A Dialogue on AV Receivers and Features
It doesn't take much to start an argument here at Audioholics. We have some pretty opinionated staff, and even the professionals we interact with will throw in from time to time. Earlier this year we had an internal discussion having to do with this question of trading amplifier quality for features. This time, I discussed making this dialogue public, as it worked out to a rather interesting back and forth that brought to light the issues associated with adding new features to AV receivers while simultaneous dialing back other items in order to maintain price points.
When a major manufacturer released their newest line of AV receivers, Gene got ahold of the specs, took a look and wrote the following email to the rep, copying me in the process:
Gene: Gosh, their receivers are getting wimpier and wimpier to include the latest useless features people don't need or care about but someone in Japan deems necessary. Its honestly embarrassing to sell these products. At under $500 receiver companies should focus on basic performance and let the consumer do the video switching in their display. This is just so ridiculous now.
Manufacturer's Rep: Unfortunately or fortunately, Gene, you live in Audio fantasy land. You & I represent less than one percent of the people who actually BUY this category of product. The company would go out of business in this category without FULL A/ V integration or if they designed product for you and I. Just remember one thing - it's a business. We have over a dozen competitors. Some of them have greater distribution and we still outsell them. You guys help us in that success. "Embarassing?" Open your eyes and smell the fresh air... Find a new street pharmacist too - whatever you're smoking is laced!
Clint: In my experience/opinion, I repeatedly encounter people who buy inexpensive systems - thinking they are getting everything they need. Then they get home and realize they can't even get audio off the HDMI inputs, cause the receiver only switches HDMI... so they have to buy about $200 worth of cables to make their $300 HTiB system work, in addition to the $150 in HDMI cables they purchased thinking that was all they needed.
This just happened to a friend of mine last week as he set up a system for some friends of his. By the time he was done he could have spent $700 and gotten a better system. Remember, these people don't plan ahead and buy cables online - so they get jacked at $35-$50 a pop even when they buy "cheap" at retail.
So, when a manufacturer releases products at a lower price point that do video upconversion and decode audio from HDMI I get excited... Cause right now people who spend less money get the most complex systems to configure and use - though they SAY they want "simple". Normally you think cheaper=simpler. But not in home theater. Not anymore. They have to deal with:
- Using multiple inputs on their TVs (cause they can't get anything on HDMI from their component video sources)
- Hooking up redundant analogue and digital cables to get audio, because their HDMI inputs don't decode audio
- Dealing with slow syncing because their system has to constantly negotiate between a 720p and 1080i signal as they switch channels...
- Running out of inputs because all their equipment uses TOSlink S/PDIF and the receiver only has one or two inputs...
- Not understanding why they can't use their TV speakers without having to run yet more cables - all of them analogue because their system doesn't transcode digital down to the analogue preamp or record outputs...
I really get what [these companies] are doing - the rest of us want the higher end equipment anyway. For the masses - give them these convenience features and we'll all be better off.
Gene: Oh come on Clint that’s a pile of crap. Most people buying a $500 or less receiver have a DVD player and cable box to hook up and that’s it. The cable box comes with a component video cable and anyone can buy an extra component cable for under $30 to connect to their TV from their receiver. The DVD player HDMI can be fed directly into the TV. If the user can't select cable input for Cable and DVD for DVD then they can buy a universal remote with macros that do it for them.
All budget receivers have [poor] upconversion capabilities, so while we are dumbing down their expectations of good audio with crappy amp sections, I guess it's appropriate we also dumb down their expectations of good video with crappy video upconversion and scaling.
The last solid budget receiver [this company] made with an excellent amp section was the [XYZ123]. The end user would have a much better audio and video experience with this receiver using its video switching for component and composite video and simply attaching a single HDMI cable from their DVD/BD player to their TV than they would with the latest round of chip amp receivers with pimple sized power supplies.
Sure [that version] couldn't do Dolby TrueHD but it doesn’t matter when the amp section on the receiver sucks so bad as to nullify the advantage of the better audio stream.
Most of my friends/family/neighbors I installed theaters for prefer to have good sound over features and we even ran a poll on our forums that agrees with this argument.
The end user is buying a perceived convenience of a box that does all the audio and video switching, not realizing they are degrading quality as a result. As more technologies emerge this will only get worse. Imagine, 3 years from now when you can buy a $500 receiver with 10 built-in amps to hookup more poorly placed and designed speakers in a room to underpower them and add more distortion and compression. Think Dumbing Down of Audio.
Clint's argument centers around the fact that you can't substitute for features, whereas you can add an external amplifier (provided you have preamp outputs). Add to that the fact that most consumers just want to hook up their system and have everything work. As more features are added, this becomes more and more possible. Gene's argument centers around the "enough is enough" postulation. Where does it end? And why do we need all these features in the first place? Isn't it all about the audio?
What was really cool was to see some manufacturers now take a two tier approach to their products. For example, Yamaha just released its RX-A "Aventage" Series of AV receivers, case in point being their RX-A1000 AV receiver, which focuses on audio quality above just jamming in every single creature feature they could find. Pioneer, of course, contines to put out its Elite receivers in addition to its regular line.
What we'd like to know is - what do you value most? Amplifier power? Or Features?
Take our poll and let us know what you think.
Competing models across receiver brands were as different in room calibration quality, video processing quality, and overall product philosophy as I remember seeing in quite some time.
When looking strictly at products that included a full set of pre-outs a wide gap in product weight (read transformer/amp quality) and features stood out. Frankly, it became quite easy to eliminate some of the possibilities using this criteria.
This year's retail prices are difficult to judge because some brands seem to allow official vendors to discount much more than others. So what may appear as say $700 model, may be more like a $600 model whereas another brand may be a true $700 model since nearly nothing is taken off the retail price.
Bottom line, be more careful than ever when shopping for a receiver.
For those wondering I ended up getting the Pioneer 1120-K. It's amp section is among those that Gene would probably be a little concerned with, but is in fact a step up over the 1020-K's. Pioneer's cost cutting seems to be in amp and chassis design. Pre-outs are more a necessity than ever at the sub $1000 level.
The low cost receiver market is always going to be a race to the bottom. The company that's willing to shoehorn the most crap into them at the lowest cost possible is going to be dominant. If the amplifiers have to suffer well that's just too bad.
For high price receivers, I would want lots of features and flexibility, but would only need a decent amplifier section power wise with high quality preouts. Amplification is pretty affordable with companies like Emotiva and even more so with the pro audio side, so I don't need Onkyo/Denon/Yamaha going nuts with the power.
As much as I appreciate audio quality, convenience is important. I wouldn't settle for an AVR that couldn't take at least LPCM over HDMI and do video switching. I probably could live without Dolby IIx but I like using it.
Take a look at the back of this Denon AVR-591.
This is a reasonably sized receiver that focuses on the demands of the consumer in a special way. It offers upconversion and the television will handle the scaling, which they often do better than most receivers costing much more than this unit. It has plenty of other nice features and reasonable build quality for a receiver in this price range. It's not the most robust in terms of amplifier sections, but it's better than most in the sub $400 range. The only thing they could have done better with this model was reduce the height by using a flatter transformer and switching from a folded aluminum heatsink to a shorter extruded aluminum heatsink.