Thanks again for all of your insight. It really is helping me out. I'd spent a lot of time on my own trying to figure these things out, but since I had 0 experience in the A/V world, I really wasn't getting anywhere.
After thinking about the overall cost of the basement remodel, I'm leaning towards the receiver. Even though we're trying to save as much money as we can, this seems like one area that it makes sense to spend a little more on right now. You really only get 1 fairly easy bite at the apple when you're about to install a stone fireplace, so I think that will tip the scales to the receiver. There's also the benefit that when I move, I'll have the option of hooking up a 5.1 or 7.1 system if the situation allows for it.
Now I'm trying to figure out what I should do for the front speakers. It was my understanding that the center channel speaker was the one that carried dialogue. If I go with only L/R, how does that work? Would I lose some quality/clarity in dialogue? How important is the center channel?
Also, when I'm doing my searching for front speakers, should I target speakers with good bass to help offset the lack of subwoofer, or would that have any effect? I'm not sure how it all works together.
As an aside, the optical cable I ordered came in and I was able to hook up the Vizio soundbar from the digital audio output from the TV. It sounds OK, nothing spectacular, but a thousand times better than the TV speakers, so my wife is more on-board now.
We were watching America's Got Talent and we swapped from the TV speakers to the soundbar while one of the contestants was singing and the difference was remarkable. We used to comment on how the background noise seemed louder than the singers and as soon as we swapped to the soundbar, that problem went away. Performances that didn't sound very good before, sound LOTS better now. I knew the TV speakers weren't very good, but we didn't realize just how bad they were until then.
So I guess that means that the TV does pass any audio signals it receives out through that digital audio output. It even worked for the composite input from our baby monitor, so it seems like it can put analog audio out through that output as well. Based on this info, would 39's plan about putting in an amp and bookshelf speakers be an option? How would I find out if it is a fixed stereo signal?
Baaahhh, so many options. It seems the more I think about it, the more questions I have.
Well, I'm off to bed. If anyone has any input on my questions or recommendations for front speakers, that would be great. I need to get this figured out soon so I can get everything ordered and tested out before we start doing the remodel!