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Headphones & the Sunfire Theater Grand II Surround Processor

When Cans Don't Cut It

Francis Vale

I admit it. I'm a hard core gamer. Way too many hours have been spent rewiring my synapses in ways neurologically unimaginable playing Starcraft, Homeworld, Ground Control, Age of Empires, Unreal, and whatever else sucks me in. Close your bleary, smoke-contrailed eyes at night to go to sleep, and the cathode-crazed images still play across your burnt-out corneas in a mad dance of after-light. Oye, pass the Halcion.

Worse, you can't go crazy at 2:00 AM with your PC sound system blasting off the plaster and not expect whoever is within earshot not to take the Uzi off the wall and go looking for some serious payback. Well, if you are a serious gamer, what are you doing listening to PC speakers, anyway? If you are deep into deathmatches, then you already know that headphones are the only way to go. A great pair of cans will always produce a much more compelling, sonically accurate, immersive experience on a PC.

For great headphones, look no further than Grado Labs (www.gradolabs.com). Grado is an old-line, highly respected high-end audio company that has seriously got its consumer gear act together. The $95 (retail & street) Grado model SR80 Prestige Series cans simply crush all El Cheapo PC headphones, as well as almost all other cans at their price point, and even some much more expensive ones.

The SR80's will blow you away with their extremely natural and smooth midrange. Their huge level of detail will let you sniff out the faintest rustling of waiting-in-ambush lurkers. On the other hand, their bass is OK, not outstanding and the highs only reach so far, while the overall effect is somewhat closed in. Fundamentally, the SR80's are all about that oh-so-sweet midrange, especially on female vocals. If you are deep into monitoring what you rip and burn, then the SR80's will fill the bill. The SR80's come standard with a PC soundcard mini-plug connector, and also arrive with a 1/4-inch adapter for hooking up to regular audio gear.

The $295 retail ($265 street) SR325 model headphones, which are the top of the Grado Prestige line, are another deal entirely. These cans go way deeper and higher than the SR80's, are even more detailed, and give a much more spacious presentation, along with shattering impact when so summoned by the game gods. In all fairness though, if you only used the SR 80's and never listened to the 325's you would probably never know you were missing out on anything. The SR325's come with a standard 1/4" plug along with a PC mini-plug adapter.

Like any good deathmatch, Grado has an archival, and its moniker is Sennheiser (www.sennheiser.com), another highly regarded maker of high-end audio kit. Sennheiser's "Silver" HD 495 set of cans, with a street price of $99, is their head to head competitor to the Grado SR80's. Apart from their price point, that's where all similarities end between the two products.

The George Jetson HD 495's are much sleeker and cooler than the decidedly retro, Edward R. Murrow reporting from 1940's London design of the Grado's. But remember what your mama told you about looks not being everything? Well, chalk up one more for the old girl. The Grado SR80's stomp the HD 495 in just about every category. The HD 495's low end is not as good as the Grado's, the highs not as high, the midrange just can't compete, and their dynamics are outclassed.

But redemption is available, for a price. The Sennheiser HD 600 headphones are a whole 'nother deal. At $495 retail, $325 street, the HD 600's are about $60 more than the street fighting Grado SR 325's. This headphone match-up is a toe to toe, no Rx allowed, product brawl. When the combatants finally managed to pick themselves up off the bloody reviewing floor, the victory brewski went to Sennheiser. The HD 600's knock out punch was delivered to the Grado 325's right in their weaker deep bass bowels. The Grado's were also outboxed by the HD 600's clearly better dynamics.

The HD 600's also had superior transient handling footwork. But one area where the Grado 325 scored points was in the high-end, where their pinpoint clarity landed blows to the ears faster and crisper than the HD 600s. Overall, the HD 600 won the match by just outpointing the Grado's in too many sonic areas. This is a clear cut case of what you pay for is what you get. If Sennheiser can get their Id-crazed Brad Pitt-600's into the wimpy product head of their Edward Norton-495's, then this Fight Club blowout is due for a review sequel.

But sometimes you want/need to share the voices in your head with those you love, in which case you have to find yourself another way to self-immerse in sound. Your only option is unplugging your sweat stained cans and hooking up the computer to a full-blown sound system. However, there's a problem with doing that. In normal stereo speaker operation, the two left and right speakers typically overlap each other in reproducing a specific sonic event, like a cymbal crash occurring on the right. Your right ear hears two sound source locations of that right-side only cymbal, one coming from the right speaker and one coming from the left speaker. This speaker overlap causes a blurring or smearing of the soundstage, resulting in less than optimal reproduction of the recorded event.

In contrast, with headphones only the left ear hears what the left side 'phone is playing and the right ear just the right 'phone. This makes for a much better stereo effect. This is also the real reason why hard core gamers use cans: It is much easier to use the help of accurate sonic cues to immediately target a lurker faintly rustling in a dark corner. With regular speakers and electronics, this faint noise is sonically smeared, making it much harder to quickly find and frag the guy.

So what to do if you need to share the sound but still want win at Quake? No problem. Buy yourself a Sunfire Theater Grand II surround sound processor with its unique "Holographic" image circuit. The Sunfire's Holographic mode, which can be switched in or out and is best used with just the two front channels, uses phase cancellation of unwanted second source arrivals to create a more three dimensional and realistic sound stage. It also means you now have a realistic alternative to your position-accurate Grado or Sennheiser headphones. Finally, you can do gut-great gaming on a really huge screen with big badass sound, with targeting accuracy cues not possible with a typical stereo electronics set-up. Your small headphone sound/mini-video virginity will be forever gone after playing a steel cage death match with this oh-my-god-you-are-really-there power rig. It's incredibly Alpha Geek cool and a great reason to finally get your head out of the cans and see life's bigger picture.

Surrender your canned-cracked cabeza into the hands of this world class surround processor from Sunfire, and you will also discover another of living-a-real-life's awards. You are now the proud owner of some of the best high-end, multi-function audio gear made on the planet. Bob Carver, the founder of Sunfire (www.sunfire.com), is an audio industry legend. Carver has this industry-annoying habit of coming out with radical new designs that often go against the established audio high-end grain. Worse, his low cost/high performance products often make the much more expensive competition look foolishly overpriced and overhyped. You've just got to love the apple cart upsetting Carver. Think of Bob as sort of the audio high-end's version of Linus Torvalds.

Sunfire's Theater Grand Processor II, at $3,295, may seem like a ton of money to people conditioned to buying $495 PCs that come with eternally free Internet access. Moreover, this Sunfire product is not a surround receiver with built-in amplifiers. To run your speakers, you will have to shell out even more money for some multi-channel amps.

"See what happens to your mind when you play violent, gut spilling games too much," those tut-tutting Joe Lieberman's out there are now saying. No, we haven't lost it. We are just stating a simple high-end audio fact of life: You need to pay to get the best. Moreover, the Sunfire unit is a bargain when compared to other high-end surround processors on the market. You will have to spend thousands more for a competitive product with comparable sound quality, flexibility, and features like that offered by the Theater Grand II. There is no free audio lunch, bubby.

The Theater Grand II is a big unit, much larger than most PCs these days, at 19" wide, 6.5" high, 15.5" deep, and topping out at 25 pounds in its satin black metal finish. It's also very alpha geek cool, with its rows of luxury liner amber running lights and its Palm-lookalike, back lit, programmable remote control. There is even a DB-9 RS-232 connector on its back for hooking the Sunfire directly up to a PC or via a serial port LAN card. Via this serial port, you can operate nearly all the Theater Grand II user functions, except, notably, system setup, from your computer.

Inside the Theater Grand II, you will find a 24-bit 96kHz Crystal Semiconductor A/D converter, a 32-bit control microprocessor, and a 24-bit Motorol"Symphony" DSP processor. The DSP is used to enable a number of simulated listener environments, such as 3-channel stereo, a cathedral, a jazz club, and a stadium. All of these simulated environments can be used for adding multi-channel surround effects to 2-channel stereo sources, be they music or, quite spectacularly, games. Nothing like playing a deathmatch in a sold out stadium!

Of course, the Sunfire unit also supports Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (the ".1" is the LFE, Low Frequency Effects, subwoofer channel). Dolby Digital offers full-frequency, 20Hz to 20kHz playback on all five speakers (front left and right, center, and two rears) and each fully discrete channel works independently of all the others. DTS decode is on-board the Sunfire as well. DTS is also a digital, discrete multi-channel surround system and is a competitive format to Dolby Digital, offering to many ears (mine included), superior sonics.

Both Dolby Digital and DTS are technically and audibly superior to ProLogic, which, naturally, the Theater Grand II also supports. ProLogic is an older format that relies on the surround processor to decode all five channels with the very frequency limited rear surround sound channels being only in mono. Unlike Dolby Digital (sometimes called AC-3) and DTS, the ProLogic subwoofer channel is derived from the front channel bass. The sub channel is not discrete as it is in either Dolby Digital or DTS.

Whereas many DVDs offer ProLogic, Dolby Digital and/or DTS, you should always forego ProLogic in the movie's audio setup menu and choose Dolby Digital or DTS. Often times, digital format support is simply labeled as "5.1" on the DVD box, usually in incredibly tiny print. However, not all DVDs support the newer digital formats, and only offer ProLogic, or even just 2 channel stereo-only. It can all get very frustrating and very confusing, very quick, as you wonder why the rear channels suddenly aren't working and you start banging on the surround processor trying to figure what the hell is going on. Fooled again by a stereo-only DVD.

At this point, some of you may be saying, what the hell are you trying to sell me? I can get a 24-bit/96kHz A/D, D/A cum PCI soundcard, like the CardDeluxe from Digital Audio Labs, for about five or six hundred bucks. And pretty soon, there will be a slew of cheap daughter board cards that will feed six channels of decoded surround audio into my outboard amps/speakers. So why are you asking me to shell out over three grand for some dinosaur consumer electronics product?

Oh, ye great unwashed PC heathens! You are in such dire need of audio redemption. The innards of a PC are what happen to even good CD soul music when it ends up in electrical interference hell. The power supplies of PCs are the primary pitchfork culprits. Most PCs are built to a lowest price point, and the power supply is typically the first victim of the bean counters. If you are serious about sound quality, as well as in having a more reliable PC, the first thing on the to-do list is dump that original crappy power unit and replace it with an electrically quiet supply. I substituted my original supply with an Ultra-Quiet ATX 400-watt unit ($199) from PC Power and Cooling (www.pcpowercooling.com) and got amazing results in lowering the overall audio output noise floor. Still, as good as the ATX unit is, it still can't compare to having an out board surround processor that has been lavished with all the noise quieting tricks of the high-end audio trade. Not only are every single one of the electrical buzzing mosquitoes firmly swatted, you will also notice that the treble quality, especially, is much improved. (It also doesn't hurt that the Theater Grand II does a great job when used for CD playback.)

Besides, how do you intend to hook up your DVD, laserdisc, DSS, HDTV, and who knows what else is coming soon, to the back of your PC? The Theater Grand II rear panel sports connections for up to nine digital source inputs, of which three are optical inputs, a 5.1 analog input, multiple analog audio and video inputs, as well as composite video and S-Video inputs, and even component video inputs. Then there are the multiple A/V outputs, including connections to your TV, plus connectors for two VCRs, a component video output, balanced XLR audio outputs (usually giving better sonics), the regular unbalanced RCA audio outputs, an S/PDIF digital output for hooking up to things like DATs, and analog recording outputs. Next, there are the seven axis outputs that allow you to hook up two extra side channels to your normal complement of five speakers. Finally, when one subwoofer just won't do (time to break the lease, honey), you can hook up three separate subwoofers to the Theater Grand II, and have them all boom-booming at once in splendid LFE sturm and drang chaos.

Moreover, the Theater Grand II supports SACD (Super Audio CD, promulgated primarily by Sony) and DVD-Audio surround formats via 5.1-channel analog inputs. Although SACD is on the market now, it currently comes only in 2-channel stereo. Yep, another audio format war is on the horizon, so it's good to know that the Theater Grand II will accommodate the new multiformat (CD, DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, and SACD) players that will soon be appearing. The Sunfire's 5.1 analog input requires that all the SACD and DVD-A decoding first is done by the decoder on-board a separate transport/player. After the decoded signal is fed into the Sunfire's 5.1 analog connector (this is a maybe tough to find DB-25 plug - contact Monster Cable, www.monstercable.com, if in search difficulty), it's quite correctly kept in the analog state all the way to the output exit and not messed with by the Theater Grand's digital circuitry.

Finally, the Theater Grand II even has a first class AM/FM tuner with 40 station presets and, mirabile dictu! A phono input. And, oh yeah, this Sunfire rig will even automatically trigger your big video screen to lower itself. By the time you have exhausted all the hookup/playback possibilities of the Theater Grand II, the U.S. Appeals court will have finally broken up Microsoft.

In an era when sound effects creation is as creatively important as what appears on the screen, getting the job done right can make or break a movie experience. The surround processor's primary job is to make things sound exactly right when they finally exit your speakers. This is no easy task. A mediocre set of electronics will make subtle movie effects disappear, obscure the actor dialog, blur the surround effects into a smeared mess, turn the movie score into AM quality sound, and make the subwoofer go all flabby. None of this is a problem with the Theater Grand II. After you have played a well recorded Dolby Digital or DTS DVD back through the Sunfire, you will be spewing flame mail to your local movie theater about how crappy their sound system is and what a rip off their $10 tickets are.

Simply connect the S/PDIF output of your PC's sound card to one of the numerous digital inputs on the Theater Grand, hook up a projector to the computer's VGA output, and get ready for some big time movie magic. Two great sci-fi movies, The Matrix and Dark City, have incredibly well done sound tracks that are perfect for evaluating surround processor performance. They are both filled with many special, and often subtle, sound effects, although the Matrix is more often than not pure multi-channel bedlam. When both of these DVDs were played back through the Theater Grand II, their audio dramatics added a significant slap you upside the head emotional wallop. In Dark City, for example, synthesized musical tones are often used to sonically create a brooding, creepy surround effect that perfectly matches the darkness (figuratively and literally) of the movie. As these tones begin to creep in and slowly swell up through the surrounds, you feel the hairs on the nape of your neck begin to rise. On any lesser processor this creepy aural mood would be mushed out of existence, as would be the equally creepy alien teeth clacking in chapters 2 and 5. As for the Matrix and its Oscar-winning sound track, check out chapters 30-31. These chapters feature absolutely right over the top sound effects, which could be played back heart attack loud through the Theater Grand II with no loss whatsoever in bone crushing clarity. (Do this at your own risk, as I guarantee that an angry woken-from-their-slumber neighborhood mob will soon be banging at your front door.)

In sum, for surround sound movies, the Theater Grand II is one very bad boy. You may never go to a stale-gum-sticky movie theater again. And when those great Grado or Sennheiser cans get heavy and sweaty, you now know what to do: hit Holographic mode and let the Theater Grand II plunge you into a huge new virtual world.

Whether it is movies, music, or PC games, you just can't go wrong with the Sunfire. It's an Alpha Geek class act all the way.

Copyright 2001, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com

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