Sunfire Ultimate II AV Receiver

"Name a product the 'Ultimate' anything and you've opened yourself up to a world of potential hurt and ridicule. The name's a boast and it's bound to instigate a challenge. That's what I thought as I unpacked Bob Carver's latest brag, months before this publication was renamed Ultimate AV, and I'm not changing my lead because of that."

That lead and the rest of the review had to be delayed because by the time it was ready to run, the Ultimate II version was announced. It adds Pro Logic IIx and video upconversion, from composite to S-video to composite. Otherwise, as far as I can tell, it is the same, which is plenty good!

Outside In
After you've finished admiring this sleekly styled $4995 receiver, with its cool satin-black finish, rounded chassis cover, and recessed knobs, you notice how compact and lightweight it is. Despite its diminutive size, the Ultimate is rated at 200 watts per channel (seven channels total). Most other high-powered receivers are far more bulky and massive. The difference is in Bob Carver's unique "tracking" power supply, which feeds just enough voltage to the output devices to produce the required power. The power supply tracks and supplies the required voltage. With most amplifiers, the voltage is high and constant—at the amplifier's maximum output—with the excess dissipated as heat.

The Ultimate II runs surprisingly cool; the cover isn't even vented. However, the chassis bottom does have some opening slots, and Sunfire supplies a glass platform to make sure buyers don't plunk the unit down on a piece of shag carpeting.

If you're going to call your receiver the "Ultimate," it better have all the features and inputs and outputs a customer would expect to get, and the Sunfire doesn't disappoint—with one major exception: it has no DVI or HDMI inputs or outputs, a feature just beginning to show up on the latest generation of high-end AV receivers. It features automatic signal sensing for audio and video input selection, and offers Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX, Pro Logic IIx, DTS, DTS ES, and Neo:6 plus a few DSP simulated surround modes most "purists" don't admit to using. There's also a Party mode that puts a 2-channel source into the rest of the speakers, plus a Direct mode for analog sources that bypasses all of the DSP, tone, and bass management functions. Direct mode is welcome, since Sunfire has included a decent MM phono stage as well. Also included is Carver's Holographic Image circuitry, which enhances 2-channel imaging by injecting out-of-phase signals to cancel out unwanted crosstalk. There's an AM/FM tuner with 40 presets.

Along with 7.1 output channels, there is a stereo pair of side outputs requiring additional amplification for 9.1-channel operation. The rear-surround channels can be configured for second-zone operation.

There are six A/V inputs, each with L/R audio, S-video, and composite video, plus three 100MHz component video inputs. The aforementioned MM phono input is joined by two analog tape inputs, eight analog input channels for SACD and/or DVD-A, and six coaxial and four optical digital inputs.

Outputs are equally generous, including three sets of A/V outputs with S-video and composite video, two 100MHz component video outputs, two tape record outputs, three subwoofer outputs, and coaxial and optical digital outputs. The optical ins and outs use those neat spring-loaded door covers instead of the removable plastic plugs that end up lost.

Multichannel source material is automatically downmixed to 2-channel and sent to the analog, digital, and zone 2 outputs. Other features include operating system upgrades via RS232 or IEEE1394 ports, trigger outputs, and IR control of both zones.

The heart of the system is a 32-bit, 20MHz control microprocessor and 24-bit, 150 MIPS Motorola Symphony DSP processor. A/D conversion is handled by a 192kHz, 24-bit Crystal Semiconductor device, while D/A conversion is performed by 192kHz, 24-bit Analog Devices chipsets.

As far as I'm concerned, what sets apart a merely good or great receiver from one deserving of being called "ultimate" is an easy-to-read, well-illustrated instruction manual; a top-notch remote; and an easy-to-use onscreen menu system. This receiver passes these tests. The well-organized manual is written in English by folks who speak the language, and the drawings are clear. The backlit LCD-screen learning remote, while large, is ergonomically pleasing and extremely efficient and easy to use.

Once all the wires are connected and you power up the Ultimate II, you should be able to have it completely configured and ready to use in less than half an hour (and that includes the tuner presets) thanks to the easy-to-navigate menu system and the instruction manual. More importantly, the operating system and the remote make everyday use remarkably simple and trouble free compared to some needlessly complex Japanese receivers that don't do more, but are just more difficult to use.

The front panel, with its strings of yellow LEDs set against a brushed-slate fascia and blue-lettered display, is among the most attractive and futuristic of all the receivers I've reviewed. Switching between inputs is simple, as is moving through the various modes available for 2-channel and multichannel sources. This is one receiver that lets you feel comfortable about leaving town and knowing that your significant other will be able to watch television and get sound.

A few receivers I've reviewed, such as the Denon AVR-5803, may possibly have had greater transparency and resolution of inner detail, none in my experience sounded as rich and relaxing in the midband as the Sunfire. Not quite "tube-like," but certainly not edgy, crisp, or harsh. Bass was very punchy, well-damped, and extended, with none of the spongy and ill-focused character I was afraid I'd hear due to the unusual power-supply arrangement. Even in 5.1- or 7.1-channel mode, this receiver sounded powerful, well-controlled, and rhythmically agile. However, as good as the Ultimate II sounded, it could not compare to the purity, punch, control, and overall sonic sophistication of the far more expensive Lexicon RV-8, which has become my reference.

I'm not sure how the test bench measurements will turn out (see "Measurements"), but for me the Ultimate II receiver never failed to perform admirably during a long review period, even when used to drive numerous speakers known to be difficult loads. These included my reference pair of Wilson WATT/Puppy 7s, which I brought upstairs while my 2-channel listening room was preempted by a review of other speakers. (I did not audition the Ultimate II with the Wilson WATT/Puppies, just the original Ultimate, which has the same amplification section.) The WATT/Puppies are relatively efficient, but present a load of under 4Ω at some frequencies.