers, like the soulless and stupid Terminator 3 and the embarrassingly corny Bruce Almighty, but I also re-watched Seabiscuit, T2, Chicago, and scenes from a variety of other of my usual suspects played at high SPLs. Overall, the Ultimate II was a truly fine-sounding product that never sounded strained or edgy and most certainly never clipped. A D-VHS high-definition recording of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone taped off of HBO demonstrated that the unit's ability to move sounds around the room was as good as, but no better or worse than, any of the other top shelf receivers I've auditioned.
I can't say I heard anything that the Ultimate II did poorly, nor did it surprise me by revealing heretofore hidden musical or effects details. It just delivered the goods tonally and spatially as I expected. Bright discs sounded so, and that's what you want. If there was anything that stood out about the Ultimate II's sonic character, it was its midrange sweetness and overall tonal coherence. I've heard greater transparency and detail on top from Denon's 5803, and possibly better harmonic structure and overall musical delicacy from the Pioneer VSX-49TX, but I wouldn't say the differences were pronounced.
As for the various Dolby Pro Logic and DTS modes, they operated in a predictable manner and produced the same results as with other receivers. We now have a mature technology with mature chipsets from a variety of companies, and unless someone in the implementation department messes up big time, we should expect similar results.
When I compared the Ultimate II's sound with those of the Lexicon RV-8, driving Infinity's modestly priced but superb-sounding Beta home theater speaker system, it was clear that the far more expensive Lexicon's sonic performance was notably more transparent, 3-dimensional, and coherent. But consider the price difference. . .
The 100MHz component-video switching facilities passed HDTV signals seemingly transparently. It was only when I compared the output with the far more expensive and more sophisticated Linn Kisto preamp/processor (around $10,000) and the Lexicon RV-8 that I thought I detected a slight lessening of clarity, transparency, and detail, as well as the addition of a minor scrim of noise in the Sunfire's video switching. The Ultimate II's video upconversion worked as advertised.
Is the Sunfire Ultimate II the "ultimate" receiver? In terms of features and performance, I'd have to say no. It lacks THX certification and, more importantly, THX signal processing. It doesn't have the automatic setup features found in some Pioneer and other brands of AV receivers. There are other premium units with proprietary digital links for DVD-A and SACD playback. It has no HDMI or DVI switching. Other receivers have more sophisticated bass management and equalization features; the Ultimate II merely offers bass and treble, which for most users will suffice.
That said, despite the lack of auto setup, the Ultimate II was the ultimate in ease of setup and use in my receiver-reviewing experience—especially with the fully automatic signal-sensing feature. It's also the ultimate in terms of size, weight, and operating temperature despite its high output power. Finally, the instruction manual, though not perfect, is better than most and easy to read.
At around $5000, the Ultimate II is an expensive receiver, but its combination of high power, high performance, good looks, ease of use, and light weight make it one of the most attractive A/V receivers I have yet encountered. It's as easy to recommend as it was to listen to and use.
Highs and Lows
Powerful, cool-running, low-distortion amplifiers
outstanding pre-programmed/learning remote
no DVI/HDMI switching
component-video path less transparent than reference receiver