The Cinema Ribbon system has several defining characteristics that work synergistically both for music and—especially—movie playback. First, the CRM-2 satellites, and in particular their ribbon tweeters, do a very good job of reproducing fine, low-level sonic details that do so much to create sonic images, ambience, and mood. Second, the Cinema Ribbons offer smooth, evenly balanced tonal response that is blessed with a gentle, inviting, and almost organic touch of natural warmth. Though quite revealing, these speakers never, ever sound cold or analytical, which is a good thing. Third, the system throws astonishingly deep and wide soundstages that break free from the surfaces of the speaker enclosures with ease— qualities I attribute to the omnidirectional mid-bass drivers used in the CRM-2 satellites and to the bipolar ribbon tweeters used in the surrounds. Guest listeners regularly commented on how open and three-dimensional the system sounded, and some were struck by the fact that individual sounds did not seem to be coming from the speakers at all.” Fourth, the SubRosa subwoofer delivers terrific bass extension and punch, so that it seems to find an extra half octave or so of really low bass that other subs simply miss. Finally, the Sunfire sats, sub, and surround speaker have exceptional dynamic clout, not just “for their size,” but also in a broader sense. The only minor catch was that the system seemed to be somewhat power hungry in spite of its relatively high sensitivity rating. But if you’ve got the watts, the Sunfires will happily clear their little throats and rock the house.
Put all these qualities together and you’ve got a compact system that produces a truly enormous sound, yet one that is also quite refined— especially when it comes to the spatial aspects of music reproduction. More than most systems, the Cinema Ribbon rig transforms the apparent acoustics of your listening room to match the vision of the recording engineer or movie soundtrack designer.
I only noted two drawbacks, both of them minor. First, because the CRM-2 satellites combine omnidirectional mid-bass drivers with directional, forward-firing ribbon tweeters, they can—in a very subtle way—give the illusion of hearing two different (yet compatible) speakers playing in unison. I believe this has to do with the fact that the side-firing mid-bass drivers do the lion’s share of the work in terms of creating those giant soundstages mentioned above, while the forward-facing ribbons supply the vital treble information that helps create focused images within those soundstages. The radiation patterns of those drivers are complementary, yet different. The net result is a very good compromise, but one that leaves the Cinema Ribbon system sounding perhaps slightly less coherent and tightly focused than the best forward-firing systems on the market. Second, I found that the SubRosa subwoofer, though capable of producing exceptionally deep and powerful bass, sounded a little less clear and nuanced than some of the best top-tier subs currently available (for example, the JL Audio Fathom f112 subwoofers that Playback uses as its low frequency references). But trust me on this point: these minor nits pale in comparison to the Sunfire system’s strengths.
Long term Playback readers know I am fond of using the uncompressed soundtrack of the Blu-ray version of Apocalypto as one of my speaker system tests, but though I’ve watched/heard that film dozens of times by now, nothing could have prepared me for how good it would sound through the Sunfire system. On the spectacular “Reborn of Mud and Earth” chapter, several qualities stood out. The textures of natural sound effects (jungle noises, sounds of underbrush snapping as the hero flees for his life, etc.) were vivid and gripping, yet never exaggerated or overblown. Next, the instruments carrying the soundtrack score, including some very low bass instruments, sounded impressively vibrant and alive. But what really jumped out of the mix were the eerie vocalizations that came to a head with the almost guttural utterance of the phrase “PAAaaaahhhhhh,” which the sound designer uses to signal moments where the hero Jaguar Paw successfully thwarts his murderous pursuers. Thanks to the power of the Sunfire rig, Jaguar Paw’s moment of triumph becomes deeply moving and brings an almost palpable, exultant sense of relief.
Nothing reveals the strengths (or weaknesses) of a surround sound speaker system like a well-made multichannel music recording, and one of my favorites is Steve Strauss’s folk/jazz album Just Like Love [Stockfisch, multichannel SACD]. A particularly revealing track is “Dead Man’s Handle,” where Strauss sings about working overly long hours in hopes of eventually making it home to see his loved one. Interestingly, the main verses and most of the chorus lines of the song have a wonderfully focused, 3D sound that is deliberately broken at the end of each chorus. The record’s producer Günther Pauler applies a spooky-sounding extra layer of reverb as Strauss closes each chorus by singing, “Lord, take me home/ To my baby.” The temporarily punchedup reverb on this line is often striking when heard through most good speaker systems, but it was particularly intense and dramatic on the Sunfire system. The effect was such that the size and the acoustics of the recording space seemed to shift dramatically— —almost giving the sense of traveling through a sort of sonic “time warp”— and then just as suddenly snapped back to normal again. Surround sound just doesn’t get a lot more dramatic than this.