The most important home theater component: the receiver.

After seeing countless people get frustrated with their home theater, I have come to the conclusion that having an easy way to switch between sources is THE fundamental aspect of a “good” home theater.

It used to be simple: you had a coaxial cable from the wall into your TV, and you just lived with the sound the TV gave you. You got up off the couch, turned the dial to one of 13 channels, and then sat down and enjoyed. High def? Heavens, no. Easy? Oh yes.

Then came VCRs. We daisy chained the coaxial cable from the wall to the VCR, and then the VCR to the TV. We left the TV on channel 3 for years, and used the VCR to do all the work. Hopefully, the VCR remote also worked with your TV, and if it did, things weren’t too much more difficult: if a tape was playing, that’s what you saw. You hit stop, and you saw your TV stations again.

Then other stuff started arriving. We could keep daisy-chaining some of it, like game systems, but CDs demanded a nice stereo system. Things started getting messy. Some VCRs and game systems didn’t have RCA connections, so you started having half daisy-chained, half-switched setups. As more components were added, the remote sitution also got more complicated.

Then DVD came out, and everything went down the toilet. Now we had 4 levels of cabling for video alone: F-pin coax cable, RCA, S-Video, and now component. Most receivers didn’t convert between the types, so for every different type, that’s how many cables you had to have running to your TV. Now every time you want to change sources, you have to change it on both the TV and the receiver.  Some people got around this by plugging in all the cables directly into the TV, and then running a audio cable to the receiver… but it often didn’t work smoothly: the TV may or may not control the volume, the TV may or may not even HAVE the appropriate audio output, and the TV may or may not convert the analog and digital audio formats appropriately. I can only guess how many mothers were stranded at home not knowing how to push all the right buttons to watch their favorite TV show after their sons had left the whole system set to connect to their game systems the night before.

HDMI was supposed to solve all this, going back to a single cable carrying both audio and video. Everything moving forward, hopefully, would use the connection, making cable management… well… manageable. There wouldn’t need to be any conversion necessary…

…well… people didn’t just drop their old gear. VCRs stuck around because DVD recorders were a nightmare to use, combined with large VHS collections justifying the VCRs permanent residence. And new components didn’t always come out with HDMI support. The Nintendo Wii is still a pain in this regard today. So, we still have divided households: those who know how the press the right buttons the right amount of times to get to the right source for both video AND sound… and those who don’t.

So, it is possible to get simple and get HD video and sound? Yes. Get rid of all non-HDMI devices.  Not an option? Then the only other option is to get a receiver that can convert all inputs into HDMI. That means only one cable from the receiver to the TV. That means the TV can be left on a single source (“HDMI 1”) until the day it dies, like leaving the TV on channel 3 in the old days. And if the receiver’s remote can be programmed to work with the TV (as most should), the only thing you need to do with the TV (turn it on and off) can be accomplished on one remote. To switch between the sources, you just press the appropriate button on the receiver or its remote. Done.

So, how to you acquire such a receiver? Not by getting a home-theater-in-a-box combo, that’s for sure. You also won’t find one among the $299 entry level price point (unless you catch a lucky break and get a last year’s clearance model). The cheapest, easily-acquired  one I saw so far is the Yamaha RX-V567BL for under $350. Any above that in Yamaha’s series should do it. Onkyo’s 600 series and above should do it.  I would suggest going into your local electronics store and ask the salesperson if it does “analog to HDMI conversion”. If the sales person seems unsure, find someone else. If you find a few, compare the remotes and choose the one that’s most intuitive.  Yes, there are sound quality differences between receivers, but I’ve rarely heard someone lament the sound quality of their system… it’s always better than TV speakers anyway… but I constantly hear people lament over the difficulty of using their home theater.

*Update*

Just after I posted, I found a analog-to-HDMI receiver under $300:

http://www.amazon.com/Pioneer-VSX921K-7-1-Channel-Ready-Receiver/dp/B004MYFJME/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1339651900&sr=8-2

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