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Answers by Joshua Zyber
Upgrading Old A/V Receiver
Q:I have an Onkyo TX-SV 454 receiver that I would like to connect to my HTPC. Unfortunately, the receiver has no digital input, just 5.1 multi-channel analog inputs. The HTPC has a coaxial S/PDIF output and a 3.5 mm TRS output. Now I have three options: 1) Connect the computer to the receiver with a TRS to RCA cable (5m). 2) Buy a DD/DTS decoder which has digital inputs and a 5.1 multi-channel output. 3) Buy a new receiver that I use with my ten-year-old Canton loudspeakers (5.0 configuration). I'm not sure it is worth the money to upgrade my existing system to digital surround sound as I don't know if there would be any difference on such an old system. I don't want to go for an all-new configuration as the speakers sound absolutely fine. What do you recommend?
A: The TRS output (also commonly called the "headphone jack") is an analog connection that will only transmit stereo audio. With proper adaptors, you may be able to break this out into two RCA "male" leads that will plug into the stereo analog inputs on your receiver. This will be your cheapest option. Unfortunately, you will obviously not benefit from discrete 5.1 surround sound. Your HTPC will downgrade the 5.1 soundtrack on the movie disc you're watching to 2-channel stereo, and then your receiver will have to decode that stereo signal through Dolby ProLogic processing (or a similar program) to give you a very basic form of surround sound.
Connecting the S/PDIF output from your computer into a Dolby/DTS decoder with 5.1 analog outputs would allow you to experience discrete 5.1 surround (of the standard lossy Dolby Digital or DTS varieties). This is more expensive, but you should get better results.
However, both of these seem like stopgap solutions. What you really need is a new A/V receiver with digital inputs, which can probably be purchased for not much more money than an outboard Dolby/DTS decoder. A new receiver will also future-proof you for future upgrades, such as lossless Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio surround.
In the end, only you can decide your own priorities. If you don't feel that you're likely to upgrade your HTPC or your speakers anytime soon, perhaps a new receiver is overkill for your needs. I'd be inclined to suggest starting with the simple TRS-to-RCA adaptor, which should cost very little. That will at least give you a start, so you can decide whether you really need more.
Q: I'm looking for a good Universal Remote. My dream remote is the Harmony 1100, but it's a bit more than I'm currently willing to spend. The General Electric RM24941 is actually around my price range, and kind of what I have in mind, but it doesn't look like this supports Blu-Tooth. I'm thinking that I'm probably going to cap myself around $80. I want a remote that is easy to set up and use, will control the TV, receiver, PS3, HD DVD player, Dish Network DVR, my Laserdisc player, and my VCR. And I'm hoping for more than basic functionality – on the DVR, I want to be able to get to both the guide and my recordings, I want to be able to select inputs on both the TV and Receiver. It would also be nice, but not required, if it would let me select listening modes on the receiver as well.
A: I'm a big fan of the Harmony line of remotes. Harmony has an unparalleled database of electronics codes, and will support just about any device you can possibly think of. Because you download the codes you need from your computer, this essentially future-proofs the remote against new devices you may acquire in the future. Harmony's database is frequently updated. If, by some chance, the code for one of your components isn't available, you can also easily program a Harmony remote to learn from your existing remote. And their remotes are sufficiently customizable to support any specific functions you need easy access to.
The Harmony 650 will just about fall into your price range. This is a 5-device remote, so you may need to sacrifice one of the components you've listed above. Honestly, how often do you use the VCR? Can you keep the old remote around for the rare occasion you need that one?
I assume that your concern about Bluetooth is that you want the universal remote to control your PS3. That can be easily (and inexpensively) fixed with a Nyko BluWave adaptor. Plug the BluWave into one of the PS3's available USB ports, and the console will accept standard IR remote signals. Then program the Harmony to output the BluWave's remote codes (not the PS3's).
If you search, you might also find good deals on refurbished models that support more devices. For example, Amazon currently has a listing for a refurbished Harmony 520, which will handle up to 12 devices, for just under $60. (I can't vouch for the 3rd Party seller offering this particular deal. I'm just pointing out what I found in a search.)
The Harmony 1100 you mentioned earlier is a touch-screen model. This may come down to personal preference, but I find that I prefer to have tactile buttons that I can feel in the dark without having to light up a giant LCD screen and navigate through a host of menus to find the device or function I want. You may feel otherwise.
The HD Advisor knows many things, but he doesn't know everything. Some questions are best answered with a consensus of opinions from our readers. If you can help to answer the following question, please post your response in our forum thread linked at the end of this article. Your advice and opinions matter too!
Q: Besides having a nice receiver for the speakers, is there any other equipment I can get to enhance the sound from those speakers? Are there any separate amps for each of my speakers I can purchase out there? I go to see films in IMAX a lot, and their sound system is so amazing. I know that I can't reproduce what they have, but was wondering if I could somehow enhance the sound from my speakers.
JZ: I'll leave this one for the audiophiles out there to debate.
Check back soon for another round of answers. Keep those questions coming.
Joshua Zyber's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.