Do you really need an A/V receiver?

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.)

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.

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.

Quick Review: Harman Kardon SB 30

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A client who returned a MartinLogan Motion Vision soundbar opted instead for the Harman Kardon SB 30. This review will be short, though, because even though we were very pleased with the device, there are even better ones just around the corner. My buying advice would be to wait on a soundbar if you want one, as 2013 should be the year that soundbars finally enter the big leagues. If you need to buy one now, I still like the HK SB30, but I’d only get it if you could purchase it for a discount (like the client did).

Pros: It looks good. It sounds great. And it even does a surprisingly decent job simulating actual surround sound. The wireless subwoofer is attractive enough that you don’t need to hide it.

Cons: The less expensive HK SB16 actually offers a larger wireless subwoofer. The SB 30 doesn’t have HDMI inputs, an on screen display, bluetooth, or any number of other features that should be standard in high end soundbars in 2013. You also can’t really adjust the sound in any detailed way (bass, treble, etc.).  At $800, the price isn’t as steep as competing high-end soundbars from MartinLogan, Bose, and Sony, but it’s still a little more than it should be.

Review: MartinLogan Motion Vision Soundbar

Product:  MartinLogan’s Motion Vision Soundbar
Retail Price: $1500

Released this past summer, MartinLogan’s Motion Vision aims to fill a small-but-significant gap in home theater offerings:  the “high end” soundbar.  There are very few products in this category and understandably so.  If you have over $1000 to spend on a sound system, why not just go with a multi-speaker set-up?  The vast majority of people will do just that.  But not everyone can.  Some rooms simply can’t be outfitted in such a way.  Outside walls, lots of windows, inadequate crawl or attic space — these are things that can hinder speaker installation throughout a decent-sized room.  Or maybe the room just has a nice charm you don’t want to ruin with a multitude of speakers.  Also: If you could get outstanding 5.1 channel “surround” sound from just a single $1500 bar, it could actually be a good deal.  You wouldn’t need an A/V receiver.  You wouldn’t need to pull cables through walls.  Assuming you’ve already got a decent TV (with multiple HDMI inputs), you can use your TV as the receiver and simply plug the soundbar into your TV’s digital audio out port (which is becoming standard on decent HDTVs these days).  No extra components.  No need to hire an A/V installer.  You might not even need a universal remote.  None of that.  Which brings us to the $1500 question…  Is the Motion Vision that soundbar?

My client’s living room is a little over 20 feet x 15 feet.  That’s either large or medium sized depending on where you live.  In a big city like Los Angeles, it’s actually a nice-sized room, especially for a room solely dedicated to entertaining and nothing else.  It’s got two outside walls, lots of windows AND a charming mid-century Mediterranean look the client’s wife didn’t want to alter.  So the room definitely fit the bill for a soundbar, and powerful one at that (to fill the space adequately).  The Bowers & Wilkins Panorama and the Definitive Technology SoloCinema XTR were both out of the client’s price range (each runs over $2000).  Also, they were kinda ugly.  So, after reading some glowing reviews — here, here, and here — I recommended the Motion Vision.

The first thing you notice is how striking it is to look at.  It definitely looks like a $1500 piece of equipment, at least compared to other speaker systems.  But does it sound like $1500?  Our first test DVD:  The Blu-Ray for Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights.  Why a comedy, you ask?  Well, for one — it’s not just a comedy.  It has several racing sequences that can really test a system’s ability to handle action.  And secondly:  Sound is actually pretty important to comedy, especially for a slave-to-detail like director Adam McKay.  For all the over-the-top gags, there’s just as much humor found in the nuance of individual lines.

Our first reaction:  It sounded FANTASTIC.  Out-of-the-box, the sound was rich and full-bodied.   The race car engines revved like they did in the theater.   For a soundbar with no external subwoofer, the bass was more than enough.

But something odd kept happening.  On more than one occasion, I’d have to ask: “What’d that guy just say?”  Occasionally muddled dialogue is par for the course with movies featuring thick accents and lots of background action — but with the Motion Vision, just about any overly-deep, overly-raspy voice sounded like a character in a Guy Ritchie film.

I tweaked and tweaked the soundbar, but no matter how I adjusted the settings, mid-range dialogue sounded either a little muted (compared to other sounds) or too breathy.  I had to turn down the overall bass down a lot just to get the dialogue to sound the way I wanted it to (not an ideal solution if you like bass and don’t have an external subwoofer).

Note: The dialogue sounded better coming from a DTS source than a Dolby Digital source, but if you’re planning to use your TV’s digital out port, DTS likely isn’t an option.

Now, other people who listened to this soundbar didn’t mind the breathiness of the dialogue.  In fact, the amount of “depth” to the dialogue might even be considered impressive to some (because “tinny” voices are a sign of low quality).  Personally, I’d gladly take a little tinniness if it came with a bit more clarity.  So if you plan on watching as many dialogue-heavy costume dramas as you do action films, this might not be the soundbar for you.

For the client, the dialogue issue was actually forgivable.  And I have a feeling this is a common complaint among soundbar technology in general.  But there was a glitch that we couldn’t overlook.  The Motion Vision has an “auto-off/auto-on” feature.  At least, it’s supposed to. I wanted to set it up so the client never had to turn on or off the soundbar, so this feature was something I liked a lot.  On paper.  In actual practice, it didn’t work right.  Every time the Motion Vision turned itself off (to save power), the next time it turned itself on again (whenever it sensed a signal coming from the TV), it defaulted to the wrong audio source.  I tried this with two different units and both had the same defect.  So basically, if you intend to use the auto-power feature to reduce the need for a 2nd remote (or to keep from having program a macro into a universal remote), the feature is worthless.  Every time the system turned on, you still had to manually switch over the right source input.  Very annoying.  I had to turn off that feature and program a universal remote so that it turned on the soundbar manually with the TV.  Not the worst solution in the world, especially if you were already planning to use a good universal remote anyway, but I was really hoping to set-up the system so that it didn’t need a universal remote at all (because the TV and Blu-Ray player were the same brand, and because apps like Netflix and Pandora are baked into the TV itself).

Conclusion:  We returned the MartinLogan.  But it was a tough decision.  The thing was beautiful.  For the most part it sounded EXCELLENT, but the dialogue got a little lost under certain circumstances — just enough that I thought the client could save money and get a less expensive sound bar that wouldn’t be any worse in that area, and maybe even a little better.

The client wound up getting the Harman Kardon SB30 (currently retailing for just under $800). Overall, it’s not as “substantial” a sound delivery system as the MartinLogan — music especially doesn’t sound as good — but for movies it does hold its own against and even does better than the Martin Logan in a couple areas.  Dialogue tended to sound crisper and the SB30’s simulated surround sound worked much better i.e. it has a wider sitting area to get the full effect, and the effect itself was more profound (though still nothing compared to actual rear speakers). It also saved the client nearly $700, which is always a good thing.

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