Sherwood Newcastle R-865 Receiver
By that standard, the R-865 is the heavyweight in our foursome. At 49.4 pounds, it weighs a good 8.4 pounds more than the runner-up, a margin large enough to be significant. The others fall into a fairly uniform range between 37.5 and 41 pounds. In this case, is the extra weight due to inefficient design, added pig iron, or extra power-output capabilities? Read the HT Labs box to see how this unit compares with the competition on the test bench.
The R-865 also offers the most complete selection of Dolby processing modes in the group. That includes not only Dolby EX and Pro Logic II but also Pro Logic IIx, Virtual Speaker, and Headphone. The front panel's fetching shade of blue-gray makes it quite handsome. It stands up to close examination—of the four, Sherwood's fit and finish are the best. The front panel has a row of buttons above the flip-down door that allow you to select video or audio inputs and manipulate surround modes. Of course, you can always use the jog dial or remote to do these things, but Sherwood is the only manufacturer to provide all three options. When I step up to the rack to load a disc, I like to select the input and surround mode from the receiver's front panel, so the Sherwood made my life a bit easier. Its remote has the best set of navigation keys, with large, blue triangles that are easy to find (even by feel)—plus an LCD and blue, button-activated backlighting.
The R-865 is one of two receivers in this group with component video conversion. Anything that enters through the composite or S-video inputs can exit through the component video output. Most receivers treat each of these analog video interfaces as a separate path: If you connect your satellite box to the receiver using S-video, the receiver can feed that signal to the video display using only S-video. Converting all inputs to component eliminates redundant wiring (and multiple rounds of switching) between the receiver and display.
Aside from front-panel design and video hookups, the Sherwood is more of an ergonomic challenge to the user than the other three. It's a traditional receiver with no auto-setup routine. As a reviewer, I'm used to punching my way through setup menus—and had no particular problems with this one—but I've had years of practice. For a consumer, especially a newbie, punching through this receiver's menus, with the manual in your lap, would take a lot longer than it would to simply activate the other receivers' auto setups. To match channel levels, you'll need to buy an SPL meter.
Your reward for all that work is stunning sound with fairly powerful dynamics and an unlabored feeling that lent an emotional edge to musical peaks and movie effects. What really made this receiver sound different than the others, however, was its high-frequency extension. It was the cleanest and purest of the bunch, with a degree of transparency that resembled a good stereo integrated amplifier more than a surround receiver. A slightly reticent recording like the Telarc disc of Brahms' Symphony No. 2 from the Netherlands Radio Symphony acquired more tonal color and better held my attention. If your ears are calibrated to high-end two-channel material, listening to most surround receivers is like wearing a ski cap. Listening to various Telarc SACDs with the Sherwood was like pulling the cap off.
* Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater (www.quietriverpress.com).