The short answer is “no.”
The long answer is “hell no.”
Look, if you have a dedicated home theater space with 5 or more separate speakers, then, yeah, you’ll need something to control them. But you already know who you are and you aren’t reading this. If that is you and you are reading this, then stop. You do need an A/V receiver or something like it. This post is for people who landed here after typing “Do I really need an A/V receiver?” into a search bar. To you, the answer is: Only if you want one. It’s not a requirement for good sound these days.
Why wouldn’t you want an A/V Receiver?
Three reasons: Added complexity, cost, and feature redundancy.
The added complexity is evident every time you try to tell someone else how to watch TV: Turn on the TV, then turn on the receiver, then set the TV to video input 1 and the receiver to SAT/CAB, oh, and then make sure the cable box is turned on, and remember, if you want to control the volume don’t use the TV remote! Why does simply watching TV have to be that complicated? Sure, you can get a universal remote that might streamline the process, but they aren’t perfect. Even a top-of-the-line smart remote can be problematic if it gets out of sync with your equipment (for example, if the remote thinks a component is on when it’s really off). The only true way to simplify the experience — and increase the reliability of universal remotes — is to reduce the number of overall components.
The cost is evident in the amount of money you’ll be missing from your pocket.
The redundancy is evident in the other features you probably don’t need. For example, a lot of receivers now come with Apps built-in (Pandora, Netflix, etc.). Sounds great, except chances are you have those same apps also in a different component. Do you really need Netflix on your TV, Blu-Ray player, Apple TV, smart phone and your receiver?
So why would you want one?
1. As mentioned, you want true surround sound.
2. You like listening to the radio.
3. You have more video components than your TV has inputs.
What are the alternatives?
As TVs gets thinner and slicker, the built-in speakers gets worse and worse (or, at least, it seems like they do). You really don’t want to rely on your TV’s built-in speakers for anything cinematic, which means you will want some sort of sound system, just not one that requires an A/V receiver for power. I’m a big fan of soundbars for this very reason.
NOTE: If you are perfectly content with the sound from your TVs speakers, and you just need a device that can switch between your many components — cable box, blu-ray player, game system, etc. — you can just get an HDMI switcher.
If the idea of a soundbar intrigues you, consider doing what too few people do these days — plug all your components directly into your TV’s multitude of inputs. Then use your TV’s “digital audio out” port to send the audio from your TV to the soundbar. And that’s it. Every time you change inputs on your TV, the soundbar will automatically keep up.
Even better: You can get a soundbar that will automatically power up when your TV turns on, meaning you never have to worry about turning it on or off.
You can then simply program your cable or satellite box’s remote to adjust the Soundbar’s volume instead of your TV’s, eliminating the need for a universal remote (for TV watching, at least).
Pro Tip: If your TV allows you to turn off the internal speakers completely, do it. That way you never have to worry about accidentally hearing sound from both the TV’s speakers and the soundbar. Many newer HDTVs have that option. If yours does, then it also probably has the option to send a “fixed” audio signal to the soundbar, meaning no matter what the TV volume is set at, the soundbar will still get the signal it needs. Ideally, you want a set-up where the TV’s speakers are off completely and the only way to control the volume is from the soundbar.
Another option: Find a Blu-Ray player with HDMI inputs.
They’re rare, but they do exist. Being able to use your Blu-Ray player as an HDMI switcher can streamline the number of components in your home theater, which is always a good one thing.
Two more situations where you might want either HDMI switcher or a Blu-Ray player with inputs:
1) If your HDTV doesn’t have “discreet” inputs.
“Discreet inputs” means that each input on the TV has it’s own separate remote code to switch to it. That’s very handy for universal remotes. For example, let’s say your cable box is input 1 and your Blu-Ray is input 4. With discreet inputs, your universal remote only has to send one command to switch from “CABLE” to “BLU-RAY” and vice versa. The chances of messing up are rare. But if your TV doesn’t have discreet inputs, then that means you can’t switch from input 1 to input 4 without cycling through inputs 2 and 3. And to get from 4 to 1, you have to cycle through 5, 6, etc, all the way back to 1. In other words — the universal remote has to virtually send many button presses to accomplish one task, which is very prone to errors. If you like the idea of pressing a single button and letting the remote do all the work, you really need a TV (or other device) with discreet inputs.
2) If your HDTV is already mounted to the wall.
If your TV is already mounted to the wall, you might not not have access to the TV’s inputs or you might not want to string new cables in front of the wall. For example, I have a TV in my house that was mounted with just a single HDMI cable built into the wall (for the best aesthetics). The idea was to use that single, hidden HDMI cable to connect the TV to a receiver, and just use the receiver to switch between the other components. But to make things easier for my wife, I ultimately decided not to put a receiver in this room, and opted for a Blu-Ray player with 2 HDMI inputs for additional components — the Samsung BD-E6500 (which Samsung, sadly, no longer makes). Oppo also has been known to make high-end Blu-Ray players with multiple inputs, like this one and this one.
So there you go… Thanks to an ever-improving stable of soundbars and other devices, if you don’t want the hassle or complexity of a receiver, you really don’t need one.
What does my receiver-less A/V set-up look like?
I use a Sony soundbar with HDMI inputs to connect an Apple TV and Blu-Ray player to my TV — and it all works without a universal remote control. (Why no cable box? Because I currently use the Youtube TV app on my Apple TV for all my live TV needs. If I did need a cable box, though, the soundbar has a third HDMI port.)
And how did I get it all to work without a universal remote? Because of something called HDMI-CEC. It’s a standard that allows for A/V components to talk to each other over HDMI cables. Each brand has their own name for it. Sony calls theirs Bravia Sync. Sharp calls theirs Aquos Link. Samsung calls theirs Anytime+. You get the picture. By enabling this feature on all my components, the Soundbar will automatically switch to whichever device is being used (Blu-Ray player or Apple TV) and the TV will automatically turn on and off as needed. Easy-peasy!
UPDATE DECEMBER 2021:
Just took a look around the web, and there really isn’t a Blu-Ray player with multiple inputs I feel comfortable recommending anymore. If I find one, I’ll update this post again. In the meantime, here are some soundbars I like a lot, that can help you both simply your home media experience while still upgrading your sound.
Highly recommended if you are already in the SONOS eco-system, but not recommending otherwise. It has no HDMI inputs or pass-thru, which means it can’t do Dolby Atmos processing — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it’d be a “simulated” Atmos experience anyway, but there are some soundbars that do a really good job simulating it. Soundbars like…
This one is very expensive and rarely on sale, but it works as advertised. If you’re looking for something cheaper, try…
This one is less expensive than the Sony, while actually offering “true” surround sound via dedicated rear speakers.
Note: The surround speakers require their own power supply, which could restrict their placement around the room.
If you can live without “true” surround sound, another soundbar at the top of my wish list is…
Even less expensive, but still includes a couple HDMI inputs, and good audio reviews.
Looking for a couple more options under $500? Here ya go…
Won’t fill a large room like a Sonos Playbar, but still very versatile if you already have other Sonos products in your house (or you’re thinking of getting some). Also: No HDMI inputs, so you’ll be using your TV as the HDMI switcher with this one, and not getting Atmos.
This one is dirt cheap for Yamaha sound (which general ranks really high among soundbars). The trade off? Only a single HDMI input — so it’s target market is cord-cutters who rely on a single streaming box (Roku, Apple TV, etc), and not for people doing a lot of switching between devices. But it also has a digital optical input, so you can use your TV as an HDMI switcher for multiple devices. Also: At this price level (under $200), you’re not likely to get a subwoofer included. At least, not a decent one.
In truth, just about any soundbar will be better than your TVs built-in speakers.
Looking for other home theater equipment? Don’t forget to check out Amazon’s TV & Video deals.