Where the Heck are the Small A/V Receivers?

by Taps Das
Mantle with mocked up sizes of potential receivers under Sony tv

recently moved into a new home. In the family room is an existing feature-wall-built-in that is wired for 7 channel (channels 6 and 7 being for front height) sound. The built-in includes an electric fireplace, a spot for a flatscreen TV above, which can be shuttered with some clunky doors. On either side of the fireplace are low-doored cabinets with three shelves above. It’s a beautiful unit and is altogether pretty awesome until the home theater geek in me took a closer look.

There were a few catches and some potentially massive problems with the built-in:

  • The depth. The center column is only 15″ deep. The depth of the cabinets and shelves is only 10″ deep.
  • The speaker wires are thin gauge and were put in first before the built-in was finished around them. Making switching them out not possible for this “unhandy” man. 

The shallow depth meant that my Marantz SR6009 receiver, while already one of the shallower depth A/V receivers on the market, is too deep. And that I had to start looking at speaker alternatives as the bookshelf options I have are all too deep. The latter point is less of a problem than the former. 

Built in shelves with tv and fireplace
I now had to hunt for a shallow depth A/V receiver that could also power a 7-channel speaker setup. And hunt I did. I drove my wife crazy looking at and talking about receiver options day and night. And I noticed something. There wasn’t much to choose from. Most modern receivers are large bulky boxes with just a few of them being small. But nothing too small. There were two brand contenders. Marantz with its slimline A/V receiver series consisting of the 5.2 channel NR 1510 and 7.2 NR1711, and then Sony with the STR-DH790 7.2 channel and STR-DH590 5.2 channel. In the end, Sony won out with the STR-DH790 as it was the full 7 channels and was shallow enough to comfortably fit in the space below the TV while still allowing us to close the doors on the built-in should we ever (we haven’t yet) choose to do so. 

The Sony was priced drastically lower —$549 CDN—than the modern-day equivalent of my SR6009 the $2,699 Marantz SR6015. I bought my SR6009 in 2015 in open box condition for around $1,600. The sound from the Sony STR-DH790 is ok. It’s leaner, brighter, tinnier, and lacks the same oomph that I was conditioned to, from my Marantz. But I get it, you do get what you pay for, and I’m quite happy with the unit. It works flawlessly and sounds pretty darn good. Now, I just have to buy some surround rears, some front heights, and a subwoofer. I’m looking into wireless options for the sub and am doing my research for the most reliable and cost-effective option.  

Showing shelf depth with receiver position
But what I can’t stop thinking about, is the lack of any small shallow depth AV receiver options out on the market today. I would have thought that with all of the new amazing equipment being released, and now the proliferation of Class D amplification, there would have been a dearth of available options. 

I mention Class D specifically, because being an intense kind of audio geek, I have been guilty of browsing Amazon for amplifiers priced under $400 Canadian. And wouldn’t you know, there is a slew of them. Brands like SMSL, Arylic, and Topping all have affordable mini HiFi amplifiers with endless options and configurations. Additionally, the wireless one-box music system has seen a bunch of advances and has gained lots of popularity as well, with Cambridge Audio jumping in with the YoYo series, Naim with their Muso, Bowers and Wilkins’ Zepplin, and a whole host of others, too many to mention. But no similar A/V choices.

It leads to the question. Why not? Now, I’m no engineer but from a fanboy-consumer perspective, it certainly looks like it’s possible. So here I am. Asking the A/V industry a relatively simple question: How possible is this? In researching for this article, I came across a very similar article written by Matthew Moskovciak for CNET entitled ‘How to save the A/V Receiver’ which covers a lot of what I’m talking about here. I nearly stopped writing this, and almost sent an email to my editors saying that I couldn’t continue with this article, as his article was so very similar to mine only, he had written it in 2013! So, this is hardly a new point of contention. But then I had an idea! A crazy idea of how to blow up the A/V receiver of today and make it more palatable to the modern consumer. So, I figured I’d keep writing to pitch my idea.

Current placement of Sony HT receiver
To justify this entire article (and my complete ignorance of engineering, and cost), I am going to be writing from a sample size of one. Me. For my idea to work, I would first need to take a hard look at the A/V receiver of today. I’m speaking generally, but the A/V receiver of today is a big, black, plastic behemoth with connections galore. It is a legacy design. Function over form. Dare I say, it’s ugly. 

Does the A/V receiver of today need to be giant black plastic and metal behemoth? Taking off my ‘Home Theater Enthusiast’ hat and placing it to the side, I would have to say no, it doesn’t. To meet my current need, what I want is a good enough-sounding cinema experience that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. One that doesn’t force me to have an unattractive furniture-sized box as the centerpiece of my living room. ***Though at some point in the near future, I will most definitely have a dedicated home theater room replete with the unruliest A/V gear I can afford. And no, I don’t care as much for how it looks but more for how great it sounds. *** I want a streamlined system for my living room that is not an eyesore but still provides great sound. 

And I want it to be small.

Why are A/V receivers so big in the first place? A quick Google search revealed that you need an audio decoder for multiple channels, a video section, and video card, Class A/B amplification, a tuner, calibration hardware, DACs, a bunch of chips, switchers, a heatsink, and a large power supply for all of the aforementioned stuff. Using NAD’s M10 BluOS Streaming Amplifier as a reference starting point, they managed to fit a whole whack of functionality into a box sized 8 1/2 x 3 15/16 x 10 1/4 inches. That’s pretty darn small. And it features a large, full-color display on the front to boot! I assume (because I haven’t gotten a chance to see it in person) that NAD has stuffed the power supply inside the unit. I wonder if to get the size down even further, they could have ‘pulled an Apple’ and used an external power brick? I mean Apple even had the ethernet port on the power brick which helps clean up desktop wire clutter. There’s a whole subculture on YouTube of cable management and minimal setups so I know it’s relatively easy to hide wires. I did so for my desk setup.

Speaking of clutter. Let’s simplify things.

This is where some overlap with Matthew’s article will most likely take place. But these are concerns that I (and probably most consumers) have when they unbox a receiver. Like what the heck is all of that stuff on the back? Who uses it? Let’s be honest here, most A/V receivers have features that I don’t (and will most likely never) need. Currently (besides the speaker cables) I only have two cables attached to my Sony Receiver. HDMI ARC and optical. Optical only because I taped the cables together previously with super sticky tape and didn’t want to take them apart. I will not be connecting anything else to the receiver any time soon.

What if we nix all but the most important features and concentrate on the necessities? In this day and age, most smart TVs have all of the streaming and video functionality built-in. So why mirror that in a receiver? Also, I’m going to go out on a limb that the general consumer hasn’t used a Blu-ray player in a few years either. So, let’s do a spring cleaning of sorts:

  • AM/FM tuner.
  • Steaming services. 
  • Sound Modes.
  • Component Audio and Video.
  • All but one Analog input.
  • All but 3 HDMI inputs.
  • Starts with basic surround channels. 3 or 5 to start.
  • Kill the Pre-outputs.
  • Headphone jack.
  • Trigger ins and outs.
  • Internal power supply (yeah, I said it).
  • Volume and selector knobs.
  • Physical buttons on the front facia.
  • The button-orgy parts bin remote.

Here’s what we should keep:

  • Bluetooth & Wireless. 
  • PC USB.
  • USB C.
  • Network input (this could be done Apple style and built into the external power supply).
  • two digital inputs (Optical/ Coaxial).

  • HDMI ARC plus two others. 
  • A small selection of the most used surround formats.
  • Room calibration Software. 
  • Speaker connections.
  • Subwoofer outs.
  • A streamlined remote.
  • Full-color display on the front, or a simple dimmable set of lights?

As for power, well how much do we need? A/V receivers are well known for fudged power numbers. To keep it small let’s assume that we’re going with Class D amplification. Class D amplifiers run more efficiently and don’t have large transformers and capacitors. Paul McGowan from PS Audio has in-depth videos on YouTube talking about Class D which are worth checking out if you’re interested in learning more.

Now let’s get all sexy.

Let’s put that all in a shallow, low-profile design. It already looks better. Now, let’s clean up that front panel. If we have a remote, do we need the standard large volume knob on the front? What about that early 2000’s white-on-black LCD? Let’s try two options. One with full color, and get ready for it: What about no display? Do I need bright text on the front panel telling me the receiver is in Dolby Prologic mode, or that I’m using input 1? while watching a movie? do I need a bright display just below telling me my volume setting? Isn’t that what my ears are for? Below is a mockup of how our new A/V receiver can look.
Das receiver back panel
Das receiver with extra module
Some more high-end A/V receivers have started putting high-resolution color displays on the front which is a nice touch! Cambridge Audio recently released their EVO line of all in once amplifiers, elegant designs that look a fair bit different than the typical amplifier design. Naim has a beautiful product in the Unity Atom as well. Let’s ditch the standard black plastic casing and go with an all-metal chassis. Or what about brushed aluminum or white? This diminutive new fantasy A/V receiver is now a lifestyle product. It no longer needs to be resigned to the back shelves of a Best Buy. It can stand proudly, featured front-of-house below an 85″ OLED HDR Smart TV as the new lifestyle product to own this coming holiday season. 

And then there’s that remote. A/V receivers of today come packaged with what I can only describe as an orgy of buttons. The only ones I use are power on and volume. Fortunately, the Sony that I recently bought has a small remote. But it still has buttons that I don’t use. Fluance has great remotes for their Ai Series of powered bookshelf speakers. They are simple, functional, and easy to use without looking once you get comfortable with them. This would be a good starting point for the new remote.

But wait. What about that idea? I can take it one step further. Let’s go modular!

Ok, here’s where I might be going off the deep end. But let’s not forget that this is a day and age where seemingly impossible devices now exist. Smartphones, crazy thin laptops, flat screens, tiny HiFi amplifiers. Let’s just pretend we’ve figured out all of the engineering involved to realize our new gorgeous, show-stopping, slimline, must-have, 5 channel A/V receiver. Is it possible to add on extra channels on the fly? Could one possibly add 2 channels onto a 5-channel receiver and magically make it 7? How about two more for 9? 11? What would it take? Could the extra channels and amplification be housed separately but when connected, sync up to act as a single unit? I took the liberty to do a bit of R&D, using some cutting-edge software and industry-leading material (recycling some empty Nespresso Pod boxes), and here’s what I came up with I call it ‘Das Receiver’:
Das receiver front mockup
Das receiver front with extra modules
Das receiver backside mockup
So, am I just crazy or is any of this possible? I don’t know. I’m sure somewhere out there is an army of enthusiasts happy to tell me why this is a stupid idea. But I thought I’d put it out there, for better or worse. Just in case maybe it sparks an idea or at the very least some discussion.
Das receiver mockup top view