Last week I was invited to visit the Sonos headquarters in Santa Barbara, CA, for a sneak peek at the company’s new PlayBar, a networked soundbar speaker that can be part of a wireless whole-house audio system. It’s very cool product, and you can read more about it here and in my review, which I’ll post next month. While I was there, it struck me how much content, control and processing talent was built into this speaker and how absent was the old standby, the home theater receiver.
Equally interesting was the observation that nowhere in the Sonos home theater room were there any speaker wire terminals. Ethernet jacks were on every wall.
But back to the receiver issue. The new PlayBar can do a lot: provide music from about 20 different streaming services; playback files from a smartphone or computer; connect to a TV to deliver audio from TV programs, video games and Blu-ray discs; act as part and processor of a 5.1 surround sound system and probably do something else important I’ve forgotten. All of this is accomplished without a traditional AV receiver.
I asked Sonos product manager Tom Cullen what he thought about the future of the home theater receiver, and he replied very bluntly, “the receiver business is history.” Cullen went on to explain he point, saying that the AV receiver is too complicated, uses too much power, is poorly designed and costs too much money (remember, the Sonos PlayBar costs $700). Why does he say this? Because the PlayBar “plays everything, is easy to control,” and sounds great (paraphrased). The guiding principle of the digital age, he says, is simplicity managing abundance.
That last thought—managing abundance, is important. While inputs have been steadily growing on AV receivers over the last several years, an even greater emphasis has grown in the area of built-in services and wireless connections. A home theater receiver is still the place you plug everything in, but it’s also becoming the place with everything already built-in: internet radio, streaming movie services, Wi-Fi connections, AirPlay and more. Managing that abundance of content is the receiver’s biggest challenge, and often a receiver’s biggest failure.
Related: The Case for Audio Separates
In many case, that’s where a home control system comes in. Where products fall short, programing can pick up the slack. Figuring out how to switch inputs, modes and devices with a top-level receiver can be daunting until a professional integrator programs all the commands into a simple-to-use interface, such as a touchpad, remote or even a smart phone.
Makers of products like Sonos might point out that much of that integration is already built into their products, eliminating the need for a control system and a receiver. For many rooms and many consumers, they’d be right. The Sonos PlayBar brings easy music management, minimal installation and setup time and simple control into one living room product.
In fact, soundbars in general, especially the ones that include their own amplification and source inputs, such as the Atlantic Technology PowerBar 235 (see review here), can replace the audio and switching responsibilities of a receiver for many people. That trend doesn’t mean that receivers are dead. Instead it means that better audio solutions are now available for more rooms.
I would argue that many of the simpler systems now on the market are not replacing receivers. They’re augmenting them. It they’re replacing anything, it’s the basic home-theater-in-a-box systems that are losing out.
Related: The Importance of Multichannel Sound
TVs that otherwise would sit alone, supported only by the fly-paper speakers wedged in between their glass panels and printed circuit boards, now can be part of a better overall entertainment experience.
For the best performance, however, a dedicated receiver with it’s built-in talents still remains the best way to achieve true home theater. A dedicated receiver offers more power, more inputs and overall more options and flexibility.
So are receivers dead? Not yet, and not likely in the near future. Rather than dying out, receivers will probably continue to evolve by incorporating capabilities they don’t currently hold and expanding their reach. I’m satisfied that there’s room in the world for both simplicity and complexity, depending on your needs. We can have it both ways.
Electronic House Info Series: Home Theater Receivers
See Also: 10 Features for Your Next Home Theater Receiver.
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Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.