Dead to Me: The A/V Receiver

I used to love my receiver. It gave me a sense of dork pride to know that sure, I had suffered great pains to get everything hooked up, but my reward was a rich stereo sound experience that the other losers in the audience were missing. No TV sound for me. Like most things though, as I got older, the inconvenience of dealing with the machine started to overtake the enjoyment of the result.

When we got a new TV stand this week for the big TV we bought last year (the old cabinet had the TV at the wrong height) I realized that there was almost no activity in the universe worse than rewiring the receiver.

Receivers used to be fairly simple. There were four or five stereo inputs in the back and one or two speaker hookups. You run the wires, turn everything on, and listen to music. Video, and worse, surround sound, have made the modern receiver into a huge frankendevice that costs as much as a PC and weighs three times more.

Even the relatively primitive Sony thing I bought almost ten years go is terrifying to behold. It weights about 20 pounds and has an array of holes in the back that make it look like an old patch-board for one of those vacuum tube computers you see in the movies. My receiver only deals with the audio and video interconnects that were available at the time:

1. Normal or S-Video 2. Stereo sound 3. Digital surround (I don’t remember which one). 4. Analog 5.1

These days, you also have to deal with

1. 18 kinds of digital surround encoding, after you’ve figured out what kind of interconnect to run. 2. HDMI 3. Component video 4. Analog surround 5. Multi-room interconnect

And so on.

In addition, for all their size and terrifying nature, the average A/V receiver doesn’t come close to having a sufficient number of inputs to handle the devices that your average dork might own. Game consoles, cable boxes, Apple TV, Tivo, Airtunes, DVD players, media center TVs? All of these run video and audio. If I wanted to take “full advantage” of everything I might own, I would need a box to switch around seven video devices, all of which have component or HDMI output and surround sound capabilities.

Even the high end receivers with those huge backpanels can manage at most five HD sources with surround sound. The huge backpanels mostly hold jacks for stereo and RCA or S-Video, which in theory no one is interested in anymore. Therefore, even if I went out and bought a $1000 receiver, I still have to go out and buy a another box to switch everything, even though the main use for the receiver is, you know, switching. Then I have to figure out how to run all the wire between two boxes, and which digital surround interconnect to buy, and how to run 5 sets of speaker wire out to all the speakers. Did I forget to mention that the single worst consumer electronics user experience in the entire universe is hooking speaker wire into those retarded binding posts on the back of a receiver? Surely someone in the last fifty years could have thought up a better way to do this. This is why I’ve never bothered with surround. That, and the only time I can use the video system is at night when half the house is in bed… not a a great time to crank up the subwoofer demo.

So let’s review. The A/V receiver does two things:

1. Surround sound processing which is too complicated to set up, and which I will never use.

2. Video switching, only it sucks and you have to buy something else to do that.

All of this pain flooded into my head because the furniture people did not deliver the shelf pegs for my new cabinet. This meant that I could not really set everything up the way I had it before. So, on a lark I just connected all the video and stereo sound right into the TV. What I found was that this was infinitely easier than running audio and video into the receiver and back out again. The 4-way video switchbox that I have can sit behind the TV rather than inside the cabinet, making the wire runs easy. The back to the TV is much easier to reach than the back of the receiver. All in all it took maybe half an hour to hook everything back up instead of the normal hour or two of pain with the receiver.

My takeway from all of this is:

1. Surround sound is still not worth the pain.

2. Buy a cheap video switchbox and run everything into the TV.

3. If your TV has speakers that suck, run the stereo out from the TV into a two channel amplifier and buy some nice speakers. The two channel amp can also be used for Airtunes.

After playing around with this new hookup scheme, I decided that what the world needs is a simple and cheap surround processor/amplifier that takes a digital input or two and puts out 5.1. Let me restate this for extra clarity. The box would one thing: decode the digital signal into 5.1 surround and feed that to a multi-channel amplifer. No switching, no video scaling, no remote control, nothing. One wire in, six wires out. That’s it. I would hook this up behind my video switcher or television. Then you can get surround without a useless receiver in the chain. The auto-switcher is better at switching than the receiver anyway. Of course, no one makes such a thing. There are only expensive dedicated surround processors that are like receivers without the power stage. There are also expensive dedicated multi-channel amplifiers that don’t have the right interconnect. It’s great how you can spend arbitrary amounts of money and still get the wrong thing. Maybe sometime in the near future someone will make the right device and surround sound won’t be stupidly painful to set up anymore.

Meanwhile, it was dead easy to set up my spare Airport Express as a wireless bridge for the Xbox so I could get rid of the extra Linksys router that I had been using for nothing but the Xbox. Yet again computer networking proves easier to deal with than home video.