Shopping for a Surround System

After getting a new Ultra High Definition TV and now a UHD Blu-ray player, the last component of the system that needs upgrading is the sound. After playing with the new UHD player, even with older Blu-ray disks, it will not output the sound correctly to the old receiver. My receiver doesn’t have HDMI inputs like the newer ones do. Instead you could either connect RCA cables for a 5.1 surround setup or a Toslink cable, a fiber optic cable that carries the music converted to a red light. That always seemed like the best, but actually Toslink can’t carry 8 individual channels of audio that a 7.1 system might require. With the old player Toslink worked fine with 7.1, but the two back speakers were the same channel. With the new player the best it seems I can do is the back speakers play out of the front, but the side speakers are okay (in the player settings I have to send a DTS bitstream, otherwise everything comes out the front).

So now it looks like I need a new surround receiver. This is good in a way because the TV and cable box were connected via Toslink as well and might see improvement if I could use HDMI to carry the audio (well, my Comcast box can only output stereo, even via optical out; my old Dish receiver had optical out and could do surround sound but started to complain that my audio system didn’t have copy protection built in and I couldn’t play movies or HBO). One advantage and problem with HDMI is that it carries both audio and video on one cable, but I need to get video to the TV and audio to the receiver (and audio to the TV in case I don’t want to use the receiver), so most receivers have HDMI inputs and HDMI output to the TV, but not all HDMI ports are created equal so some receiver ports can’t carry the UHD signal out correctly or only some of the inputs can carry the full signal. My UHD player has a good solution: it has two HDMI outputs, one for the TV and one for the home theater receiver. Also the cable box isn’t UHD, so its output should work on any HDMI port.

So while I research and pick out a new receiver (Frys has a Denon for $279 that looks good . . .), I may go ahead and put my old Blu-ray player back where it was under the receiver and connect the Toslink again. I guess whatever signal the UHD player sends out that is supposed to be DTS is maybe a new version of DTS that the receiver can’t figure out, but the Blu-ray player sends an old version that the receiver has no problem with (though newer DTS signals are supposed to be backwards compatible). The constantly changing technology is part of the problem. Newer audio technologies showing up on Blu-ray disks now include Dolby Atmos which came out in 2014, and DTS:X which just came out in 2015. Both of those are designed for more expansive sets of speakers than 7.1 (or 7.2 which has two subwoofers), including speakers located above you or speakers that bounce sound off of the ceiling so it sounds like it is coming from above (Dolby gives the ceiling speakers their own decimal place, so if you added two ceiling speakers to your 7.1 system, it might be written 7.1.2). In my little living room 7 speakers is more than enough (a lot of disks still use 5.1 surround sound). Still, my old receiver seems unable to deal with even the previous generation audio schemes of DTS-HD Master Audio (in either 5.1 or 7.1) or Dolby TrueHD (also in 5.1 or 7.1 with Atmos being a subflavor of TrueHD) if they are coming from the new UHD player. The good thing is that so far UHD disks use the same audio systems as Blu-ray, so if I upgrade now I should be covered.

A lot of newer sound systems are wireless (they still require power), but those seem to be more expensive. So you can run sound to a soundbar which has left, center, and right speakers built into it, then get wireless speakers for the surround portion. I’d be okay with that, but I was kind of thinking I could re-use my old system’s 8 speakers, so that seems like kind of a waste.

One thought on “Shopping for a Surround System

  1. I wound up buying a refurbished Denon receiver AVR-X1300W for $300. It is a fairly reasonable amount for a system that supports 7.1 speakers (or 5.1.2), though a good 5.1 receiver would be less. This one was $10 more than another Denon model, the similar AVR-S720W (full retail $479), which retails for over $120 less, so I paid the $10 extra. A new (not refurbished) 720 is $350 at Amazon right now (and I think was $279 at Frys a few weeks ago) and a new 1300 is $400. I think now was a good time to buy because they are just releasing their 2017 models and both of these were 2016 models. Because it is fairly new all of the HDMI inputs support the latest protocols, so I don’t have to worry about that until they change the protocols. However it can update its firmware via the internet, so hopefully it could possibly stay current for a while longer. It ships from Florida so hopefully will be here soon.

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