Help us find the home theater system of our modest dreams.
December 27, 2012 12:18 PM   Subscribe

Can you help me find a home theater or speaker system that meets my needs? Things seem to have changed since I last looked a decade or two ago.

We moved and it seemed to be a good time to buy a new TV, since the last one we bought was from 1999 or so. On our old CRT TV we had a HD Tivo hooked up over RCA cables and a older Mac Mini hooked up with a DVI to S-video conversion. We controlled the TV through the Tivo and the MacMini through its small remote.

We bought a Panasonic TC-P60GT50 plasma, which is a pretty big step up from what we had. The HD Tivo hooked right up through HDMI, but when I hooked up the Mac with a DVI to HDMI cable I learned that the sound didn't transfer over that cable easily. The TV speakers are also not awesome, and it can be hard to hear conversations without cranking the volume up.

What I am hoping to find is a home theater system that can:

- allow us to connect many devices to the receiver or amplifier and only have one HDMI cable from the receiver to the TV

- allows us to connect the Mac mini in such a way that the sound gets included in the signal to the TV.

- works with the TV sound as we do watch streaming movies directly on the TV

- can accept a Wii or other game system when the kids get old enough.

- has some sort of sound leveling or equalization so that we old folks can hear conversation on the quiet parts of movies but then the action parts don't blast the kids awake.

- since we are getting speakers and have a computer hooked up, it would be nice to play music easily. We have iOS devices, so I think Airplay is a way to go?

- being able to minimize the number of remote controls would be great. I visit friends who have so many controls it is hard to figure out how to work anything. An easy to work system would be best.

And of course I don't know what I don't know, so other advice is appreciated, including other places to ask. We want something decent and long lasting, but we don't need anything crazy expensive. Are we asking too much? What do you recommend?
posted by procrastination to Technology (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd get an apple TV for the streaming video needs, and a separate soundsystem for the hdmi switching and so on, personally.
posted by empath at 12:20 PM on December 27, 2012

I paired an Onkyo A/V Receiver with speakers from Cambridge Soundworks back in 2003 and I'm still quite happy with the set up. I wish the receiver had more inputs available, but I'll bet the 2012 models come with far more inputs for games and devices than the comparable 2003 model did. In 2003 who could have imagined having an Xbox, PS2, and Wii connected at the same time?
posted by COD at 12:37 PM on December 27, 2012

take a look at the wirecutter reviews - may not fit all your needs, but will also give you a few pointers and advice for other options
posted by Riton at 12:37 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you have an iPhone, Hippo Remote Pro is great for controlling a computer hooked up to a television. I use it for my web browser and XBMC, which I use to play movies and TV shows.
posted by lemonwheel at 12:40 PM on December 27, 2012

Second Wirecutter for recommendations. Also, your Tv almost definitely has an Optical out port, that will allow you to connect an optical cable to your receiver and transmit audio to it, so you won't need to use your televisions speakers at all when streaming or otherwise.

I've got a pre HDMI Onkyo receiver that has worked great for years. Recommended. If you're going for a Home Theatre in a Box, the Onyko ones are pretty decent.
posted by backwards guitar at 12:44 PM on December 27, 2012

Oh, Harmony remotes are pretty good for cutting down on remotes. A bit of playing around to setup (which you do on your computer), but then you're laughing.

You may find a receiver that controls all devices, but if its awkward, consider saving for a Harmony
posted by backwards guitar at 12:46 PM on December 27, 2012

I bought this a Onkyo receiver based on this wirecutter review. I am still setting everything up, but it does indeed have one HDMI port to the TV, however it does not convert RCA signals. Our satellite is not HDMI but everything else is so we have to switch the source on the TV when going from DVD to Satellite. I expect to remedy this so that my mom can actually have chance of using the TV. On the other hand, it was very easy to get the remote to operate the TV, DVD and satellite, in addition to the receiver. It does have USB input and internet radio which I have yet to fully explore.
posted by shothotbot at 12:46 PM on December 27, 2012

Not answering the question, but I suspect you have an older Mac Mini since you mention a DVI port. You won't get audio over that DVI to HDMI conversion, but you can get digital audio out with a little digital converter cable for the existing Mac mini audio port. Your receiver, which you still need, should be able to take your Mac mini's HDMI video and optical audio and combine them to output to your TV/speakers.

Also note that this cable doesn't work with just any analog audio port on any computer. The Mac Mini specifically supports this configuration.
posted by cnc at 12:53 PM on December 27, 2012

A lot of the newer receivers support Airplay (you can stream right from your iPhone/iPad/iTunes to the receiver), have iPhone/Android apps, and natively stream spotify/pandora/internet radio.

Most of the newer receivers will support the Audio Return Channel (ARC), so on your Panasonic TV you will only need to run one HDMI cable from the HDMI ARC input (probably HDMI 2 on your TV; I have a Panasonic ST50 and this is my ARC HDMI input) to the receiver's HDMI output (this sounds a little backwards but this is how it works!).

Check out some of the newest offerings on amazon by Denon, Pioneer, Yamaha, Onkyo!
I recently did some research and picked up one of the newer Denon network ready receivers (a 1613).

Your options are to buy the receiver & speakers or keep an eye out for a home theater in a box that features a receiver that has these new features.

Most of the newer receivers are focused on HDMI inputs; if you want to hook up a Wii it is probably best to buy a HDMI output converter and then run a HDMI cable to the receiver. Receivers are very sparse on traditional video inputs recently.
posted by gatsby died at 1:29 PM on December 27, 2012

Here is an example of a Wii --> HDMI converter...
posted by gatsby died at 1:39 PM on December 27, 2012

Here are a few of the receivers I compared; each of these have a chart halfway down the page that compares the lower and higher models. These are some of the better rated models that feature network functionality for $250-$400.

Denon 1613

Pioneer 1022

Yamaha V473

Onkyo NR515
posted by gatsby died at 1:44 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hey, great answers everyone! I am so glad I asked here, I know much better what to look for now, and will mark some best answers once I do some more research.

One thing no one seems to have addressed - is the capability to limit sudden volume changes something that exists? What term would I use to look for that?
posted by procrastination at 3:56 PM on December 27, 2012

is the capability to limit sudden volume changes something that exists?

It's common; look for "night mode."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:20 PM on December 27, 2012

Thanks all! It was a good crash course in what I needed to know to figure things out.
posted by procrastination at 5:43 PM on December 27, 2012

Procrastination: I suggest you live up to your name and wait....

Today's receivers remind me of PCs in the 1990s: they gather together a vast mass of dust-accumulating (and often expensive) wires that connect everything together. They are build to handle a bewilderingly large set of modern and slightly antiquated signalling protocols. There are a large number of set-up options that you have to configure correctly and devices which one would not have thought to be problematic to hook up (such as a Wii) are. Like everything else in today's home theatre systems they come with a remote control - but they can't take in the infra-red signal from your TV and then interpret it. You therefore have to leave them in an open cabinet and aim your remote so that they can pick it up on their own receiver. For devices aimed at consumers they are woefully over-complicated. Once upon a time there used to be an alternative strategy which was just to plug in everything to your TV and and use its speakers - but the thinner the TVs get the worse these speakers are sounding.

In theory there are a bunch of standards which should help devices from different manufacturers to work more elegantly with each other. But I don't expect this collaboration to yield big usability returns soon. Instead my money would be on somebody - probably Apple - coming up with a solution to solve the problem in 2013.

Since you will probably want your new system to last for several years I think it could be worth waiting for a few more months and hoping for a revolution.
posted by rongorongo at 3:55 AM on December 31, 2012

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