Sherwood has been a staple of high quality audio/video components for decades, and the Newcastle line represents the pinnacle of the company's engineering prowess. The R-972, which retails for $1,799, falls on the higher-end of mainstream receiver pricing. That said, it's also groundbreaking in terms of its feature set and performance, so if you think it's out of your budget I advise you to keep reading.
The R-972 is Sherwood Newcastle's flagship receiver and boasts seven channels of amplification at 100 Watts each. It's also pretty hefty, weighing 46 pounds and measuring seven and five eighth inches high by 17 and three-eighths inches wide by 18 inches deep. The feature set and connection options are plentiful and highlights include: four HDMI 1.3 inputs, a full complement of analog and digital audio connections, a Silicon Optix Reon video processor, lossless audio - DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD, 3-Zone operation, and arguably the most advanced room correction system currently available - the Trinnov Optimizer. There's also a front panel USB input, useful for playing music from a hard drive, updating the receiver's firmware, etc. The remote is universal with full learning functionality and RF capability (antenna included). It doesn't end there as the R-972 is loaded with other cool features I'll get to later.
I'm really picky about packaging and in this regard, Sherwood didn't disappoint as both the unit and accessories were solidly and intuitively packed. The manual is detailed and fairly straightforward, although there's nothing in there describing the Silicon Optix Reon video processor, which I found odd as it's a notable feature. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't even have known about this feature were it not for the Reviewer's Guide they sent. Anyway, I connected the unit to my Panasonic Blu-ray player and Verizon FIOS DVR via HDMI cables and connected my Squeezebox with an optical cable. For those unconcerned with room correction and other tweaks, the Sherwood sounds great right out of the box. Ok, that concludes my review, thanks for reading. Actually, even newbies can be up and running with this receiver in 15 minutes. The engineers went to great lengths to make it easy to use and pulled it off. But the goal here is to find out if this beefy beast is worth your 1,800 bones, correct? So let the tweaking commence.
I connected the included setup mic, which set atop my tripod looks like something out of The Empire Strikes Back, and started with room correction - Trinnov style. It must be noted that the R-972's setup menu is one of the cleanest and most user-friendly I've seen to date. Navigation is simple and straightforward, and the menu design is highly sophisticated. Unlike most room correction systems, which only measure the distance from the speaker to your listening position and cannot compensate for poor speaker positioning, the Trinnov Optimizer measures the location and response of each speaker three dimensionally, using a wild looking setup mic with four microphones. Once the measurements have been taken and the mathematical calculations applied, the Trinnov Optimizer allows the listener to get as close as possible to hearing the sound as it was heard in the studio during sound mixing. All this looks good on paper, but is it hyperbole? The whole process only took about 15 minutes, so I just sat back and let the Sherwood do its thing while trying to keep my wife out of the room - these tests require silence. Once the calculations are done and saved, you're able to make tweaks to the system, such as listening position (up to three can be stored), Room EQ which adjusts the frequency response, Trinnov Spatial Mode which makes spatial corrections based on speaker positioning and distance and finally Trinnov Remapping, which gives you two soundfield choices - Music or Cinema. I think that its important to point out that every home theater will produce different results, so simple trial and error should be your best bet when working with different room EQ modes.
While I typically begin any receiver test with two-channel music, I couldn't help myself and went straight for The Dark Knight on Blu-ray (Warner Home Video) in Dolby TrueHD. The sound was immersive, cage-rattling actually. The opening scene of the bank robbery produced several 'jump from my chair" moments and I knew that, at least with regard to movies, the R-972 was a solid rig. I did some A/B testing, watching the now famous car chase scene with the Trinnov system engaged and then with it completely shut off. I've never been a big fan of room correction systems, and I've tried several. My experience has been that manual adjustments (using a sound level meter and tape measure) will typically provide the most sonically pleasing result. In the case of the Trinnov Optimizer, color me converted. As Sherwood states in their Reviewer's Guide, the system truly is a "game-changer." The best word to describe the difference in watching a film with the system engaged is immersion. With typical room correction, it's easy to identify from which speaker the sound is emanating; whereas with the Trinnov system you're placed in the middle of a sound field, which is truly ideal for movies as well as music. The sound envelopes you, and rather than moving from speaker to speaker, it moves through the space in your room as a whole. This is a bit difficult to articulate in writing, so I highly recommend finding a Sherwood Newcastle dealer and listening to a demo of the Trinnov Optimizer in action. Sherwood had a demonstration going at this year's CES (coincidentally featuring The Dark Knight), although it was on a noisy showroom floor and difficult to fully appreciate. Speaking of CES, it's worth noting that the R-972 won their Innocations Design and Engineering Award.
Read more about the R-972 on Page 2.
Sticking with the car chase theme, I decided to cue up the opening of Quantum of Solace on Blu-ray (MGM) in DTS-HD Master Audio with the Trinnov system fully engaged. I literally watched the scene seven or eight times, the imaging and spatial correction (Trinnov "places" the speakers in the proper horizontal and vertical plane) providing a jaw-dropping experience. Listening to the tearing of metal as Bond's Aston Martin is ripped apart was a visceral experience. I've watched this film using high-end separates costing four times what the R-972 costs, but I don't know that I've had this much fun while watching it. Now I want to re-visit other Blu-rays in my collection and hit them with the full Trinnov treatment.
Moving on to some two-channel music, I played Train's "Hey, Soul Sister" (Columbia) while experimenting with some of the surround sound settings. While the Sherwood offers the usual assortment of Digital Signal Processing modes such as Dolby Pro Logic IIx and DTS Neo: 6, I kept coming back to Neural Surround, which is a new surround technology licensed by DTS. This was the best of the DSP sound fields by far, providing much stronger channel separation and low end resolution. I typically disengage any signal processing when listening to two-channel music, but this new technology is the real deal. Another cool feature for music listening is what Sherwood calls Re-mastering. Hit the Re-Mastering button on the front-panel and the R-972 "re-masters" the sound by doubling the current frequency of the input signal. Sounds like smoke and mirrors you say? It's not. This mode not only provided a greater level of detail in the music, it also gave the low end a bit more weight without sounding "processed." This is the real rub with poorly engineered digital signal processing; it introduces annoying artificial enhancements to the music. Thanks to the R-972, I'm now a believer in both room correction and digital signal processing (provided that it's done right), after being adamantly opposed to both for years.
Next up, some multi-channel music from Blues Traveler's Truth Be Told DVD-Audio disc (Silverline). I decided to do a bit more A/B testing with and without the room correction engaged. Again, I came away impressed with the Trinnov system, preferring its imaging and much more accurate and immersive soundfield. I had assumed that, depending on the source material, I'd be switching the room correction on and off but that wasn't the case as it always provided a more satisfying listening experience when engaged. While listening to the track "Eventually (I'll come Around)," the upper registers of John Popper's voice were clearly articulated in the chorus. The channel separation sounded very natural and not the least bit forced. The instrumentation, specifically the harmonica, sounded open and airy without any harshness.
I also listened to some MP3 files through my Squeezebox, testing the mettle of the Sherwood on lower quality source material. Again, I came away impressed with the sound quality. Utilizing the Re-mastering feature to "clean-up" compressed files is the way to go. As I write this, I'm listening to Pandora through my Squeezebox, Re-mastering fully engaged and working wonders.
One odd engineering decision was to opt to place the RJ45 connector for the Trinnov mic on the rear of the receiver. For convenience, and in the interest of extending the reach of the cable, it would be better served on the front-panel of the unit. Also, at this price point and with the proliferation of HD camcorders, a front-panel HDMI input would be a welcome addition. Sonically, the one minor negative I experienced was a bit of boominess in the subwoofer with the Trinnov engaged. This is a simple fix as I simply turned down the volume level on the sub itself, something you can't do on other channels with room correction engaged. I did have a couple of handshake issues with HDMI, causing the picture on both TV and DVD to shake, although turning the receiver off and back on eradicated the problem. It's worth noting that this only happened when switching inputs, never when first powering on the unit.
At $1,799 the Sherwood Newcastle R-972, considering its feature set and performance, is a bargain. If your home theater is a bit of a challenge in terms of shape and speaker placement, the R-972 is your huckleberry. I can't think of a more hotly contested segment of the home theater market than mid to high-end receivers and this one is a serious contender. It's a bleeding edge piece of gear, with an expansive feature set, exemplary sound quality and a highly sophisticated room correction system. Put in a movie, set the Trinnov system to Cinema and hear the sound exactly as it was created in the post production facility? That's cool. Unless you have a massive room and crave virtually unlimited power reserves, this receiver is worth a hard look. I transitioned to this receiver from high-end separates costing four times what the R-972 costs and save for a bit of a drop off in terms of neutrality and dynamic range, didn't mind the transition. That's a pretty powerful endorsement for this receiver. It's nice to see a manufacturer attack a segment of the market this vociferously. The R-972 covers every base in terms of cutting edge features and functionality; the only piece of the puzzle that remains for Sherwood is to craft a marketing campaign of equal strength. With that in place, this bad boy just might shake up the market.