A veteran of AVRev.com, Jim Swantko also wrote home theater and audiophile component reviews for HomeTheaterReview.com in the early days of the publication. His focus was on mid- to high-end audio brands like Mark Levinson, Classé, Noble Fidelity, Cary Audio, MartinLogan, and Paradigm.
The Sherwood R-904N NetBoxx is the latest A/V receiver in the company's product line, and represents a significant break from what most consider a modern receiver to look like and do. The NetBoxx offers some truly revolutionary features and is touted by Sherwood as being 21st-century-ready. If everything works as advertised, it may be one of those products that redefine what consumers come to expect from a receiver. Without a doubt the $649.95 NetBoxx is an ambitious product that attempts to integrate a traditional A/V receiver with all the streaming contentavailable from the Internet. I'm curious to see if they pulled it off.
The R-904N utilizes digital amplifier technology to create 110 Watts for each of its seven channels. While digital amplification is nothing new, seeing them packaged in a receiver is somewhat rare. Digital amps are extremely efficient; they generate little heat and consume much less power compared to their analog counterparts. The NetBoxx designers took full advantage of these properties in order to make the NetBoxx as compact as possible. The unit measures in at less than three inches high, and resembles a small CD player, more so than a receiver.
In terms of flexibility the NetBoxx offers enough in and outputs to satisfy all but the most complex systems. It provides three HDMI 1.3 inputs, two component video inputs, two composite video inputs, seven analog two channel audio inputs, and three digital inputs. A pair of powerful 32-bit DSP chips handle the decoding of fourteen surround modes including the latest DTS-HD (Master Audio/High Resolution Audio) and Dolby TrueHD, as well as their predecessors. Video is processed by the TMS320DM6446 digital media processor based on DaVinci• technology. Sherwood also included Dolby Volume, which compensates for the variable volume levels of television programming, most annoyingly found on commercials. The NetBoxx contains high performance 192kHz/24-bit DACs for all channels to preserve maximum fidelity. One touch automatic speaker configuration and room acoustic calibration EQ promises to make setup simple and fool-proof.
The most revolutionary feature the NetBoxx offers is its Internet/LAN connectivity, which opens the door to an endless supply of content and convenience. Once on-line, the NetBoxx can retrieve personal content from PCs or storage devices connected to your personal LAN. The content is accessed, controlled and played from the NetBoxx via its on-screen browser. The NetBoxx can also search the Internet directly for web content and stream it to your television. The impressive list of online content sources includes CinemaNow, YouTube, Internet TV, SHOUTcast audio Internet radio stations, Hulu, Netflix, CBS, CNN, ESPN, Rhapsody and Amazon Video On Demand. A pair of USB ports add yet another option for viewing digital content directly from storage devices.
I opened up the box which that the R-904N arrived in and found the unit well packaged and protected. I was relieved to find a users manual filled with pictures and charts with the assumption that much instruction would be needed to get the NetBoxx on the 'net. The accessories included the Sherwood omni-directional calibration microphone, and a Wi-Fi wireless adapter which is needed should you want to stream wirelessly. Rounding out the included items were a power cord, an FM antenna, and the universal remote control with batteries. The remote control is nothing fancy; however I found that it was logically laid out and very intuitive.
Installing the NetBoxx into my system was a fairly straightforward affair, with the only issue I ran into being unable to use my excellent AudioQuest Volcano speaker cables. The NetBoxx rear panel has seven sets of very heavy-duty color-coded screw down binding posts, which were well spaced and a pleasure to use. As good as they were however, the massive spades on my Volcanos were just too big for them. Luckily, I had some un-terminated cables from a previous system, which came to the rescue. I connected my array of Aerial speakers consisting of 10T mains, CC3 center and 5B surrounds. I have no subwoofer at the moment. Audioquest HDMI-X cables connected my Oppo BD-83 SE Blu-ray player, PS3 and DirecTV HD tuner/DVR. A ten-foot length of standard CAT-5 cable connected the NetBoxx to my Linksys router.
After the connections were made I powered up the receiver and began the setup procedure. Unfortunately, the NetBoxx does not offer any on-screen programming so everything has to be done via the tiny front display. This is where those charts in the users manual came in handy. The chart shows the entire tree structure of the setup menu and made navigating simple. After a minute or two I was up and running. At this point, I plugged in the supplied microphone and let the NetBoxx go through its auto-configuration sequence. I also let it run the EQ sequence to optimize it to my room. The entire setup took only a couple of minutes and was so simple I could talk my mom through it over the phone.
Finally, I configured the NetBoxx to find my library of audio and video files which I store on an external Western Digital drive connected to one of my laptops. This laptop runs on Windows XP and after a few clicks in Windows Media Player, my entire library appeared on my television screen. I was honestly shocked at how simple it was. My other PC running Windows 7 however, was a different story. I must have tinkered for half an hour and was never able to figure out how to get the two devices talking. I finally gave up. I'm sure Sherwood will have instructions for this operating system soon. The NetBoxx is capable of playing MP3, WAV and WMA audio file types. Video capabilities include just about any type you could imagine.
I started with an HD video signal from my DirecTV tuner, which just happened to be showing Terminator 2 (Artisan). Video performance was excellent with no noticeable effects from switching the HDMI signal through the NetBoxx. The audio performance was a pleasant surprise and very impressive. The digital amps had an iron grip on my speakers from top to bottom. The bass performance was particularly impressive. The surround processing created a seamless soundstage with excellent placement of effects. It produced dialogue that was clear and natural. High frequencies were well extended but never bright or harsh. I experimented with the EQ settings to see just how well it had tamed my room. I found that I certainly preferred the sound with the EQ enabled. When disabled, spatial cues were less precise and bass performance lost a bit of speed and impact.
Next, I spun up the Blu-ray of Monsters VS Aliens (Dreamworks) on my Oppo Blu-ray player. This is an animated film that my nephew wanted to see, so during my last babysitting adventure we watched it together. It was a beautiful movie to watch, which is typically the case with animated films. The soundtrack was equally well done filled with the types of sounds one would expect following the story of a girl who gets hit by an asteroid, grows to 50 feet tall and is Earth's only hope of defeating the attacking aliens. My nephew and I both had a blast being immersed in that story. We both enjoyed the room rattling explosions and weird alien sounds that zipped through the living room. The NetBoxx was loads of fun for movie duty and went about its job with no fuss and no hassle.
Next, I pressed the VuNow button on my remote, which launches the browser, needed to access PC files and Internet content. After an unusually lengthy delay, the browser menu appears. The menu structure of VuNow is fairly intuitive but could use some refinement to make finding what you want simpler. For example, the browser forces you to scroll down through the various files page by page. If you are like me with thousands of albums on your PC it quickly becomes frustrating; a search function would make this much better. My thumb gave out by the time I made it to the third letter of the alphabet so I cued up the album Cracked Rear View by Hootie and The Blowfish (Atlantic). I played the single "Time," which was ripped as a high resolution WMA file. The NetBoxx did a very impressive job of recreating the music from the data stream. The implementation of the 192/24 DACs along with the Texas Instruments amplifiers created a sound that was open and smooth. As typical with most digital amplifiers, the NetBoxx had a jet-black background, which allowed the solo guitar at the opening of the song to stand absolutely alone. Darius Rucker's vocals were trademark warm and texturally rich. Drum impacts were lively and well controlled. I ended up playing this album a few times remembering how much I liked it.
It was time to check out some of the movie content that was available for streaming and I opened up the free service Crackle. I was happy to find an old favorite, Stanley Kubrick's, Dr. Strangelove (Sony). I pressed play and the movie began buffering. Within a few seconds I was watching the opening sequence of the aerial refueling of a B-52. The movie played without a glitch, and there was no discernable difference between this streaming version and my DVD copy. I must admit that I was not expecting this from a free service.
Next, I streamed Casualties of War (Sony) and was able to see some video artifacts, which are not present on the DVD. In the opening sequence of the movie, enemy soldiers are shown traversing tunnels beneath the battlefield. The tunnels are dark and lit only by torchlight and lantern. In the dark areas of the screen the images became very pixilated with large blocks of colors, which were anything but natural. Did it take away from the enjoyment of the movie? Not really, and again considering the price I was not about to complain.
Overall I was very happy with the playback of the movies and watched many more. The selection of titles available was limited primarily to B-type movies, but there were a few gems hidden within the 200 titles such as Taxi Driver, Stripes and the aforementioned films.
Read more about the performance of the R-904N on Page 2.
The first complaint that I must mention is a styling issue related to the front display of the NetBoxx. The front of the unit is covered with very bright blue LEDs. During the day these LEDs are fairly innocuous; however placed in a dark room, they become extremely distracting. I don't understand why Sherwood would put a dimmer option on the unit that only dims some of the LEDs. Because of this I would recommend placing the NetBoxx in a location out of sight, which is a shame as it's otherwise an attractive unit.
An operational issue I noticed was that the NetBoxx wouldn't let me listen to an Internet radio station without my television turned on. This makes absolutely no sense to me. Why work so hard on building an environmentally friendly product, only to force me to fire up my kilowatt consuming television in order to listen to a radio station?
Finally, if you own a PC running Windows 7 you will need to contact Bill Gates in order to get it to communicate with the NetBoxx. I'm sure there will be a workaround soon, but for now I'm stuck.
The R-904N NetBoxx is a great sounding receiver that does everything most consumers want, and much more than they expect. The digital amplification is powerful, compact and energy efficient. This let the designers at Sherwood package this receiver in a very tiny space, which is ideal for apartments, or compact bedroom systems. The Internet streaming capabilities add so much to the capacity of this receiver that I found myself using it much more than a traditional A/V receiver. I used it to access my entire musical library for background music throughout the day. My wife used it to stay current with Hollywood gossip on the TMZ.com streams, and we both liked scouring the on-line content for movies and television shows to watch.
If you buy the NetBoxx just as an A/V receiver you will not be disappointed as it sounds great and is simple to use. If you use it only as a traditional receiver however, you will be missing out on a world of entertainment. It can serve as the centerpiece of all but the most complex systems and is powerful enough to drive virtually any speakers you wish. In my experience, it caused me to spend more time playing the content which I already owned, and experience new content I never would have otherwise enjoyed. What else can you ask for? The Sherwood NetBoxx isn't perfect but it's a huge step forward in entertainment and a product I can easily recommend to family and friends.