Every few years, I get the crazy notion that technology has surely evolved by now to a place where I can just plug in all of my entertainment devices into one A/V receiver and get them to output at the best possible picture and sound quality anywhere that I want them to go.
With the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on the way, this seemed like a good time to get ready for a bit more high definition in our lives. For years, we muddled by without HDMI at all and then - back when we got a 3D TV - we switched to HDMI output just on the PS3, leaving our cable box and Xbox 360 relegated to sub-par component and optical outputs.
Alas, each time I dream what shouldn't be such an unrealistic dream, I'm sorely disappointed and end up jury-rigging awkward workarounds that make it near impossible for anyone in the household but myself to operate the TV. GrrlGotGame often jokes that I do it on purpose so she'll keep me around. We've even had babysitters who were forced to read a book while waiting for us to return home from an evening date.
This year, I still didn't exactly get my wish for an A/V utopia but - with some work - I was mostly successful in getting the desired result. Eventually.
This was my goal: Plug in my cable TV box, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, the two new consoles, and assorted other devices such as older consoles and an ancient but recently repaired laserdisc player, and have the newer devices play at 1080p with 5.1 sound in the living room. The older devices should just serve up whatever they can deliver - but connect through HDMI to our main TV regardless of their maximum output capabilities.
But that's not all. I want them to mirror what's airing in the living room to a kitchen TV and speaker setup via a rather long set of component video and stereo wires we had our contractor run years ago through the basement ceiling and up through the counter next to where we do dishes and food prep.
We didn't quite get to 1080p all of the time - so it's a small hassle to play 3D movies - but after many weeks of struggles we have everything more or less working to our satisfaction. Here's how:
Marantz NR1604 - This receiver had overall solid reviews. It even offers AirPlay, so our iOS devices can talk to it without being plugged in with a wire. But alas that feature is audio only, so you'll have no luck bouncing a YouTube video from your phone for playback on your TV. (Their official answer? Get an Apple TV. And while that's probably Apple's fault for not sharing their toys, it's just one more ridiculous limitation. So we just tag the video using Watch Later and call it up on the YouTube app via Xbox 360 or PS3. But I digress.)
There's also only one HDMI output; Marantz models with two outputs cost twice as much or more! (Buying a much costlier receiver was the official Marantz Twitter's official suggestion when I called them on this.)
Finally, as with pretty much every other receiver on the market, it won't down-convert to component. (Marantz also agreed that down-conversion wasn't happening.)
To be fair to Marantz, they are the company whose product we purchased. No doubt, the support experience for every other A/V receiver manufacturer would have been similar. I imagine that somewhere in each company is a frustrated engineer going, "But it would be so damn easy to include down-converted outputs! No one else is doing it! We'd be printing money!"
As best I can tell, this is all due to pressure from the entertainment industry, which fears that quality down-conversion from HDMI would lead to rampant piracy. In their minds, we'd all sprout eye patches and parrots on our shoulders, and then start selling illegal dubs of hit movies from the trunks of our hybrids and minivans.
Whatever. I just want to watch whatever's going on in the living room - whether it's live TV, DVR-recorded programming, Blu-ray disc, or streaming show or movie on Netflix, HBO Go, Vudu, Hulu Plus, or Amazon Instant - while I cook and clean dishes.
Yes, I reallly do cook and clean. Is this really so much to ask in the name of household entertainment efficiency and domestic bliss?
But more on that in a bit. Let's look at what else I needed to engineer a better than passable entertainment miracle.
KanaaN HDMI Matrix 4 Input/2 Output Splitter Switch - After trying fruitlessly to devise a solution that split the Marantz receiver's HDMI output between the living room TV and down-converted component/stereo to the kitchen (lots of audio issues and it seemed to always mess up the PS3's 1080p auto-detect sniffer), I figured out that I really needed to do the splitting BEFORE the receiver. This means giving up two of the Marantz' six HDMI inputs in favor of the four inputs this switch can take. Cable, Xbox 360 (for HBO Go), Xbox One, and PS4? Yeah, we'll be OK - though we'll need to revisit and reprioritize which devices get a space on the switch over time. And non-HDMI devices like the laserdisc player? Forget it. We can plug other entertainment appliances directly into the Marantz and enjoy them in the living room only, which is fine for - say - Wii U. I guess we should feel lucky that any of it works at all.
ViewHD 2 Input HDMI to RGB Component/VGA Switch Converter - This seemed at first glance like the answer to our prayers. We only needed one of the two inputs (no switching required) but the key feature here is that it down-converts the signal from HDMI to component. It also promises to handle 5.1 surround output but, as we learned, NOT VIA THE STEREO OUTPUTS. We were going to return it, thinking that it was defective, but the seller - J&R Galaxies - set us straight that the audio conversion only works with 2-channel sources.
Well, hell. Since we don't have optical running to the kitchen (just standard 2-channel RCA audio cables) we found out the hard way that the stereo outputs won't work. J&R was nice enough to steer us toward the fix for this, another gizmo. So we also needed:
ViewHD Digital to Analog Audio Decoder - This magic little box converts optical audio down to stereo and mixes it neatly down to two channels. This is important since otherwise many 5.1+ programs drop all or most of the dialogue, which is often pushed to the center channel. We found this works great except for one odd issue we encountered with the PS3, but it's not really the decoder's fault and we'll get to that.
IMPORTANT: There are cheaper devices that look just like this, but they won't down-convert surround sound to 2-channel stereo. Thanks J&R Galaxies for catching this while there was still time to cancel my order for the wrong item and get the converter I really needed!
We also needed:
- Lots of HDMI cables of varying lengths. Don't skimp - make sure they are all High Speed so they can support all of the latest features such as 3D. Amazon makes 'em cheap but solid.
- Room to plug each of these extra gizmos in since they are all powered devices. I recommend a metal-encased power strip since the plastic ones wear out faster and can even be a fire hazard if not replaced every year or so.
- Patience. Weeks of trial and error to figure this all out.
Fortunately, you can learn from our mistakes and get there a whole lot faster. And if anyone needs a 1x2 HDMI splitter with 4K support for any reason, we ended up not needed it after all. We'll give you a good price. But you won't need it for this solution.
Putting it all together
So the first step is to plug in the receiver. It doesn't have to be the Marantz. To be fair, the receiver we bought delivers a really amazing sound field through our 5.1 speaker setup, now that everything is working as it should. But there are plenty of good choices. Read lots of reviews and get what best meets your needs. Two HDMI outputs aren't required and, apart from the cost, might cause unintended problems. (I can't be sure since we haven't actually tried it that way.)
Here's what worked for me:
Plug HDMI cables from your four top devices into the 4-Input/2-Output HDMI Switch. These are just the ones we expect to favor - choose whichever gadgets with HDMI outputs that you want to use:
Take the first output from the switch and plug it into your first HDMI input on your receiver. Connect your receiver's HDMI out to your HDMI TV:
Boom. Room 1 is done.
But that part is easy. You probably wouldn't need this article if that's all you wanted. Here's the tricky part.
Back to the HMDI Switch for Room 2. This is where it gets interesting (as defined in the movie Serenity!). The other output goes to the HDMI to RGB Component Converter:
Plug your long, second room component cables into the component out from the converter:
If it's really long, you can get a component in/out signal booster to reduce signal degradation (not pictured).
Now plug an optical (TOSLink) cable into the Component Converter's optical out and connect that to Digital to Analog Audio Decoder:
The stereo output from this can either go directly to the other room or, as we've depicted, it can be used with an audio A/B switch to permit you to quickly toggle between your down-converted audio and the pure stereo output from your receiver (not down-converted but good for 2-channel sources such as AirPlay and radio).
In our kitchen we have a small TV with component inputs and an RCA to miniplug converter that goes to a mini amp with bookshelf speakers connected:
You could just plug it right into the TV and let the built-in speakers play your sound. The choice is yours. We just happened to have another set of small speakers that fit neatly in our kitchen, and we had this part all rigged up already from our previous setup. It's a "nice to have" in this scenario.
All said and done, that wasn't an obvious solution - but it works! Now Room 2 is complete.
Finally, a universal remote is recommended to tie it all together and reduce the fumbling for the right remote or, worse, using a game controller to watch movies or TV shows. Training our Harmony One to handle the HDMI switch proved problematic but we've gotten it to where it definitely changes the source for the HDMI Switch's first output every time and sometimes gets the HDMI 2 output to match. When this doesn't happen, we use the shiny little silver remote they included with the KanaaN to correct what’s displaying in the kitchen.
And there are times when this lack of synchronicity is a boon... We're getting to that.
How it works (and sometimes doesn't)
Most of the time, this system works like a charm. The only times it doesn't seem to be related to how the PS3 handles automatic TV detection.
For some reason, you can't just set your PS3 manually to 1080p for 3D movies and games. If you do this, 3D won't work. You need to let the console auto-detect the TV's capabilities. Additionally, the ViewHD converter only handles up to 1080i - so when it's actively receiving the PS3 signal, the PS3 won't acknowledge the TV's 1080p capability through the switch and receiver. I think it's something to do with the lowest common denominator connection being the one it accepts.
So if you have the PS3 on in the living room and simultaneously bounced via the switch to a second room, it will only detect 1080i. But if you change the second output to another device and then ask your PS3 to auto-detect - voila, it works! As an added bonus, sometimes when we switch on the PS3 and the switch doesn't flip the second output to the same thing (which is often), the PS3 will detect the TV and offer to switch to 1080p. You can always say no and it will stay at 1080i for second-room mirroring.
So, yeah, there's no 3D in the kitchen (not even audio), but we didn't expect or really need that. But the little dance we have to perform sometimes to get 3D to work is a minor pain.
Important safety tip: When you are done with 1080p, be sure to have the PS3 redetect the HDMI audio settings as well as video when you have both switch output sources set to PS3. Otherwise, you'll find that 5.1 content in your other room lacks the down-mixing and you'll get that no center channel thing I mentioned earlier. You'll know it when you can hear music/score but little to no dialogue or singing. This little wrinkle took me an extra week to figure out! I was sure it had either never worked (I'd somehow chosen only programs that had different mixing that masked the problem) or, more likely, something had broken. I checked and rechecked my connections far too many times to count. But in the end, I figured out it was a simple technology snafu.
One more improvement to consider: Remember how the Marantz (and, I'd imagine, many other brands of receiver) can only handle audio-only AirPlay? It would be cool if you could blast that to your second room as well, right? Alas, with this arrangement your second room only gets sound from the HDMI switch BEFORE the receiver.
So here's a quick fix. Get a simply RCA audio A/B switch. (If it has yellow ports for video, you can just ignore those - they won't work since your receiver won't down-convert video signals and we're just worried about audio here.) Plug the audio from your ViewHD 5.1 decoder into A and the 2-channel stereo output from the receiver into B.
Now whenever you want the audio from your receiver in your second room, just push B on your switch. If you're like us, you'll only need this once in a while but it sure beats going behind the TV and swapping cables each time.
Here's the full flow chart of my setup (click it to view a higher resolution version):
Have your own awesome A/V setup? Solve this problem another way? We'd love to hear about it!