Letter from America: The AVR's Death is Exaggerated

OK, I admit it I’m a fan of AVRs.

Over the years, I have had more than a few and there are a variety of brands in daily use throughout my household serving installation situations including a main listening room, a small den, an office and a bedroom. And, in service to full disclosure, I have working with a number of brands to design, develop and supervise the marketing of AVRs from value price ranges to the high-end audiophile stratosphere, and I occasionally do consulting work on AVR-related products as well as reporting such as this on their place in the grand scheme of home theatre and consumer audio/video.

Mag-4K-1000x1024That said, it’s no secret that some in the retail, installation and consumer markets have, to some extent, written the AVR off as a viable product category. Some brands have narrowed their AVR lines, though others have expanded theirs. Some retailers have cut back on the assortment of AVR brands and models they carry, along with the requisite advertising and promotion.

Finally, reports of plateaued or declining AVR sales have driven some to simply write the AVR off as consumers move to a new generation of content origination devices and the way that content is managed and played back. There is perhaps no better indication of that that what you would have found in the “Black Friday/Cyber Monday” ads in the shopping madness late last month here in the US.

One major regional electronics chain here in California had not a single AVR in their print or electronic ads. The remaining national US chain, which in years past would feature four or five AVR models, had no AVRs in their pre-Black Friday circular this year. There was only one in the post-Thanksgiving ads—curiously, that was a higher-end model sold through their in-store specialty department only.

Some retailers have cut back on the assortment of AVR brands and models they carry, along with the requisite advertising and promotion.

What do the pundits generally attribute this to? Some said that the “Home Theater in a Box” (HTIB) would replace not only AVRs with the combination of all-in-one units and bundled speakers, but that category appears to have peaked. We didn’t see any of those in the ads, either. Next, it was ”Sound bars will doom the AVR”. Perhaps, but outside of simple placement where no external speakers are desired, the combination of soundbars and streaming services may have ended up doing more to put the nail in the coffin of HTiBs, rather than AVRs.

More recently, one has heard “Docking/connected speakers along with content streaming from the cloud will be the death knell for the AVR”. In some quarters, audio has unfortunately taken a back seat in some consumers’ minds despite the promotion of “High Resolution Audio”. To some extent we’re reminded here of a quote attributed to the famous American humourist, writer and lecturer, Mark Twain: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

CO-F-400x354There have been a number of versions as to when and how Twain said that, but you get the idea. As noted above, some have said the AVR’s days are numbered, if not over. We, however, take a view that paraphrases Twain: “Reports of the AVR’s death have been greatly exaggerated.” Why say that in face of what appear to be declining sales? A bit of history may be in order for some perspective.

Before there was the audio/video receiver (AVR), there was the stereo receiver; still a viable category today despite the ills of the AVR. Before that, one must look back to the the early 1950’s when Dr. Sidney Harman combined a tuner, preamp and amplifier in one chassis. With that, the first (mono) receiver was born. The concept made sense then, and it makes sense now. The end-user only needed to make room for one component instead of three. That, in turn, made everything more efficient, used less power, and the trio of functions cost less than the separates.

Reports of plateaued or declining AVR sales have driven some to simply write the AVR off as consumers move to a new generation of content origination devices.

That simple idea has kept up with the times as new technologies and various audio brands contributed to the concept. More channels were added to first accommodate stereo, and then multichannel formats. Video — first analogue and then digital — was added, setup was simplified through the use of on-screen menu systems and auto-setup and EQ functionality. New input sources such as HDMI and streaming services became commonplace, along with networked and wireless connectivity. Early receivers, be they mono or stereo, were controlled by manually turning a knob; today’s AVRs offer sophisticated remotes or remote apps to allow control by a smartphone or tablet.

Despite this, AVR price bands have remained constant with for a given power rating, channel count and number of inputs even with the addition over the years of incredibly advanced technology. Thus, one asks, why the death rumours, and how should you consider responding to them in your own business?

BBViz-304x400One strike against the receiver concept, particularly in the custom and high-end world, has been that putting everything in one product surrenders flexibility and the user has to replace the whole AVR to update one part of its ecosystem rather than keep, say, the amplifiers and replace the processor/preamp. Yes, that is true, but in most cases the cost of a new standalone processor greatly exceeds the cost of a totally new AVR.

Hmmm. Saving money while getting new features? What’s wrong with that? Let’s look deeper at the technology of an AVR before tossing it in the trash bin. Particularly in an environment such as that in place right now, there are significant shifts with the addition of new audio formats (e.g., Dolby Atmos, Auro3D, and shortly, DTS:X). Equally important, signal carriage is from component to component quickly moved from HDMI 1.4 and HDCP 1.x to HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 to accommodate the bandwidth and speed required for 4K/UHD content and the related source devices. Now, we’re seeing a move to HDMI 2.0a to deal with HDR formats and their related metadata signalling. Who knows, by this time next year we may well be dealing with superMHL for 8K or maybe yet another version of HDMI.

What has this to do with AVRs? Particularly for clients who want to be on the bleeding edge, compare the AVR to a standalone processor and you’ll find these new features and formats almost always first in AVRs, and at reasonable pricing, to boot.

How can this be? Why in mass market products almost always ahead of high-tech, audiophile products? The answer is actually quite simple. The high volume of the AVR brands enables them to typically have larger engineering and test teams that can bring complex products to market quickly. Equally important with new technologies such as Atmos, DTS:X and HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2, they have the volume required by component suppliers to justify the type of support that the specialty brands often can’t match.

Looking to have a client be the “first one on the block” to showcase a new technology? An AVR will almost always do it quicker and at a more reasonable price than either specialty products or simplistic sound bars or HTiBs.

Indeed, that brings us to the core of why, despite sales dips from a few years ago, in many installations, the AVR makes sense where no other product can. No, not just for price or new technologies, but for what an AVR does.

Going back to the origin of the “receiver”, one of its main tasks is to switch inputs. Given that today’s systems typically have a cable or satellite set top, at least one, and maybe two game consoles, one or two “streamers” (e.g. AppleTV and a Roku or other), perhaps a standalone optical disc player and/or a USB DAC, and the input count quickly rises. Sound bars, if they can switch multiple inputs at all, typically max out at three. That’s not even close to what the “power user” needs. Even a low end AVR can handle six inputs, and many offer more.

Looking for multiple outputs, either to feed both a projector and a flat panel, or for multi-room distribution? Try doing that with an HTiB, soundbar or connected speaker! Is there a need to control the system’s control centre via a smartphone/tablet app? That, too, is something now common to AVRs and far less frequently found in high-end products and almost never in a sound bar. Streaming audio service integration? These days most AVRs at least have wired connectivity for some of the popular services, some even extending that to Wi-Fi. Many also have Bluetooth on board, as well. Wrap it all together and the AVR offers a package of connectivity that is likely to be the most up to date and have the latest and greatest formats with flexibility and control that other products just can’t match.

It is clear that sound bars, connected speakers and processors/component systems all have their place in the market.

Yes, at the higher end of the product spectrum there are features that only top tier processors can offer, such as the more exotic room correction schemes. Yes, processors let the user choose more powerful and higher spec’d amps that AVRs have. And, yes, there is an undeniable prestige factor to high-end brands. Why drive an Audi, Lexus, Infiniti or Cadillac when they are close to sibling models, respectively, from VW, Toyota, Nissan and Chevrolet?

To those who want, and can afford the additional features the more prestigious brand/model is worth it. Keep in mind that there are compromises in this equation. Is there an objection to the amplifier section of an AVR? Particularly at the higher end of the lines, many models offer analogue outputs that can be connected to external amplifiers. Not satisfied with the output DACs? Almost every AVR has “7.1 Direct” inputs that may be used for connection to an “audiophile-class" optical player so that the output of its high-end DACs may be sent straight through AVR to the volume control and out to the amp. That type of signal routing has long been used to connect CD players or amps to an AVR. On the other hand, when considering an optical player with admittedly great DACs. Remember that no optical player currently offers any of the object-based audio formats. That’s where the AVR earns its keep!

At the end of the day, it is clear that sound bars, connected speakers and processors/component systems all have their place in the market. If this Letter has done nothing else, perhaps it has focused the attention on what the client needs, rather than what is in fashion over what some deem an out dated concept. The AVR is not the answer to every system solution, but it will continue to be an alternative that should be properly considered and provisioned where it makes sense. To be certain the AVR may – perhaps must – morph and adapt going forward, but when you hear someone proclaim the “death of the AVR”, back to Mark Twain. In another letter in 1897 he is quoted as saying “It has been reported that I was seriously ill--it was another man; dying--it was another man; dead--the other man again...As far as I can see, nothing remains to be reported…When you hear it, [the reports of his death] don't you believe it. And don't take the trouble to deny it. Merely just raise the…flag on our house in Hartford and let it talk.” Speaking of letters, as this is our final “Letter” for 2015, we wish one and all a prosperous, healthy and, above all, peaceful New Year. While we can’t directly assist with the latter two, we’ll be we back next year with Letters from America to do our best to help you with the former.

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group, follow him on Twitter @captnvid, or comment on his article, below.