Heh. Not an audiophile, eh?
Stereo gear is hardly cheap or old. Middle of the road equipment, check out for instance NAD and Adcom, easily costs as much or more than mass market A/V receivers. And for the super fanatic audiophile, companies like Mark Levinson, Conrad Johnson, Audio Research, and VTL, might require you to take out a second mortgage to afford their stuff.
But the really good news is that you can make excellent use of this equipment even for your TV, DVDs, and online content. It will sound as good as it possibly can, even if the surround effects might be a little less gee whiz. And the setup is easier, most likely.
Some tried; for a while it looked as though FireWire would be the connection, but it as we know is fading away. I would not be surprised to find that Apple's investment in Thunderbolt technology--complicated to make but pig-simple to use--might be the ticket. It can shove a huge amount of data in a hurry. If we connect more than a few, perhaps another iteration. Still it seems to have the most cachet for a consumer technology which is really fast and could be flexible.
The last time I hooked up my 5 yr old Onkyo 5.1 receiver I discovered I could get by with only 1 digital audio cable going to the unit. I have all my sources connected to my TV with HDMI and then a fiber optic cable between the TV out and receiver in. Now I have no need to change between sources on the reciver unless I wanted to listen to FM radio. I never do that though because I get Pandora through the Roku.
And Bert, I don't doubt that you get great sound, but you're not really getting surround sound like a properly hooked up 5.1 system. modern amps have you place microphones in your sitting position and it adjusts phase and equalization of 5 matched speakers automatically (e.g. audyssey) throuhh 5 full power channels and a sub). And as an engineer, you appreciate the Pulses that go to each speaker to sample the entire frequency range in a short period of time... Bert, I'm guessing you can afford it. Treat yourself to a modern surround sound amp!
I think that things have come a long way with the HDMI cables. A few years back, each component required as many a 9 cables to hook up! (DVD recorder with Component video connections (5) plus composit recording (3) plus Svideo (1) plus optical audio (1)). Now a simple HDMI video cable can do the trick for each component. And the same cable! My camera, my computer, and my phone can all hook up to my receiver. Finally, my reciever and "smart BD" can receive audio and video from either my phone or my computer over wireless. So other than the 7 analog speaker connection (for which my house was prewired) the connections are relatively modest. And everything "just works."
Totally agree with Alex. And using the smartphone as a remote is not a solution for many of his complaints. The setup is a big issue, as I read this.
My answer to this, though, is to avoid using a lot of the features. For example, I use a good stereo, fed from the analog left and right output channels, rather than an A/V receiver. And hope those analog audio outs won't disappear. (If they do, you can either use the earphone output or buy a Toslink or S/PDIF to stereo adapter box.)
For surround sound, I use a "Hafler circuit," using the red contact from both channels of the stereo amp to feed the two surround speakers in series, with a "difference signal." Really works well.
This reduces the rat's nest of speaker cables and it also avoids the ugliness of these A/V receivers. And I get great sound.
As to remotes, I long ago gave up the idea of universal remotes. They only work reasonably well as long as the remote is the newest device in your system. Or, if you use a PC as set-top box, e.g. with Windows Media Center, that can do a decent job of bringing everything together.
Some years ago now, the German DIN system had all the interconnects for audio figured out. Special plugs for each device, including the speakers, even a single DIN plug and cable for all the connections needed for tape recorders. But like anything else that's so ambitious, these schemes quickly become obsolete, as your entertainment equipment evolves. Besides, the speaker plugs were hardly capable of handling trendy 12 gauge speaker cables!
So I follow the KISS principle. But you're right. Most people would not stand for wiring up even a simple Hafler circuit.
Sounds like you've proved the 90% rule. The first 90% of the job takes 90% of the time. The last 10% of the job takes the OTHER 90% of the time....
I wonder why no manufacturer has come up with a suite of equipment that just has one connection (be it copper or fibre) between each adjacent equipment. They'd then sell ALL the equipment themselves, until someone else started doing it. But the way mankind works, you wouldn't have a hope in hell of getting a standard like this, because everyone would want things their own way.
When I first set up a video recorder in the 80's, I wondered why they didn't use on screen displays instead of the usual character-limited displays you refer to. It's still the exception rather than the rule, and things that do use it often don't make use of the now considerable screen real estate for help information, etc.
I'm perfectly cool with the rear panels on these digital A/V receivers. It's the front panels I can't stand. I miss the old analog controls, and I hate having to toggle endlessly through a character-limited display when I want to change some function. Plus, it's like that South America to France Airbus which crashed in that there's no visual feedback afterwards on what your settings are (other than whether you're on DVD, TV, etc.)
Congrats on getting things 90% working on your own. Connecting everything up and getting it all working in a home entertainment center is probably the most complex technical setup of CE products a consumer will ever face.
I once had hope that UWB or something similar would eliminate the rat's nest of wires that clog up my entertainment center, but alas, economics still favor wires for this connectivity task.
As for remote control, I agree with you and also wish I could do it all from my smartphone, but until that day arrives, I'm more than happy with the capabilities of the Logitech Harmony remotes.
Whenever friends or family members ask me for help or advice on adding components or setting up a home theater system, I always advise them that it would be insane to not get one of those remotes. Besides the nuisance of a separate remote for each device, nobody -- no matter how tech savvy -- wants to have to remember that the Blu-Ray player is on HDMI3 on the A/V receiver, but is on HDMI2 on the TV set, when the technology exists that allows you to simply tap on a touchscreen icon that reads "Watch Blu-Ray" and automatically have every component switched correctly for that activity.
BTW, you're right that only an engineer could love that rear panel. But thanks to HDMI, it's very clean and simple compared to A/V receivers in the old analog days. Still ugly, perhaps, but a lot less intimidating than it used to be.