The A/V receiver market may be progressive in many respects -- each year's new models upping the ante in terms of features, formats, inputs, and overall bang-for-the-high-interest-credit-card-payments-to-follow -- but in other ways the market is a sort of an old boys' club, dominated by the Denons and Onkyos and Yamahas and Integras of the world. And breaking into that old boys' club isn't easy. It requires an offering of sorts: some new feature that consumers need that they didn't even know they needed yet. And that's hard to pull off when the old boys tend to incorporate the latest gee-whiz features before most people have even heard of them.
It's even tougher to learn the secret handshake when you've been around in the background for a while, making just barely enough noise to get noticed. Such is the case with Sherwood Newcastle -- a brand pretty much everyone knows, and nobody really knows what to make of.
The company's R-972 7.1 Channel A/V Surround Receiver may change all of that.
The R-972 does just about everything that all of the old boys do. It's a sexy box that decodes Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio beautifully. It's packed with four HDMI inputs, three component ins, and four S-video/composite ins, all of whose incoming signals can be scaled up to 1080p and delivered to the receiver's HDMI output thanks to an internal Silicon Optix Reon video processor. And I hope you'll forgive me for giving the scaling only a cursory mention here -- I tested it with HQV's Benchmark DVD; it performs exactly as well as you'd expect a Silicon Optix Reon chip to perform -- but I have to assume there's a limit to the number of words you're willing to read here, and I'd rather spend most of them talking about what makes the R-972 really exciting.
The selling point of the receiver is its integrated Trinnov Optimizer: an ever-so-slightly scaled down consumer version of Trinnov's $10,000+ professional room correction processor. (Think Audyssey on steroids.)
Generally speaking, modern digital room correction systems work basically the same, whether they're built into a budget receiver or a budget-busting surround processor: position microphone in room, run sound tests, move mic, rinse, repeat, calculate. The systems measure test tones played from each speaker, determine which frequencies are being trumped up or gobbled by imperfect room acoustics, and equalize the sound to smooth out the mountains and fill in the valleys. The more sophisticated systems also work in the time domain to correct for sonic reflections and room resonances.
The Trinnov Optimizer takes this process one step further by adding the element of directionality and dimensionality. The R-972's included microphone is actually an array of four mics of different heights housed in a single unit that connects to the back of the receiver via an RJ45 connection. When viewed from the top, the array forms a triangle of shorter mic elements, with the taller mic element at the center. When placing the mic at your listening position (ideally on a tripod at ear height), you'll want to ensure that the triangle is pointed directly toward the center of your screen or display.
This is critically important, since the Trinnov Optimizer measures the position of each speaker horizontally and vertically. The first time I ran through the setup process, I inadvertently used a marker on the front of the array as my reticle (crosshair), rather than aiming the mic elements themselves, and ended up with a soundfield that was rotated clockwise by about five degrees. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.
If you've aimed the microphone array correctly (which I did the second time), the system now knows exactly where all of your speakers are. This knowledge allows it to compensate not only for poor room acoustics, but also improper speaker placement. Given the amount of data the system needs to work with, the process can take a while. After a minute or so of measuring, it took nearly ten minutes to run the calculations for my room.
The Trinnov Optimizer's four equalization modes allow you to choose from flat frequency response across the board, two audiophile settings -- one that adjusts the frequency response of the center and surround speakers to match that of the front left and right, and another that only fiddles with low frequencies -- and a "natural" setting that slightly boosts frequencies below 200Hz and slightly trims frequencies above 10kHz. I found that the last setting worked best with my ears and my speakers, and I was impressed by the fact that I didn't have to fiddle with the Trinnov Optimizer bass settings after the fact; the only other room correction system I've used that didn't either crank the subs too high or starve them to death is Anthem's ARC-1.
The real fun began when I started digging into Trinnov Spatial Modes, each of which, as with the EQ settings, can be set individually by input. The first of these, DLY + LVL (Delay + Level), adjusts the speakers so that they all sound as if they're equidistant from the listener. Pretty basic stuff. The next, Autoroute, determines which speaker is closest to the center of the screen, routes center channel information to it, and sends information from each other channel to the speaker closest to its correct position.
Most people who engage any of the Spatial Modes will probably go for the 2D Remap or 3D Remap, though. Each of these modes completely changes the soundfield of the system, making your front speakers sound like they're either 22.5 or 30 degrees out from your center channel (depending upon whether you select Cinema or Music Mode), even if they're a mere 18 degrees out, as they are in my media room. And as the name implies, the 3D Remap also compensates for height discrepancies, such as a center channel that sits beneath the screen, instead of behind it.
Given that I have a DLP TV instead of a projector, that's definitely the case in my room, although I rarely notice. Voices, for the most part, still seem to come from onscreen. But when this illusion is shattered, it's annoying. At the beginning of "Black Page #2" on the Zappa Plays Zappa DVD, for example, the upper registers of Pete Griffin's slapping bass line always draw my attention to the bottom of the screen. With 3D Remap engaged, those pesky notes emanate from the dead center of the image. Turn off 3D Remap, they droop to the bottom of the screen again. Turn it back on and they lift without separating.
After popping out the Zappa disc, I turned to my go-to movie for dialogue clarity: the Extended Edition of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. The DTS-ES 6.1 soundtrack for the film is so dense that dialogue can at times straddle the line between garbled and intelligible if room acoustics aren't tip-top. Even during the scenes at Caradhras and in the Mines of Moria, and even with the 3D Remap performing it's center channel levitating act, the R-972 rendered the difficult dialogue with aplomb. I didn't have to strain to hear even the quietest of whispers in the wailing winds above or echoey caverns beneath the Misty Mountains.
The one word that best describes the audio? Effortless.
The highest compliment I can pay to the Trinnov Optimizer is that after a few minutes, I forget it's there. I get so caught up in the film that, quite frankly, I forget about speaker placement and acoustics and fancy remapping algorithms. I also forget to take the sort of notes on sound quality and surround effects that one likes to sprinkle into hardware reviews.
The R-972 delivers more than enough oomph for my 17' x 25' media room, and the only complaints I have in terms of performance are a bit of audible popping and buzzing when HDMI sources like the PlayStation 3 change output resolutions -- when transitioning from the main menu screen to a game that only outputs 720p, for example.
It also lacks a few of the latest bells and whistles like Dolby Volume (a feature found on many of Sherwood's new non-Newcastle-branded receivers), which can probably be blamed on the 972's long development cycle. (If memory serves, I remember seeing preproduction units at the 2007 International CES.)
It also doesn't jump through any networking hoops; it won't stream media from your computer (although it will play MP3s from a flash drive). And it doesn't feature any sort of special support for iPods.
But it does support two-way RS-232 communication for advanced touchscreen remote controls. And the included universal remote is no slouch; it transmits either IR or RF, so you won't need line of sight to adjust the volume or change inputs. The remote is a little crowded, and the volume and channel buttons aren't nearly distinct enough to be easily located in the dark. But I've seen far worse remotes with receivers and processors in this price range.
Truth be told, the R-972 is probably a little too advanced for the people who need it the most. But for the home theater enthusiast who has no choice but to place speakers in funky places, it could be an absolute lifesaver.
The 2D and 3D remap have uses that aren't limited to mere booboo-patching, as well. The system allows you to store up to three seating positions, so I assigned one of the presets to my wife's favorite couch, which is perpendicular to the screen. That way she can listen to music while reading, and have the soundstage in front of her rather than to her right. And that's just one example of the sort of thing you can do thanks to the flexibility of the system.
I'm not sure if the inclusion of the Trinnov Optimizer is enough to secure Sherwood Newcastle's entry into the old boys' club, but in a fair world, it would. And even if your room acoustics are topnotch and your speaker placement is perfect, the R-972 is still worth a look, especially when you consider that it is, for all intents and purposes, a fully integrated version of Outlaw's upcoming (and highly anticipated) Model 997 surround processor with some amplification thrown in for good measure.The R-972 boasts wonderful performance, more than enough inputs and outputs for most media rooms, and plenty of essential features, even if it's missing a few of the latest doodads.
13101 Moore Street
Cerritos, CA 90703 U.S.A.
Tel : (562) 741-0960, (800) 962-3203
Fax : (562) 741-0967, (562) 741-0968
On the Web: www.sherwoodusa.com