Is The Home Theater Receiver Dead?

In the battle of simplicity vs complexity, who wins? The home theater receiver or the soundbar?


A couple of years ago I visited 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 PLAYBAR review. While I was there, it struck me how much content, control and processing talent was built into this soundbar 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. However, Ethernet jacks were on every wall.

But back to the receiver issue. The SONOS PlayBar, and other similar products from companies like Samsung and Polk, can do a lot: provide music from many 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 his 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: Soundbar or Sound Base? Which Speaker Style is for You?

In many case, that’s where a home control system comes in. Where products fall short, custom programming 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 a smart phone app.

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, 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 (or maybe just easier) audio solutions are now available for more rooms.

Another technology that could put a dent in AV receivers is WiSA–a wireless technology that Klipsch demonstrated in a 7.1 home theater system at the 2015 CES. In that setup, a small wireless transmitter box (about the size of a router) accepts all the home theater source inputs, and sends audio signals to the speakers wirelessly. I heard it in person, and the system is awesome.

I would argue that many of the simpler systems now on the market are not replacing receivers. They’re augmenting them. If 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 its 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.

For the record, I use both options in my home. My dedicated home theater includes a traditional AV receiver and a professional home automation system (Control4). My living room TV gets its sound from a sound base speaker, and my bedroom TV goes without external speakers (we only use it to watch the news).

RELATED: Find the Best Home Theater Receiver Under $500

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.

Looking to purchase a SONOS Playbar? Visit Amazon.

See Also: 10 Features for Your Next Home Theater Receiver.

Originally posted on March 4, 2015 and updated on January 12, 2016.

  • I concur. Sonos doesn’t understand a basic truth. If you oversell a product or service it leaves the customer wondering if other statement are valid as well. Quality home theater comes at a price. It like folks who said the iPad will kill the laptop. I own both and find both useful. If I am watching the television for a tv show or the news a sound bar might be nice. But watching a movie in a home theater and having a full featured AVR with high quality speakers and 10ft screen with high quality projection will never be replaced by a soundbar, never! Now projection being replaced by new large 4k tv’s is another discussion.

  • Frank Malitz

    While Sonos has done a remarkable job, their sound bar won’t fit under most of today’s larger TVs. In addition, it cannot do surround sound! A good Yamaha can put a bird on your shoulder while a wolf howls a half-mile behind you. Everyone seems to be taking shots at the Sonos architecture. Sooner or later, someone will eat into their market share. Apple is not the only smartphone.

  • Sonos has done a good job in soundbar with astonishing good stereo sound. While yamaha soundbar sound terrible in music. In general traditional av receivers still sounds the best but pls do not tell me yamaha av receiver sounds good not even their aventage series.

    • I have to agree, the Remote is the killer app, esciepally if you have been after home music automation for some time.I am not an apple user, never have been really, not for any particular reason, other that I have always had tons of software for the PC, so never bothered.Also, I was never going to get caught up in all the iPhone hype when it came out.I had been using mp3 s for years, used to use musicmatch as my music library software, then somehow gradually migrated to itunes by default.When I moved into my apartment some years ago, I did that frantic ok,ok what wires do I need to put between which rooms, while I have the floorboards up, before I move in (anyone who has been through this will know what I am talking about).The result is always the same.. you never quite manage to futureproof your config do you?Anyway, I had tried various products for a diy solution over time, like the create remote music library, which got the concept that with a music remote you need to be able to see what is playing on the remote itself, and the remote needs not to be line of site. However, it was slow, clunky, required propriatory server software.. basically worked poorly.I happened to pick up a second hand 2g iphone 3 weeks ago stumbled across the Remote app,then apple airport all problems solved.I now run itunes with airport express, which compliments my wired audio set up brilliantly.I have tunes on my main pc in my study, also on my media pc in my living room which is also connected to my kitchenIn my bedroom I have an amp connected to an airport, which has speakers in the bedroom and the ensuite.A long-winded explaination I know, but the upshot is I can now completely control the music in my living room, study, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom seemlessly from one excellent remote, which happens to be a phone too!

  • Vincent Bova

    I find it surprising that SONOS thinks receivers are not made well. The Playbar is extremely invasive in appearance and has the subtlety of a small Elephant. I would also be curious to find out how efficient a SONOS connect or SONOS AMP are – you can fry an egg on them after an hour of use. SONOS needs to figure out a way to support high fidelity before they comment on these types of topics.

  • Todd Nelson

    What an absurd statement that the AVR is history. I haven’t seen, or heard, Dolby Atmos from anything other than an AVR. If I want to watch the news or a game show, or listen to basic radio then a soundbar is
    adequate. People have gotten so used to listening to highly compressed music that they are willing to endure
    the mediocre sound coming from most whole house audio systems. To listen to CD quality or higher sound, a receiver with speakers of Totem quality, or higher is necessary. For just listening to music as background, then Sonos is fine, but then again, my IPhone makes sounds I can tolerate as background.

  • A soundbar will never replace a top flight home theatre and to achieve that you will need an avr or pre/pro with amps. C’Mon man!

    • I don’t know Sonos well, but I imagine it has no way to dilpsay the ads which Pandora uses to support itself. If this being the case then those using the Sonos product would have to pay more directly for the service, especially in light of the recent changes to fees relating to Internet Radio. Unless of course Sonos themselves is paying some fee for all its users to use the Pandora service?

  • History has shown many times that good enough will win. No one is saying that a multi channel soundbar based system sounds better than a full blown receiver based system. But such a system will be successful as long as other needs are met and it sounfpds good enough.

  • For certain installations the Playbar makes sense. I just finished an install and in no way could the customer handle the receiver set up because of the complexity even though it was being controlled with a Harmony. In place I set up a projection system with a Playbar and wireless Sub and I am using the Octava HDMI/Optical to handle the switching of the audio. Works great, less gear and east to use.

  • oswald jameson

    Well I agree that some receivers are hard to work, But if fitted properly they can b easy to work, with a click of a few buttons, and if anyone putting in a projector system they need a good surround system, as for Sonos, they are good for what they are, a music system and nothing else, sound bars are an easy way to get sound out, but most of them are rubbish, u need a good set of speakers and subs to get the best home cinema sound, and no chance getting that out of a Sonos system. for the manager of Sonos Tom Cullen to say receiver’s are finished, which is rubbish, now if he could back that up with some evidence then maybe people would listen. unless something else comes out with the same kind programmes as in receiver’s, and that’s not going to be for a allot of people now are using servers, which are making life easer, turn on your system click the film you want in your server, and film on your TV, or projector, even the manager of Sonos Tom Cullen could do that.

  • Confidence in the capabilities of your current and future product helps your ability to succeed in your market. Arrogance of the capabilities of what your future product can accomplish in overtaking another market is a sure sign of ignorance.

    Tom might be history if that’s what he thinks.

  • Nobody ever mentions that the playbar doesn’t support DTS. Meaning out of the box, 90% of your blu-Ray collection will have stereo sound (with very quiet speech). I speak from experience.


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