One of the most difficult components to shop for when designing a home theater is probably the amplifier. Amplifiers supply the power to the speakers, and take their signals from the preamp/processor (or pre/pro). Now, many amplifiers on the market sure look cool, and are supposed to sound great (if you only listen to their advertising), but what are the real nitty gritty differences? Well, power is important, but so is smoothness and refinement in the sound it delivers to your speakers. All of this is the sum of the amplifier's design and topology, and results in the sound you hear.
While shopping, it's good to remember that you'll typically need more power out of your amplifier if you have a bigger room. A bigger room means playing the speakers louder to fill a greater volume of space. As well, each and every amplifier on the market produces its own individual sound, and you'll prefer some
amplifiers' sound to others. Sunfire, maker of high-end components for home theater, offers excellent products to the consumer. Sunfire's past efforts in the marketplace have been extremely successful (both commercially and critically), but until now, we haven't had a chance to review their latest products (this is the first issue, you know).
Unique Features - The Sunfire Cinema Grand Signature Series II 5-channel amplifier features awesome power at 425 watts per channel. This is a very high rating at 8 ohms (typical rating level), and also qualifies the Cinema Grand as one of the most powerful 5-channel amplifiers available today. Today's home theater systems demand more from "under the hood, and the Cinema Grand Signature Series II can certainly deliver. The power rating is much like horsepower in a car: the more there is, the more assured you feel when you push it to the extremes. The Cinema Grand Signature Series II is a little smaller than the previous version, as it is a conventional 17-inches wide, rather than the old width of 19 inches. (You may also purchase a 19 inch faceplate version.) This doesn't make a lot of practical difference, but it makes installation a bit easier. In addition to the larger faceplate option, and for those of you who may want to mount it in a rack, Middle-Atlantic offers a faceplate kit that works with all Sunfire components. The Cinema Grand Signature Series II also offers what the other Sunfire Signature products offer: that famous Bob Carver signature (signed by the world-famous designer). On the front of the amplifier there is a joule meter that is backlit. It doesn't do a heck of a lot, but it sure looks good. In addition to a 12-volt trigger (perfect for custom installations), a very useful feature that is quickly apparent on the back of the amplifier is the inclusion of a power switch. What's special about this particular power switch is that it automatically senses (if you select this setting) whether or not there is an audio signal coming in. This negates the need to switch the amp on and off manually - it will turn on when it you start your DVD, turn on your preamplifier, and it will turn off after some time when it doesn't see an audio signal.
Installation/Setup - Setting up the amplifier is real easy, and shouldn't take more than 15 minutes. Simply connect the amplifier to the pre/pro via either 5 RCA cables or special balanced cables. Both sound great to my ear, and will give you great performance. As well, heavy-duty, five-way, gold-plated binding posts are standard--making it a cinch to hook-up to your speaker cables. Speaking of which, a decision that requires some thought or experimentation is required here. Sunfire offers a choice between "Voltage" or "Current" source hookup, which basically means you'll get a slightly different sonic hue to your listening. Depending on which speakers you use, you'll prefer one to the other. Personally, when listening to my reference Definitive Technology PowerMonitor 900s, I preferred the Current source hookup, as it produced a softer, smoother sound. However, I strongly recommend you experiment with it. That's half the fun, and it's easy to do.
Final Take - The performance offered by the Cinema Grand Signature Series II just wowed me. Bass was thunderous and solid, and voices from the front three channels were powerful and natural. When listening to a home theater system, it is important not only to have similar, timbre-matched front speakers, but also to have equally even power for the front three speakers (and it's better to have lots of it). The resultant sound was even, smooth and powerful, adjusting easily from quiet moments in a soundtrack to loud explosions without a lot of drama.
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