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My Visit with Bob Carver

Bob Carver in his officeAnyone who knows anything about high-end audio has heard of Bob Carver. His innovative designs (particularly dealing with amplifiers and subwoofers) are legendary, and even his early 1970s components are still in demand by audiophiles around the globe.

Bob founded Phase Linear in 1970, then founded Carver Corporation in 1978. He later transitioned out of Carver Corporation to start Sunfire Corporation, which manufactures high-end home theater components. He successfully regained control of Carver Corporation in 1998, and currently runs both companies from a facility in Snohomish, Washington, less than an hour north of where I currently live.

When I first started buying components for my theater, I purchased Sunfire's Theater Grand II processor and paired it with a Sunfire Cinema Grand II Signature Edition 5-channel amplifier. Sunfire reserves their Signature Edition status for the most powerful flagship versions of a component line, and Bob personally signs all his Signature Edition amplifiers with a gold pen. The pairing of the Theater Grand II with the Cinema Grand II Signature was awesome. The processor worked perfectly for my needs, and I had no thoughts of replacing it. However, about a year later, I saw a magazine ad for the soon-to-be-released Theater Grand III. The new model boasted new sound formats (DTS-ES and Dolby Digital EX, in particular) and a variety of other features, so I sold my TG2 on ebay and was one of the first to purchase the latest model.

When my TG3 arrived, I installed it right away, set all the surround options, calibrated the speaker settings, and fired up the DVD player. I heard a huge POP when the soundtrack started, and would hear the pop again any time the digital bitstream from the DVD player to the processor was temporarily interrupted, such as on a DVD layer change, scene skip, or the recycling of the audio track in a DVD menu. This had never happened with my old processor, so I phoned Sunfire's tech support number to report the problem. I expected to be put on hold for an hour while some tech support flunkie walked me through a scripted process to attempt to resolve my issue. But that's not what happened at Sunfire. After describing my problem to an engineer, I was briefly put on hold, and then connected directly with Sunfire's Vice President of Engineering, Alan Cooney. Obviously, this was a company that took their product engineering very seriously.

Bob signing my processorOver the next couple of weeks, Alan worked with me and emailed me a variety of firmware updates to try and fix the problem. None of them did, however, and Alan was unable to reproduce the problem in their lab. So instead of dismissing my problem, he drove nearly an hour to come to my house to hear the pop for himself. After hearing it, he asked if he could borrow my DVD player for a few days so he could take it back to Sunfire and troubleshoot it in their lab (he brought a loaner for me to use in the meantime). It only took a few days to isolate the problem and build a new firmware version with the fix. The fix complete, Alan offered to overnight my DVD player back to me. Instead, I asked if it would be too much trouble if I drove up to Snohomish to pick it up in person and check out their facility. He graciously agreed to be my tour guide. Pressing my luck, I asked if I would be able to meet Bob Carver while I was there. Alan politely informed me that Bob's schedule is always hectic, and that there was no guarantee that Bob would even be in town the day I came up. However, if Bob did happen to be around when I visited, Alan would do his best to get me in to see him briefly. I agreed to visit two days later.

The morning of my trip, I had a flash of optimism. In the event that Bob did happen to be around, I would ask him to sign my new Theater Grand III processor - essentially making it the only "Signature Edition" TG3 on the planet! I spent the better part of an hour unhooking all the connectors from my processor, then gently packed it in the original box and loaded it in the trunk of my car. I jumped in the car with my brother Harlyn and buddy Scott, and we headed "off to see the Wizard."

Alan greeted us at Sunfire's headquarters to take us on a tour of the entire facility. We saw assembly lines, testing areas, shipping and receiving, and all the normal departments one would expect. One really stop was an acoustically treated room where the marketing guys show off the current Sunfire product line. We watched a little DVD and then listened to track 8 on Alan Parsons' "On Air" DTS audio CD. To say this room "rocked" would be a tragic understatement. It rocked HARD. Like 80s hair-band hard. Yes, THAT hard.

Finally, we stepped into the depths of the facility - a room with the windows covered so no spying eyes could peek at new products. We were inside Sunfire's engineering department! Over in the corner, surrounded by test equipment, sat Bob Carver himself, clicking away on an HP scientific calculator. He was deep in discussion with a younger engineer, so we didn't want to bother him. Alan waited for an appropriate moment, and then called Bob's attention to us. Bob warmly greeted us, shook hands, then apologized that he couldn't spend too much time with us at that second, since he was in the middle of some calculations he needed to finish. We certainly didn't want to disturb him, so we let him return to his number crunching, then stepped back out into the lobby. I figured that was all we were going to see of Bob. But I was wrong...

Bob and Me in front of the display rackLess than 5 minutes later, Bob came bounding out of engineering with a huge smile and an extended hand. He then spent the next half hour talking to us about his company, home theater stuff in general, and his college days when he used a slide rule for mathematical calculations (if you ever get a chance to meet Bob, ask him what he used to buy in order to keep his slide rule lubricated). I asked Bob if we would be willing to sign my Theater Grand III (which was still stashed in my trunk). "Of course!" was his enthusiastic reply. Bob went to fetch his gold pen, while I stepped outside to grab my processor.

We met back in the conference room, and Bob brandished his pen. To my pleasant surprise, he signed "To my new friend, Steve - Bob Carver" across the front of the unit, then laughed as he declared that I had the only Signature Edition Theater Grand Processor in the world!

We posed for a couple of quick pictures, Bob thanked us for our visit, and then he headed back to his cubby hole in engineering. Before leaving, however, Bob accepted an invitation to visit my theater with his wife some time in the future to watch a movie. Watch for an upcoming article when Bob makes the trip down!

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