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Receivers vs. separates: Solving the audiophile’s dilemma

onkyo-separates

The battle over audio-video receivers (AVRs) versus separate components has been raging for quite some time now. That being the case, there is no shortage of published opinion on the topic. The thing is, consumer demand has a funny way of inspiring radical changes in technology and, in the world of home audio and home theater, that phenomenon has resulted in some pretty dramatic advancement in AVRs. The distinction that exists between AVRs and separates has never been grayer, and the decision making process never so convoluted. So, we think it’s time to take an updated look at the topic.

If you’d like we’ve culled the weak and picked our favorites, so make sure to check out our best A/V receivers list.

My, how you’ve grown!

To truly appreciate where the AVR is now, it helps to take a look at where it has been. It used to be that all home audio components were separates. Back in the day (we’re not saying which day, exactly) home audio systems involved a bunch of sources (turntable, reel-to-reel, tuner, maybe even an 8-track player) that were connected to a pre-amp. The pre-amp acted as a control center, allowing users to switch amongst components and turn the volume up and down. There may even have been some tone controls or a loudness button involved. From there, the audio signal was sent to an amplifier, which made the low-level signal useable by the speakers.

turntable reel-to-reel tuner ampImage courtesy of Flickr user Saka Mantra

Later, someone figured out it would be a great idea to put an amplifier in the same box as the pre-amp, and the integrated amp was conceived. Perhaps due to fear of complacency, someone decided to throw a radio tuner into the integrated amp, and it was at that point that humanity witnessed the birth of the stereo receiver.

Even in the early stages of the receiver, you could find a range of well-built products from low-performance, budget-friendly options to high-performance, bank breaking models. It wasn’t until later, when obsession with convenience and instant gratification at the demise of quality (some people call this “The 80s”) culminated in such audio abominations as “rack systems” where every conceivable audio component was crammed inside one huge box, made to look very high tech and served up with super-cheap speakers made with cabinets that were about as rigid as a cardboard box.

This could have been the death of hi-fi. Thankfully the VCR was invented. That’s right…the VCR. You see, the VCR made it easy to watch movies at home. Once that happened, people started buying bigger and better TVs. Next thing you know, watching a movie at home was getting closer to matching the theater experience. The only thing that was missing was theater-like sound.

The introduction of Dolby Pro-Logic offered the promise of surround sound at home and, in doing so, presented the opportunity for manufacturers to merge audio components and video components. This is when we first began to see A/V Receivers… and, unfortunately it wasn’t a strong start. The center and surround channels usually got an insultingly low amount of power, the amplifiers were of low quality and, since some folks were expecting theater-style sound pressure levels, these underpowered units ended up blowing up speakers or just plain blowing up.

Over the last 18 years or so, AVR design has seen some major improvements in both performance and capability. These days, AVRs handle several HDMI inputs, provide advanced video processing and upscaling, decode anywhere from five to eleven channels of digital surround information, perform bass management for speakers and, in some cases, can be controlled with a cell phone.

Receiver inputs outputs

The point of the history lesson here is to provide a reminder of how far home entertainment electronics have come, and how the receiver has seen its share of ups and downs. Right now, things are up — way up — for the A/V receiver. Because the AVR offers so much functionality and convenience, it is pushing well into what used to be hallowed separates territory. The performance and price gaps between the two are now much narrower, making the decision to choose between the two options a complex proposition.

The Pros and Cons

The three most popular arguments in favor of separates are more power, better build quality and upgradeability. A dedicated amplifier is capable of delivering higher quality power and, usually, more of it. Since separates are aimed chiefly at high-end users, high quality parts are used in almost every aspect of the build. Pre-amps get better circuits, capacitors, potentiometers and processing chips, to name a few. Amps usually get bigger power supplies, more heat sinks and a better chassis. Also, since high-voltage (amplifiers) and low-voltage (pre-amps) applications don’t like to live in close quarters, putting them in their own rooms makes everyone happier. As for upgradeability, the idea is that you can keep the same amp or amps in perpetuity, so long as they are treated well and maintained, of course. Just trade-up your pre-amp to the next greatest thing and relax knowing your amp will handle whatever you throw at it.

The two most popular arguments against separates seem to be price and convenience. Separates on their own tend to cost a bit more — all other factors being equal — but then there’s the additional wires and power consumption that come along with separates. Plus, since processor technology is constantly evolving, it won’t be long until something comes out that makes a pre-amp go from state of the art to just art (which is still perfectly lovely, of course). If you are the sort of person who absolutely must have HDMI 1.5d (there is no such thing, by the way…yet) then as a pre-amp owner, you are going to be doing a lot of buying and selling and that’s just not convenient.

denon-receiver-inside

The arguments for and against the AVR have traditionally been the inverse of those for separates. AVRs have historically offered less power and inferior build quality, and are not easily upgraded. On the other hand, they are generally less expensive, offer the latest bells and whistles, and are a convenient, one-box solution.

As we pointed out earlier, though, AVRs are now better at doing everything they do (which is a lot) and coming in at increasingly lower price points. Design points like high-quality binding posts, equal power distribution to all channels and multiple HDMI inputs are now standard on even some lower-end models. Some companies are even producing receivers that provide excellent isolation between the amp section and pre-amp section, and the resulting improvements in sound quality bring them that much closer to separates.

So, which is right for you? It may depend on what you need.

OK, so what do I need?

If the room you intend to set up your system in is relatively small, or if you have smaller speakers that don’t produce much bass, then chances are very good that you will be extremely happy with an AVR. The added power that comes from a dedicated amplifier can provide some level of improved sound quality at lower volumes or with smaller speakers, but having a big, beefy amplifier that you never use is kind of like owning a gas guzzling 454 Mustang that never gets driven over 35 miles per hour. A darn shame, when you think about it.

The subwoofer has lifted a huge weight off of today’s AVR by producing the power-hungry bass sounds that would otherwise seriously tax its amp. That being the case, AVRs are now capable of delivering the power they have to all channels for extended periods of time without petering out and causing major distortion.

home-theater-rackHowever, if you own or will one day own large speakers, or have a large room to fill up with sound, a separate amp starts making more sense. Many argue that while a subwoofer is excellent at producing extremely low bass, there is still plenty of sound in the bass spectrum that is better produced by speakers. If you plan on building a big system for a larger sized room and want theater-like sound levels, plan on getting a separate amp or amps. For home-theater applications, a five- or seven-channel amp may do the trick. For a really high-end approach, a stack of stereo amps or mono (single-channel) amps can deliver stable power to even the most demanding load, thereby making your speaker options virtually unlimited.

There is, of course, the budget consideration. The most difficult conundrum comes if you are see-sawing between getting either a highly advanced AVR or getting a less-advanced pre-amp and higher-powered amp. In such a case, we suggest you determine if giving up some features and functionality is worth getting more power, and possibly better audio quality. In most budget-oriented situations, the AVR is probably going to come out on top, but there is a scenario in which practical rationalization just needs to be tossed out the window.

The need versus want debate

Face it, many of us want things that we don’t actually need, and sometimes we want them for reasons that we just can’t explain to others. If you suffer from this condition and it comes into play heavily when you start thinking about audio, then you may need to come to terms with the fact that you probably won’t be happy with anything less than the absolute best; whether you “need” it by someone else’s standard or not. Perhaps you just need someone to tell you its ok. If so, we’re here to tell you that, so long as you aren’t doing anything wildly irresponsible like using your child’s college education money to fund an outrageously expensive audio system, it’s probably ok. We say go for it.

A novel idea

The truth is, if you are reading this article, you care enough about audio performance to do some research and make the best possible decision you can. You probably hear things others don’t, or appreciate music more than most of your friends. You want the best you can get within reason. To you we suggest considering that perhaps it isn’t a matter of AVR or separates, it could be as simple as getting an AVR, then separates because, quite frankly, the audio bug has a highly infectious bite and it probably won’t be long until you get to the point where you don’t need to ask this question any longer.