Photos by Tony Cordoza
Naming your company's very first A/V receiver "Ultimate" is a pretty bold move, but Sunfire founder Bob Carver has never been the shy and retiring type. And with a full complement of flagship-receiver modes and features and a precedent-setting 200 watts x 7 channels of onboard amplification, Sunfire's Ultimate Receiver can justify its name in more ways than one (keeping in mind the literal meaning of the word "ultimate"). At $4,195, it could well be the last receiver you buy. Uncrating the Ultimate Receiver was a bit like welcoming back an old friend because its faceplate, controls, functions, and features essentially duplicate the Sunfire Theater Grand III preamplifier/tuner, which I tested for the November 2002 issue. In fact, the Ultimate Receiver combines a Theater Grand III with a seven-channel power amplifier in a single chassis, which can serve a 6.1-channel system having two back surround speakers or other combinations (more on this below).
Given its total rated output of some 1,400 watts, the Sunfire is astonishingly svelte and weighs in at just 32 pounds. The trick is an unusually efficient amplifier-Sunfire calls it a "tracking downconverter power amp"-that combines "smart" circuits with elements of switching-mode power supplies to eliminate a lot of the waste heat, and consequent bulk, of conventional amps. The Ultimate Receiver's front panel has two flush knobs for volume and source selection, a twinkling array of lighted mini pushbuttons, and some larger, unlit ones for almost everything else, plus a swath of blue LED indicators. Combine these with the central blue display and glowing Dolby and DTS logos, gently rounded corners, and high-grade anodized-aluminum metalwork, and you get a striking overall effect. The receiver has plenty of sexy allure for the moneyed home theater class but is businesslike enough to not offend gearheads like me.
The Ultimate Receiver has an up-to-the-minute rear panel. Our "key features" box spells out the details, but the high points include a total of ten digital audio inputs (and two outputs) as well as three wideband component-video inputs with unusual (but cool) dual outputs. There's also a FireWire digital port "for future expansion." The seven speaker-level outputs use solid multiway binding posts, and there are no fewer than 12 line-level outputs using RCA jacks. There are the eight you'd expect-seven main channels plus subwoofer-to duplicate the speaker-level outputs, as well as two additional subwoofer outputs running in parallel with the first one.
Sunfire calls the remaining two jacks side-axis outputs. These channels are intended for optional speakers located on the sides of the listening area, a little forward of the front left/ right pair, playing signals derived from the front L/R channels in stereo as well as surround modes. In a very thoughtful move, the back surround speaker outputs are multipurpose: alternatively, they can be set to drive side-axis speakers or to feed a stereo signal to remote speakers in the Ultimate Receiver's Zone 2, giving that remote room a no-additional-gear-required speaker output with independent volume control and source selection. Neat.
Setup was a snap. The receiver uses onscreen menus for both one-time setup calibrations and for day-to-day ops such as channel-level trims, surround-mode adjustments, and tone-control settings. The menus (not available via the component-video outputs, alas) are simple text lists, devoid of the graphics and animations some flagship receivers offer these days, but they're sensibly ordered and clear. I didn't use side-axis speakers, having determined with the Theater Grand III that my room doesn't benefit much from the front-side spread they lend to surround sound listening. But I think side-axis speakers could be a worthwhile addition in rooms longer or narrower than mine.
I won't beat around the bush: music played through Sunfire's Ultimate Receiver sounded great. I've always been a firm believer in big watts-not for playing louder, but for playing better. The 20-dB dynamic-range advantage that modern digital media hold over vinyl records legitimately demands more power than we needed back in those old analog days-specifically, one hundred times as much. Now, I'm not saying 1,000 watts per channel are required (though I wouldn't send them packing if they showed up on my doorstep). But there's no question in my mind that, all else being equal, more watts are better than fewer watts.
And there's no question that the Ultimate Receiver delivered a lot of real-world juice into my fairly power-hungry 6.1-channel speaker system. Even with all channels run full range, the Sunfire effortlessly kicked out the jams on recordings that demanded it. One of my regular reference discs is Telarc's Junior Wells DTS-encoded CD, Come On in This House. From the first 12 bars of the opening Arthur Crudup classic "That's Alright" (no, Elvis didn't write this one), I heard the kind of immediacy and drive that you only get from this music when it's played at actual Southside levels with full dynamics and clarity intact.
With this kind of power and top-shelf multichannel decoding, high-intensity cinema soundtracks were no sweat for the Sunfire. Star Wars-Episode I: The Phantom Menace certainly qualifies. The movie itself is laughable, but on the THX-certified DVD, the sound and vision spectaculars are, well, spectacular. Lucasfilm's audio effects-the famous pod-racing sequence, for example-are as good as movie sound gets, and the system reproduced them flawlessly. Even more impressive, if less obvious, was how lifelike the meticulously recorded John Williams score sounded. No matter how busy or dynamic the sound effects became, the music retained its full symphonic-stage breadth, depth, and detail.
The Ultimate Receiver's listening modes for two-channel recordings include Dolby Pro Logic II and DTS Neo:6, which should cover most needs. There's also a Party setting that simply copies stereo to all channels (or just some-it's configurable on a menu) for maximum coverage or volume when you have a house full of guests. Source Direct should appeal to minimalist-stereo buffs, as it directs analog stereo input from the selected source to the front L/R speakers, full-range, with no processing whatsoever. A bit curiously, there's also a lone, overly reverberant ambience mode for stereo sources: Jazz Club.
But the most interesting two-channel (and multichannel) ambience mode is Sunfire's Holographic Image, an update of one of Bob Carver's pet developments, Sonic Holography. The processing is designed to correct the cross-channel errors inherent in listening to two speakers with two ears. And the Ultimate Receiver's implementation worked remarkably well with clean, natural-acoustic recordings like Alvin Youngblood Hart's roots-music gem Territory. Seated in the sweet spot, I heard a dramatically deeper soundstage and more natural ambience from just two speakers, with far fewer of the tonal changes you get with the earlier, analog implementations of Carver's holographic processor.
Like any A/V master component, the Ultimate Receiver stands or falls on its remote control. This one is a version of the MX-500 Theater Master, a ten-component, LCD-equipped, preprogrammed/learning model from Universal Remote Control. I find it hard to be impartial about this remote because I've been using one in our family room for about a year and like it a lot. It's not perfect-there's no such thing as a perfect remote-but it covers nearly all the bases with reasonable compromises. Besides adequate key-spacing, readable labels, and excellent backlighting for all keys, there's a deep library of preprogrammed codes (and full learning ability for any missing ones), macro capability for creating one-touch keys to initiate a string of commands, and an intelligent "punch-through" scheme to keep the most often-needed controls (like volume) active even when you're operating another component (like a CD player).
Just as valuable is Sunfire's Full Auto mode. Even when the receiver is powered down, this circuit senses an incoming video or audio signal and automatically turns on the receiver, selecting the correct input. Simply put a DVD in the player and hit play. By the time the disc's menu loads up and hits the screen, the receiver is powered up and ready to go, with DVD selected and Dolby Digital engaged.
Overall I found a lot to like about Sunfire's Ultimate Receiver and very little to criticize. Its FM tuner delivered solid sound and reception, and even AM was above average. Every feature worked smoothly, silently, and as expected-and the result always sounded extremely good. You don't get the full panoply of surround sound tweaks, and there's no bass management for the multichannel analog audio input. But that will only be a problem if you don't have large, full-range speakers for all channels (most people don't, but many people who buy gear like the Ultimate Receiver probably do).
And though you can make "on-the-fly" adjustments of channel levels without modifying calibrated levels, you can't store these individually. The Ultimate Receiver lets you select a subwoofer-satellite crossover frequency between 40 and 200 Hz at setup time, but it applies to all channels and speakers (some high-end receivers and processors let you cross over different channels at different frequencies). These are about the only complaints I can come up with, though. The Ultimate Receiver packages envelope-stretching power, first-class quality, and unusually user-friendly ergonomics into a handsome package about half the size and weight of other line-topping receivers. And that's got to be tough to beat.