Most of the R-972’s story is inevitably going to be about Trinnov, but first I had to confirm its fundamental abilities. Beginning with 2-channel, full-range playback, I found that there was plenty of power and clarity for serious listening. The R-972’s stereo manners were impeccable: Everything I threw its way sounded pristine and highly dynamic, and I had to venture a good few decibels louder than I’d typically consider for real-world listening to make it just begin sounding a touch “crispy” on bright attacks, even via my medium-sensitivity small monitors. And the same held true for multichannel music: The R-972 had no problem delivering concert levels from my best orchestral SACDs, such as Telarc’s disc of Benjamin Zander conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in Mahler: Symphony No. 1.
I began my Trinnov examinations back with plain two-speaker stereo. Making quick A/B comparisons is not possible (the digital-audio syncing delays when switching inputs are too great), but the Sherwood does allow you to store different Trinnov settings (and a whole lot of other useful options) to different input names (but using the same physical input), so making more extended assessments was at least convenient.
The results were fairly dramatic. Space limitations prevent my dealing with most of the many permutations, but even on plain-stereo listening, the effect of Trinnov’s “spatial remapping” was perfectly audible, and that’s with a system where the loudspeakers are more or less correctly (and carefully) placed. For example, “Die Tänzerin,” an obscure German pop recording by one Ulla Meinecke from her album of the same name, features startlingly clear, forward studio reverb and finger clicks in its opening bars. With Trinnov’s 3D Spatial Remapping engaged, the reverb recorded was obviously richer and "deeper," and the finger snaps emanated from a point a good 6 inches higher than I heard from unprocessed stereo. In fact, the spatial effect was profound enough that I found myself rechecking the front-panel display (and speakers) to make sure I was still in stereo mode.
Moving on to multichannel playback, the permutations became dauntingly numerous. Nevertheless, with the full- Monty Trinnov engaged, something analogous was clearly happening. For example, on that excellent Telarc Mahler SACD, the tenor’s voice on the opening bars of “Ging heut Morgen . . .” sounded decidedly deeper up the stage, the accompanying woodwinds broader, and the whole surround perspective a bit “lower” (as if listening from farther back in the house) with Trinnov 3D engaged than without it.
Trinnov’s DSP includes room EQ, too, which can be engaged independently of the spatial functions, and which gives the user a choice of four “target curves,” labeled Flat, A.Phile1, A.Phile2, and Natural. The first shoots for “literally” flat in-room response (and gets fairly close, to my ear); the second “normalizes” center and surrounds to the response of your main left/right pair; the third focuses the full complement of available DSP upon more precise correction of all channels below 300 Hz only (where most room problems typically reside); and Natural delivers a euphonic in-room sound, with a slight bottom-octaves bass-boost and very mild down-tilt of the top two. (Should new or custom target curves become available, they can be uploaded via USB.)
Trinnov can even do extreme spatial re-mapping, too, via its “Autoroute” mode. This lets you do crazy stuff like shifting the entire stage — for example, making the left-surround speaker the center, the right-front the left-front, and so on. For a more realistic trial, I ran a Trinnov setup with my center and front-right speakers deliberately misplaced by several feet each. Engaging 3D Remapping spatially reconstituted what I usually hear from the correct layout, and did it quite effectively. And this was not simple “balance-control” manipulation: When I’d shift my head a foot or two, the illusion would collapse dramatically. Such re-mapping might in fact prove useful for someone who simply cannot (or is forbidden to) locate speakers rationally.
Overall, I was mightily impressed by the Trinnov system. Each option appeared to perform very much as claimed, and the bottom-line sound not only was never degraded by the process, but also really did seem to gain a layer of spatial coherence and “life.” The Blu-ray Disc of K.D. Lang’s Live in London with the BBC Concert Orchestra (Image) is among the best-produced concert discs I’ve heard, with DTS-HD Master Audio sound that’s sumptuous and powerfully spatial without being overblown. And then, of course, there’s that voice! It was fascinating to play with the Trinnov options, which could perform tricks such as lifting Lang’s voice up from my under-screen center-channel speaker so that its origin was quite clearly dead center.
Nonetheless, such miracles did not come entirely free of sonic charge. With spatial re-mapping engaged on my normal setup, Trinnov induced an easily heard shift in Lang’s powerful contralto. This became woodier and almost a bit hollow sounding — as if she’d transformed from a human French horn into a human clarinet. Oddly, I didn’t note this on the aforementioned Mahler recording’s soloist, whose voice is in much the same range (Lang is almost a tenor), or with instrumental tones. But I did confirm it, though rather less distinctly, on a couple of other pop vocal recordings, and subsequently deduced that this was almost entirely an artifact of Trinnov’s vertical-repositioning algorithms. Thus, I heard it to some degree with 3D Remapping engaged but far less so, if at all, with 2D (horizontal-only) Remapping.
There’s plenty more R-972 news, though most will necessarily escape mention here. The Sherwood’s Reon video processing, which can be individually addressed and tweaked for scaling and “picture” controls by input/preset, delivered the expected artifact-free images. The supplied universal remote controller can communicate with the receiver either by infrared in the usual way or via RF (radio-frequency), making the unit cabinet-friendly. And the RF receiver is built right in — a substantial premium when you look at the price of aftermarket RF remotes. (The Sherwood remote’s multi-component abilities also extend to RF mode, as long as you connect IR flashers to its IR out.) And there’s the usual auto-room 2 mode that time-shares the back-surround amp channels, limiting the amp’s output to 5.1 surround if both functions are demanded simultaneously.
Sherwood clearly has done its best to make the R-972’s complexities less daunting. The layout of menus and controls is thoughtful, and the integration of Trinnov variables into the Input Setup menu settings is as good a solution as I can think of. (But more than the five provided inputs/ presets are really necessary.)
That said, the list of shortfalls is not, umm, short. The supplied remote, while roomy and complete (and RF!), has no illumination other than the mostly useless LCD at the top (this IDs its component-control mode) plus glow-in-the-dark key-tops. And its dim gray-on-black, small-type graphics are only readable in full daylight.
Unfortunately, the Sherwood’s onscreen menus aren’t high-def. Nor do they overlay video signals, instead commandeering the entire screen and blanking both audio and video the entire time they’re up, plus several seconds each while they appear or disappear. There are no pop-up onscreen displays at all, whether for volume, inputselect, or audio/video data formats. If you want more information than is visible on the receiver’s own front-panel display, you’ll have to revisit the onscreen menus.
Perhaps more critically, there’s no way to make temporary changes to individual channel levels with Trinnov engaged. Sherwood’s auto setup proved very accurate, but if you want to adjust, say, centerchannel level to tame an annoying, tooloud, know-nothing sports commentator (like that could ever happen!), you’re out of luck unless you switch out of Trinnov mode and access the channel-trim function (another laborious trip to menu-land). Nor is any volume management software, such as Audyssey Dynamic Volume or Dolby Volume, onboard.
Another omission I’m sorry to note is any sort of networked-audio (or video) features. The R-972 can play MP3/WMA files from a USB thumb drive but will not stream from a DLNA-compatible or other audio or media server. (Nor is there a Sherwood iPod dock option that I could discover.) No big deals in the grand scheme, but for an $1,800 receiver it demands mention, especially when streaming and high-rez-music downloading have become increasing parts of audiophile life, and when several far cheaper new Sherwood A/V receivers do incorporate these abilities.
But let’s put all that to one side. What the R-972 is truly about is Trinnov. And in that sense, and by delivering ample underlying audio and video goods to support it, Sherwood’s latest, longawaited A/V flagship is a VIP: Very Important Product. Sure, the R-972 lacks a few conveniences that shoppers in the $1K-plus bracket may expect (multiple HDMI outputs, HD menus), but so what? The newest Newcastle is a fine performer, with an Ali Baba’s cave of DSP delights at hand. Adventurous audio buffs, especially those who love high-quality surround music, will want to listen to one as soon, as closely, and as extensively as they can.