By Dan Moren
September 17, 2021 11:02 AM PT
Rebuilding my smart home: Amping up home theater audio
A new home is a blank slate: an opportunity to start over, to hopefully do things better this time—and probably, ultimately, to end up with the same mess as always. But in this era of smart home tech, it also means a chance to expand and, of course, to upgrade.
As I tinker with the tech setup in my new house, I’ll probably be writing a few pieces about how it’s evolving: not just as I adapt my existing devices to this new space, but hopefully as I get a chance to try out some of the newer technologies that are coming down the road—can’t wait for Matter.
This month, let’s talk a little bit about my home theater setup.
Back in June, Jason was considering how to achieve his single remote lifestyle in the wake of Apple’s new Siri Remote. That was an area of some interest for me as well, and now that I’ve moved… by George, I think I’ve cracked it!
My goal was the same as Jason’s: to whittle down to a single remote control. The main obstacle in my path was my aging Onkyo TX-8211, the same stereo receiver that I’ve been using since high school.1 Being around 25 years old, the state of the art for remote control on this hefty box was the venerable infrared, which meant I had to rely on a smart IR blaster—in this case, the Logitech Harmony Hub—to control it. For years, that had worked pretty well, but the Harmony remote, good as it was, lacked several niceties of the Siri Remote: specifically, quick scrubbing and Siri integration.
The Onkyo also engendered sprawls of wiring, since not only did it require connections to the TV and to power, but also to the equally-old pair of bookshelf speakers (which also took up a decent amount of space on our TV console).
So, in order to reduce clutter and hopefully simplify this whole setup, I decided to invest in a soundbar. After considering several reviews and my existing setup, I settled on a Sonos Arc. The Arc isn’t cheap, and it isn’t small, but it is mighty. Thanks to a coupon and strategic purchasing on Massachusetts’s tax-free weekend, I managed to pick it up at a nice discount.2
The Arc is a nice piece of kit and, if you already happen to be a Sonos user, setting it up is a snap. Just one power and one HDMI cable later, plus some slight tweaking of audio settings on my TV and Apple TV to make sure audio was being output properly, and I had everything configured.3
Thanks to support for HDMI’s Audio Return Channel (ARC4) all my audio now travels over HDMI cables in pristine digital quality. And, as an added bonus, HDMI-CEC means I have achieved that grail-like goal: controlling my whole setup with just the Siri Remote. Volume, muting, power: it all works just as expected.5
Switching to the Arc also allows me to remove the trusted Harmony Hub from my setup, settling it into a well-deserved retirement with its old friends the receiver and bookshelf speakers. No doubt they will enjoy many a fine evening rocking away on the porch, remembering the old days of infrared. The net result is my entertainment console is much emptier than it used to be: there’s the TV, the Arc, the cable modem, the Eero router, the Apple TV, and a small Ethernet switch.6 (Although I have yet to set up my Xbox One or Nintendo Switch yet, which may introduce some complexity.)
As a brief aside, the Arc’s audio performance is impressive: for a soundbar, it really does feel like you get some serious surround sound, and it’s really managed to clean up dialogue, which is a big help. But I knew I could do better, so I repurposed my two old Sonos Play:1s, which were stereo paired in my old living room for occasional music play back, as rear surrounds—the result is fantastic. I’m sure surround sound purists will tell me I need to add a subwoofer to complete the effect, but frankly, at the volume and bass response this is already pumping out, I can’t imagine adding much more without seriously disturbing some neighbors.7 If anything, the weak links in the chain right now are my 2014-era TV—which only does 1080p and supports ARC, but not eARC—and my fourth-generation, non-4K Apple TV. But I’m sure those will get replaced eventually.
One feature I was worried about losing in this transition is voice control. In the past I’d used a combination of the Harmony Hub and Homebridge to allow me to turn on the Apple TV with Siri. But the HomeKit support for the Apple TV makes this a reality right now, despite the fact that apparently this functionality arrives in the new HomePod software update due next week.
My next step will be some improved automation, allowing me to turn the TV on and turn off some lights. Surprisingly, I’ve already run into some challenges there, due to limitations of Apple’s automation tools.
But that’s a story for another time.
- A gift from my dad, when all I really wanted was a boombox. But, in retrospect, this was far superior. ↩
- Not to mention just managing to skate by before Sonos’s recent price hike. ↩
- It was almost disappointing. Envisioning a full day of nerding out to get everything configured just so, it took well under an hour. ↩
- Not to be confused with the Sonos Arc. Yeesh. ↩
- Although one quirk I have noticed is that when I first start watching content on the Apple TV, the volume takes a second to inch up from zero. And I have found no way to escape the somewhat cheesy-looking volume control overlay that my TV provides. But if those are the worst flaws, I’m pretty confident I can live with them. ↩
- My Synology NAS and Philips Hue Hub, which also previously relied on Ethernet connections, have moved to my office. More on which in a future piece. ↩
- One downside of city living: even though we have a single-family house, the wall of the living room is about six feet from an apartment building next door. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]