Sherwood Newcastle P-965 AV Preamplifier 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Brian Kahn   
Monday, 01 May 2006

The Sherwood P-965 is a full-featured AV preamplifier that can serve as the centerpiece of a multi-room theater system without blowing even modest budgets. This piece is at the tops of the Sherwood Newcastle line and has just about every feature one could ask for in a high-end AV preamp, yet it is smartly designed to leave out many superfluous features that you don’t need but often pay for in more expensive components. The P-965 is priced at $1,495 and is indicative of Sherwood’s longtime philosophy of foregoing frills in order to keep its pricing competitive.

When I received the P-965, I found it well packaged inside a box within a box. When I removed the box, I noted that the unit was standard in size at 17-and-three-eighths by seven-and-three-quarters inches by 17-and-three-quarters inches deep and weighed a respectable 26 pounds. The front panel was attractively finished in aluminum, with two large knobs that flank a large display with a row of buttons under the display with a headphone jack and AV input hidden behind a drop-down door. The rear panel has a plethora of connections, including three component video inputs with one component video output, 7.1 analog inputs for your multi-channel music player, 7.2 analog outputs, tape loop, a phonograph input, three analog inputs, a USB input, four optical digital inputs, one optical out, two coaxial digital inputs with one coax out, six AV inputs and rooms 1 and 2 video out, Digilink, RS-232, DC triggers, and an IR input for second room control.

Notably absent from the otherwise loaded rear panel of the P-965 are any HDMI connectors. While many may think that all HDMI connections are the same, they are not. The HDMI connection standard is fairly new and still evolving as Hollywood studios struggle over the topic of whether or not to copy-protect their content when sent in HD. Sherwood’s solution to the problem of evolving HDMI standards (audio isn’t currently supported by HDMI in its current version) is to have HDMI switching handled in a small, external box called the Link. This way, when the standards change, you can simply switch out the relatively inexpensive Link, rather than being stuck with an expensive, out-of-date AV preamplifier. Without question, this is a clever move. The Link sells for about $300 and has multiple HDMI inputs, as well as composite, component and S-Video inputs. The incoming signals are transcoded as necessary and output as HDMI. The Link can connect to and is controlled by the P-965. The Link was not available for this review, but it is slated for release within weeks.

Features abound in the P-965. On the audio side, the P-965 can handle DTS-ES, DTS 96/24, DPL IIx, Dolby Virtual Speaker, Dolby Headphone, digital re-mastering to 192kHz/24 bits, Analog Devices 1852 192kHz/24-bit DACS for all channels, pure analog mode, selectable crossovers, lip sync-capable, Cinema EQ, Cirrus Logic 24-bit CS-49400 DSP, 7.1 input with bass management, SNAP (Sherwood Newcastle Automatic Parametric) EQ, automatic speaker set-up and more.

Video is not neglected, as the P-965 features universal video upconversion (i.e., your inputs can be composite, S-Video and component and you only need to run one output cable) and relay-switched component inputs for superior picture quality and unlimited bandwidth.

Sherwood doesn’t stop there. The P-965 is also user upgradeable with downloadable firmware. A second remote control is included for use in the second room. The primary remote control is the highly regarded Universal Remote Control RNC-510. The RNC-510 series also features a large LCD screen, a large preprogrammed library and learning capabilities.

Setting up an AV preamplifier can often be more challenging than most other components in a modest home theater system. There are typically many more connections and settings involved with AV preamplifier than any other component. This said, the P-965 was one of the easier AV preamps to connect and get running.

I started by making all the connections and noted that all analog audio connections were single-ended. Video connections were simplified from my prior unit, as I ran the best available analog video output from the source unit, whether it was composite or component, to the P-965. Due to the universal video feature, I only had to run a single set of component video outputs. Once all the connections were made, it was fairly simple to go through the menus and set up the controller. The Sherwood features an auto speaker set-up and equalization that was extremely simple to use. I found that it was quite easy to go through the set-up process and had everything ready to go in a few minutes.

I must note that the included remote, the Universal Remote Control RNC-510 normally sells separately for $250. The remote is well-regarded and can be programmed to control up to 10 devices, which should take care of most theater systems. Even’s resident remote critic, Andrew Robinson, has good things to say about this remote, which adds significant value to such an affordable AV preamp.

Music and Movies
After I got everything set up, I played a disc from a previous season of “Alias” (my wife controls the NetFlix list). I played the disc through the component video outputs of my Marantz DV-9500. I tried running the cables directly to my projector, as well as through the Sherwood. The video switching did not appear to degrade the picture at all. The audio track was fairly undemanding, but it gave me a chance to listen to familiar vocals, which I find to be a good indicator of a component’s performance. The vocals sounded correct and were very intelligible once I adjusted the center channel level up a bit from where the automatic set-up had set it.

I moved on to a more demanding audio track with “Master and Commander” (20th Century Fox) The Sherwood P-965 did a good job with the soundstage in the battle scene and provided a good sense of envelopment and detail with the individual effects. The vocals were easy to understand, a critical trait in an AV preamplifier. I found the bass to be fairly solid, but it had a bit of leanness in the midbass and midrange. I listened both with and without the EQ circuit engaged; I found I preferred the sound with the circuit engaged.

I then listened to the DTS track on “Kill Bill, Volume 2” (Miramax Home Entertainment). I played the scene in which Uma Thurman is placed in a coffin and buried alive. The nails were hammered in with authority; it sounded like there was actual construction going on inside my living room. The P-965 revealed the nuances of the sound effects and I could clearly differentiate between the sounds that were originating inside and outside of the coffin.

I wanted to check out some of unit’s audio features, such as the digital remastering and pure audio functions. I liked the pure audio feature; the difference it made was subtle but definite. I noticed a reduction in background noise and an increase in presence. The digital remastering was more hit or miss. The DACs in the Marantz disc player I was using as a source are quite good. If your source unit’s DACs are not as good, you may want to output the signal digitally and use the re-mastering feature.

I wanted to see how the P-965 fared with stereo music, so I listened to Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms (Warner Brothers), which I recently used in another review. The track “Your Latest Trick” had a clean midrange and did well with Mark Knopfler’s raspy voice. The high frequencies on cymbals were clean and clear, although there was not as much air and extension on the high end in comparison to the more expensive AV preamps I have tested, but there was never any harshness or excessive brightness. Imaging was solid but not pinpoint and the soundstage had good width.

Moving on to multi-channel music, I listened to Blue Man Group’s song “Sing Along with DM” from the Complex DVD-Audio release (DTS Entertainment). I found the sound to be very clean and accurate, with no signs of harshness. The Sherwood definitely performed well as a high-end separate when fed a 5.1 analog signal. While this sounds simple, many units fail to do it well. Overall, this was an exemplary performance from a preamp that performs well above its price.

The Downside
Right now, the lack of HDMI inputs via the Link is a problem, but that should be solved within weeks, so this is more of a notice than a knock on the preamp.

For me, the use of the preamp wasn’t as intuitive as I would have liked. While all AV preamps have their complexities, I long for the day when they are as easy to set up, calibrate and use as an Apple Macintosh computer. In comparison to other preamps I have tested and seen, I would rate the Sherwood’s ease of use somewhere in the middle of the pack. At its price, not having the absolute slickest interface might be easily forgivable.

You have to be impressed with the performance of this AV preamp when you consider how it holds up in terms of audio performance, as well as video pass-through. I have no question that the P-965 can serve well with two-channel music and even better with multi-channel audio and movies.

The feature set should satisfy just about everyone. With the inclusion of the optional HDMI Link, the price remains a reasonable $1,800 and the P-965/Link combination should perform nearly any function you could ask for. Sherwood paid careful attention to the build quality of the P-965, as the unit was very solid and the front panel conveyed quality and pride of ownership. I can easily recommend placing the P-965 on the really, really short list for those in the market for a controller in the $2,000 price range.
Manufacturer Sherwood Newcastle
Model P-965 AV Preamplifier
Reviewer Brian Kahn

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