Sound and vision

Not long after we moved house in 2008 I bought a lovely big screen TV: a 46″ Panasonic TH-46PZ85EA plasma that has made me very happy. (At the time it seemed (was) enormous, but over time I’ve come to think that I could have gone a liiiittle bit bigger. With the smaller bezels on TVs these days a 50″ model would probably take up less space, and maybe a 60″ wouldn’t look out of place. Until OLED displays get better and cheaper, I still prefer plasma to LCD. Panasonic are going to stop making plasma screens, maybe 3D is just a fad, and I really don’t want a “smart” TV. I just want a dumb monitor with awesome picture I can plug smart things into. So maybe the time is coming to upgrade while I still can…)

What has been lacking from this lovely viewing experience is sound. The layout of our living room doesn’t allow for a surround sound setup. A good set of stereo speakers would fit, though, and that would also allow me to play music downstairs on something other than tinny iPod/iPad plug-ins. So just before Christmas I went on the hunt for some speakers, which inevitably led me to a search for an AV receiver, which turned out to be the trickier problem. The cabinet on which our TV stands has slots that are tall enough for a game console or a cable STB, but full-size AV receivers are enormous. I had to look for a “slim” model, which immediately cut back on choice.

I’m not an audiophile. I knew that anything I chose would sound an order of magnitude better than the Panasonic’s unremarkable built-in speakers. (A bit like getting an SSD to replace a spinning metal hard disk.) So although I read a whole bunch of reviews, my selection eventually came down to price and features. At least 5 HDMI inputs was a hard requirement, because I’m anticipating hooking up at least a PS4, XBox One, cable box, and an Apple TV over the next few years, and every now and then I’ll probably want to plug in my laptop or something else as well. YPbPr component video input was also a must-have, because we haven’t moved up to an XBox One quite yet, and I still need to hook up the 360. And we still have a Wii, so a legacy composite video input was also necessary.

Built-in wi-fi and Airplay streaming were unnecessary, because I had a spare Airport Express that would bridge the house wireless network to wired ethernet, and I’d be plugging in an Apple TV for Airplay. The aforementioned room layout meant that 7.1 channels instead of 5.1 and various high-end Dolby Pro Logic features were not selling points for me. I can’t see me getting a 4K TV any time in the next few years, so 4K support was also irrelevant. On the other hand, upconversion (as opposed to upscaling) from SD analog to HD digital was something I realy wanted, because I liked the idea of running a single HDMI cable from the receiver to the TV, not a different set of wires for each type of video.

When price is a consideration, it definitely makes sense to look at previous years’ models, because the receiver I eventually settled on was the Marantz NR1603, rather than the more recent NR1604. The NR1603 doesn’t have 4K like the NR1604, and only has 5 rear HDMI inputs instead of 6 (both with 1 front HDMI), but because it’s older it’s also significantly cheaper. For speakers, I got a pair of Wharfedale Diamond 122s. The Marantz doesn’t have the outputs for bi-wiring them, but they fill the room with a sweet enough sound anyway (not an audiophile, remember).

The first time I plugged it all together and played a movie through the new setup, my reaction was: “Wow! Stereo separation!” The receiver’s on-screen UI is fiddly, the remote control is ridiculous, and the iOS app for controlling it remotely just flat-out sucks ass, but once everything is configured it’s great. Games and video are much richer experiences with good sound; toggling from the stereo speakers to the TV’s built-ins shows what a difference it makes. I’m looking forward to enjoying this new arrangement for many years to come.