I went out and bought a stereo receiver today.
In this case, ‘receiver’ means, ‘amplifier, tuner, and switcher.’ It’s the box you plug your audio sources into, amplifies the audio and sends it out ot speakers, and has a built-in AM/FM tuner.
This one was a Sony brand. It cost about $165. I was considering a slightly cheaper one for $150 (also a Sony) but I decided on the upgrade since it was only $15 more, and the better one had support for 5.1. 5.1 being a fancy term for ‘surround sound’. (The 5 refers to the 5 ‘surround’ speakers — left/right/center in the front, and left/right in the rear — the 1 refers to the single subwoofer.) I’m not even set up for surround at the moment — I only have the standard 2 speakers connected, but it gives me the ability to upgrade later.
Right now I have my DVD player (which doubles as a CD player) and XBox (which doubles as a media center) connected up. The trick was getting everything working together smoothly.
First was to get both the XBox and DVD player connected to the television. Since I have an older TV that doesn’t have ‘Line’ inputs, only the old coax-style connection, I needed an adapter box to plug in the RCA-plug line inputs that everything uses nowadays. Simple enough device, it takes the line inputs in one end, and a coax on the other end, and the coax goes into the TV, which you tune to channel 4.
It also has a coax input, which you plug your antenna or cable TV input into. The box turns on automatically when the connected device (DVD player or whatever) is turned on. So you can go between watching your cable TV and your DVD player without having to manually switch anything — you just turn on the DVD and the adapter kicks in. This feature is important for another reason…
The adapter box only has inputs for one device. So in order to connect both the DVD and the XBox to the TV, I needed either a switchbox or another adapter box. The adapter box turned out to be cheaper (if I had more than 2 devices the switch would have been cheaper), and it had the advantage of being automatic, unlike the switch. So I plugged the DVD into one box, the XBox into the other, and daisy-chained them together by plugging the coax output from one into the coax input of the other. This way, when I turn on either device the appropriate adapter automatically comes on. (If I turn both on, one will override the other.) If both are off, I could watch cable TV normally, if I had cable.
Now that the video side of things is set up, I could tackle the audio.
I’ll start with the XBox, since it’s a little more complicated. I want to be able to run the XBox with audio running to both the stereo and TV (so I could, say, use the XBox without having to turn on the stereo too). So I split the audio signals so that one set of cables went to the adapter box (and ultimately to the TV), and another went to the stereo.
The XBox has Media Center abilities as well. (Not the greatest in the world, but passable.) It has USB ports, and can play music off of a removable device, so I took a large external hard drive that I had lying around disused, dumped my entire music collection onto it, and plugged it into the XBox.
Now I can turn on the XBox, select the music I want, then turn off the TV and just let it play through the stereo. Or I could just turn on the XBox and TV to play a game or something, without turning on the stereo.
Now for the DVD player. I faced a similar issue with the setup — I wanted to be able to turn on the DVD and TV to play a video without involving the stereo, or turn on the DVD and stereo and play a CD without involving the TV. This turned out to be simpler than the XBox, as the DVD player has a second audio output — a digital output — so there was no need to use a splitter. I could simply plug the analog outputs into the adapter for the TV, and the digital output into the stereo. Now I can use the DVD player with either the stereo or TV, independent of the other.
The final part is the part I’m still struggling with — getting it all working without a army of remote controls.
The XBox doesn’t come with a remote at all, though it’s capable of using one. Microsoft expects you to buy one separately — theirs, of course. However, any number of universal remotes can control the XBox. Finding one that does a good job of it is the trick.
The first one I tried — a cell-phone style flip-open remote that I had been using for the TV for some time now — had a code listed for the XBox, but it didn’t work. I suspect it was for the original XBox, while the 360 (which is what I have) requires a different one. However, by using a code search, I was able to find a code that could control the 360 — an unlisted code at that; the code I found isn’t on the list of codes anywhere, for any device.
This remote had two issues. First was the usual problem with universal remotes: Since every remote has a slightly different set of functions, a universal will almost always (a) be missing some functions, or (b) have functions labelled in a less than meaningful way.
For example, programming this remote to control the stereo results in the ‘obvious’ functions, such as volume control, working as expected. It has other functions that work but are labelled in a somewhat non-intuitive way, for example the radio tuning function are assigned to the next/previous chapter buttons (intended for DVDs) — a reasonably sensible choice, given the options.
However, some essential functions are assigned completely arbitrarily, such as the input selection being controlled by the number buttons; 1 for CD, 3 for radio, 4 for DVD, and suchlike. This is the result of the universal remote having to support the ‘lowest common denominator’ of functionality. It can’t have individual buttons dedicated to input sources (as the original stereo remote has); there are just too many possibilities. So the functions have to be stuffed into whatever pigeon-holes are available.
The second issue is more specific to this particular remote. It’s designed to be compact, so it has fewer buttons on it. To access most of the possible functions on any given device, it has a ‘shift’ key which, when active, changes the meanings of many of the buttons on the remote. It has, for instance, a set of Channel Up/Down and Volume Up/Down buttons, arranged in a directional-pad. When the shift key is active, these buttons become selection buttons for things like DVD menus, moving the on-screen selection up, down, left or right. This multiple-mode setup makes the remote less intuitive to use.
This remote has other screwball assignments as well. It has no Next/Prev track button, for, say, jumping back and forth between chapters on a video, or tracks on a CD. So the answer to that was for Next/Prev track to be assigned to Shift+Play and Shift+Stop. Very unintuitive for someone that’s used to a CD player, and trying to use the DVD player as such.
While I can deal with this issue with the DVD player by simply using the original DVD remote, I can’t do so with the XBox, because it has no original remote. So I bought another universal remote, hoping for something that worked better.
The second one was better, somewhat. It had more obviously-labelled buttons. However, it still had the “shift key” style setup that the previous remote had, at least for the Channel/Volume/Selection buttons. To use the selection buttons, you first had to press either the “Guide” or “Menu” button, and the remote would change modes. Unfortunately, pressing Guide or Menu in itself will activate a function on the remote, sometimes undesired. Pressing Menu for example will bring up the XBox menu, which is not what you want if all you’re trying to do is activate the selection buttons for the screen you’re already at.
So I tried another remote. This one has both dedicated volume/channel and selection keys, so you doesn’t have to switch modes to switch from one to another. It also seems to control most of the important functions on the XBox. However, it has one glaring omission: there are no buttons for skipping to the next or previous track! This makes it impossible to change music tracks without turning the TV on and selecting a track from the on-screen interface.
So overall, the setup is working pretty well, except that I’m still on the hunt for a remote that satisfactorily controls the XBox.