Home Theater Upgrade Ups & Downs

When I first began to write this article, it was going to be all about how terrible the manuals and user interfaces are for home theater components, especially receivers. By the time I was done, I wound up taking a broader view. But don’t worry. I’ll get to the manuals mess before the end.

The immediate impetus for this story was my recent purchase of a new AV receiver, my first one in twelve years. I bought a Denon AVR2112CI (which is a slightly upscale version of the more popular AVR1912). Overall, I couldn’t be more pleased. It’s a fabulous receiver.

The upside

Compared to my old Sony STR-DB930 receiver, the sound quality is much improved and the difference is immediately noticeable. Apparently, technology has advanced over the last decade. Who knew? It also helps that the Denon is a more expensive higher quality unit out of the box. [To be clear, I have a separate components setup; this is not one of those "all-in-one" home theater systems.]

However, improved sound quality was actually second on my list of top reasons for getting a new receiver. The number one item had to do with the more mundane topic of connection ports. Over the years, the emphasis of audio-video receivers has steadily tilted more in the direction of video. This is most evident with HDMI ports. My old Sony has zero HDMI ports. My new Denon has seven HDMI inputs (six input and one output).

With the Sony receiver, I was forced to separately connect the audio and video coming from each peripheral (such as my DVD player). The audio went to the receiver (typically via a digital optical or coaxial cable), the video went to the TV via HDMI. This meant that I was not getting any potential benefit of HDMI for audio. More troublesome, my HD-TV has only two HDMI ports. This meant I could not even use HDMI for the video of all my HDMI-capable devices.

With the Denon, all my devices can now connect to the receiver via HDMI. The receiver’s lone HDMI output cable goes to the HD-TV — which carries the signal from all the connected components. In essence, the Denon receiver is now a true audio and video hub! All roads lead to to and from the receiver! This is a major shift from the previous generation of devices.

A related benefit of the new arrangement is that you no longer need to switch TV inputs when switching among different devices. Before, I would have to make sure that both the television and the receiver were “synced” to the same device. For example, if I wanted to switch from my cable box to my DVD player, I would need to switch the input selector to DVD for both the TV and the receiver. Now, all I need to do is select DVD on the receiver’s remote and I’m done. All components feed to the same television input (although some trouble with Comcast developed here, as I’ll get to shortly). Actually, I still prefer my Logitech Harmony Remote for doing this switching, but even here things work a bit more smoothly.

Another bonus with the Denon receiver (having nothing to do with HDMI) is that it supports Apple’s AirPlay (audio only). AirPlay on the Denon works great. With my iPad on my lap, I select my desired music and it plays through the Denon. Just like that. I can even control the Denon’s volume from the iPad. Very slick. You’ll need an Ethernet connection to get the Denon on the network, as it has no Wi-Fi option. In my case, I connected the Denon to an AirPort Express I was already using in the same room. Once on the network, the receiver supports other network options, including Internet radio, Pandora, and even my iTunes Library.

The other receiver I had considered getting instead of the Denon was the Pioneer VSX-1021-K, currently the only other model in this mid-range price category that includes AirPlay. The Panasonic is a fine receiver, with some advantages over the Denon (the Pioneer does have wireless and even Bluetooth options). However, in the end, I preferred the Denon. At the time I bought it, the Denon retailed for $600; Denon appears to have just upped the price to $650, making the 2112 a bit less attractive. In contrast, the Pioneer 1021 and the Denon 1912 are both $550.

The downside

Amidst all this sunshine, there are two small clouds of discontent. These are not issues unique to the Denon and are certainly not deal-breakers. But they are annoying.

• Comcast and receiver conflict. After I connected my new (black) Comcast cable box to the HDMI port on the receiver, the display settings on the cable box kept getting messed up (returning to 4:3 and 480p instead of the required 16:9 and 1080i). This meant I was not seeing HD when watching HD channels.

Fixing these settings required going into a “secret” Comcast screen (you have to press Power and then Menu on the Comcast remote to access it). The fix didn’t help in the end. The settings would screw up again after turning the devices off and back on. The only permanent fix is to connect the cable box’s HDMI port directly to the TV (with an optical cable going to the receiver). This, of course, means reverting back to the type of setup I had with my Sony, partially defeating one of the advantages of the new receiver.

The primary source of this problem is the new Comcast cable box (older models did not show this symptom). It’s not specific to the Denon; I had the same exact Comcast glitch with the Pioneer 1021. Hopefully, Comcast will eventually offer a firmware fix that addresses the matter. I suspect this bug also plagues new-generation cable and satellite boxes from other companies, but I cannot confirm this.

[Update: I have since learned that a primary cause of the problem is HDMI hand-shaking. As part of the DRM-restrictions built into HDMI (under pressure from the film industry as an anti-piracy measure), an HD transmission will not work with displays that are not "HDMI-compatible." The firmware that checks for this compatibility is often not smart-enough to figure out what is going on when you have a receiver intervening between the cable box and the television. It winds up believing that this is a violation and shuts down the HD transmission. Such is the case with the HDMI checking built into the Comcast cable box. That's why it works when connecting directly to a TV, but not to a receiver.]

• Manuals from hell. Setting up the Denon receiver was more difficult than I had anticipated. I needed to call tech support twice before I got everything working correctly. By comparison, I have never previously had to call tech support to setup any AV component. [In this case, "tech support" meant calling the people at crutchfield.com, where I purchased the Denon. They could not have been more helpful. I highly recommend them.]

Part of the problem is that these devices are complicated, much more so than years ago. But making matters worse is Denon’s poorly written manual (and its equally confusing on-screen settings menus).

By this, I don’t mean the manual is written in poor English. Although this is a common complaint about AV device manuals, the Denon does a decent job here. Rather, the problem is that the manual assumes the reader understands much more than the typical (or even atypical) reader will actually understand.

Here’s one example. Do you want to set up your speakers via a bi-amp connection? Do you even know what that means? I didn’t at first. Denon’s manual “helpfully” explains:

“You can use the front speakers via the bi-amp connection. A bi-amp connection is to connect separate amplifiers to the tweeter terminals and woofer terminals of speakers compatible with the bi-amp function. This prevents the back electromotive force (returned force without output) of the woofer sent to the tweeter, which affects the sound quality of the tweeter, and you can enjoy playback with higher-quality sound.”

Yes, it’s all so clear now. Not. In too many other cases, the manual tells you how to change the settings for some oddly named feature — but fails to adequately explain what each setting does or why you might need to make a change.

To be fair, other competing models aren’t any better. In fact, setting up a Pioneer 1021 is even more difficult than a Denon (according to reports I’ve read online) and its manual is more obtuse (as I can confirm from my own comparison). The Pioneer remote is also more daunting to master.

Manuals and set-up for other components (such as Blu-ray players) are not nearly as bad in this regard. Receivers are in a category all by themselves.

Fortunately, you typically need to go through the setup only once. And once you’re done, the hard part is over. In my case, after the Denon receiver was finally up and running, it was a pleasure to use. I had at last arrived at the fun part: enjoying superb sound and crystal clear HD video. Break out the popcorn. It’s time to watch a movie. See you later.

[Coming to my setup later this year: A new (3D?) television? Maybe. I'll let you know.]

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One Response to Home Theater Upgrade Ups & Downs

  1. staffman02 says:

    Thanks for the post about the Denon receiver. Coincidentally, I have the same Sony receiver STRDB930 and have been researching av receivers the past year. Reading about the Denon AVR 1920 led me to the Denon AVR2112CI. I recently saw on an online forum that an online retailer is selling the 2112 for $449 shipped (but only by phone, not via their online sales website). Looks like a great deal, but the wife isn’t so sure we need a new one, especially since the Sony still works. Could you share any new feedback now that you’ve been using it since June? So glad I found your post.

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