Component Reviews

Sherwood Newcastle R-972 Surround AV Receiver

A receiver that can fix speaker-matching problems, poor room layout and improper listening positions, but may have reliability issues.

Published on February 9, 2010

Sherwood Newcastle R-972 Surround AV Receiver

Sherwood Newcastle R-972 Surround Receiver
$1800

Sherwood America
13101 Moore Street
Cerritos, CA 90703
800-962-3203 (voice)
562-741-0967 (fax)
http://www.sherwoodusa.com/


Specifications

7.1 Channel AV Surround Receiver with HDMI 1.3 decoding, DTS Master Audio HD, Dolby True HD, Dolby Digital Plus, DSP modes (Theater, Movie, Hall1, Hall2, Stadium, Church, Club1, Club2, Game, Matrix, Multichannel Stereo), DTS-ES, DTS Neo:6, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Virtual Speaker, DTS 96/24, Neural Mode (for XM), Dolby Headphone, Night Mode, Audio Upsampling, Multi-Source, Dual Zone w/ 2nd Zone Remote, Video Conversion, Video Upsampling with Silicon Optix Reon processor, Trinnov Optimizer Room EQ and speaker setup w/ microphone, RS-232 Control, Lipsync Adjustment, Automatic Set-Up, XM Ready, AM/FM Radio, Discrete IR Codes, IR/RF Leaning/Universal Remote Control, USB input, rated 100 WPC full bandwidth into two channels, 7.1 preamplifier outputs, On-screen GUI (Graphic User Interface), Assignable stereo amplifier (for Surround Back, Room 2 or Bi-amp option), 4 HDMI inputs, 3 Component Video inputs, 5 Audio/Video inputs, Headphone output, IR in and out, sleep timer (from 10-90 minutes), front display dimming and off, 12V DC trigger, 40.8 pounds, 17.375” W x 7.875” H x 19.25” deep, 3-year warranty.

Associated Equipment

System 1: Bowers and Wilkins 683, HTM61, ASW610 and DS3 speakers, Marantz BD7004 blu-ray player, Pioneer Elite BDP-23FD blu-ray player, NAD T765 (for comparison), Monster HDP2600 Power Conditioner, Audioquest cables.

System 2: Bowers and Wilkins CDM7NT, CCM65 speakers, Dish Network ViP622 Satellite Receiver, Roku HD Media Player [John – link to review], Sony SLV-D550P DVD/VCR, Monster HTPS7000 Signature Power Conditioner, basic cables.

Description and Setup

My first impression of the 972 was that it is large and heavy even for a surround receiver.  Newcastle, like the ES line for Sony, the Integra line for Onkyo and the Elite line for Pioneer is Sherwood’s better gear.  The front panel is simple and uncluttered and the display is easy to read although it has a lot of information.  The speaker binding posts are color coded, but right is above left which caused some confusion (as Audio Research is the only other brand I’ve seen adopting this arrangement).  The power cord is detachable and there are a ton of audio and video connections on the back.  

I attached the RF antenna although the response I got from the remote was rather slow and there is no way to use it as a learning remote for other equipment in this mode.  However, you could use it to control the receiver in a closed cabinet, closet or different room if need be.  As with a lot of equipment aimed towards the custom market, the 972 offers RS-232 control.  The codes are not included, but are available to installers (and perhaps pesky customers who demand them).  

Although the unit does HDMI 1.3 decoding there is an 8-channel input to accommodate additional formats in the future.  There is both room 2 and room 3 and an extra slim remote comes with the unit to control the multi-room function from room 2.  You’ll need an optional IR kit from Xantech (or someone else) to access this feature.  Room 3 is more like a “B” speaker set.  It plays whatever is selected in the main room.  The surround back speakers and Room 2 speakers share the same amplifier so only one set can be utilized at a time.  In the receiver setup you can decide how this operation works and even use the amplifier to biamplify the front speaker set.

The unit offers XM radio with an additional antenna and a subscription.  AM and FM antennas are included.  Another option that the receiver offers is the ability to play music back from the USB input.

Limitations.
  The unit lacks: a phono section and the ability to decode Dolby Pro-Logic II z.  The speaker outputs are rated for 6 ohm operation and above.  The USB input will only work with .mp3 and .wma files (making it useless for most users).  No special iPod integration abilities.  Sound always mutes when you enter the setup menu so you can never hear what any of the adjustments you are making sound like instantly.

Audio and Video Upconversion.  The unit offers video transcoding and upsampling as well as downconversion.  This means you can put any type of video signal in and come out HDMI.  It also means that the S-video can be converted down to composite video (which I’m sure will be much less used unless recording to a VCR is still happening out there).  The video output resolution is adjustable up to 1080p.  Audio conversion happens as well but only in the upwards direction: analog and/or coaxial–>optical–>HDMI.

The Manual.  The Quickstart Guide was enough for me to get sound, but I definitely wouldn’t stop there.  The manual is 91 pages long and much of it needs to be read through.  I’m not sure if it is translated or written by an engineer, but on occasion a description would be so convoluted it was hard to determine its meaning.  Other times I wished there was more elaboration on what a particular function did or how it worked (not an uncommon problem with many surround component manuals).  Due to the fact that there are so many options it is easy to get bogged down.  If you aren’t familiar with modern surround components I would get some help.

Front Panel.  The display is full of information like the surround mode that is operating, the input type, level and which speakers are playing.  Most of the miscellaneous controls are below a drop-down door which keeps the front panel looking uncluttered.  Inputs are divided into categories: video/audio/ext. in/tuner.  The ability to label inputs rather than having a set buttons that are either not used or wrongly labeled is an advantage.

Quirks and Weirdness.  The first sample I received was defective so I requested a second unit.  Still, there were issues: (1) The remote control buttons do not light and the labels are impossible to see if there isn’t a good amount of ambient light and you have excellent vision.  (2) Both samples had the left top of the vent covered by a separate piece of plastic grating.  No one could tell me what it was for and it seemed to serve no purpose except to look goofy.  (3) When I would skip back with the Marantz Blu-ray to restart a track the output level of the Sherwood increased dramatically in an alarmingly way and then reverted to a normal level.  The second sample had the sound elevate and drop one time unexpectedly but it did not happen again.  (4) The microphone input is on the back!  What about those who position the receiver in a cabinet?  How do you get back there easily?  It should be on the front.  (5)  If you turn the display off while HDMI is connected through the receiver there is a momentary loss of audio.  (6) There is no way to run the test tone while in the setup mode!  You have to exit, run the tone and blindly adjust.  However, you can go back later and see what the adjustments are.  (7)  When I skipped ahead with the HD DVR it would take a second or so for the sound to resume once the picture had come back.  (8)  The receiver would take up to 13 seconds to play sound when switching inputs and reacquiring the signal at which time there might be a pop or audio dropout.

Sound Options.  The Pure Audio mode turns off all video circuitry as well as the fluorescent display.  I assume that Sherwood believes that this somehow improves the sound, but I did not notice a difference with it on or off (except I could no longer tell what input I was on and what other settings were activated).  The Re-Mastering mode upsamples the audio by doubling the sampling frequency up to 192 kHz.  It only effects digital signals that are two channel and are sampled at 96 kHz or lower.  I tried it to make sure it worked but did not listen extensively to this feature.  In the past I’ve only heard improvements in very expensive gear and even then it was subtle.  If these modes only improved the sound, then why make them an option?

Surround Modes.
  In addition to all the standard Dolby and DTS surround modes including True HD and DTS Master Audio, the 972 offers Neural Surround (designed for surround with XM Radio), a multichannel stereo mode and the usual DSP modes like Theater, Hall, Stadium, Room, Panorama, and Classic.  I tried a few of these, but prefer to listen to stereo music without enhancement.

On-Screen Display (OSD).
  The on-screen display on the Sherwood is quite good.  Even though there are many options for adjustment, the user doesn’t feel overwhelmed and all the choices are presented in a natural order. 

Notes.  You can either decode HDMI audio in the receiver or pass it on to the television, but not both.  You can select which video output types function for monitoring, but you cannot output both HDMI and component at the same time.  You can assign audio and video from the same devices to multiple inputs.  Each video input has a sync adjustment.  The Trinnov room correction and equalization can be set on or off for each input with the option of up to three different listening positions.  In the multi-room section of the menu it is possible to adjust bass and treble independent from the main area.  Video noise reduction and enhancement are available through the receiver.

Speaker Setup.  First I tried the automatic setup.  The Trinnov measuring device is actually four microphones standing off a circular base attached to a CAT5 wire that plugs into the back of the receiver.  There are a few issues.  The first is the cable is not very long (~15′), so it might be necessary to get a CAT5 extension cord in order to reach from the back of the receiver to the listening position.  Secondly, the cable, much like most CAT5 cables is coiled and even with care, it was impossible to keep the microphone array upright without some help.  I found an old tripod and this worked nicely.  Unlike many systems, the measurement takes place in three dimensions!  For each speaker the system runs through multiple times and measures horizontal and vertical angle and distance.  There should be a way for advanced users to manually tell the system that you don’t have certain speakers to speed up the process.  After that, the receiver does a lengthy computation that can take up to 25 minutes.  (There is no indication as to how long is left, so you might as well just leave it working and come back in 20 minutes.)  The crossover, level and delay are calculated and set.  If you manually set the crossover it can be adjusted from 50-200 Hz or set to FULL (which is full-range and no crossover).  Additionally, there is a LFE adjustment for Dolby Digital, dts, Dolby True HD, dts Master Audio from -10dB to 0dB.

Trinnov.  The Trinnov processing is what sets this unit apart from others and unfortunately it didn’t work properly in my first sample.  The Room EQ setting is either off, flat (which adjusts to flattest possible response), Audiophile 1 (which adjusts the frequency response of the non left and right speakers to match the left and rights), Audiophile 2 (which adjusts only the low frequencies of the speakers) and Natural (gives a modest boost below 200 Hz and a slight cut above 10 kHz).  The Spatial Mode can be set off, delay and level only, Autoroute (this can correct for incorrect placement or changing position in the room by mapping the speaker position based on where the listener is aimed), 2D Remap (calculates only in the horizontal plane) and 3D Remap (completely corrects spatial positioning) according to preset music or movie guidelines.  When set to Cinema for the Trinnov Remapping the front speakers are 22.5 degrees plus and minus from the center while in Music mode they are set to +/- 30 degrees.  Cinema EQ is available to roll off the fronts (like THX re-equalization).

Radio Listening

I used the supplied antennas with the receiver although an outdoor antenna is always a better bet if you can use one.  The Sherwood does not offer HD radio nor does it have R.D.S.  I believe I am getting spoiled by having Sirius in the car telling me what and who I’m listening to at every moment.  On the FM band I was able to receive 32 stations.  88.1 came in with a good amount of noise to the point where a visiting friend asked me to change the station.  The quality of the sound was good, however.  Some stations sounded more noticeably compressed than others and 94.7 came in cleanly though there was occasional static or noise that would pop up.  On 100.3 you could hear the low bass (from the subwoofer) kick in when I was listening to Eric Clapton.  

Bands are adjustable in .1 MHz steps.  The auto-tune was effective and didn’t overshoot stations.  Storing presets was easy enough and although there was a way to switch to mono, it didn’t help when I really needed it to (although it did eliminate some noise).

On the AM band I was able to tune 13 stations and although the quality was lackluster for music, it would be more than usable for talk radio or listening to “the game.”

Two-channel CD Listening

I happened to have a slightly more expensive (although older) model from NAD that I felt would offer a good comparison to the Sherwood.  I only did comparisons with two speakers and with stereo material.  I put on music from The Stylistics, Jack Sheldon and Dido.  The Sherwood was a bit mellow and relaxed in comparison to the NAD’s more present sound.  The NAD coaxed a bit more air and space (high frequencies?) from the recording.  A couple of fellow audiophiles felt there was an improvement in vocal portrayal and that separation was perceptibly better.

Some recordings showed the differences between the two units more than others.  All in all although critical listening revealed an improvement with the NAD, but the difference was not huge.  The advantages in processing available from the Sherwood were still yet to be auditioned [and when I set the unit up manually I felt the sound for two-channel was better].

Multichannel DVD Listening

Needless to say it’s important to make sure your sources are set up properly to get high definition audio through HDMI.  On the Pioneer player it is necessary to go into an Option menu and change the output terminal setting—not something you might think is needed.  Once this had been set to “HDMI” from “Digital Audio” I was able to get the Sherwood to display Dolby TrueHD.  When you play Dolby Digital Plus you see it indicated in the display as well.  I used a Dolby Blu-ray sampler called “The Sound of High Definition” to begin testing.

Everything sounded good and I could tell when the sonics were better or worse as I went through the different clips.  I did a comparison between the non-TrueHD signal (DD) from the coaxial digital output versus the HDMI and found the TrueHD did sound better (on this disc).  My first sample was defective and I could not get the Trinnov to work with an HDMI input, so I awaited arrival of the second unit.

The Big Deal about Trinnov – with and without

The real “game changer” as the Reviewer’s Guide calls this receiver is the fact that it offers the Trinnov Optimizer.  I’ll give some background about what it is and why it is different, but if you want to read more about it then go to: http://www.trinnov.com/  The website is hard to navigate, so perhaps you’ll have better luck than I had.

In a nutshell, conventional equalization software works to correct loudspeaker and room response by adjusting frequency response of the each speaker.  More advanced systems work in the time domain and detect the distortions caused by room effects.  The big difference with Trinnov is its ability to alter the sound in three dimensions.  You can move the soundstage laterally or vertically or move the apparent positions of the speakers in the room.  The accuracy of the microphone array is distance to within one centimeter and elevation to within two degrees.

When I got my second sample I spent more time evaluating the capabilities the R-972 offered with the Trinnov engaged.  I read that it is important to angle the left and right speakers toward the listening area, so I did this.  In System 1 the left and right speaker were 8′ away and 6.5′ apart, the center was 7.5′ away the sub was positioned against the wall to the right of the right speaker.  The surrounds are dipole designs and were about 6.5′ up and 6.5′ away from the listener against the back wall (no side wall option).  They were roughly 6′ apart.  The manual adjustments allow distance in one-half feet.  I set the fronts to full, the center to 60 Hz and the surrounds to 80 Hz.  Aside from the levels in trim, there are two other user presets.  After exiting setup it takes 10 seconds to get sound back.

The center channel (in system 1) is wedged into a cabinet and when I ran the test tone I noticed that it sounded noticeably dissimilar from the left and right speakers.  I was curious to see if Trinnov could fix this.  After measurements were made the receiver said the speakers were at 15 degrees, -3 degrees, -21 degrees, -139 and 134 (going from left around clockwise).  Vertical measurements were 95 degrees front, 93 center and 47 surround.  The Trinnov calibration set all the speakers to an 80 Hz crossover.  I believe this was one of the reasons I preferred the manual settings on stereo to the receiver’s choices.

There are three positions that can be set up to utilize the processing.  Position 1 I set for my main seat.  Position 2 I sat backwards (with the TV behind me).  Position 3 was a seat on the side of position 2 and a bit lower to simulate lying down on a couch placed at a 90 degree angle to the TV.

I started listening with track 3 from James Taylor’s Greatest Hits.  These comparisons were in stereo only.  Further into the listening I noticed that although I selected the stereo mode the Trinnov had turned on the surround speakers (presumably to 3D map the sound field which wasn’t possible with only the front speakers).  I preferred the sound with the Trinnov off and using my manual crossover settings in stereo from position 1.  If you are in the same boat I would encourage you to set up an input for music listening with your own settings.  I switched music to “Crazy” from Seal’s first album.  I tried the 2D, the 3D, the Flat and Natural modes and still preferred the “unprocessed” sound best.

Next I tried the auto-route setting for position 2 with music in stereo.  I’m not sure why I was so excited when it worked (perhaps because I’ve never seen another receiver do it), but I was.  I was able to switch inputs and the left and right surround speakers had now become the left and right fronts.  I could see how this might actually be useful in a multipurpose room.

I used the opening sequence from Star Trek Insurrection to try this with video and it was not very successful.  Perhaps due to the dispersion pattern of the surround speakers (or who knows) the signals were not coming out properly.  The dialogue was only coming out of the right channel (or very much so).  My guess is that if I had direct radiating speakers this would not have occurred.

Position 3 was another matter entirely.  I could easily hear the soundstage shift position and lineup up perpendicular to where I sat.  This was quite impressive.  With odd-shaped rooms or speaker layouts the Sherwood will have a clear advantage.

I went back to position 1 and compared more of the Trinnov options.  I should also mention that when the processing was on that sitting slightly off from position 1 (like along a couch) did not drastically effect the sound.  In other words, off-axis positions were not negatively affected by the processing for position 1 (which is straight ahead and in a normal listening position for a surround system).

A good test for Trinnov is chapter 29 from the Ultimate Edition Stargate DVD.  Strangely, I had to set the surround mode on the receiver to DTS as it wasn’t selecting it automatically.  Once I did this for each input I was comparing, it did not require any further adjustment.  This chapter is the ending sequence of the film and has the characters saying their goodbyes right before a huge sonic finale.  With no processing the voices from the center sounded unnaturally heavy and each character did not sound as unique as they should.  In the Audiophile1 mode with 3D processing and cinema engaged there was a worthwhile improvement.  Overall, there wasn’t quite as much bass (which could have been adjusted) but surround envelopment was better.  Audiophile2 mode did not improve the sound.  In the Natural mode with 3D remap and Cinema on the sound was different but almost as good as Audiophile1.

Next I put on chapter 11 from Kill Bill, No. 2.  The differences were still there but not as prevalent.  In system 1 with surround I became a Trinnov convert.  If I were to live with this system I would have played around some more with the bass levels to dial them in better.

My experience with Trinnov in system 2 was a bit different.  Speakers across the front were identical and were 3.85, 3.71 and 3.89 meters from the listening position.  The surrounds were placed in ceiling above the listening area with about 6′ distance apart and are aimed at the back wall.  They are 1.62 and 1.68 meters from the listening position.  Horizontal positions are 15, 4, -10, -89 and 99 degrees in a circle from left to left surround.  Vertical angles are 75, 75, 76, 35 and 34 degrees.  I set up an input with the natural setting, 3D remap, cinema and no EQ.

I started off with the same chapter from Stargate that I listened to in system 1.  With Trinnov engaged there was more intensity with the surround effects, but because of this they actually became somewhat distracting—pulling me out of the movie experience.  The improvements in the front I noted earlier in system 2 did not exist (as these were more neutral speakers and there was no mismatch between the LCRs as they were identical).

I listened to the earlier car chase scene from Ronin next.  The sound was definitely more spatial in the back and it was easier to feel that I was in the middle of the action.  Again, there were no significant changes up front in the soundfield related to tonal balance or location.

My preference in system 2 was to leave the Trinnov off.  I thought that wonders would occur with the front speakers and the image would drop down (as the speakers are about 6′ up the wall).  This didn’t happen.  Also, I thought there might be some improvements due to the improper placement of the surround channels in the ceiling, but although there was some positive difference on some material there was also some negative.  The delay between switching inputs was as long as before and in this system I might consider a different option.

Video Processing

I used some standard video material to watch the differences with the Sherwood’s video processing on or off (through HDMI).  I didn’t run specific video tests but did encounter some issues.  With 1080P on there wasn’t much difference between the Pioneer player and the R-972.  1080i looked really good and there might have been a slight difference but it wasn’t huge on a 52” display.  480i had a serious problem.  The picture was flashing, in 1.33:1 aspect ratio when it should have been widescreen, the image was of poor quality and the receiver was obviously not scaling to 1080p properly.  In 480p the image didn’t show in widescreen and although the picture was better it still wasn’t right.  There might have some compatibility issues with my player, receiver and set, but who knows?  Ah, how I miss the days of analog component video.  I didn’t test the upconversion, but again, if the Silicon Optix chip is working properly it should look quite good.

Conclusion

Every time I review a surround receiver I promise myself that I won’t do it again.  Inevitably I forget and there you go:  The reason?  Just too much work—testing and more testing!  If you made it through this entire review then you probably know as much as I do about the Sherwood Newcastle R-972.  I felt like I could try a lot more of the options, but there is only so much time in a reviewer’s life.  Let’s start with the bad.  Even with the second sample there were several operational quirks that required getting used to.  In the long term the biggest issue I had was with audio dropouts and the audio was delayed when switching sources.  In System 2, which is primarily a surround system, differences between the auto-calibration and manual setup weren’t really an issue and I actually preferred to leave the Trinnov processing off.  Two weeks into the second sample the receiver would no longer produce sound.  I’d finished the review at that point but the problems I’d had don’t bode well for the reliability of these units.

Anyone who has a strange room layout and can’t position the speakers properly should take a long look at the R-972.  In system 1 the Trinnov really did work!  The receiver was able to alter the acoustic space to compensate for poor speaker or listener position.  I believe you can get most of what the Sherwood offers for less money, but when you factor in the advanced processing the R-972 becomes a one-of-a-kind.  If you are fanatical about proper placement and seamless operation then the Sherwood probably isn’t for you.  For the more “normal” people, Newcastle has introduced a receiver that can fix speaker matching problems, poor room layout, and improper listening positions—quite a feat!  My only remaining hesitation concerns reliability issues.  This unit was quite a while in the making, but I think it needs a little more work to be “ready for prime time.”

– Brian Bloom
big_brian_b@hotmail.com




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