Being the story of how I stumbled into buying one, and why you might want to also. If you’re any kind of Home-Theater weenie you’ve already had one for a decade or more and you can safely skip this. On the other hand, if the collection of boxes plugged into the big TV has grown like fungus and the rat’s-nest of wires behind it has become intimidating, read on.

Back Story · Going back to 2004, this blog has chronicled our journey into high-def, subwooferdom, region-free disk technology, and Roku.

In related news, since I’m a deranged two-channels-should-be-enough audiophile, I decided I didn’t care about that surround-sound crap; so I’d been driving the decent little speakers and subwoofer, all from PSB, with an elderly but pleasing NAD integrated stereo amp.

Probably the single best improvement in recent years was a Logitech Harmony universal remote, which is that rare thing, a truly great TV-related consumer product.

So, as this particular story begins, the TV (for video) and NAD box (for audio) were talking to a cable box (some Motorola thingie), a Roku, a DVD player, and a Wii.

First-World Problems · Life, however, wasn’t perfect.

  • It’s hard to watch YouTube. The current setup is pretty jury-rigged. But hey, that problem will end soon, courtesy of Chromecast, right? Except for I’m already using all the HDMIs on the TV except for the one on the front, and I don’t think the Chromecast will work with our decor.

  • Because everything had to have wires running separately to the TV and the amp, the tangle behind the cabinet had become soul-destroying. Setting up the Roku cost 45 minutes of my life refactoring it all; the only sane way to change anything is to unplug everything and start again. Doing this hurts; I end up snarling at my children and cats.

  • The Logitech Harmony works really well with everything except for our TV. It just can’t manage to switch between inputs, which is not surprising because the TV’s remote-switching is a stateful maze of twisty little passages.

    I generally disapprove of monopolies but am beginning to think that nobody should ship consumer electronics that don’t work with Harmony remotes.

AV Receivers · The notion is, you run an HDMI from each device into the receiver, then one HDMI from the receiver to the TV, and wires from the receiver to the speakers, and it takes care of all the switching. There are a butt-load of receivers out there, the features list is horrendously confusing, there’s little standard nomenclature, and you can end up paying way too much money.

In my case, life is a little easier, because we don’t have room for a really big box and I don’t care about the klunky networking these things offer; anything remotely useful will be done better by AppleTV or Chromecast.

I found this CNet survey quite helpful, and its findings well-substantiated by other people out there who care. So I ended up buying a Marantz NR1403.

[Sidebar: Linking to products] Linking to something like that Marantz is a trail of tears. The manufacturer’s page is unlikely to survive next year’s product refresh and the CNet review feels awfully non-canonical. So I ended up linking to the Amazon buy-one-of-these page, which I bet survives both of them. And [Disclosure] I put in my affiliate code, so this may end up helping me sell underpants.

Marantz NR1403

Nobody would call it pretty. But when it’s running
it turns all its lights out and just vanishes.

What’s Good · Generally, this has been a big success:

  • The number of audio and video cables I discarded was astounding. It’s still pretty busy behind the cabinet, but no longer makes you want to puke then run.

  • We used to have 4 HDMI inputs on the TV. The Marantz has 6 and there are 3 left over on the TV. If I ever start saying that I need more HDMI inputs, take me out and shoot me.

  • The Harmony remote works brilliantly with the new setup, since it no longer has to try (and usually fail) to switch TV inputs.

  • Modern devices, like the cable box and the Roku, wake up when you select that input on the Marantz, and eventually go to sleep when you turn it off. Win! On the other hand, neither the TV nor the ancient DVD box can manage that. But it’s OK, the Harmony turns them on and off as required.

Not So Good · This technology should hardly be considered bleeding-edge any more but, amazingly enough, some aspects remain imperfect.

  • We still have to fiddle with the TV-screen zoom, but only between HD and non-HD. Presumably an HD-savvy box should be able to look at what’s coming in and tell the TV what to be ready for already?

  • The audio sounded like shit till I figured where in the klunky Marantz menus to tell it that I have left and right speakers and a subwoofer, but no center speaker nor back channels.

  • [Update: This used to say the Logitech would’t work with the Roku, but then it started working just fine.]

Next Steps ·

  • We have no Blu-Ray. Buying a standalone player at this point feels silly, and I was going to get a PS3 so I could have one and play Journey, but now there’s a PS4.

    Also, we need to play DVDs from Australia and Europe which means ignoring the “region” bullshit. Not obvious what to do.

  • We have no center channel and that’s OK, because I’ve never believed they’re useful except for severely-off-axis listeners, and our room isn’t wide enough. But the room would be perfect for rear-channel surround, if I could only figure out how to run wires from the TV cabinet to the back of the room without having them exposed to view. Major engineering creativity is called for.

Of course, in the near future I expect to wave my hand idly at the nearest wall and have it start playing music with distortion below the threshold of human perception, infinite dynamic range, and it’ll be the Music of the Spheres augmented by the tunes in my head. And the video will be mostly Miyazaki.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Mike Kozlowski (Aug 04 2013, at 11:08)

The Harmony will definitely control the Roku (at least if you have the Roku 3, but I assume also the older ones). The device is hidden in a weird place in the Harmony menus, though.

Personally, I think that Harmony remotes are like Tivos -- they were great once, many years ago, and now they've stagnated to the point where they are the legacy tech that I want to get rid of.

I mean, programming that Harmony is a clunky experience that requires a Win/Mac desktop app and a USB cable -- why is it not Wifi-enabled and able to be programmed over the web or via a mobile app? My thermostat works that way. Also my thermostat has a better display than the remote, which is silly.

I can't wait until the Chromecast has enough app support that I can use that for just about everything, and treat the N7 as a remote.


From: David Magda (Aug 04 2013, at 11:47)

Re: TV input switching

In a perfect world everything that used HDMI would also speak and listen HDMI-CEC properly as well, and therefore you'd only need one remote because the device you're using would tell all the other components: turn on and tune to me as the source of signal.

The spec isn't terribly complicated AFAICT, but it seems to still be a hassle in many cases:‎


From: Stephan (Aug 04 2013, at 13:49)

Get a standalone Blu Ray player. The PS3(4) is too clunky to use for quickly popping in a movie (especially if you're a not a gamer or if you don't have the PS3 remote) + the PS3 uses way more power than a plain Blue Ray player + they're pretty cheap now (should find a decent one for less than 100 USD) + you don't have wife's/kids/cats messing with your shiny new PlayStation :)


From: Ben Henick (Aug 04 2013, at 15:18)

You write:

"We still have to fiddle with the TV-screen zoom, but only between HD and non-HD. Presumably an HD-savvy box should be able to look at what’s coming in and tell the TV what to be ready for already?"

This. A million times.

Around here the vast majority of folks, and certainly everybody who plays a TV in a place of public accommodation, invariably pay for the cheapest signal. That signal is usually sent in 4:3, whence 16:9 signals are letterboxed within that.

The televisions playing back the signal just as invariably display it full-screen, letterboxing included.

The resulting distortion drives me nuts.

...But apparently people would rather watch faces inspired by Fantasia than put up with letterboxing.

Whither auto-crop?


From: Chris (Aug 04 2013, at 17:12)

The PS3 isn't that bad as a BluRay player. I don't have the DVD remote, and the UI is a little clunky, but it's serviceable. I had an older standalone BluRay player, and prefer the PS3.

And Journey is totally worth it, BTW. Go get a used PS3, already.


From: James Moore (Aug 05 2013, at 08:26)

One hidden feature of a center channel is for sports with annoying announcers. My wife loves ice skating, but hates the chatter. Turns out ambient sound and the music are on the left and right channels, announcers on the central channel only. She just unplugs that speaker and gets a much better experience.


From: steve (Aug 05 2013, at 12:10)

i went through a similar AV receiver metamorphosis a couple of years ago, and it was indeed freeing; our setup has parallels and contrasts to yours, but the let-down is that even though it's simpler, today's home entertainment system is still messy to configure (and to describe)

we bought a refurb Marantz NR1501, a predecessor in the same "slim" line as your 1403; it has only 3 HDMI inputs but that's enough for us: HDMI signals come from a TiVo, an AppleTV, and a DVD player (a $20 thrift-store Marantz unit, completely remote-compatible with the receiver)

these receivers have a room-analysis feature that listens to all the speakers and balances them, and also figures out what speakers are or are not installed; NR1501 supports 7+1, but we have a mismatched 5+1 set; the auto-analysis worked well, and the phono & Airport Express inputs are set to output stereo only

the NR1501 can also be set to mux optical audio with HDMI video for a particular input; this works around a minor bug with our older TiVo; another optical input is connected to an Airport Express, which passes AAC (no lossy compression) from iTunes libraries; the Airport also gives the TiVo its internet connection; the only analog audio input we have any more is a turntable (via a tiny Rolls preamp)

after 13 years of use, the UI genius of the TiVo remote still has us in its thrall, so we don't want a unified remotes; the TiVo remote can control receiver volume, so the Marantz remote is needed for switching inputs and controlling DVDs; the NR1501 remotes is a swarm of of tiny buttons, but i see the 1403's is simpler; the Apple TV's minimalist, sometimes tedious remote sees some use, but the Apple TV shines when used for Airplay from other devices (Macs, iPads, iPhones) since we simply use those devices' native interfaces for control


From: Tim (but not THE Tim) (Aug 06 2013, at 14:37)

Is the on/off conundrum solved? My pet gripe with all sorts of remote control situations is that remotes have a toggle for on/off which means if the remote things a thing is off, but it is really on, you have issues. I've actually written to the CEA about this - how hard would it be to add signals 'On' and 'Off' to the remote-control repertoire while leaving the On/Off toggle there so you don't break things?

In other words:

On/Off toggle signal turns device off if on, and on if off.

On signal turns device on if off, otherwise NOP

Off signal turns device off if on, otherwise NOP

This one small change would greatly improve the use of remotes, apps which control A/V devices, etcetera. I'm betting for most modern devices, it could be a downloadable firmware upgrade.


From: James Moore (Aug 08 2013, at 19:36)

One hidden feature of a center channel is for sports with annoying announcers. My wife loves ice skating, but hates the chatter. Turns out ambient sound and the music are on the left and right channels, announcers on the central channel only. She just unplugs that speaker and gets a much better experience.


From: Eric Hancock (Aug 10 2013, at 11:49)

Funny, I've been looking at that receiver, too, mostly because of its size.


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August 03, 2013
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