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How to buy a receiver: The ultimate buying guide

There are a number of reasons it may be time to purchase a new audio receiver. Did you buy the receiver you currently own when Game of Thrones was still just a series of books? Did you recently pick up a 4K TV and Ultra HD Blu-ray player and realize your trusty old A/V receiver isn’t compatible? Did you just get the green light to build that home theater space you’ve been dreaming about? If you answered yes to any of those questions, picking up a new receiver is probably an excellent idea.

Here’s the good news: Today’s receivers are packed with lots of advanced technology and just plain cool features, now offering better value than ever before. Here’s the bad news: Today’s receivers are packed with lots of advanced technology and just plain cool features, making the research and buying process potentially more confusing than ever before.

Worry not. This guide to picking a receiver will get you up to date on some of the newer terms, demystify some of the specifications and ratings numbers you’ll be looking at as you research, highlight some of the newest features, and explain what to look and listen for when auditioning. When you’re done reading this guide, you’ll be armed with the information you need to make a solid buying decision on a receiver that will serve you well for years to come. Let’s get started.

Check out our AV receiver reviews for a more in-depth look at what the market has to offer and picks for the best AV receivers.

Stereo or Surround?

Two basic categories of receivers exist: Stereo and A/V. A stereo receiver is designed to operate two speakers at a time, sometimes in multiple rooms. Today’s stereo receivers will often feature XM or Sirius satellite radio capability and HD radio tuners, in addition to traditional AM/FM tuners. They usually offer a phono input, and some sort of smartphone integration available via Bluetooth or a USB connection, sometimes supporting high-resolution audio over the latter. Subwoofer outputs remain inconsistent on stereo receivers, but that is changing. The same goes for digital audio inputs: in the past they’ve been rare, but the move to increasingly digital music delivery has receiver makers working to catch up.

A/V (audio/video) receivers are intended to function as the core of a home theater. They build on the stereo receiver concept by adding surround-sound capability, digital audio processing, digital video processing and switching, automatic speaker setup systems and, more commonly, network audio and video support.

We should note that stereo receivers are far less popular today than they used to be, but they can be a great fit for those whose primary use will be stereo music, or for use in smaller rooms like offices and bedrooms. They can be used to enhance the TV experience as well, but don’t expect a stereo receiver to make the task of coordinating several sources (cable or satellite box, Blu-Ray, DVR, game consoles, etc.) with your TV any easier.

For the most part, we will be focusing our discussion on how to choose an A/V receiver, but keep in mind that many of the characteristics that indicate product quality apply to both.

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