Seriously. I know you have that holiday bonus burning a whole in your pocket. I know you’ve been to your local Sony Store and been blown away by their 4K demo. I know you really want a new TV, and you don’t want to get stuck with “yesterday’s technology.” But you must wait. You have to wait. It just doesn’t make any sense to buy a 4K TV this year.
First: What is a 4K TV? Basically, they are TVs with greater resolution than what’s currently considered high definition. Some companies call them 4K, others call them Ultra HD (or UHD). They have approximately four times the resolution of a 1080P set (the highest current standard of HDTV). At larger sizes from the right distance, the difference is striking. So if you can afford the new TV, it’s a no-brainer, right? Not by a longshot…
There is little-to-no 4K content. It’s going to be years before your local cable/satellite/fiber company offers 4K channels and Blu-ray simply wasn’t designed with 4K in mind. Your only hope for content in the short-term is via streaming services — which are still trying to figure out how to compress all that data for the average American broadband connection. Chances are, you’ll need to upgrade your broadband service. What little content is being made available to early adopters comes at an additional price, and the options are slim. If you buy a Sony TV, for example, you’ll get access to SOME Sony Movies, but that’s it. Yes, Netflix is working with TV manufacturers to provide 4K versions of their original programs, but there’s still no timetable for when it’ll be implemented, and even when it does, we’re still only talking about a handful of programs you might actually watch.
Another way to look at it: a 4K version of a movie is essentially a digital negative, hence studios are going to delay making them readily available for as long as they possibly can out of piracy concerns.
There are still some standards yet to be determined. A fancy new screen isn’t worth as much if its ports and software are outdated within a year or two. For example, the current standard for HDMI wasn’t designed with 4K transmissions in mind. You do not want to buy a 4K TV unless it supports HDMI 2 and the first round of 4K TVs didn’t (because the standard hadn’t been finalized yet).
Price. I’m not talking about the price of the 4K TVs, which can be equivalent to the price of a small car. I’m talking about the price of the current generation of HDTVs — they are so affordable now, it’s ridiculous. You can buy a well-performing 50incher now for less than $500. Want to go bigger? You can get 60 and 70 inch screens for less than $1000, and not from knock-off brands either but from legit companies known for producing quality HDTVs. It makes no sense to spend an egregious amount for a “future proof” TV now when the current cost of a 4KTV is enough to buy both a regular HDTV now and a 4K TV later. Yes, I know Vizio just announced a 50 inch 4K TV for $1000, and yes, Vizio is one of the HDTV brands I trust, but — and this is a big BUT — it remains to be seen what compromises Vizio has to make to reach that price point. For example, we know for a fact that Vizio is dropping support for 3D, which is a shame, because passive 3D on a 4K set is SPECTACULAR. It’s theater quality. Vizio’s $1000 4K TV is also likely to offer a contrast ratio on par with its other “cheaper” models, which is good but not great. Remember, resolution and image quality do not go hand-in-hand. It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that a high-end 1080P set will perform better than an entry level 4K set, and for less money.
Will you even notice the difference? If you’re only in the market for a 50 incher, and you’re not planning to press your face up against the screen, the extra pixels probably won’t even make it your eyes. From what I’ve seen so far, 4K is really for the next generation of extra-large TVs with 70, 80, and 90 inch screens. And those are the sets that still require a mortgage to buy in the short-term.
So even if you’re superrich and can easily afford to be an early 4K adopter, I still can’t advise it. If you’re that rich, you probably have a special media room in your mansion set aside just for movie watching with blackout curtains and sound-absorbing walls. You don’t need a 4K TV because you have a kickass projector. Keep enjoying it and use the money you’d spend on a 4K TV on a first class ticket to Tokyo or something. I hear the robot show is amazing.
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 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 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.)
FYI: In addition to the Samsung I mentioned, Oppo also makes high-end Blu-Ray players with multiple inputs, like this one and this one. (SEE BELOW FOR A NOTE ON THESE.)
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 JANUARY 2019:
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…
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.