A little while ago I wrote an article discussing the top 10 features you might want to look for in your next audio/video receiver. Many of those were top-level or cutting edge features that may be unnecessary for some or many users, depending on how you intend to use your receiver and media room. To take that a step further, I thought it would be useful to look at features you really don’t need on a receiver. Like the earlier list, a case could be made for or against any of these features, depending on the individual user.
You may have noticed lately that, while everything else in the home tech world is getting smaller, thinner and easier to use, the home theater receiver (or A/V receiver, surround sound receiver… whatever) seems to be getting more bloated every year. The back panels look like old-fashioned telephone switchboards and the front panels look like NASCAR autos covered with corporate logos—those logos give you an indication of just how many redundant services, over-hyped processes and never-used adjustments these boxes are packed with.
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My guess is that audio component manufacturers are jealous of all the attention the TV companies are getting, so to overcompensate they stuff their boxes with more riffraff than you find in the belly of great white shark.
But I happen to like sharks. They’re tough, put up a fight and are always the center of attention when they show up at beach parties.
Anyway, here’s a roundup of receiver features most people could do without:
1. Legacy Analog Inputs
My receiver has more than 50 red, white and yellow analog AV jacks in the back, plus component video (thankfully no S-video), and a whole lot of other holes to plug wires into. Most of them will never be used. All of my sources, well, almost all, connect via HDMI. The Wii (which now counts as a legacy device because there’s a new Wii on the market) struggles on with its analog inputs. An Autonomic music server also takes up a digital optical port. That still leaves more than 45 unused inputs and outputs on the back panel. For high-performance AV receivers, this is pretty standard. It’s like buying a Ford F-150 just to cart groceries—so much wasted space.
Receiver companies do this, of course, because they want to make sure the box is ready for anything and everything, but most users don’t have anything and everything to connect to it. Unfortunately if you want the highest power and top processing from a receiver, you have to get the model that’s also got the highest quantity of redundant features.
2. Dock connectors
What are docks, you’re asking? That’s exactly my point. With wireless connectivity (Bluetooth, AirPlay or DLNA) on every new receiver, there’s no need for a physical dock for your iOS or Android device. In fact, a dock presents the major drawback of taking the device out of your hands. How can you browse your music stations or album collection when the device is at the other end of the room? Go wireless or go home.
But all that wireless streaming drains your smartphone battery, so maybe a docks isn’t so bad after all.
Get rid of remotes? Now you’re thinking I’m in crazy territory, but hear me out. Look at these receiver remotes below. All terrible, right? Too many small, confusing, poorly-organized buttons. None with usable backlighting. All have face designs that defy logic. Now look at the apps below. The buttons are larger, most allow you quicker access to features and are easier to use. Finally, look at 3rd-party controllers. Those interfaces were designed for simplicity and functionality. They allow you to watch a movie, listen to a Pandora station or play a video game without needing the wisdom of The Force to guide you through the process.
Typical receiver remotes
Three apps for receivers
Control interfaces from custom programmed systems: Crestron and Control4
Every home theater installer in the country tucks away the receiver remote almost immediately after installing a system. Instead of the supplied remote, they integrate a control system or a universal remote. I say let the receiver companies ditch the complex fields of buttons and instead bundle basic set-up remotes akin to the ones projector makers usually offer. Then you can add a universal remote and make your life a whole lot easier.
4. Headphone Jack (well maybe, but)
My guess is that headphone use in the home is pretty much like headphone use outside of the home—the headphones are being connected to a portable device, not a big receiver. Aren’t most receiver placed far away (or even in other rooms) form the seating position anyway? I know they come in handy for late-night movies when you don’t want to wake the kids. For that I like the new Roku 3 player that puts a headphone jack on the remote—that’s genius.
5. Multiple listening modes
When you sit down in your comfy chair to listen to music are you thinking, gee, why can’t this sound like an open amphitheater in the rain or the sweaty nightclub in DC where I lost my wallet? Nope, I want to listen to music the way it was recorded. Packing 57 listening modes into a system just clutters up the experience. I may want to switch between standard stereo and a fake multichannel mode, but that’s really about it.
Except during initial setup and maybe when you’re showing it off to a friend, there’s little reason to ever get close enough to a receiver to turn the massive (why are they so big?) volume and tuning knobs. Every receiver has a remote (sure, most are pitiful remotes), and most have smartphone apps. Just leave all the controls to the device you hold in your hand, so the box itself doesn’t look like a component from the 80s. Do TVs still have big knobs, buttons and dials on the front? Nope.
7. AM/FM Radio
There are two times we listen to analog radio in my house. The first is on snowy winter mornings when we’re waiting to hear if school is cancelled (though the school usually sends us text messages before the radio tells us). The second is, um… Nope, I was wrong; there’s only one time. I still listen to some (well, two) traditional radio stations, but I tune in the web-based broadcast via TuneIn Radio on either a Sonos system or the TuneIn Internet service on my home theater receiver. Why bother with antennas, static and a tuning knob when I can tap an app and get a cleaner-sounding station?
8. HD Radio
The concept of HD Radio sounded pretty good when it first started hitting the market years ago. Who doesn’t like better sound and more options? There are two problems with it though: first, it’s still basically just radio. For the most part, HD Radio station are just digital versions of standard existing stations, and the public doesn’t need more of that, even if it sounds a little better. Second, just like AM/FM, Internet music has proven a more satisfying option for almost everyone.
The point about this, especially the parts in which I offer counterpoints to my own arguments, is that when making a decision about a component that you’re going to use for many years, you should seriously put some time into understanding how you’re realistically going to use it. Do you want to pay a few hundred dollars more now for a receiver with a phono input because you might want to dig out your old college-age LPs, or would you be better off getting a higher-quality outboard amp, or just going to iTunes and downloading those old albums to your iPad.
Receiver companies, though, don’t really give us a choice. If you want the receiver with 4K upscaling and 6 HDMI inputs, you’re also going to have to live with a trunkful of other features you won’t use. As receivers go up in performance specs, they don’t get more specialized, they get more bloated. The result is a lot of people end up buying things they don’t need just to get the few features they do. It’s like car shopping–to get the GPS you have to buy the package that includes a sunroof, fancy hubcaps and seat warmers, none of which you really want. I’d rather see receivers come in a more modular format so we can buy just the features we need and upgrade modules when necessary.
Read 10 Features for Your Next A/V Receiver, which frequently contradicts this list.