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Product Review - Sunfire Classic Vacuum Tube Preamplifier - April, 1998

Stacey L. Spears

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Classic Vacumm Tube Preamplifier Sunfire Classic Vacuum Tube Preamplifier

Manufacturer's FR Specs: 1 Hz - 80 kHz

5 inputs (RCA)

2 pairs of outputs (1 pair RCA, 1 Pair XLR)

Size: 9" H x 19" W x 18" D

Weight: 25 pounds

Price: $1,496 USA (USP Line Stage)

Add: $350 for USP Phono Stage

 

 

Sunfire Corporation., PO Box 1589, Snohomish, Washington 98291; Phone 425-335-4748; Fax 425-335-4746; E-Mail sales@sunfirelabs.com; Web http://www.sunfirelabs.com

Introduction

Have you ever noticed how the "classics" always seem to make a comeback? It's probably because the classics never really go away, and that’s why they're classics. Bob Carver has designed his entire Sunfire line with a classic feel. The present review is on his latest effort, the Classic Vacuum Tube Preamplifier Control Center.

I have never really been into tubes before, not because of disliking them, but I had no exposure to them. Growing up, I listened to what my parents had or what I was given, in both cases this being solid state. As a young man with modest income, I did not see tube equipment in the hi-fi chains that I frequented. Now that I have begun attending the high performance audio shows, like CES, I see them all over the place. The upscale audio stores have also been stocking them for awhile.

Up until now, Sunfire has had three products on the market: the Sunfire Stereo Amplifier, the Cinema Grand, and the True Subwoofer. The Classic Tube Preamp is just one of several new products that have recently become available from this Northwest audio company.

The classic tube doesn't have the glass envelopes perched on top, but rather a more modern looking piece that shares the same case as the other Sunfire products. On the faceplate is a small glass window that exposes the tubes inside. There are really only three tubes on display, but the use of mirrors gives the illusion of more. It is really a nice effect, with a warm candlelight glow, and it sounds just as good as it looks.

For those folks out they’re who don't like the cold CD sound, mixing a high quality CD player with a tube preamplifier and a solid state power amp could very well change your mind. For this review I used the Meridian 508-24 as my primary source and the Sunfire Signature Power Amplifier (review coming soon!).

Switches and Knobs

Located on the front of the Preamplifier there are four switches (toggles) and five knobs (rotary controls). The first switch is the Power On/Off control, which has an associated yellow LED when it is first turned on. After about 45 seconds, the filaments are properly heated, and the LED turns blue, meaning it's ready for the music. (I like blue lights!)

Next there is a Mono/Stereo switch that combines the L+R channels for the mono mode. The Tape Monitor switch allows playback or record monitoring. And the final switch is the Contour, which turns the tone controls on and off.

The knobs include the Source Selector, which has Tuner, Compact Disc, CD/Phono, Video, and Aux. The next two knobs are the contour knobs, one for the low end (bass) and the other for the high end (treble). These only function if the contour switch is enabled. The Balance knob is next which controls the relative volume of left and right channels. The Gain (volume control) knob is the biggest knob on the face.

A look behind the scenes

The back of the Sunfire has several connectors. Although there are balanced XLR outputs along with unbalanced (RCA), there are no balanced inputs. I would really have liked to connect the Meridian to the Sunfire in a balanced configuration, but alas it was not possible. However, I was not even close to being disappointed in the sound quality. Had it not been for editor JEJ, I might never have chosen to listen to any tube products. What a poor deprived child I would have been!

For every source listed on the front control knob, there is a pair of RCA inputs. There are two different inputs for Phono, and which one gets used depends on the type of phono card. During my review period I did not have the optional phono stage which has a special setup for CD playback. This is what Bob calls the Precision Inverse RIAA Network, and it allows you to use the phono stage with CDs, which has not been possible in the past. John and I did get a quick peek and listen to this feature at Bob’s place a few months back, and it sounded ultra-smooth. Perhaps in the future I can cover that as an update to the review.

There is an unswitched outlet on the back, and the instruction manual says you should plug the power amp into the preamplifier. I prefer to leave this plug empty, not wanting to draw the AC for a big power amplifier through it.

Sailing Away

After watching so many DVDs recently, It was a big change for me to go back to two-channel music. I had forgotten just how good a two-channel system is, and in fact, on some material I have re-discovered how great two channels can be. One problem, though, with two channels is sharing the sweet spot, but for now, I always get the sweet spot (I am a bachelor).

Right off the bat it became obvious to me just how smooth the sound of tubes are when added to the audio chain. Everything sounds good. The metallic edge that emerged with CDs is gone. The detail is still there, but it is a lot easier to listen to.

Tone controls are another piece of the audio world that has received a lot of bad press. The tone controls, or contour controls, as they are labeled on the tube preamplifier seem to have little effect when compared to tone controls on other audio equipment. Sure, tone controls alter the phase of the signal, but the controls on the Sunfire provide just a little boost or reduction, in fact, much less than one might find on other products. On some CDs, the ability to tone things down without killing the sound stage worked well. The alternative is no flexibility, and having to listen to some music with the sound not quite the way I want it, or tone controls in the signal path, and I can make the adjustments. I choose having the tone controls available.

One more thing I would have liked is a remote control. I have to get my lazy butt off the couch to adjust the volume or to play with the contour controls. Often this is when the phone rings because I prefer to keep the music going while on the phone instead of just pausing the CD player. But remote aside, this unit is a smooth as silk.

You know, aesthetics are irrelevant when it comes to sound quality but when you have a room full of audio gear, the quality of life is often much better when spouses enjoy the looks. The glow that the tube preamplifier emits is very soothing. However, I would not go so far as to suggest substituting the Sunfire for candles in the center of the dining table for a romantic dinner. That might be pressing your luck.

Conclusion

I think a lot of people underestimate the importance of a high quality preamplifier and usually give all their attention to the source (CD player), power amplifier, speakers, and speaker cables. The preamplifier is an important part of the signal chain too, and the variable out controls on some CD players are no substitute. The Sunfire is a high quality preamplifier that is relatively affordable and can deliver every nuance. Highly recommended!

Stacey L. Spears


Copyright 1998 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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