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 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 movie watching, 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).
Note: 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 one:
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. So then what?
I could’ve just gotten an HDMI switcher, but then I stumbled across the Samsung BD-E6500. It’s a Blu-Ray player with two HDMI inputs. Perfect. I plugged the BD player into the TV using the HDMI cable that’s strung through the wall. Then I simply plugged the DirecTV box into the BD player. Even better, the BD player has what’s called an “HDMI pass-through signal.” That means whenever the BD player is turned off, the DirecTV signal automatically “passes through” it to the TV. Switching between components is as easy as turning the BD player on and off (on when I need Blu-Ray, off when I need DirecTV). I only have the BD player and a DirectTV box hooked up to this TV, so I didn’t even need the 2nd HDMI input. (Though I might use it in the future for an Apple TV. At the moment, the Blu-Ray player has all the “smart functions” I need, like Netflix.)
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.
UPDATE APRIL 22, 2017
Looking for a soundbar that can also supply true surround sound? This one from Vizio could fit the bill:
Note: The surround speakers require their own power supply, which could restrict their placement around the room. Also: It doesn’t have HDMI inputs, so your TV would need enough inputs to handle all your components.
If you can live without “true” surround sound, a soundbar at the top of my wish list is this one from Yamaha:
It’s simulated surround sound rivals many multi-speaker set-ups and it has 4 HDMI inputs, so you can plug a range of components directly into the soundbar (much like you would an AV receiver). It’s super-pricey though, hence it being on my “wish list” and not “in my living room.”
A more reasonably priced soundbar that can act as an HDMI switcher is this one from Harman Kardon:
It also has 4 HDMI inputs, and is marked down a great deal because it’s a slightly older model.
Are there cheaper soundbars to be found with both good sound and at least 4 HDMI inputs? I’ll keep my eye for some, and add them here…
Looking for other home theater equipment? Don’t forget to check out Amazon’s TV & Video deals.