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How to buy a receiver: The ultimate buying guide

Connectivity: Convenience and future-proofing

With some of the more technical stuff dealt with, let’s start digging into the features and functions that make an A/V receiver so fun and convenient. We’ll start with the ins and the outs, otherwise known as connectivity.

HDMI: HDMI is a one-cable A/V solution. It can pass high-definition picture and sound between devices without the need for a mess of cables. Of course, as HDMI has developed over the last few years, several versions have emerged. HDMI 1.4 is the latest version and supports 3D video as well as Audio Return Channel (ARC) and Ethernet over HDMI. We recommend choosing a receiver that has a few more HDMI inputs than you presently need so that you have room to grow your system.

Video Conversion and Video Upscaling: These were once considered premium features on A/V receivers, but are now becoming commonplace even among some budget models.

Video conversion (a.k.a. transcoding): Video conversion allows you connect a number of analog composite and component video signals and have them all converted to a digital signal that can be output through a single HDMI cable. The advantage here is that you can connect just about anything and everything to your receiver, and send just one cable to your TV. That’s a control hub!

Video Upscaling: Upscaling takes the process a bit further. Upscaling will take a low resolution signal and “upscale” it to a higher resolution so it will look better on your HDTV. The resulting signal isn’t high definition, but will be noticeably better looking that if left unprocessed. Of course, the quality of upscaling is directly related to the quality of the processing chip that does the job (just like the DAC). If upscaling will be important to you, check out what reviewers have to say about how good the video upscaling is in a given receiver.

HDMI Standby Pass-Through: This is a slick feature that is often overlooked, but very useful. Receivers that offer standby pass-through will send any connected HDMI signal out to your TV even if it is turned off. This way, you can still watch TV from connected sources without necessarily having your receiver turned on or the sound coming through your speaker system.

Audio Return Channel: In a typical system, the receiver sends information “upstream” to the TV, feeding it with picture and sound information. Occasionally, though, you might want to send audio information from the TV “downstream” to the receiver. Let’s say you were watching local HD TV or something from your TV’s Internet apps; ARC allows the audio signal from the TV to be sent to the receiver so it can be processed and played back over your audio system.

Ethernet: An Ethernet connection allows for your receiver’s firmware to be easily updated and is the primary connection for accessing internet radio and content on your home network.(see DLNA in the next section).

Wi-Fi: Built-in Wi-Fi adapters for accessing Internet and other network media content are not all that common, but they do exist…for a premium. Thankfully there are a handful of external wireless adapters that can be connected to a receiver’s Ethernet or USB ports that accomplish this task.

USB: More and more receivers are including USB ports. Some of these are designed simply for viewing pictures, playing music or watching video from flash drives. Others are designed to work with iPods and iPhones as well.

Content: What you can watch and listen to.

DLNA: Stands for Digital Living Network Alliance and is a standard set up to make sharing pictures, music and video amongst digital devices easier. We’re seeing more and more DLNA certified TV’s, Blu-ray player and receivers now. The feature allows access to digital files on any computer in your home network (provided sharing is turned on) A word of warning, though. In our experience, the bigger your library is, the slower many DLNA devices tend to operate and the user interface that is built in to the receiver has a lot to do with how easy it is to access network media. It’s a great idea, but a little clunky at this time.

Apple Airplay: Receivers equipped with Apple’s airplay can now play movies, music, photos and video from any Airplay equipped device or from iTunes on a network. It sounds better than most Bluetooth-based music streaming features we’ve heard and is very easy to use. Airplay is now being included on new, higher-end models of some receiver brands and is available as an upgrade to a handful of receivers from last year.

Internet Radio: There are thousands of Internet radio stations available, and most network capable receivers will give you access to them. Most Internet radio sounds pretty lousy, but the sheer immensity of content is staggering, and occasionally you do find a high-bitrate station with decent audio quality. Internet radio can also be handy for tuning in stations outside your broadcast reception range.

HD Radio: HD radio eliminates static and allows access to additional stations broadcast by your favorite channels. It seems a bit slow to catch on, but the sound quality is superior to FM in most cases. Those receivers that support HD radio usually have the tuners built right in. No subscription is necessary.

Satellite Radio: Sirius/XM support can be found on many receivers today, however the tuner that is necessary to receiver this service is not always built in. If you want satellite radio support, be sure the receiver you are considering has the tuner built-in or be prepared to purchase a separate tuner. Subscription to Sirius/XM service is required.

USB for iPod/music/video/pictures: If you’re not into the network thing, you can still load up a thumb drive full of music, movies and pictures for use with a receiver equipped with USB inputs. A USB input may also be certified to work with iPods, iPhones and iPads, thus eliminating the need for a docking station.

Distribution: Serving up other rooms

Multi-room audio/video: Many receivers offer support for sending amplified audio and sometimes even video signals to other rooms in the house. This can be great for setting up rec rooms, outdoor areas, bedrooms or even the kitchen with sound. Most receivers do allow for listening to one source in the main room and a separate source in others. However, it is not always made clear whether the receiver will play a digital source in the second or third rooms. This is something you need to look into, because requiring an analog source for zone 2 and 3 means running extra cables to your components, and that is not always something self-installers are interested in doing. There’s another caveat to multi-zone support…

Impact on surround channel availability: Many receivers make one or more of their surround channels “assignable” in order to send amplified sound elsewhere. This means you may have to do without a couple of surround speakers if you want to run audio to another room.

Zone 2 remote: If distributed audio is high on your list of priorities, then take a look at whether the receiver you are considering offers a remote control for the extra zones. Having the extra remote available makes controlling the volume and the source much easier than fumbling around with the main room remote.

Auditioning

Now that you have the information you need to assemble a short list of receivers, you’ll want to audition them to decide which sounds and feels best for you. Here are our tips for a successful audition process:

Auditioning at a retailer: While we always recommend that you do your final audition at home, you may want to have a listen to some receivers at retail stores. This is fine, but keep in mind that an in-store audition of a receiver can only tell you so much. Most showrooms have been designed to sound great, using sound absorbing panels, precise speaker and chair placement, and dedicated power circuits. Chances are, your setup at home may never be quite as refined. So, plan on concentrating on the differences you hear between receivers and a little less on the over-all sound quality.

Use the same speakers with each receiver. Different speakers have different sound characteristics, so make sure person giving you the demo uses the same speakers with each receiver you listen to.

Choose speakers similar to your own to give you a more accurate idea of what the receiver might sound like with the speakers you have at home. If you own bookshelf speakers with soft-dome tweeters, try to audition your receiver with something similar. Likewise, those who own two-way towers with metallic dome tweeters should find something similar in the showroom if they can.

For more valuable audition tips, please see the audition section of our speaker buying guide.

Return policy importance: As we said earlier, the most important audition is the one that takes place in your home, in your media room, with your speakers, sitting in your chair or sofa. There are tons of variables at play in your room that you just can’t duplicate elsewhere. So, make sure you can take the receiver home and give it a good test drive be ensuring that the retailer you purchase from has a solid return/exchange policy.

Once you have settled on your receiver and made the purchase, you might need a little help getting it set up and calibrated. For that, we encourage you to check out our receiver setup guide followed by our home theater calibration guide. Happy listening!

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