Sunfire Cinema Grand Amplifier

Two channel adopts multi, and both live happily ever after!

Francis Vale

So what has caused so much high end antagonism against Bob Carver? Especially when many of his products have generated a loyal, even fanatical, following? (E.g., Carver's Amazing Platinum ribbon/piston hybrid speakers, which, though long since out of production, still have a devoted coterie.) Well, to begin with, Carver has this industry-annoying habit of coming out with radical new designs that often go against the established high end grain. Next, his usually low cost/high performance products often make the much more expensive competition look foolish in comparison. And, finally, he typically discusses his innovative products in a rather controversial way. Any one of these annoying habits would provoke problems. But all three yoked together, wrapped up in one, in-your-face package? Yikes! Here come the crazed high end townspeople, sensibilities blazing, and their PR hounds baying for blood.

But when it comes to Carver's new company, Sunfire, and its new Cinema Grand amplifier, Francis and Gordana will just kick back, along with their Maker's Mark manhattans, and watch the frenzied pack rush past. As far as they are concerned, the only thing worth getting up and running around for is being sure to try out one these $2,375 amps--especially if you are about to spring for some other vendor's back-breaking, bank-busting, high output amplifier.

The Cinema Grand was designed by Carver to power up multichannel home theater setups. It features 200 watts into 8 ohms per each of its five channels, and 400 watts/channel into four ohms, all continuously driven. And on a time limited basis, it can blast out 800 watts per channel into two ohms. In sum, this black beast puts out anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 watts! Even more unbelievably, this seemingly bottomless well of power is wrapped up in a cool running, fan-less package weighing a scant 45 pounds. This simple looking brushed aluminum box, with its retro-analog, dimly gold-glowing, "Power Supply Energy" meter (which invariably points to 400 Joules), gives no hint of the tremendous sonic fury it can unleash in an instant.

Originally, the Cinema Grand was to have been reviewed by Francis and Gordana as part of a home theater article, but several key components failed to arrive in time. So, the Cinema Grand was just sitting around, looking darkly grumpy for its neglect. But what's this? The instruction manual says it's trivial to transform this multichannel device into a vertically biamped stereo unit? Hmm. Francis 's gears began turning. Vertical Biamping, wherein separate amplifier sections are used for the upper frequency and woofer drivers (using two stereo amps or four monoblocks), is the next step beyond bi-wiring your speakers off a single amp. For best results, all these amps should be identical, although some high end crazies have been known to use tube amps for the mids/tweets, and solid state units for the woofs. Obviously, it's easiest and best if your speaker terminals have two pairs of binding posts to support such a biwiring/biamp rig (and most do.)

As it happened, Francis and Gordana were already using a biwire hook-up, via Nordost's Red Dawn cables, into their Greek-made, Analysis Omega speakers, which are full range (20Hz to 20Khz) all-ribbon panels. The Omegas use two external passive cross-over boxes, with both crossovers and speakers sporting separate pairs of tweeter/mid, and bass connections. [Francis and Gordana seem to have one of the few sets of Omegas in the U.S. These handsome, six foot tall, all ribbon planars uniquely combine the delicacy of an electrostatic with the piston punch of conventional domes. No matter how loud you drive them, they won't break up. Remarkably, as the volume is increased, the sound doesn't change its tonal character. For a full range ribbon, the Analysis Omega's are quite easy to drive, as they have an 87dB efficiency. By Francis 's and Gordana's reckoning, these speakers stand among the world's very best reproducers. The Omega is the top of the Analysis speaker line, and would probably retail for about $10,000 if imported into the U.S. Contact Stefan Venetos in the UK for more information: 011-44-1752-822-560.]

Biamping the Cinema Grand is ridiculously easy. On the back of the Sunfire there are both balanced (XLR) inputs, and gold-plated RCA jacks. However, there are two RCAs per each unbalanced input into all five channels (ten jacks, total.) So, you just take a front channel's unused RCA jack, and simply loop a short length of interconnect across the amp's back to a rear channel's amplifier input. In this way, the inputs for the left front amplifier channel (powering the left tweeter/upper midrange ribbon) were routed into the left rear channel amplifier (now powering the left speaker's lower mid, and bass ribbon.) This quick procedure was repeated for the right channel. We now had a vertical biamp stereo set up--all within the same amplifier box. Very slick.

In the usual five channel home theater amp (assuming you could do this biamp trick), this procedure would be wasteful, as the center channel, and its 200 watts, would go unused. But not so in the Cinema Grand. And why this is so leads us directly into how the Cinema Grand, and its stereo counterpart, the 300 watt/channel Sunfire amp, are so special. At the heart of Carver's amplifiers is something called "Tracking Downconverter." This power topology has some special properties. Its design dates back about fifteen years, when Bob first began thinking about the subject. Despite what you may have read to the contrary, Bob Carver invented this device, and was the first put it to practical, production use (while he was at his former company, Carver Corporation, in its Lightstar amplifier.) See Bob Carver's white paper in 21st on the Tracking Downconverter for a detailed look at how this remarkable device works.

The Tracking Downconverter, in conjunction with the Sunfire's common power supply design, dynamically allocates power from any of the five underutilized channels to one that immediately needs it. Thus, in, the biamped Cinema Grand, all the power from the unused center channel can automatically be diverted to any of one the four active stereo channels. The vertically biamped Cinema Grand can therefore output 400 continuous watts per left or right channel into an 8 ohm load, with 200 watts from the unused center on standby reserve.

All that having been said, it now becomes very interesting to compare the Cinema Grand with its stereo-only sibling, the Sunfire. The latter costs $2,175, and puts out 300 watts/channel into 8 ohms, or 600 watts, total. But for the extra $200 bucks the Cinema Grand costs, you can get up to 400 more watts at 8 ohms, total (four channels driven, plus unused center), including all the power and control that vertical Biamping provides. Hello? Do we smell a high end bargain here? The Cinema Grand is also easy to system match with tube line stage preamps (our Cary SLP-90L worked super.) It also worked well with passive controllers (the Preeminence Two Line Interface from Reference Line Audio did wonders with the amp.) And as its input sensitivity for rated output is 1.3 volts RMS, you can probably direct drive it off many CD players which have level controls.

But an audio bargain is no bargain if it doesn't perform. So, can the biamped Cinema Grand deliver the stereo goods? Let's answer that by first talking about speaker control, and bass, in particular. Full range ribbon panels, like the Omega's, are notoriously tough to handle when you start getting down in the nether regions. Below 40 cycles or so, unless the amp holds a fascist fist, the big ribbon panels typically start to flap about. This has been the main argument for buying huge, expensive, high current Niagaras, like Krells, for use with ribbon planars (or for any other kind of speaker that could use a vice-like grip over its bass.) One night, shortly after the Cinema Grand was put into the system, Francis and Gordana were watching "The Arrival" (a better than average sci-fi thriller.) The film's excellent audio track was being pumped out through just the two Omegas.

At the movie's bang! crash! boom! finale, the leather sofa on which Francis and Gordana were sitting suddenly started to shake and vibrate, to the point where their manhattan's were in danger of sloshing out of their glasses. Francis quizzically looked over at the Hsu subwoofer, which he supposedly unhooked when the Omegas arrived. He rechecked, and the Hsu was definitely out of the system. After the movie was over, Francis put the Stereophile Test CD on the excellent Meridian 508.20 player. Lo! The big ribbon panels were going down to 20Hz, and without taking wing! Their output at 20 cycles wasn't very high, but the Omega's were happily moving the air. And all this iron-gripped control for only $2,375?!

Prodigious bass is certainly one of the best arguments for buying the inexpensive Cinema Grand, and using it in biamped stereo mode. But more important, the Cinema Grand produces musical bass. Plucked bass instruments stays plucked, and not smeared over some peanut butter and jelly sonic sandwich. Like Oscar Pettiford's bass work, as he dug deep into the strings for the opening bars of "A Night in Tunisia," which is off a cut from an absolutely-go-get-it DCC/Compact Classics (mono) reissue, the 1955 recording of "The Musings of Miles," [GZS-1106.]

And there are more good reasons for purchasing this amp, which ran without so much as hiccup during the review period. With nearly four kilowatts on tap for even crushing 2 ohm loads, the Cinema Grand easily powers through any hairy musical situation, as well as effortlessly drives any speaker in existence. But perhaps the best thing about having seemingly limitless reserves of power is the sense of mental relaxation it produces. There is no more subconscious cringing; you know, the kind where your brain starts going "uh-oh," just before lesser amplifiers are about to clip and distort. The bountiful Cinema Grand yielded a much more relaxing, and ultimately realistic, musical experience, especially when things got big and busy.

Moreover, vertically Biamping the Omegas with this much power and control also had the clear effect of broadening out, and deepening the musical soundstage. And on this stretched out aural canvas, the monster amp revealed a delicate soul as it painted in exquisite details. This unblemished Technicolor panorama was testimony to the low noise floor of the amp, and its unique design. A really good display of all these desirable Cinema Grand qualities was found in a posthumous tribute by an orchestra of Catalonian musicians to the great nuevo tango-master, Astor Piazzola. The Orquestra de Cambra Teatre Lliure, directed by Josep Pons, combined five of Piazzola's pieces for a small ensemble into "Concerto pour bandoleon," [Harmonia Mundi/HMC/901595.]

When the whole orchestra of strings, flutes, bassoons, clarinets, trumpets, trombones, percussion, harp, piano, and bandoleon got behind and started driving this infectious, Argentinean-inspired music, the Cinema Grand just reached down, and made all the right, highly complicated moves. Francis and Gordana were left breathless by this often raucously rhythmic, always exotic, tango music performance; but not so the barely-in-a-sweat Cinema Grand.

Female vocals, always a tough reproduction challenge for any amplifier, were also gently caressed by the brawny Cinema Grand. Vocalists sprang to grain-free life, as a virtually endless supply of energizing watts was transfused into their performances. A good example of this was found in the work of the now long gone, much beloved vocalist, Bidu Sayao. Born in Brazil in 1902, Bidu Sayao was an operatic soprano who covered most of the Mediterranean operatic circuit during her career. In 1945, she recorded for Columbia Records what is, perhaps, her signature piece: the aria from Villa-Lobos's "Bachiana brasileira no.5." (Decades later, in 1984, her early recording of this same Villa-lobos piece was voted into the Grammy Hall of fame.) This haunting, often forlorn work, and some of her other performances, were just reissued on CD [Sony Classical Music, Masterworks Heritage, MHK 62355.] And thanks to the Cinema Grand time machine, you can once again hear this composition's stunning tonal purity and sensuous legato, just as Sayao and Villa-lobos meant it to be heard, over a half-century ago.

During the course of this review, one system change that yielded improvements in virtually every audio area was an upgrade from the Nordost Red Dawns to the company's new, top of the line "SPM Reference" interconnects and speaker wires. The Nordost SPMs are just terrific. And regarding high wire acts, only one thing could bring down our flying sonic wonders-- using the Cinema Grand's current output option. This second set of front channel speaker outputs offers a higher impedance current source. Carver says using these current outputs will yield a softer, more "tube-like" sound. Sorry, Bob. Francis and Gordana have to pass on this one. The near-zero impedance voltage outputs proved clearly superior, in all ways. However, there might be situations where these softer sounding (and watt-robbing) current outputs might be useful, like with overly bright electrostatics, but we still have our doubts.

Regardless, the low cost Cinema Grand is clearly a reference class, solid state amplifier. And ironically, its true home doesn't seem to be in Home Theater. Rather, the Cinema Grand is probably best used as a biamped machine in a classic stereo system. But either way this amplifier chameleon is used, Bob Carver has obviously done it again.

Maybe that's why Carver attracts so many slings and arrows--he succeeds in ways his adversaries never even thought of.

Copyright 1997, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

Sunfire Cinema Grand Specifications:

Price: $2,375.00

Number of speaker output channels:

Power Output:
200 watts continuous, per channel, all five channels driven into eight ohms from 20Hz to 20kHz, with no more than 0.5% T.H.D.

Power at clipping, minimum:
400 watts per channel into four ohms
800 watts per channel into two ohms-time limited basis

Hum and Noise:
-100dB, A-Weighted

Absolute Maximum Output Current:
80 amperes peak to peak per channel

Absolute Maximum Output Voltage:
43 volts RMS

Output Impedance, Front Left and Front Right Channels:
Voltage Source: Approximately zero
Current Source: Approximately one ohm

Impedance Normal Input:
24,000 ohms

Input Sensitivity for Rated Output:
1.3 volts RMS

15,000 each leg balanced to ground

19 inches wide
6.5 inches high
15.75 inches deep (including connections)

45 pounds

Brushed aluminum and black anodize

Associated Gear: Vale /Sunfire Cinema Grand review

Analysis Omegas, full range ribbon loud speaker

Sunfire Cinema Grand, Graaf GM 200, 200 watt, OTL tube amplifier

Cary SLP-90L tube linestage, Graaf GM13.5B line stage (tube), Reference Line Audio Preeminence Two Line Interface (passive controller)

Rotel RH10 'Michi'

Meridian 508.20 CD player, Copland DCA 277 CD player

All Wilson Benesch, including turntable, ACT Two carbon fiber arm, Carbon cartridge, and Stage One Phono Preamp

Cables and interconnects:
Nordost SPM Reference interconnects and SPM speaker wire; Nordost Red Dawn speaker wire and Red Dawn interconnects

Equipment stand:

Black Diamond Racing: The Shelf, The Source, Cones Mk 3 & 4, and Those Things; Shakti Stones

21st, The VXM Network,