A strangely unpopular feature of AV receivers: HDMI-CEC remote control pass-through

We had a couple of power cuts in quick succession recently, and the fluctuations in power around that time killed our old AV receiver. ¹ (If you’re not sure what such a device is for, I’ve described how we use it in footnote 2.) In shopping for a replacement, I thought that to a reasonable approximation I only needed to look at one feature:

  • How many HDMI inputs does it have?

… since having at least 5 is useful, and plenty of the cheaper devices on the market only have inputs for 3 or 4 HDMI devices.

But this turned out to be naïve. I’d just assumed that all AV receivers would have the second most important feature I actually want, which is:

  • HDMI-CEC remote control pass-through. This means that when you press the arrow keys, play, pause, etc. on the AV receiver’s remote control, those commands are sent to the HDMI input device that’s currently active.

Why is that useful? In our case, because two of the connected devices are a Raspberry Pi (running Kodi) and a Playstation 4, both which can be controlled this way just from the AV receiver’s remote control. ³ Without this feature we’d need to get an IR receiver for the Raspberry Pi or have a Bluetooth keyboard by the sofa, and use the PS4’s Dualshock 4 controller, which isn’t great as a remote control – the shoulder buttons tend to get pushed when you put it down. Even if we got those alternatives controllers, it’d mean two additional remote controls to juggle.

However, I’ve discovered the expensive way that this fantastically useful feature is:

  • Very variably supported – even devices that claim to support HDMI-CEC don’t necessarily do the remote control pass-through.
  • Not widely known about – the two otherwise well-informed people I spoke to at Richer Sounds hadn’t even heard of this feature.
  • Not typically listed in manufacturers’ specifications, so it’s very hard to tell if a device you’re going to buy will actually support it.

I don’t understand

Clearly I’m missing something about the world of home cinema / Hi-Fi, otherwise more people would know and care about this feature.

The number of different remote controls you need is one of the most obvious ways that usability of home cinema systems tends to be awful. Is it the case that most of the people in the market for AV receivers don’t care about this? Do they live with people who aren’t Hi-Fi enthusiasts, and how do those people deal with it?

Theory 1 – they live with the complexity

Perhaps they just live with the complexity: they keep four or five remote controls around all the time, and effectively write an operations manual for their families or house guests who might need to try something as extraordinary as, I dunno, watching TV, or using Netflix.

Theory 2 – typically people have few input devices

Maybe people are OK with two or three remote controls, and this usability problem only becomes really bad when you end up needing four or five. (I don’t buy this, really – even with two or three remote controls the situation’s pretty bad.)

Theory 3 – more people use all-in-one remotes than I expect

Of course, you can buy all-in-one remote controls that can be taught the IR signals sent by any of your existing remote controls so that they can be sent from one device. Maybe these are much more popular than I imagine? I can’t think of anyone I know who has one, but obviously that’s not a very representative sample.

The problems with an all-in-one IR remote control for us would be that (a) the PS4 controller uses Bluetooth, so it wouldn’t work for that, and (b) we’d still need to get an IR receiver + remote for the Raspberry Pi.

In any case, these devices seems so inelegant compared to the HDMI-CEC solution – why should the remote control have to preserve the state indicating which device’s IR codes should be sent? With the CEC approach, the AV receiver knows which source is active and it should send the command to.

30 Rock - "St Valentine's Day" mention of universal remote controls
Included only because if there’s even a tangential reference in 30 Rock to what you’re talking about, you should include it…

Theory 3 – there’s some other solution I don’t know about

This seems quite likely, and if it’s correct, I’d really like to know what the answer is! Maybe everyone with several media players connected to their AV receiver these days is controlling them with terrible iPad apps, or telekinesis or something.

Not very clear conclusions

My guess is that usability by non-experts has never been a big concern to manufacturers of relatively expensive AV equipment; usability isn’t their central concern in the way that it is for Amazon or Zipcar, say. Their market seems to care a lot about things that matter little to me (e.g. huge numbers of surround speakers, differences in audio quality that are difficult to detect, etc.) and maybe they think that their target market just doesn’t care about the inconvenience of needing five or so remote controls in reach.

For music alone, I suppose people who care about usability (but not necessarily open standards) are well served by iPhone docks with active speakers, or systems like Sonos. I’m not sure if there are corresponding solutions that are easier for people to use if you have multiple media sources that include video too.

For the moment, I’m a bit torn between:

  • Returning the current replacement receiver I bought (a Denon model that advertises HDMI-CEC support, but doesn’t send the remote control commands, grrr), which  a hassle, and probably involves explaining this blog post to people at Richer Sounds, which I don’t relish. Then trying to find a replacement that does support this feature.
  • Living with the additional complexity. Something that would mitigate that problem a bit would be getting the PS4 universal remote control, which is a bit like an all-in-one remote that also speaks the PS4’s bluetooth controller protocol. We’d need to get an IR receiver / remote control for the Raspberry Pi, too, of course.

Anyway, this all seems very unsatisfactory to me, but maybe I’m missing something really obvious.

Footnotes

¹  One lesson from this experience, which in retrospect should have been obvious, is that if you have a surge-protected extension lead with a “SURGE PROTECTED WHEN LIT” indicator light, it’s not doing any surge protection if that light’s off — it being off typically means it’s protected you from some surge in the past and isn’t providing protection any more; some kind of fuse in it has blown.

²  For me, the AV receiver takes the place that my old Hi-Fi amplifier used to play: it’s an amplifier that the good speakers are plugged into. However, the AV receiver also sends its video output to the TV, and all its inputs are HDMI, which can carry audio and / or video, as opposed to just audio. So the AV receiver is the only device plugged into our TV, and the input devices that send it audio and video to the receiver are:

  • A PlayStation 4, for games, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, DVDs and Blu-Rays.
  • A Raspberry Pi running Kodi, for playing audio files and films and TV that I’ve ripped.
  • A Chromecast, which we stream music and YouTube video to.
  • A TiVo, for random broadcast TV
  • An occasionally connected laptop, via an HDMI to MiniDisplayPort cable, for LuckyVoice at home :)

So basically it’s a way of having audio and video on the best output devices in the flat, no matter what the input source is.

³  I’m making it sound like the remote control pass-through worked perfectly with our old AV receiver; that’s not quite the case. The one big annoyance was that there was no way to do the equivalent of pressing the “Playstation” button on the PS4’s DualShock 4 controller, which you need to turn it on and select a user. Otherwise it did basically send all the commands we needed for watching streaming video, DVDs and Blu-Rays on the PS4, and everything we needed to operate Kodi from day-to-day.

⁴  I gather from hearsay that HDMI-CEC support in general is a bit of mess: whether it’s because the specification isn’t strict enough or manufacturers are just implementing it very differently isn’t clear to me. Maybe someone can summarize that? (We’ve certainly had problems in the past with the power state change signals causing devices to power on again after you’ve just shut another one down, for example.) Still, the remote control pass-through worked well for us.

⁵  I asked Denon whether I was just missing a menu option to turn on support for HDMI-CEC remote control pass-through, and it seems that I wasn’t – here’s how that correspondence went:

I recently bought a Denon AVR-X2300W AV receiver, which claims in the specification on your website to support HDMI-CEC.  However, the feature of HDMI-CEC that I really need doesn’t seem to be working: remote control pass-through.

To be clear, this means that when I use arrow buttons, play button, etc. on the AVR-X2300W’s remote control, those commands should be sent to the current HDMI source device. This doesn’t work, although I have Setup > Video > HDMI Setup > HDMI Control set to “On”. I can’t see any other option in that menu that might turn on that particular feature of HDMI-CEC.

This is a really crucial feature for me, and it worked fine on the (much cheaper!) Yamaha AV receiver I had previously. Is there some other option I need to select to enable HDMI-CEC remote control pass-through or any way to get this to work?

I’d appreciate any information you can give me about this – if this feature is not supported I may have to return it to the shop :(

Many thanks,
Mark

And I got this reply:

Thank you for your inquiry.

CEC protocol is a standard but its mandatory definitions do not include many features and functionality. These are considered as extended features and may or may not be implemented by different manufacturers. You maybe simply experiencing the difference in different manufacturers implementation of CEC. As a consumer the only potential solution for this would be ensuring that all equipment is running on the latest version of firmware.  ( relevant settings should also be made on the equipment ). As extended features are not guaranteed you may need to use  alternative methods for control.

Apologies for any inconvenience.

Sincerely,
DENON Customer Support

6 thoughts on “A strangely unpopular feature of AV receivers: HDMI-CEC remote control pass-through”

  1. Samsung smart tv, LG sound plate blue ray (speakers), Deutsche telekom IP tv box and amazon stick – HDMI CEC mayhem… i resorted to optical out from tv to sound plate for all but dvd playing … when using youtube on smart tv, sometimes it goes into hdmi audio return, sometimes not. CEC pass through from tv is totally temperamental… seems to kind of depend on what order you turn things on and switch them. 4 remotes required. I feel your pain.

  2. Yep, so far I think I’ve never seen any device where CEC was working. All I know is theory, but the lack of interest is just astonishing. Is the license for CEC so expensive or is it just plain laziness? It get’s even better with the CEC namings like SimpLink, Anynet+, BRAVIA Sync and so on.. Sounds all like different technologies, but it’s the same one, and probably half of them not working together. Maybe the CEC standart is not strict enough. Anyway, maybe some day it will work as it should.

  3. Have 6-year-old Panasonic Plasma and Panasonic Blu-Ray connected to the TV via HDMI, it worked mostly well. Some stuff didn’t translate or was unusable due to the differences in the remotes for each device. However, with a 20-year-old Pioneer system (which could interact with other Pioneer devices long before HDMI-EEC existed) that could learn some of the basic remote commands from the, new at the time, Panasonic remotes (actually all I had to do was figure out the right Panasonic code for the Pioneer remote), and I could shut off the whole system with the “all off” function the remote – the TV powering off triggered a Blu-ray power off, and vice versa for turn on – power on the Blu-ray and the TV comes on, then just power up the Receiver… The Blu-ray remote could run the TV well enough for sound, channel, subtitles, etc., but other functions like sleep, require the TV remote. The Blu-ray remote could also run the master volume on the Receiver. The sound was piped back to the receiver via the TOS link out from the TV and converted to Digital RCA input from the Receiver did a I mention the Receiver was from the early 90’s. Not looking forward to the replacement of all these devices (after reading this post) as some are starting to show their age now, but hopefully running all the same brand (TV, Receiver, Blu-ray) will have some much needed parity for the remote aggregation problem we all face… 

  4. I have an older, lower end Denon receiver from 2012 (AVR-1612) which allows you to set different manufacturer remote codes for each input. Is this something you may have overlooked?

  5. Can’t read your site on Safari on iPad because tweets column on left hand side covers the main text.

  6. Hi Mark
    Did you get a setup working with CEC? Know of any receivers that generally work better than others for CEC?

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