Sunfire Signature Preamp
The T-Rex that ate Casablanca
Francis Vale (2000)
Who says being a high-end salesman isn't hazardous to your health? I have a friend who used to sell Danish-made B&O speakers at a very chi-chi audio salon on Boston's fashionable Newbury street. During the course of one memorable student summer, he demo'd the now cliche T-Rex scene from Jurassic Park into his neural pathways forever. (Maybe they should hand out disability pensions for this sort of thing.) Thus, whether he wanted it or not, this creature creation from a Hollywood Foley stage has become one of his sonic references for evaluating other people's high-end rigs.
All this may explain why he and I were about to uncage this enormously crazed monster here in my high rise aerie in downtown Boston. But this time, Spielberg's alter ego was leaping out not by way of Denmark, but via our German-made MBL 101Ds speakers, with Sunfire's two channel "Classic Vacuum Tube Preamplifier Control Center" hosting the front end.
I switched the Pioneer combi player's audio output settings to feed this glass-driven, analog Sunfire job and sat back, not knowing what to expect. I had played this particular scene many a time myself via the MBL 101Ds, but with MBL 111 speakers also anchoring the rear and center. This all-MBL five channel system was in turn managed by a $13,000 Theta Casablanca, a take no prisoner's surround processor. This killer $100,000 MBL/Theta rig never ceased to amaze one and all, especially when it unleashed this right over the top beast. So, as you can imagine, my expectations for a two-channel, tube rendering of this Hollywood special event were not very high.
Remember that part in the scene where the soon-to-be-lizard-lunch lawyer abandons the two little kids and craps his pants? Well, after this stereo film track finally played out, both my ex-B&O buddy and I were in need of some Charmin. It was two channel terrifying, and that's no Hollywood hyperbole. With the Sunfire tube preamp handling the sonic chores, this implacable monster took on a whole new scarifying dimension. The Casablanca couldn't hold a candle to what we had just experienced, even with an all-up five channel MBL system. Nor had any other high end surround system we ever listened to.
A half hour afterwards, we sheepishly looked at each other. Both of us could still feel the adrenaline rush seeping away after this insane dino-experience. If sound triggers emotions, then man, have the experimental psychologists got a new tool to play with. Just put a test subject on the sofa, wire him up, and let things rip via the Sunfire preamp. The EEG's needles will jump off the charts.
At $1,499 ($1,849 with phono stage) the Sunfire unit is the T-rex of preamps; it simply crushes the competition at this price point. It also signals the possible market extinction of preamps costing many, many times more, no matter if they be tube or solid state.
The Sunfire preamp is a tweaks delight. It gives you the option of changing internal jumpers for matching the gain of your amp with the sensitivity of your speakers. You can even adjust the gain of its optional phono stage to suit the characteristics of your cartridge. But whether its tweaked or run straight-up, this preamp will blow your socks off, along with your side and rear walls.
If you are into big soundstages, oye! Is this the preamp for you. The soundstage is simply HUGE. Some might argue this vast soundscape is a byproduct of using tubes. Whatever the reason, the neighbors will be charging you rent as the Sunfire's soundstage moves in next door More critically, each and every instrument/performer occupies a clearly localized 3-D space in this vast sonic seascape. The MBL 101Ds also have a lot to do with producing this my-feet-are-planted-right-here 3-D effect. In fact, they excel at this particular virtual reality feat like no other speaker I've ever heard. But the Sunfire radically ups the ante on this illusionist trick. The MBLs and the Sunfire preamp should be booked in Vegas as a show stopping rival to Siegfreid & Roy.
One knock that tubed audio gear almost always seems to get is that it sucks when it comes to blowing out the bass jams, especially deep, well articulated bass. Not so with the Sunfire preamp. Each MBL 101D speaker has its own dual ported 12" subwoofer that easily takes the system down to 20 Hz (especially if you feed the 101Ds, as I do, with 1,200 watts per side via two 600 watt per channel @8 ohm Sunfire Signature amps). As the T-Rex started its menacing thump-thump-thump Bolero that ultimately builds to its car crunching crescendo, the Sunfire had the MBLs rockin' the room, sofa, coffee table and our bowels. Each T-stomp also had this wonderfully articulated, rumbling, and oh-so-menacing reverb. The Casablanca's digitally-complex bass management scheme just whimped out and ran in comparison to the Sunfire's retro-tubes. (If you still feel the need to fiddle with the bass, the Sunfire also sports purist-heresy tone controls that work with tremendous utility.)
But OK, enough prehistoric sound effects and cinematic Primal Fear, what about the music? By now it should go without saying that the Sunfire preamp yields an amazingly emotional, totally involving audio experience. It yanks you right into the heart of a performance. Pluck almost any recording from your collection and play it though the Sunfire and you are in for a musical love fest; for example, "A Meeting by the River." This Grammy award-winning album features Ry Cooder on bottleneck guitar and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt playing an instrument of his own design, called the Mohan Vina. Bhatt's unique string instrument resembles the hollow-bodied curved-top jazz guitars of the 1920s.
This winning album was produced by the recording maestro Kavi Alexander on his you-gotta-buy-the-whole-catalog Water Lily Acoustics label (WLA-CS-29-CD). One "Meeting" track, "Ganges Delta Blues", particularly stands out. About midway through the cut, while these two master musicians are swapping their improvised riffs back and forth, Cooder's percussion playing son, Joachim, let's loose with a punctuated series of canon shot beats. The Sunfire and MBLs blasted the plaster right off the apartment walls. Meanwhile, the delicate string glissando's of Cooder and Bhatt never got shell-shocked amidst the percussive explosions, nor ever lost their upper treble glean and dizzying shimmer. The Sunfire handles both ends of the spectrum with equal aplomb. Nothing is shortchanged. This cut also rocked like it never had before. With the Sunfire taking part in the action, it was joyous musical making, pure and simple.
Contributing to the bravura performance is this tubed preamp's solid state quietness, a great tribute to its wunderkind designer, Bob Carver. You can crank the large volume dial all the way up and -- nothing. There is no hissing of maddened electrons rampaging back and forth inside their tiny glass cages. This black background contributes to the astonishing wealth of musical detail that emerges from the Sunfire. And this detail is not at all hard edged. It's part of a seamless audio tapestry that makes the music much more alive and "real." The musical detail also got noticeably fuller and denser over time as the Sunfire burned in. The final result was a you-are-there musical gestalt that's rich, complete, and highly convincing.
If the Sunfire preamp has a failing, it's that it makes almost everything, including bad recordings, sound good. It doesn't gloss the music over with tubey prettiness; the sound is as "tight" as a good solid state design. But neither does it make the music sterile and dry. It's not an added warmth. It's more a sheer musicality. This may sound like splitting of musical hairs, but it's not. Music just sounds awfully good through the Sunfire. If you feel compelled to manfully suffer through terribly recorded CDs played back via artificially cold and arid sounding preamps, look elsewhere.
But if you are authentically into music, the Sunfire will never disappoint, especially when things get big and busy. Matters never turn to undifferentiated plantain mush, which is a really good thing because I'm a huge fan of Cuban music, a genre that can get really big, really loud, really busy, really fast. Apparently, millions of other gringos (except I-only-listen-to-scratchy-AM-radio Jesse Helms) are also big fans of this long neglected vein of rich music, as evidenced by the monster commercial successes of both the "Buena Vista Social Club" album and movie.
One Netherlands-based producer, Mark Alban Lotz, has been making some really interesting CDs at the AICAC studios down in Havana, Cuba. For example, "Lotz of Music in Havana, Blues for Yemay" (# 9920592, VA Records, is a rare musical treat. Cuban music has many threads and traditions, and this CD highlights its deep African roots. This highly rhythmic music deals with Santeria, the syncretic religion that melds together African Voodoo (the oldest still-practiced religion in the world, at 4,000 years or so) and Christianity.
The songs and dances on this Lotz-produced CD successfully mix modern jazz improvisation with chants derived from millennia-old African traditions. And like all good Afro-Cuban music, this album rocks the house with its infectious beat. The CD features a large number of vocalists, plus piano, tubas, trombones, percussion and all the rest of the jammin' Tabasco that make Cuban music so hot these days. When all these spicy ingredients are brought to full musical boil, the Sunfire preamp never loses its cool. It cleanly separates out all the vocals, gives the piano its big instrument due, and lets the blaring brass shine through. Nothing gets lost in this dense, rich musical ragout from the tropics.
The Sunfire's let's-listen-to-every-recording-we've-got-until-five-AM pleasure is such that we are now reluctant to put a five channel surround processor back into our system. The pass-through two channel analog circuit of the Casablanca doesn't hold a musical candle to the Sunfire preamp. But pretty soon, multi-channel DVD-Audio, and even multi-channel SACD disks will become commonplace. Both of these new "super audio" formats easily run the now geriatric Red Book CD format out of musical town. Even the much cherished vinyl finally gets a worthwhile competitor in these two new shiny disc formats. Our five-channel lifestyle decisions just got very complicated thanks to this great stereo preamp.
But what's not complex is summing up Bob Carver's remarkable achievement. When the Sunfire is ecstatically joining together all parts of the musical world, one thinks of Jelaluddin Rumi's mystical, poetical imperative to "Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."
You will kiss the ground, too, every time you fire up the Sunfire's glowing array of tubes.
Sunfire Corporation P.O. Box 1589, Snohomish, WA 98291, Tel. 425 335-4748
RIAA Curve: Overload (MM) = 100mV @ 1 kHz,
Overload (MC) = 5.60 mV @ 1 kHz
High-Level Inputs: Frequency Response 5Hz to 50 kHz +0-3dB
Infrasonic Filter: 18 dB per ocatve below 10 Hz f3 = 10 Hz
Noise - Better than
MM Phono: 82 dB, IHF-A, below 10MVrms atv 1 kHz
MC Phono: 76 dB, IHF-A, below 100 uvolts at 1 kHz
High Level: 96 dB, IHF-A, below 2 Vrms
THD: 0.5% or less, below 3 Vrms out
IM (CCIR or SMPTE): 0.5% or less
Finish: Black Anodize
Dimensions:19" x 9" 18"
Weight: 25 pounds
Associated Review Gear:
Speakers: MBL 101D
Amplifiers: Sunfire Signature stereo amplifiers
Laser Disc player: Pioneer CLD-D702
VCR: RCA VR730HF, Super VHS
TV: 34" direct view Mitsubishi, CS-35601
Tuner: Rotel RH10 'Michi'
Digital Playback: Pioneer combo laser disc/CD player, CLD-D702
Cables and interconnects: Nordost SPM Reference interconnects and SPM speaker wire;
Equipment stand: Billy Bags "I Beam"
Diamond Racing: The Shelf, The Source, Cones Mk 3 & 4, and Those Things
Copyright 2000, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved
21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com