When my clients decide to buy a new TV, they are often surprised when I tell them they will also need to upgrade their stereo receiver.
If you have anything more than a standalone TV, you probably have a modern audio-video receiver (AVR) connected.
The AVR becomes the heart of your entertainment system. It provides the audio processing for stereo or surround sound output which is much better than the TV’s own tiny built-in speakers.
Everything, and I *mean* everything, plugs into the AVR first.
Video and audio sources for what you want to watch or hear:
Cable and Satellite service boxes (we all love to hate ‘em)
CD & DVD players (does anyone still use CD’s?)
Streaming boxes (Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast)
AM/FM Radio turners
Generic digital audio inputs
Generic analog audio inputs
Turntables (classic vinyl collection anyone?)
Digital music players (iPods, MP3 players)
Game consoles (Microsoft XBox, Sony Play Station, or Nintendo Switch)
The AVR routes the signals to one or more connected outputs:
Analog audio outputs (speakers)
Digital audio outputs
External amplifiers (pre-amp outputs)
The main output from the AVR is sound sent to speakers – lots of speakers.
For a minimum stereo sound, you’ll have two – a left channel and a right channel speaker. (That’s to mimic the two ears that every human has, in case you were wondering.)
For movie watching, you’ll want to equipment your home theater with surround sound speakers too and you can even add more speakers in the ceiling and around the room for a totally immersive experience with Dolby Atmos.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Speaker configurations are usually summarized with a decimal number indicating the number of speakers, the number of subwoofers (yup, you can have more than one), and the number of spatial effects speakers.
So a 2.0 speaker system is a basic stereo system with two speakers (left and right channels), while a 5.1 system is a typical surround/sound media room configuration with left, right, center, surround left, surround right, and a subwoofer.
If you’ve got the budget, you can keep adding more surround speakers, ceiling speakers, and even a second subwoofer. You’ll have bragging rights to a full blown Dolby Atmos 9.1.2 setup.
For deeper understanding of Dolby Atmos speaker setups, there is a great reference on their website.
The Ultimate Control Freak
AVR’s know they do a lot so they have become control freaks wanting to be the master control of everything, whether you like it or not.
Modern AVR’s include a lot of different control interfaces but you’re probably most familiar with the common handheld remote that uses infrared (IR) signals.
AVR’s now have local area network interfaces with built-in Ethernet RJ-45 connections or wireless Wi-Fi adapters and often both.
Hidden away in the back you may find even more control interfaces such a serial RS-232 or Universal Serial Bus (USB).
Some AVR’s include built-in IR repeater ports and relay contact trigger ports. These specialized connections fall squarely into the “if you don’t know what they are, you don’t need them” category.
Note: Although more cable and satellite boxes are starting to use point-me-anywhere radio-frequency (RF) remote controls, most AVR’s are still in the dark ages using only IR line-of-sight signals for their handheld remotes.
A Rose Is A Rose Is A Rose
So as you can see from the above, the AVR has three important functions – handling all the different inputs (of which there are a lot), handling the speaker outputs, and controlling everything.
Based on their original job of only handling the audio speakers AVR’s use to be called amplifiers, but it helps to realize that almost of them today are multi-function devices doing a lot more than just boosting the sound levels.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
AVR’s are complex devices and I haven’t even described much of the advanced features or capabilities yet.
But don’t worry, I won’t be going deeper and cover more of the physical interfaces, processing capabilities (video upscaling, DSP sound manipulation, sound stripping/multiplexing) or special features some of them provide.
That’s because the usual 80/20 rule applies – most of us need only 20% of the features they provide so we can ignore the obscure and complicated stuff we don’t care about.
Quality Doesn’t Come Cheap
No surprise here – a good AVR can cost big money.
You can pay as little as $200 or $300, but expect to pay in the range of $600 to $2,000 for mainstream high-quality AVR’s such as Denon, Sony, Yamaha, or Anthem
The sky’s the limit for higher-end and custom gear, but spending around $1,000 for an AVR is what I see with as typical most of my clients.
The Fly In The Ointment
When you buy a new TV you’re going to want to make sure you are getting 4K resolution, wider color gamut, and high dynamic range (HDR) image features.
You’ll be spending most of your time comparing those capabilities between models and companies to make your selection.
You might be thinking, “At least I can still use my existing AVR. After all, the audio standards aren’t changing and what I have now works great”.
The video is just passed through the AVR so I should be fine. Woah! Not so fast – that just isn’t true.
As the heart of your entertainment system, the AVR is controlling everything and switching between the inputs so it has to be compatible with the improvements in your TV.
Just Passing Through Town…
Technically your AVR is terminating the HDMI connections from the source devices, handshaking all the control signals, and then output a fresh new version of the same data and signals on the output HDMI connections.
So just “passing through” the signal is not really straightforward and involves sophisticated processing.
Your AVR will need to support 4K resolution, HDR, and the newer HDMI interface standards. It is very likely your AVR currently supports only 1K, does not support HDR, and is using an older version of HDMI handshaking.
Sticker shock! After spending $500 to $5000 on a new TV, you’re faced with spending an additional $500 to $2000 to replace your AVR to get everything working properly and just as smoothly as you have it know.
Sounds Good To Me?
Here’s where things stand.
If you have the money and want the ideal solution, plan on purchasing a new AVR to go along with your new TV.
This will cost the most, but you will end up with a system that works the same, or better than what you have now with the least operational changes once everything is installed and setup.
The other options I am going to describe are all a compromise. Some are really good alternatives and some are not.
But they are all based on the assumption that you are willing to put up with a less than ideal solution because you don’t want to spend lots of money replacing your AVR to use your new TV.
First Option: Dump the old AVR
This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Although flat-panel TV’s have been criticized for having really bad built-in speakers, the newest ones aren’t all that bad.
Some of the built-in speakers might be ok if you are using the TV in a bedroom, kitchen, or not-so-large family room.
It’s certainly the cheapest option. Buy just the new TV and try it out. If you later want better sound you can always expand later to a new AVR or the other options below.
Second Option: Buy A Sound Bar
Within the last few years, the most popular TV accessory has become the sound bar. This horizontal rectangular box is easy to install by plugging into an available HDMI or optical connection and it does an amazing job improving the audio from any TV.
Sound bars are available in a range of prices from $100 and up. For a good TV costing $1000 or more, this is “chump change” for a much better listening experience than the built-in speakers.
Sound bars start with 2.0 (left and right channel) entry level setups, with the more popular ones having a wireless subwoofer for a 2.1 configuration (left, right, and subwoofer speakers).
Some sound bars have 4 or 6 speakers inside and used sophisticated digital signal processing (DSP) to create room-filling audio almost as good as a traditional AVR.
Sonos has an incredible sound bar with up-firing Atmos speakers that can also be used for wireless music throughout your home with additional Sonos speakers or any Apple AirPlay 2 devices.
Third Option: Re-configure Your HDMI Wiring
If you have an AVR that has been working great, you love the audio quality, and it is already connected up to a ton of wired speakers, you might be able to compromise.
If the only thing lacking is the ability to pass through 4K video resolution and/or HDR, you can keep the AVR if you are willing to complicate your life a little bit.
The problem here is the “HDMI switching” features of your AVR. You’ll have to stop using that partially or completely.
Remember when you hooked up your TV and ignored all those extra HDMI ports on the back or sides? Well, now’s the time to dig out the manual and take another look.
Connect all your video sources directly to your TV instead of your AVR. Plug in your satellite or cable box or streaming video sources directly into one or more HDMI ports on your TV.
This eliminates the AVR as the “man in the middle” messing with the video which won’t work because the AVR can’t process the 4K/HDR signals properly.
The Sounds Of Silence
There is one big problem in hooking all your input sources directly to the TV. Where does the sound go?
Now that TV’s have gotten so thin, the speaker inside them are very small. So even large screen, expensive TV’s have speakers that are very disappointing.
If you hook your cable box, blue-ray player, or streaming box (AppleTV, Roku, etc.) directly to your TV, you need a way to get the sound back out to your AVR so you enjoy those big, expensive speakers you already have!
Hook Me Up!
Fortunately, there are two options to do this so you can pick whichever is most convenient or works the best for you.
Option One – go Optical
Almost all AV gear for many years has included a digital optical port for audio connections in addition to the conventional wired cables/ports you are familiar with.
It is very straightforward to plug a digital optical cable (they are small and thin) to connect the audio output from the TV to an audio input of your AVR.
Just remember to make the changes on your TV configuration menu and your AVR.
It’s an “all or nothing” setting. When you enable optical audio output from your TV, the internal speakers will be shut off, but you can switch back and forth, if necessary, without actually plugging or unplugging any cables.
Optical cables are inexpensive and you can buy them in local electronics stores or online in many different lengths with the connectors already installed.
So they are just as easy to use as a regular cable.
Quick tip: On most AV equipment, the optical port will be called “TOSlink” which stands for “Toshiba optical system link”.
Also, fun fact – the optical port does not use a laser, it uses LED technology so no worries about any kind of medical danger to your eyes.
This means you will have to move wires around, possible crawling behind your equipment fighting the dust bunnies to get everything re-wired.
Option Two – use ARC
More TV’s are now coming equipped with an HDMI enhancement called ARC – audio return channel.
This allows the TV to send the audio output down an HDMI cable in the reverse direction.
Takes a little thinking to wrap your head around this, but basically the HDMI cable that is normally one-way (like a one-way street alley) now carries signals in two directions: video from the AVR to the TV, and audio from the TV back to the AVR.
Think of it like a normal road with one lane in each direction.
ARC can be a little trickier to set up. You have to make sure that the option for HDMI-CEC is enabled, and sometimes it simply doesn’t work because of compatibility problems between different brands of equipment.
No Free Lunch
Don’t get me wrong – using optical TOSlink or HDMI ARC are workarounds to buying a new AVR. There are two limitations you need to be aware of:
TOSlink optical does not support all the audio formats your sources can output and AVR can handle.
TOSlink supports only two channels of uncompressed losses PCM audio or compressed 5.1/7.1 surround sound such as Dolby Digital or DTS Surround System.
TOSlink does not support Dolby Atmos or lossless formats such as Dolby TrueHD, DS-HD Master Audio, or more than two channels of PCM audio.
Similarly, HDMI ARC does not support full uncompressed Atmos.
But it is messier – some TV’s only support 2-channel audio on ARC, other TV’s may pass 5.1 surround sound but only from the internal SmartTV and not from external connected devices like Blu-ray players or other streaming boxes.
There’s really no sure way to tell other than reading written specs and trying it out for yourself.
There is a new version of ARC in the works called eARC (enhanced ARC) that finally fixes all this, but that doesn’t help unless you buy all new equipment – including the TV.
Everything’s Out of Control
When you stop using your AVR as the central connection for everything (by moving source devices such as your cable box or streaming box to the TV), the remote control situation also gets complicated.
This means you may not be able to control everything using the existing handheld remote from the AVR.
You’ll have to do some commands, like selecting the video source, using the original TV remote so it will take a little adjustment and re-training of household member.
To fix this, consider using a good programmable remote or control system. That will make operating your entertainment system much easier.
Fourth Option: Go Wireless With Sonos
With a Sonos sound bar and wireless speakers, you can set up a full blown surround sound speaker system without an AVR and without wires.
Sonos makes fantastic sound bars that can be expanded wirelessly into complete 5.1 surround sound systems.
With the addition of a pair of Sonos ONE’s for rear surround speakers and a Sonos wireless subwoofer, you can setup a full audio system very quickly.
Sonos gear is very high quality and is not the lowest cost option. But you can start with just sound bar and grow as you go.
Add only the subwoofer or add the surround sound speakers, or both on your timetable (or your wallet’s).
When you are done you may be spending the same, or more, as you would have if you bought a new AVR, but you’ll end up with a very flexible solution and no additional installation costs.
No drilling, cutting into drywall, pulling speaker wires and most importantly, no plastering or painting later to fix up the holes and mess that was created with traditional speaker installations.
So yes, you can avoid buying a new AVR when you purchase a new TV. Just choose any of these options:
First Option – Dump The Old AVR
Second Option – Buy A Sound Bar
Third Option – Route Audio with TOSlink optical or Audio Return Channel (ARC)
Fourth Option – Go Wireless With Sonos