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Revisiting the Component Approach to HT A/V - updated thoughts circa 2009 (1 Viewer)

Ronald Epstein

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RAF,

Enjoyable and highly interesting read.

I have a love/hate relationship with HDMI. As with everyone, I love the
fact that I need only one cable to supply my audio and video connection.
Long gone are the days that require me to provide separate audio and
video cables to my components.

On the other hand, I still occasionally experience handshaking problems
even with the limited connections I have between my components which
go through my Denon 3808 receiver.

I see problems with my Tivo unit when it needs to change resolution from
menu screen to recorded content. While I understand some sort of
disruption should occur, I go through a barrage of blue screen flashes as
the HDMI connection tries to handshake with the receiver as it goes through
those resolution changes.

There are also times that I need to walk away from a movie I am
watching. Instead of turning off the DVD player (so I can keep its place
while paused), I will turn off my display. This sometimes causes the
HDMI connection to be lost and thus when I turn the display back on
to continue my DVD watching, the handshake is no longer there and I
have to start from scratch.

I don't know how many people are still having problems like these
as standards have improved, but it certainly makes me understand
why you chose to address these issues.

One last thing I would like to add....I have a DVDO Edge that I have
been looking to hook up, but have great concerns about the
additional handshaking problems that may occur when adding another
component to the mix.
 

Josh Dial

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I'll echo Ron's comments that the paper was an interesting read. Also, that I, too, have a love/jate relationship with HDMI, for the same reason: handshaking. In particular, my PS3, which I use for my BD player in my main setup (I just can't bring my self to replace it with a standalone player) has handshaking issues enough that it can become annoying. While the delay itself is actually not that annoying, it's the fact that sometimes, one of the components will "give up," and claim the handshake was unsuccessful, at which point I have to toggle the video mode on my Denon between settings, to reinitialize the handshaking. Even then, that doesn't always work, which means I have to stand there and repeat the process two or three times.

The absolute worst is when this happens during BD playback itself. For instance, when the BD loads, and then switches to the FBI warning screen, or when the disc moves from trailers to the menu proper. Having handshakes failure after the disc has spun up, is borderline unacceptable.

HDMI is great, but the handshake issues have got to be ironed out.

I enjoyed reading the paper!
 

RAF

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Thank you Josh. Glad you enjoyed it. I know what you are talking about with the PS3 and "blue screen" as I have experienced this myself. The issue is just about always related to Blu-ray playback and not so much, if ever, with gaming. It was explained to me once that the main issue is with the Blu-ray copy protection scheme. Some of the hoops that it jumps through result in the temporary loss of HDMI signal. Like you said - not really big enough to be classified as a "problem" but definitely an annoyance that I don't find with any of my other HDMI components. On the plus side of the ledger, the PS3 has always been ahead of the Blu-ray curve regarding the various versions of the HD software. It is always updated with new firmware versions and has consistently added BR features (both video and audio) as they roll out. I wish all Blu-ray players had this degree of flexibility.

And Ron, one of the problems with HDMI is that we must remember that some of the older preconceptions of one way connectivity do not apply. HDMI is a two way street (thus the term, "handshaking") and while it seems strange (using older ideas about HT connections) that turning off a display may cause the loss of communication between components it really isn't that strange an idea at all. The best HDMI components monitor the signal path on a regular basis (sometimes referred to as "polling") to see if anything in the signal path has changed and then adjusts accordingly. Unfortunately, up until recently some devices either didn't poll or implemented it poorly. Some devices actually only polled when they were turned on! In other words, any changes after the initialization of the component would not be accounted for. To be perfectly sure that HDMI would work it was advisable to turn everything off, then on again - as you found out. Of course, that's not really acceptable in a real world situation (especially for those used to the older connectivity paradigm) and thankfully most of the newer components allow for this. In your case, I think your HP DLP monitor (circa 2005 design) probably can't handle being the last thing turned on in the HDMI chain which is why you experience some irregularities when turning it off and then on again later with everything else already turned on. And devices like some Tivos don't communicate to the other HDMI components when they change their display parameters and I'm taking an educated guess that this is what you experienced.

HDMI can be a very good connectivity scheme and the various new components are now being designed in a way that handshaking issues have become the exception rather than the rule.
 

DaveF

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After reading the essay and then skimming the previous one, I'm a bit flummoxed. From a techno-geek perspective, I find it fascinating and enjoy learning about other devices and alternate ways to configure a home entertainment system. But from a personal and practical viewpoint, spending $7500 on a device solely to decode audio and video reminds me of Ferris Bueller commenting on Cameron's Ferrari:
True, I'm sure. But just how "choice" is it? This may make me an HT Philistine, but I have no concept of what spending $10k+ just to get sound to speakers and pixels to the display does over typical sub-$1k receiver. I wish this essay could be expanded to discuss the practical benefits.
 

RAF

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True, I opted for a "top of the line" choice for myself (and considering the fact that I used a lot of the equipment I replaced to finance my latest HT whimsy made it more "pocket friendly" for myself) but I wasn't suggesting that one need to go solely with an AVP or equivalent to achieve some remarkable modern day connectivity. There are many different components out there to satisfy a wide range of tastes and budgets (assuming that HT has not become a back burner issue in these economic times). The basic premise of my article was to revisit my earlier thoughts and this was the focus. Expanding the article would lead to reviews of the many available options out there in pre/pros and receivers and it was never my intention to do comparative reviews. There are many fine reviews already available elsewhere for a wide range of brands and price lines and my purpose was just to get the reader thinking of connectivity in a modern context with the tools available today. The last thing I want to do is to come across as being elitist in this area. It is quite possible to get to 90-95% of nirvana without mortgaging one's future. And even that last 5% (which many would argue that most people can't see and/or hear) can be approached with some very cost effective products. Names like Denon, Yamaha, Integra/Onkyo, Outlaw among others come to mind. It begins to become subjective at some point and the reader is bound to ask why his/her favorite brand was not mentioned.

In other words, the article is conceptual, not comprehensive. I hope you understand where I'm coming from.
 

DaveF

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I think I had the wrong expectation from the article. I assumed an article on the the topic of separates versus integrated, and the technical and practical benefits of that choice.

Rather, it's a more technical overview of the state of HDMI and its use in a separates configuration, assuming the reader understood the value of separates per se.

So ignorant of separates, I'm wading in the deep end by accident
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I didn't read your article (or by extension, you) as "elitist" (as my Ferris quote might have inadvertently suggested), but it suggests separates are for those who put more money into their HT budget than I choose to do.

So it was an interesting article, as I said. But I'm mostly ignorant of separates and don't understand what they give in audio and image quality, price range, and how they really benefit over spending equal money on integrated components. I'll end then with a request for a "basics" intro to separates, should you have time and inclination.
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RAF

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Dave, the whole concept of "separates" in audio and now video goes back to the early days of HiFi in the 1950's. The first kits I built back then (Dynacos and other brands like Eico, Knight and Heathkit) were mostly single function devices. You had a source (turntable), a central controller (Pre-amp), maybe a tuner and then amps to connect to your speakers. I even had a wire recorder before tape decks became popular. In the 1960s some "all in one" boxes surfaced, combining the pre-amp, the tuner and the amplifiers in one container. They greatly reduced the number of connections and simplified "Stereo HiFi" for the general population. TVs at that point were not part of the HiFi equation.

Separates offer some benefits over receivers - significant to some, and trivial to others. Whenever you cram a lot of electronics in a single box you have to make design compromises to allow for heat buildup, electronic interaction between components and similar. While this was far more critical in the time of tube electronics (especially the heat part) the concept still has its relevance with today's electronics to a certain degree. For the purest sound it's still a good idea to separate the amps from the other electronics. Of course, a large number of people don't realize this difference because you need pretty good speakers to tell the difference and even then the price:performance ratio might make it whimsical for some listeners who have other priorities. Nothing wrong with that. The other consideration in favor of separates is that when you wish to upgrade one component you don't have to upgrade other items that are working perfectly. The best example of this are amplifiers. Good amplifiers last for a very long time (I still have my original Dynaco ST-70 stereo tube amplifier from the 1950's and it still works - although 35 watts per channel would be puny for my other equipment). Some of my current amplifiers were purchased in 1999 (Marantz MA-700 monoblocks) and they show no sign of slowing down now and for the foreseeable (or is that "forehearable"?) future. When you upgrade a receiver you are buying new amps whether you want them or not.

So separates vs. integrated boxes is something that is still with us and probably will be for a long time. The reason for focusing on the past and current state of HDMI was due to the fact the components must be connected to one another (even in integrated systems you need to connect your source devices to your display devices) and the early experience was that HDMI had some problems and a lot of finger pointing. Thankfully, things have settled down to the point where HDMI is much more mature and reliable but in today's A/V world HDMI is something that involves the latest connections and is totally relevant to any HT discussion involving equipment.

And, finally, the past two years or so have seen the introduction of certain features and reliability in receivers that was only available via the component route previously. This was coupled with drastic reductions in the price of these receivers across manufacturers' whole lines so the level of performance for integrated solutions is now much higher than it was just a few years ago. It also takes the sting out of upgrading receivers as well - especially since there is still a market for older equipment thanks to the various sources available on the Internet. While I'm still a firm believer of going the pre/pro + amp route I can fully appreciate those who choose to go the receiver route in today's electronic world.

Even in retirement I have a very busy schedule so I'm not afforded the luxury of being able to write various primers on separates, etc. But I'm sure that there are many such sources out there if you Google "Separates vs. Receivers" or similar (just make sure that you are reading objective reports and not manufacturer hype). As much as I would like to write such a piece, I'm not sure it's going to happen.

But come to think of it, maybe I just did. ;)

Seriously, the purpose of my article(s) was to promote discussion and this thread was created for such dialog. Hopefully others will chime in with their thoughts so that you will end up with the article that you were looking for, possibly in a slightly different format.
 

firebrick

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So why spend 7500 and still use seperate amps? Doesnt something like a pioneer elite SC09 have about 200wpc and it only cost around 5k.
 

RAF

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The Denon AVP-A1HDCI was not designed as a budget pre-amp. In fact, it is my understanding that Denon's charge to their designers for this top of the line pre/pro was to try to come up with the best overall set of components without worrying about the budget (within reason of course. Some people still pay up to $1000+ for a meter length of cable.) They were essentially told to design something without worrying about the cost of the components. A case could be made that the AVP is comparable to almost any high end pre/pro on the market and it soon becomes a BMW vs. Mercedes type of argument. In other words, highly subjective.

People like myself who believe in separating the amps from the pre/pro don't like to use the amps in any receiver no matter what the specifications. To us there are too many compromises even if the ratings on the internal amps are similar to outboard amps. However, I'm not trying to dissuade a person from an all-in-on box if that's their choice. It might be that they don't think any difference in sound is perceptible or there might be some shelf real estate considerations. I can fully understand price:performance concerns.

Yes, I'm fully aware that there are a lot of receivers out there that contain some fine internal amps like the one you mentioned. In fact Denon itself offers a ~$5K (list) receiver (the AVR-5308CI) that at first glance looks suspiciously like the AVP-A1HD. The boxes are the same size and the number of features are, on paper, very similar. It's almost as though your question might refer to these two units - Why spend $2K more for something that's the same especially when the cheaper unit includes 7 amps to boot! It's only when you examine things closer that you get your answer. Even though the AVR-5308CI contains 7 hefty amps it weighs about the same as the AVP-A1HDCI! A closer look at the components in the AVP show beefed up supplies, more, bigger and better electronics throughout, etc. etc. The two units are not the same on the front end.

But that's not to say that the AVR-5308CI is an inferior product by any means. It would be considered an excellent choice for a high end installation (if one is not overly influenced by brand names). It just doesn't meet my separatist sentiments for outboard amps. If you don't mind your amps being within your receiver then there are many fine options including the one you mentioned and many others. But for my primary HT and listening room I've always been a proponent of separate amps once I acquired mine a decade ago. Even when I was using the Denon 3808CI I only used it as a pre/pro by using the pre/pro outputs which effectively turns off the internal amps. Not only did it run cooler, but there were no electrical interactions between the amp section and the pre/pro componentry.

I'll repeat - I'm not suggesting that receivers are unlistenable (and unwatchable in this VP age). I'm just saying that separate amps are the icing on the cake. Many people are completely satisfied with no icing and I'm not going to argue with them. This is an individual preference and not meant to be a pissing match. There are many different approaches to great HT and A/V.
 

DaveF

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RAF - thanks for the non-writeup writeup. That really does help. New receiver and new speakers are on my wishlist for the next 12-24 months, so I'll keep this in mind. Separates probably don't suit my budget, but it's worth exploring.

Although if I let my lawn go wild and stopped spending so much money fighting mother nature over it, I'd have a lot of extra cash for HT gear. Or, if I could convince my wife that furniture is overrated...

Well, you know the dilemma
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firebrick

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Thanks for the rundown RAF. I have set up my home theater room to also use as a 2 channel environment, I use towers as my fronts. I know both can not be optimally achieved. I have been wondering if seperates might be better, at least a 2 channel amp for the fronts and a 5 channel for surrounds. I am not hdmi compatible yet but I have been looking at receivers like the SC09 where I figure I could get everything I need in one package.
 

RAF

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Understood. It was not my intention to disparage receivers. They are a very good choice for most HT and music fans. In fact, my most recent article points out that the latest round of receivers implement HDMI so nicely that the need for separates for HDMI reliability is virtually a thing of the past in most cases. When I built my HT ten years ago (details in my signature link) I began with a receiver (Denon 5700) which was one of the mega-receivers of the day. After a bit I was encouraged to try adding separate amps for the reasons I've already discussed. I still used the receiver as a pre/pro so it was an upgrade rather than a replacement. In those days not all receivers had pre/pro outputs (mine did) so external amps were not always an option. Today's receivers generally contain pre/pro outputs but that's something that one should look for to keep future amp options open.

Separate amps is a little like buying an Acura instead of a Honda or a Lexus instead of a Toyota. Some people swear by the more expensive alternative while others find that it's frivolous to spend extra money for what essentially does the same thing. While there are some advantages to the more costly option, many people don't find it worth the additional outlay, especially at a time when other budget items are a higher priority. Nothing wrong with that way of thinking. Both approaches get the job done.
 

RAF

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Interesting that you mention 2 channel sound. I'm also a big fan of 2 channel sound and one of the reasons that I originally added outboard amps shortly after building my home theater (see my previous reply to DaveF) was for two channel listening. My first step was to purchase three Marantz MA-700 Monoblock amps (200w into 8 ohms and 300w into 4 ohms) for the Left, Center and Right channels. I still used my Denon 5700's internal amps for the surround channels. I felt that it was important to keep the front soundstage uniform. When watching movies, the center channel contains the majority of the dialogue and this is the speaker that is often shortchanged because of placement problems. To me it's imperative that the front three speakers be as similar as possible or else any sound panning across the front sounds unbalanced and a bit strange. An added benefit of boosting the front soundstage with separate amps and cleaning it up a bit was that it also included my 2 channel listening as well. In fact, that was the most noticeable improvement in sound. When 2 channel SACD came out it was an amazing experience. And now the HD audio codecs - 2 channel and otherwise - continue that trend. Even the most hardened vinylphiles (I still have my record collection) have to admit that high resolution digital sound is not too shabby.

Coincidentally, around the same time that I upgraded my pre/pro with the AVP-A1HDCI I also "upgraded" my speakers. It wasn't so much an upgrade as a lateral move when I went from M&K speakers (150 series) to Atlantic Technology (8200e/6200e/4200e series). I even wrote an article on this HERE explaining all my reasoning. Once again, 2 channel sound played an important part in the process as I made sure that the Left and Right Towers were high quality transducers.

So you are on the right track, in my opinion, by trying to come up with something that serves both your 2 channel and your surround needs. As you mentioned, sometimes there are trade offs when attempting both in the same room (unless you have two completely independent systems) but you can get pretty close to your goal if you choose carefully.

Good luck.
 

firebrick

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Sticking with the the "greatness of HDMI" i have to ask where you are using HDMI from you 2 channel sound source to your prepro or are you using the analog outs and what is your opinion on the quality of sound from either?
 

RAF

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Obviously, when listening to vinyl (less and less these days with the advent of SACD, DVD-A and now HD audio codecs) no HDMI is involved. But you remind me of one of the reasons I chose to go back to Denon electronics (after having used Outlaw and Lexicon pre/pros prior to this). Not only do I get the new codecs via HDMI but Denonlink III offered me a direct digital link between the Denon DVD player (for SACD and DVD-A) and the Denon receiver or pre/pro. This is a single ethernet cable (rj-45) that connects directly between the player and the pre-pro. The major advantage of this is that the digital audio signal that is present on SACD and DVD-A discs is sent directly to the pre/pro without any need for D/A and A/D conversion. When using Analog outputs for SACD and DVD-A (necessary because of the copy protection laws that prevent direct digital output to a recording device) you have two conversion steps that are in the path for no other reason than copy protection. (This copy protection scenario is also the reason that one is not allowed to legally make copies of HD content from devices like HD-DVRs. I find it a little ironic because those who deal with bootleg copies really aren't that concerned about HD quality so analog works fine for them).

In a nutshell, the Denonlink III connector has given me a direct connection to the digital stream on SACDs and DVD-A via a separate ethernet connector on selected Denon products. In the early days of HDMI this was welcomed because early receivers had limited HDMI input jacks. And the sound is great.

Denon recently announced a new flagship Blu-ray player, the DVD-A1UDCI, which is a no compromise deck at a hefty price. Their first Version 2.0 Blu-ray player it also introduces Denonlink IV which now will provide a direct, digital two way link from the player to the pre/pro via HDMI. This differs from normal HDMI in a couple of respects - most noteworthy Denon Flow control which takes over the Master Clock and Jitter control. It gets a little technical but this means that the player will use the pre/pro's master clocking circuit virtually removing jitter from the equation. Granted, once again we are talking about the purest of sound with greatly reduced external noise and a very stable digital signal throughout which probably approaches the limit of even good speakers to discern (and at a steep price tag for the player). But the nice thing, from an upgrade point of view is that Denon has already announced a free firmware upgrade for my AVP-A1HDCI pre/pro which will make it a Denonlink IV capable device able to accommodate the advantages of the new DVD-A1UDCI player.

If you do a Google search on the player you will see the earliest previews and reviews since the unit should be shipping shortly.
 

King Ghidora

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I was fully into components until a couple of years ago when my Harmon Kardon pre-amp lost the center channel. I was in a lurch for a while trying to find the right setup for me. I have some nice amps that I was using especially the amp for the front (a Basic M2 Kenwood amp - 300 wpc @ 4 ohms) that pumps out way more power than I need and stays clean all the way to the top). I finally settled on a Denon pre-pro amp and did away with my old NEC rear channel amp. That amp has served me well for a very long time too. It was a shame to see it go. My center channel amp was an Optimus from way back too. It wasn't really powerful enough using just one channel so I used two speakers and both sides of that stereo amp which worked pretty well except that my speakers weren't efficient enough to compete with my fronts.

So now I've tossed all my amps into the attic except the Kenwood and I'm using the Denon to power everything else. I've quit using my sub too because the amp I had for it blew a gasket and I found that my fronts provided more than enough bass. I also discovered that despite Denon's claims the fronts did not receive a full signal when a sub was connected. I got much more bass out of the fronts without the sub connected.

I have been looking at a new Denon because I bought my old one before HDMI really became what it is. I saw some great deals at Circuit City in their going out of business sale. They had receivers that handled all the latest codecs and had HDMI pass through connections. My old Denon only has composite video connections so I run my video directly to my Sharp Aquos 52 inch LCD monitor. Fortunately all of the Blu Ray players I've looked at have separate outputs for each channel of audio and they handle the new codecs right in the blu ray box. And my Denon accepts inputs for every channel too so I should be OK with a blu ray player anyway. My Dish network DVR receiver doesn't output anything except Dolby Digital anyway so I likely won't need a new receiver until I find some other component that outputs the new codecs through HDMI. I don't have any idea what that component might be at this time. At present I don't see a real good reason to upgrade my existing pre-pro Denon setup.

I thought about buying a new Denon AVR anyway but I got to thinking that by the time I needed HDMI pass through there would likely be new codecs around anyway and since I'm covered the way I don't see a good reason to upgrade now.

I still like the idea of separates though. I have a couple of unused amps sitting around collecting dust now. Maybe I'll hook up the old HK pre with the NEC amp and have a nice stereo system in another room. But I'll need to use my Advent speakers that are currently hooked up to my computer and I'll have to go back to the Optimus speakers for my computer. They don't sound bad but the Advents came with a sub and they sound considerably better.

Component setups are better if you can get a decent price on a pre-amp and a straight amp. It seemed to me that I was looking at paying the same price for a decent pre as I was for the pre-pro Denon so I couldn't see that. And buying separate amps meant paying as much for that as my Denon pre-pro too. So I was looking at double the price for a component setup. I wish that wasn't true. It wasn't like that before and it isn't really fair. There's no advantage to buying components if you can't get a lower price on each component. For example why would I replace my HK with another pre when I could get a pre-pro Denon for about the same price I would have been paying for a pre-amp?
 

RAF

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I agree, Jeff, that receivers make more sense for a lot of individuals for the reasons you stated. I'm just asking people to think about allowing for the possibility of using a receiver as a pre-pro at some time in the future by making sure that any receiver under consideration includes "pre-pro outputs." Most of the better ones do. That way, if you ever decide to splurge on better amps it becomes a one-time expense as the amps will still work with any future pre-pro (or receiver used as a pre-pro).

A strong case could be made for keeping the amps out of the pre-pro box by purists, but probably not a strong enough case to satisfy the average HT customer in these economic times.

And on the Denon front: To me the best bang for the buck receiver out there is the Denon 3808CI. There have been some reports that a couple of people were getting these for under $1000 (although I haven't verified this). To me not only does the 3808CI contain an abundance of jacks, codecs, features and flexibility but the inclusion of the redesigned GUI (Graphical User Interface) is a big step up from the lower models and the previous 3806. A lot of people gloss over the importance of the GUI but as a person who has lived with both the old "Black and White Block Letters and Pointing Hand" interface and the new graphical one, I can state without reservation that the new Denon GUI is hands and feet (no pun intended) above its predecessor.
 

King Ghidora

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I had a Sony receiver with the cordless mouse type remote once. Talk about a clunky interface. It had a lot of features for it's time but it sure took long enough to get to them. The idea was to move the remote up and down and move a cursor on a monitor to get to the advanced features. It worked a lot like some of Wii controllers I've seen except it stunk really bad.

The one bad thing about running my video directly to the monitor is I lose the ability to see what I'm doing with the controls to the AVR on the monitor. That isn't real great. I can still make adjustments to the sound and see what I'm doing on the monitor but I have to switch to another video source to do it. There's a real good case for upgrading to a HDMI connector AVR now but the sound really won't be any better and I can make do with what I have so I'll probably just stick to my current setup. I do miss the old HK setup or at least the SD monitor setup where I could see all the controls on the monitor.

I do like separates and I'll switch back if I can. But in the mean time I can't go without the pre outs on the Denon AVR I have. I just looked up the Kenwood Basic M2 amps on eBay and someone bought one for $28 last week. I freaked when I saw that. They generally still sell for a couple hundred even though they're about 15-20 years old. They have those real heavy duty heat sinks though so they last a long time. They also have a fan that kicks on if a certain temperature is reached and they have the technology where the amp kicks off if it's putting out too much power (that doesn't happen often). I really like those amps even though I paid a lot more for mine than they go for now. I'd like to have another one so I could use one side to power a center channel speaker and the other side to power my sub that I built a long time ago. It still sounds good if I push enough power through it. If I get real lucky I can get two more of those amps and use one to power the rear speakers. Heck I might use 3 more and use the surround back channels. Of course I'll probably have to run an extension cord from another room to run that many high power amps. I'm sure they would kick the breaker if I hooked them all up to one circuit.

Those are the big selling points of components. You can keep amps a long time and you really don't lose a lot. You can just upgrade the head or pre-amp or whatever you want to call it and you can have the latest and greatest to go with the amps you've been using for years. It's worked well for me over the years. I just don't like the idea of paying the same amount for a pre-amp that I can pay for a AVR with pre outs. It just doesn't make sense to do that when you have Denon quality coming from those pre outs.
 

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