Of all the A/V gear we test and review, none is as involved or time consuming as the A/V receiver. All those bells and whistles that get crammed into a single box of audio/video awesomeness need to be tested for functionality and ease of use. Then there’s the obvious concern of sound quality, the testing of which can involve some pretty time intensive cable swapping. It’s a complicated job, but we love every minute of it.
While you can have a listen to a receiver and possibly even play around with its remote on the showroom floor of an electronics store, it is nearly impossible to get a real feel for how intuitive its interface is. Our goal with receiver reviews is to give you an insider’s look at what owning one of these wünder-boxes will be like and what kind of sound quality you can expect from it. Read on for our account of how we go about testing A/V receivers, stereo receivers and integrated amps.
If you’d like an idea of what receivers we like and why check out our picks for the best A/V receivers.
Out of the box
While un-boxing a receiver doesn’t involve much in the way of fanfare and confetti (unless you count those damn packing peanuts), there’s still something about it that gets our blood pumping every time. Maybe it’s that “new receiver smell”. Regardless, there’s a lot to be gleaned upon cracking open the box and we’re sure to have our notepad handy every time. Here, we’re able to gather some impressions on build quality as we get a glimpse at the receiver’s chassis and experience its weight as we pull it free from its Styrofoam cocoon. If we look closely, we can usually take a gander at the unit’s power supply, often a foreshadowing of how well the receiver will sound when put under heavy stress.
While we’re at it, we will catalog all the receiver’s accessories and cross check the list against what the manufacturer claims should be in the box. You’d be surprised at how many review units show up missing remotes, power cables and calibration microphones.
The hookup and setup
Though we’ve taken measures at our testing lab to make hooking up a receiver as easy as possible, it still takes a while to transfer the four HDMI cables, 14 speaker wires and 11 RCA cables involved in our home theater system from our reference receiver to the review unit.
With cables and wires in place, we move on to receiver setup. Since this is a process that many people less experienced than ourselves will have to go through, we consider it especially important that things go smoothly. We look for an intuitive graphic user interface (GUI) which usually consists of a series of menu screens that users have to navigate in and out of.
Setup involves inputting speaker distances, crossover points and adjusting channel levels. For this we use a good-ole Stanley tape measure and an analog decibel meter.
We do not run any auto-calibration routines until the end of our evaluation. More on this later.
The test bench
The idea behind having a test bench is that all the equipment in the system chain remains the same, save the piece that is being tested. This way, we have an easier time hearing the changes that the review piece brings to the system. Our reference system is presently comprised of a Marantz SR6005 A/V receiver, Anthem 225 Integrated amp, Oppo BDP-95 Universal Audiophile Blu-ray player, Aperion Audio Verus Grand speakers (for 2-channel testing) Aperion Audio 633 Concert HD 7-channel speaker system, Aperion Bravus 12” subwoofer and Aperion Bravus 8a subwoofer.
After all the heaving and wiring, finally sitting down to have a listen to the gear we’ve been setting up is a welcome treat.
We mentioned earlier that we favor a manual setup over any automated setup and calibration routines for the bulk of our reviews. We do this because, in our experience, these processes end up making EQ settings that are to the detriment of our system’s sound quality. The one exception we’ve experienced was with one particular manufacturer’s product, which made alterations to the subwoofer signal that ended up improving bass response a bit. Otherwise, we’ve noted many wrongly set speaker sizes, crossover points and some seriously funky EQ settings made in attempt to compensate for our room’s limitations (which we’ve taken physical measures to deal with already). Eventually, we will run the setup routine to see how it performs but we are rarely surprised by the results.
We start our listening tests with 2-channel stereo music. This allows the receiver to show us the best it has to offer in terms of amplification. While many manufacturers claim that their amps deliver equal power to all channels, we’ve seen several where that was not the case at all. With a multi-channel A/V receiver, the stereo and direct modes ensure that as much power is being delivered to the front left and right speakers as possible.
During this stereo listening session, we listen to music tracks that we know inside and out, backward and forward. Some of the music we use was even recorded, mixed and mastered by us, which gives us the best possible insight into how the reproduced track should sound. We take copious notes on how the receiver drives the Aperion Verus Grand speakers (which we are extremely familiar with) at both moderate and high volumes.
While in 2-channel testing mode, we’ll also switch back and forth between a digital input (usually HDMI) and an analog input fed by the Oppo BDP-95’s stellar two-channel output. The idea here is to rank the receiver’s built-in DAC (digital to analog converter) against a reference DAC with which we are very familiar. The closer the receiver’s built-in DAC gets to the superior DAC built into the Oppo, the better.
After our 2-channel testing we’ll move on to multi-channel music, primarily provided on SACD and DVD-Audio discs, though we do have some good multi-channel material on DTS Blu-ray discs as well. This puts the receiver under much greater strain as it will have to feed 5 to 7 speakers with sound simultaneously and for prolonged periods of time. We are able to best scrutinize the receiver’s capability to reproduce sound accurately through multiple channels with music because it is much easier to critique the way the receiver supports the reproduction of a musical instrument than it is to analyze how well it made an explosion or thundering helicopter sound.
Finally, we’ll move on to Blu-ray movies. Here, we listen to how well the receiver steers effects amongst channels to create a seamless 360 degree sound field. We’ll also listen for any breakup or distortion during highly explosive scenes as we push the receiver to extremely high volumes. We also use this time to check out the receiver’s video processing by comparing its processed video output to the output coming directly from our Blu-ray player.
Testing a receiver’s various features is the most exhausting part of the process. There’s just so many and, since several of them rely on a LAN or wireless network, equipment outside of the receiver itself threatens to muck the process up (and it has…many times).
The network-reliant features usually include Apple AirPlay, DLNA delivery of photos, music and videos from a networked computer or storage device, Internet radio access and Internet music apps such as Pandora, Spotify and Rhapsody. First, we test each feature for ease of access and to verify that they function well. Then, we will engage and evaluate any built-in audio enhancer that is meant to improve the sound of low bitrate media. Finally, we take notes on how easy it is to access these features and how clearly designed the menu is for each of them.
The rest of the features tested are usually proprietary in nature and, frankly, too numerous and random to list here. Suffice it to say that we do spend time with as many of them as we can. Anything notable will be reported on.
Writing the review
For us, simply organizing our evaluation notes into something that resembles a narrative is not good enough. We aim to give a little back-story on the manufacturer, describe our experience with the receiver and put its audio performance and user-experience into a context that is understandable, even for those not as technically inclined. We hope that by reading our receiver reviews, you will walk away with a feel for whether that particular model is something you should bother to audition yourself or remove from your short list because, ultimately, a personal audition is absolutely essential.