Sherwood Newcastle R-965 AV receiver

Back in the misty days when 2-channel stereo was still an exciting new format and tubes ruled the land, Sherwood was a brand name to be reckoned with. Together with such companies as Harman/Kardon, Fisher, Marantz, and McIntosh, Sherwood was instrumental in launching the American hi-fi industry on a path that would culminate in today's high-end audio gear—grist for our sister publication, Stereophile.

However, the path was a rocky one. When audio went solid-state in the 1960s and '70s, Sherwood and the other giants of American hi-fi found themselves unable to compete with the cheap transistorized gear flooding in from Japan. One by one, the American companies fell on hard times and were forced to sell. For the next decade or so, the once proud Sherwood logo appeared only on a long line of inexpensive, mass-market gear.

Then something wonderful happened. Several years ago, Sherwood—now owned by Etonics—announced a new line of high-quality audio products. Named after the location of the company's assembly plant in the UK, Newcastle components would be sold only through custom installers and AV specialty retailers.

The first product in the Newcastle line—the R-945 AV receiver—was introduced to great critical acclaim in 1998. Michael Fremer reviewed it in the May 1998 issue of the Stereophile Guide to Home Theater. Next came the company's first home-theater separates, the AVP-9080R processor and AM-9080 multichannel amp. I not only gave the 9080 combo a glowing review in the (sadly defunct) webzine, but found the pair satisfying enough to use as the centerpiece of my reference system for several more years.(The AVP-9080R and AM-9080 were also reviewed in the June 1999 SGHT.)

Progress marches on, and the 5.1-channel 9080 separates I so enjoyed have been superseded by the 7.1-channel P-965 processor and A-965 multichannel amplifier. Going full circle, Sherwood recently repackaged its flagship 965 separates, combining the two pieces into a single cabinet to create the subject of this review, the R-965 AV receiver.

First Impressions Last
No sooner had the UPS driver pulled away from the curb than I had the Sherwood unpacked and up on a table under bright lighting. The brushed-aluminum, or "Titanium"-finish front panel looks expensive, giving the impression of having been machined out of a solid block—at least when seen head on. From the sides, you can see that the panel is actually a single formed aluminum sheet about one-tenth of an inch thick, capped by gray plastic end pieces.

The overall look is clean and understated. A pair of large knobs and ten small, lighted buttons are symmetrically arranged around a large fluorescent display. All of these controls feel great in the hand, turning with silky weighted motions and engaging with positive tactile feedback. Rows of additional buttons and the renamable Video 6 input suite (composite video, S-video, stereo analog audio, and optical digital audio) are located behind a dropdown door. Everything is labeled with white, screened-on text, which looked elegant on my brightly lit dining table, but later proved hard to read when the unit was on a shelf in a dark theater.

This is a big component, so be sure to check that your equipment cabinet or rack has at least 20–24 inches of free depth to accommodate the unit, including room for cable clearance.

Under the Hood
Removing the R-965's top panel (don't try this at home!) was like looking under the hood of a Porsche. The chassis is beautifully packaged and laid out. Someone clearly sweated the signal-routing details here—everything in my unit was spic and span, with nary a stray wire harness in sight. There's even a nifty wire bridge that channels and hides the few wires that must traverse the chassis's width. Sherwood logos decorate the wire bridge, as well as the power supply's massive 6-inch-diameter toroidal transformer and twin 2700µF filter capacitors. I've seen megabuck high-end amps that don't look this good inside.

When I looked closer, it quickly became apparent that the R-965's underlying architecture resembles that of a personal computer. A horizontally oriented motherboard occupies the central rear portion of the chassis, with slots for six vertically oriented expansion cards, which in turn expose arrays of connectors through the rear panel. The cards are labeled Processor, DSP, Input1, Input2, S-Video, and C[omposite]-Video. A separate daughtercard serves up the component-video connectors. Among other advantages, this modular design should make upgrades and repairs much more practical.

The R-965's similarity to a PC ended when I examined the top-flight complement of DSP chips that populate its expansion cards. The centerpiece is a Cirrus Logic CS-49400 32-bit audio decoder that ably crunches just about every DTS and Dolby algorithm known to man or beast. All eight output channels are handled by Analog Devices AD-1852 24-bit/192kHz D/A converters; AKM AK-5380 24-bit A/D converters take care of business on the input side. An Analog Devices AD-1896 sample-rate converter "remasters" 2-channel PCM sources to 24/192 resolution.

No PC case ever held anything like the pair of shiny, machined-aluminum heatsinks that flank the Sherwood's motherboard on both sides. These finned beauties are each 15 inches long and 5 inches high, spanning the full depth and height of the cabinet. Large amplifier boards are mounted along the outside of each heatsink. Ventilation slots stamped into the bottom of the chassis directly below the all-important power transistors create a chimney effect to draw air across the sinks and out the slots in the top cover, so be sure you don't block 'em.

Numbers Game
According to Sherwood's website, amplifier output in Stereo mode is an ample 120 watts per channel into 8ohms, from 20Hz to 20kHz, with <0.02% THD; the R-965's manual lists the THD at a slightly higher 0.05%.

I was sad (but not surprised) to see that the R-965's multichannel output power is not fully specified with all channels driven. Sherwood's website claims "120 Watts per Channel x 7 in Surround Mode," a meaningless, unqualified spec. The R-965 manual lists 140Wpc into 8ohms at 1kHz with 0.7% THD "only channel driven"; i.e., only the front-channel pair, center, surround-channel pair, or surround rear/Room2 pair are driven during the test. This "only-channel-driven" rating at 1kHz is a far cry from the fully spec'd, 20Hz–20kHz, all-channels-driven rating we'd like to see.

Another specification that raised my eyebrows is the amp's apparently limited ability to drive low-impedance loads. A note in the manual warns that speakers of at least 6ohms should be used all around when connecting one pair of surround speakers; i.e., for a 5.1-channel configuration. This is not exactly reassuring, as the ability to remain stable into low impedance loads is something I take for granted when dealing with a high-end, $2000 component. That said, I used a pair of 4ohms M&K S-90s for surrounds throughout the review period without incident.

If you're planning on implementing a 7.1-channel configuration, however, I'd think twice before using any 4ohms speaker. The manual cautions "use only speakers with impedance of over 12ohms" when using both Surround A and Surround B connections and "other [LCR] speakers with impedance of over 6ohms." This could pose problems, as few decent speakers are rated at over 8ohms, and a great many high-performance models are rated at only 4ohms. It will be interesting to see how the R-965 behaves when we put it through its paces on the test bench (see sidebar, "Measurements").

Of course, Sherwood is hardly the only audio company to indulge in a bit of specsmanship—it's rampant in our industry. And I don't want to give the impression that the R-965 lacked sufficient amplifier oomph—anything but! The point is, you can't shoehorn an advanced digital processor plus seven channels of amplification into a single cabinet without making some sacrifices—not if you want to sell the thing for less than a king's ransom. To their credit, Sherwood acknowledges this fact on their website: "Our R-965 flagship receiver is identical to its more advanced parents [the P-965 processor and A-965 amp] except for the necessary compromises due to the use of a single power supply for both the preamp and main amp sections and in its ultimate power capability."

For the record, Sherwood's A-965 7-channel amplifier has two toroidal transformers and separate amplifier "monoblocks" for each of the seven channels, vs. the R-965's single transformer and two amplifier blocks, each with multiple channels. The A-965 amp is fully spec'd at 100Wpc into 8ohms, 20Hz–20kHz, <0.02% THD, all channels driven. A separate rating is given for 4ohms loads: 160Wpc, 20Hz–20kHz, <0.09%, again with all channels driven. Of course, the A-965 lists for $1499.95, plus another $1499.95 for the matching P-965 processor; together, they list for a cool $1000 more than the R-965. I've said it before and I'll say it again: when it comes to analog electronics such as a power amp, you really do get what you pay for.

Jack Attack!
One look at the R-965's rear panel is enough to make a grown man weep. Intimidating at first glance, this jack pack is complete, well thought out, and above all, flexible.

First off, there are five AV inputs, each with an accompanying S-video jack. There are also three line-level audio-only inputs, labeled Aux, CD, and Tape Monitor, plus a moving-magnet phono input for you vinyl diehards. The AV, Aux, and CD inputs can be renamed.

Many lesser receivers force you to plan a connection strategy that can accommodate fixed digital-audio input assignments; e.g., Video 1 has a coaxial input, Video 2 has optical, and so on. The R-965 gives you four optical and two coaxial digital inputs on the rear panel and lets you reassign them as you please.

Similar flexibility is extended to the three component-video inputs, each of which can be freely assigned to any AV input. These are switched by relays, not microprocessors, so high-bandwidth HD signals should pass through with no rolloff.

The R-965 is the first product I've had in-house that upconverts composite and S-video inputs to produce a unified, or "universal," component-video output. This allows you to make a single component-video connection between the receiver and your video display, thus relieving you and your family of ever again having to switch video inputs on the TV. I saw no apparent decline in the video quality of the composite signal coming from my dusty VCR or from the S-video output of our much-loved Sony digital satellite receiver-recorder. And even if there was a performance penalty, I'd gladly pay it to eliminate those dreaded midday phone calls from the wife and kids complaining that "There's no %#$* picture again!"

With so much flexibility on tap, it's easy to forget what needs to be assigned where by the time you finally squeeze out from behind the equipment rack and sit down to program the input assignments. I found it helpful to make a little chart to keep track of each input's new name, as well as its accompanying digital and component-video assignments.