Why have two gadgets when you can have one that does two things? The answer, of course, is when that one thing doesn't do either of its two tasks well -- the Jack of All Trades Syndrome. When Sherwood told us last year it was making a receiver that had built-in network playback capabilities, meaning we could ditch our media streamers (tiny though they may be), we were naturally stoked. Many months on we've finally had a chance to put one through its paces and, if you click through, you can read our impressions of this slim and uniquely styled audio/video receiver -- and find out why we'll be reluctantly hooking our dedicated streamers back up.
Out of the box
The R-904N doesn't look much like any proper receiver we've seen before -- and that's not just because of this one's milky white color. (Yes, it's also available in black.) Dimensions of 17- x 10- x 2.5-inches make this about half the size of the Onkyo unit we pulled to make room for it, but with 700 total watts of power spread over 7.1 channels it certainly has the power and the outputs to manage most mid-range home entertainment systems with ease. It has the inputs, too, with full HDMI switching across three ports, component and composite video input, and digital audio over coax and optical ports.
The most notable inputs here are the ones you may not be used to seeing on a receiver: a pair of USB (one on the front, one on the back) and an Ethernet jack. Plug in a thumb drive and the device will serve up your audio and video files through a simple interface, or connect it to your network (either wired or with an included 802.11g adapter) to pull content from over the internet from sources like YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix, or you can pipe down audio and video from a local DLNA server. More on that in just a moment.
Setting up the Netboxx is about as easy or painful as any other receiver. The svelte dimensions do make stuffing all your connectors in the back a bit more of a hassle, but that's made up for by a light weight -- you can just hold it in one hand and plug everything in with the other. Once our speaker wire was clamped in and we were sure we had the positive leads on the right posts we connected the included omnidirectional microphone, placed it at listening height and, after a few minutes of static blasts, the unit auto-configured itself quite competently. We found the low frequency output to be a bit weak after this auto-tuning, but mom always did say we liked too much bass.
Despite a lack of on-screen menus for assigning video inputs to audio inputs it didn't take us long to get everything configured. The remote is predictably button-heavy and flimsy feeling, and it has a layout that is not particularly intuitive, but Harmony owners likely won't be bothered much by that.
It's worth noting that the R-904N has what can only be described as an awful lot of blue LEDs on the front. They shine down onto the floor, glow from behind the main power switch, and illuminate the five touch-sensitive buttons on the right. Needless to say this isn't a receiver for those who dig subtlety.
So as a receiver the Netboxx hits all the right marks, but the big news here is the ability to act as a networked media player thanks to VuNow. Sadly things wouldn't go so well here. Connecting to the network was completely pain-free and we were streaming YouTube clips in minutes, but getting to the better content online took a little more setup. Those streams are provided by the PlayOn server software, which must be installed on a machine somewhere else on the local network -- a Windows machine, mind. If you're on Mac or Linux you're out of luck.
PlayOn connects to Netflix, Hulu, and a number of other online providers, and while you can get a free 14 day trial, you'll need to front another $40 to keep your streaming going after that. Is it worth it? Sadly not in this case. Video quality on the R-904N was generally poor, with some significant compression effects chunking up everything we tried streaming. YouTube videos available online in HD looked like mid-'90s webcam stuff, and while HD Netflix videos looked better, they certainly weren't HD. To ensure this wasn't PlayOn or network-related we streamed the same content onto an Xbox 360 through PlayOn and the results were much nicer looking.
Video played over the local network and via connected storage did look better -- still not as good as on an Xbox 360 or PS3, mind, but better -- and browsing photos is quick and responsive, but we encountered occasional problems with higher-res video files having the audio and video get out of sync or start to stutter. Then there's the loading screen, presented when you select the VuNow input and lasting for something close to a full minute. That wait is somewhat minimized by a bizarre but soothing video of clouds accompanied by a very dramatic bit of Beethoven (Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 "Choral," to be precise). You'll be so perplexed that wait time will float right by... at least the first few times.
What we have here is a wonderfully slim (if somewhat garishly illuminated) and perfectly competent receiver with a rather mediocre networked media player built in. That Sherwood fit it all into such a light and skinny packaging is impressive, but the streaming video performance is disappointing. Audio playback and photo viewing is quite acceptable, however, so if that's what you're into then you'll be satisfied here. Its sub-$500 price at some retailers isn't completely out of the ballpark compared to other devices in its class, but you can save a few bills if have room for a separate media streamer -- and for a traditionally massive a/v receiver, too.