Say Buh-Bye to These AVR Features

The AV receiver is such a feature-rich beast that it's hard to believe designers would ever dispense with a single feature. As the category has grown, features have just piled up, and generally manufacturers prefer adding them to subtracting them. But slowly, stealthily, a few features are vanishing from the spec sheet and the back panel. It had to happen eventually. Every feature costs money for parts or licensing. Either prices have to go up, sound quality has to suffer, or some old features must go gentle into that good night. That last alternative seems like the least of all possible evils.

Of course, lower-end models always have fewer features than higher-one ones. But even some pricey models are starting to unclutter their back panels. Here's what I wrote about vanishing connectivity options in a review that compared the Arcam AVR750 to its predecessor, the AVR600 (both shown above):

On the back panel, the old column layout has given way to a more conventional one. Component video has been reduced from five inputs to three and there is no longer a component output. Composite video, digital audio, and analog audio have been similarly reduced (not likely a problem) and S-video eliminated (good riddance). The phono input is gone and the number of subwoofer outputs has shrunk from three to one. The 7.1-channel preamp outputs are no longer joined by multichannel-ins, so you can’t use the receiver's estimable amp section with a separate pre-pro. Why the draconian housecleaning? The company says it has adapted to current consumer habits.

Let's note the passing of certain features, starting with connectivity. Today's video connectivity is all about the latest version of HDMI. Most receivers on the market use HDMI 1.4, 1.4a, or 1.4b, but with HDMI 2.0 coming in, expect the older versions to thin out. As Sony's Aaron Levine pointed out, HD-capable component video is being scaled back and may disappear altogether due to the Hollywood-induced "analog sunset," which is discouraging the use of non-copy-protected analog interfaces in TVs, Blu-ray players, and receivers. S-video is dead, though composite video lingers for legacy and low-quality source components.

As the go-to interface for high-res sound as well as high-def picture, HDMI is also reducing the profusion of audio jacks. Manufacturers are providing fewer stereo analog and digital ins and outs, often eliminating outs entirely, though most people are probably satisfied with the number that remains. Multi-channel analog jacks are another story. Marantz still offers both multi-ins and multi-outs on certain models but other manufacturers are eliminating one or both. I'm not sorry to see multi-ins disappear because few of today's Blu-ray players have multi-outs (step-up Oppos being the exception). But I'm concerned by the disappearance of multi-outs, a.k.a. preamp outputs, because they enable the receiver to serve as a surround pre-pro with an outboard multi-channel power amp. Manufacturers should think twice about eliminating this upgrade path.

THX-certified receivers are getting thinner on the ground. THX confirms that fewer receivers are being submitted for testing and certification, though Pioneer and Onkyo are still hanging in there. That's unfortunate because THX AVR certification is one way to verify that you're buying an amp that can play at specified levels in rooms of a specified size. Even so, a manufacturer can still build an amp with some dynamic oomph without paying for the licensing and other expenses of THX. THX's certification of soundbars hasn't gotten far because its specifications favor larger bars than most manufacturers prefer to market. That may change. The good news is that THX is adding a couple of new manufacturers to its loudspeaker certification program, with announcements expected later this year.

SiriusXM seems to be disappearing, sort of. The dedicated jack for a satellite tuner has quietly gone away. "Less than 10 people used the feature in our old AVR range," noted Arcam's Charlie Brennan. Complicating matters, according to Chris Walker of Pioneer, is the fact that SiriusXM recently changed its connector, preventing it from getting through what was then the latest product cycle. And the inclusion of internet radio and other network audio features has sapped interest in satellite radio. However, some manufacturers (such as Denon) are providing the SiriusXM internet radio channel.

Elsewhere on the radio front, HD Radio (digital terrestrial FM broadcasting) never really caught on. Few receivers support it, Denon being the happy exception. "Some people would like to have it but they're not willing to pay for it," said Pioneer's Walker. AM radio may also disappear, and frankly, I'm surprised it's lasted as long as it has. I'm still amazed every time I unpack an AVR review sample and find an AM radio antenna. Who uses those things?

Perhaps the most unfortunate omission, at least for vinyl fanatics, is the phono input. Pretty much all golden-age stereo receivers had them and at one time they were not uncommon on better AVRs. But today only higher-end models have them, and not even all of those. OK: You can get better performance from a separate phono preamp. Virtually no AVR phono inputs even bother to handle moving-coil cartridges (they're usually moving-magnet only). And, of course, many consumers get by without turntables. But with the current vinyl resurgence, and loads of young listeners buying affordable turntables by Music Hall, Pro-ject, and V.P.I., omitting the phono input needlessly limits the appeal of AVRs.

OK, I'll fess up: Critics like myself bedevil AVR manufacturers. We bemoan the sometimes needless complexity of the product—but if they actually eliminate a feature or two, we might just as easily bemoan its absence. Still, exchanging little needed, rarely used features with the latest and greatest is a design imperative in AVRs. It's an effective way to keep consumers interested and fight the waning of the product category—but only if it doesn't get in the way of great sound.

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems.

pw's picture

Almost all but the most expensive and well though out AVR's have much too much crab stuck into the metal box. Bleed through by the FM radio, wimpy power outputs and the lack of any "separation" of channels and power supplies and so on.

utopianemo's picture

I've yet to experience any crabs in any AVRs. It must be a frightful experience.

Mark, I am also bemoaning the loss of multi-outs on receivers, however the more I think about it, the more I'd rather see cheaper pre-pros than moonlighting receivers. Why is it that the cheapest pre-pros seem to start at over $1K(Outlaw and Emotiva being notable exceptions)? How much would a $1300 Pioneer Elite or Denon cost if it came with multichannel outs instead of amplification? I know manufacturers don't market such products because they don't think there's a market for it, but I would be willing to pay $750-$800 for a gutless Pioneer Elite that was marketed with the same number nomenclature as their $1300-$1500 models, having the understanding that the pre-pro was the same quality as the corresponding AVR, just without amplification.

Maybe the licensing fees for the tech really cost so much that nixing amplification really wouldn't reduce costs in any significant manner.

abourelle's picture

Being a more-than-happy owner of an ANTHEM MRX710 i can confirm that there are some very musical receivers out there. I also have to admit that a lot of them have more "features" than are "audiophile". I don't care not having access to internet radio stations, phono input (which usually are of poor quality when integrated) or being able to do "Airplay". I'm getting a sound quality that not too may separates have approaching the retail price of the ANTHEM. I have listened to other brands including the ARCAM and i choose the ANTHEM. Listen before you buy.

rajugsw's picture

Due to Budget and things of higher priority. The only serious upgrade to my HT has been the new 60" LG Plasma. My trusty Denon AVR-1802 is going on 13 yrs. old, my Pioneer DV-578A is 10 yrs., the Sony Blu Ray has 5.1/7.1 Analog Out and is in year 5 of use, and my turntable died at my hands 6 years ago. The FL & FR are fed through an original Adcom GFA-555II using the pre outs. All this new tech is great but I am still of the school that separates sound best but if you can't afford that route, then by all means use your AV to amplify things. HDMI switching of my HTPC, DVD-A Player, & Blu-Ray is via the LG TV. And my wife can work it!!!!

Deus02's picture

Back a number of months ago, I purchased what was the new Yamaha CX-A5000 Pre-Pro, a unit that essentially has kept all the bells and whistles of a "flagship" AVR, however, I can assume only accomplished since it doesn't have to worry about providing the rather significant space required for built-in amplifiers. I believe the gradual reduction of certain connectivity features in AVR's somewhat parallels the demise of many fine products over the years because of changing consumer demand. Speaking of Yamaha, for those that remember, they built and sold some fine separates back in the eighties and early nineties only to be eventually replaced by all-inclusive feature laden AVRs. When asked about this, at the time the company stated that with the introduction of DD and DTS discreet soundtracks the demand for audiophile type separates was just not there anymore. Even Pre-Pros started to disappear since multi-channel amps didn't really exist at that time yet to complement the separate processor.

I can only assume that even today the average consumer is not willing to part with the money required for a separate processor and amps when they can buy an AVR with all the required features, regardless of the perceived sound superiority and versatility of separate units.

COBill's picture

Many of us still have legacy composite video sources and S-Video still provides better picture quality from say SVHS than composite RCA.

You may not use it any longer, but I've a library of things recorded on SVHS and on LaserDisc that will likely never be released on any digital format, and it would be nice not to have to degrade their video quality even further just to use an AVR as a switcher.

AM radio? There are still a lot of AM stations out there, the bigger problem is the AM tuner section of most AVRs is absolute garbage, many of them making the sound quality of AM even worse by only offering a very compressed frequency range from an AM signal. If you've ever listened to an 80s AM tuner like a Carver TX-11a, you know how good AM CAN sound if the station and the tuner manufacturer care.

Phono stage? An investment of $150 will provide a MUCH better sounding phono stage than anything an AVR manufacturer could stuff onto a PC board.

SundanceMC's picture

I'm both a content consumer hobbyist and a content creator hobbyist. I will miss multi-channel inputs. That is how I listen to my home studio multi-channel recording mixes from Logic & Reason. Computer audio interfaces have analog multi outs -- none output HDMI. My old Rotel AVR & B&W speakers make for excellent 5.1 reference monitoring for both mixing and mastering.

barryaz1's picture

With limited funds, my last upgrade was actually to an AVR from an Anthem AVM20. The new Onkyo 709 became my pre-pro, bypassing its amps by using my Anthem 5 channel, along with a Parasound amp for the 7 channels. And I do appreciate the internet and built in SiriusXM access, but disappointed in the build quality (new HDMI board, a common problem) and corporate customer service. But I was able to make my 7.1 simpler and not spend any extra money after my ebay sales.

BobHD1's picture

I have a Pioneer Elite SC-72 which has a nice complement of multi-channel inputs and outputs except no phono. However, I am only using the sub woofer pre-outs as the 130W D3 amplifier in the AVR is more than sufficient to drive my Def Tech BP8060ST speaker system.

PeterC's picture

I have an old Pioneer Elite VSX-49 Receiver which is THX Ultra2 and rated at 130watts per channel in its power amp section. It has a 7.1 input and a feature which allows me to bypass all of the preamp features.
I have used it with a 7.1 output of my Bluray player with excellent results.
Let's face it, the only reason to replace a good receiver would be because it lacks the current inputs (such as HDMI) or features. The power amp section remains the same.
I was considering purchasing a new Pre Pro such as the Marantz 8001 and connecting it thru my existing Pioneer.
Any comments?

martinot's picture

We have all very different needs I suppose, but basically I agree fully with your comments.

I personally do not care at all for AM radio. I must confess that on my latest AVR (Onkyo TR-626 - which I'm very happy with, while I have connected the FM antenna, I have not yet bothered to set it up and tune in any FM stations. Have listened to radio stations by using build in internet radio (TuneIn) over WiFi-connection. Works great and actually easier to use than AM/FM radio.

What I do miss are pre-outs! Would like to connect an external amp for my bigger B&W speakers. My next AVR will either be a dedicated AVR-preamp, or an AVR with all channel pre-outs. Dedicated phono input is also very convenient to have build in (still have an old Thorens to connect and some old vinyls I would like to be able to play).

martin törnsten -