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.
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 almost always including some kind of digital input.
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.
Specs: Useful or misleading?
Today’s A/V receivers — even the budget models — are packed to the brim with all kinds of bells and whistles. But what good are fancy features if the receiver doesn’t sound good, right? With so many makes and models on the market, you need to weed out the bad units right off the bat. Otherwise, you just might go crazy trying to keep them all straight. To sort out your short-list, you can start by looking at some product specifications (specs) to get an idea for what you do and don’t want to spend your time auditioning. Specs, though, can be highly suspect, as you’ll see.
The sad truth is that manufacturer specifications are not as indicative of quality as they once were.
The sad truth is that manufacturer specifications are not as indicative of product quality as they once were. Many of the companies that make receivers have figured out how to “cook the books” to make their products look attractive, even if they sit at the bottom of the product line. While high-end brands don’t tend to dabble in this game, most big-name brands do to some degree. For example: Have you noticed that almost everything pushes 100 watts per channel these days?
Still, it is possible to read between the lines and get a better idea of whether a given receiver is worth further investigation, or should be cut from the list of contenders right away. Here’s our explanation of some crucial specifications and clues on what to look for.
This is where most of the deception takes place. Manufacturers know buyers are looking for big numbers, since it is commonly assumed that more watts means more power and, therefore, better sound. So, they’ve figured out ways to achieve the numbers that look good to buyers by making the tests less stressful. If the test is super easy, then everyone can get an “A,” right?
Fortunately, the FTC mandates that testing conditions be disclosed. So, with a little know-how, it is possible to differentiate a legit power rating from one that has been fudged. The key is to look at those testing condition disclosures.
RMS: Power should be expressed as RMS and not peak power. Peak power could mean the receiver puts out X watts for well under one second. RMS (root mean squared) refers to the continuous power that can be sustained for long periods of time, and is a more revealing indication of power capabilities.
All channels driven: A lower quality receiver might claim to output 100 watts per channel (WPC) in stereo mode, yet the rating will fall considerably (80 WPC or less) in surround mode. This indicates that one amp’s power is being split up among several speakers, and that usually results in poor power availability when you need it most. Instead, look for the statement “all channels driven,” which indicates amplification is equal to all of the receiver’s channels.
Bandwidth: A high power rating might also have been attained by driving a single frequency for a short amount of time. If you see 100 x 5 ( @ 1kHz), this is a sign that the receiver’s power ratings were achieved under low-stress conditions and the rating on paper is much higher than what the receiver can pull off in the real world. Look for (@ 20Hz-20kHz) as an indication that the receiver was rated while driving a full range audio signal to be sure the rating is accurate.
Impedance: Impedance is a measure of electrical resistance. Most (but definitely not all) home audio speakers have impedance around 6 to 8 ohms. Manufacturers know this is the case, so they should publish power ratings established while driving an 8-ohm load. However, since power ratings can as much as double when established by using a lower impedance load, some receiver makers will use this to make their power ratings look better. Ironically, these receivers are nowhere near capable of driving a 4-ohm speaker in the real world. In fact, trying to do so will probably result in speaker and receiver damage. Bottom line, if you do see a 4-ohm power rating, there should also be an 8-ohm rating right next to it.
Most importantly: If you see any of the warning signs of wattage rating fudgery, we recommend you just move on to other options, since it is likely that other disclosures are less than forthright as well.
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD)
While power ratings are a valuable indicator of a receiver’s capability, they don’t tell the whole story about its sound quality. The THD rating can help round out the picture as it describes how faithful the sound signal remains to the original as the receiver amplifies it. THD less than 0.1 percent is considered to be inaudible, and 0.08 percent or lower is certainly very good. On the other hand, if you see anything higher than 0.1 percent, you can bet that the wattage ratings are way overblown. In that case, steer clear.
Processing (Choosing a DAC)
So far, we’ve dealt with identifying quality amplification in a receiver. Now, we need to look at the signal the receiver will be amplifying. As you can imagine, if the signal the receiver gets is poor, the resulting sound will be poor too, no matter how good the amp in a receiver is.
DAC stands for digital-to-analog converter. As the name implies, it takes the digital signal from your Blu-ray, DVD, game console, DVR or what-have-you, and converts it to analog so that it can be amplified. The better the DAC, the better the sound. So how do you know if a receiver uses quality DACs?
Most receiver manufacturers won’t bother to disclose the type of DAC in their products unless it is pretty good to begin with. If they are calling attention to the DAC maker (be it Burr Brown, ESS, SHARC or otherwise) there’s a good chance it is a quality DAC.
The fact that the name of the DAC isn’t listed in the specs guide doesn’t mean that the piece is of poor quality, though. You can just use its inclusion an as indication that the receiver is a little ahead of its like-priced competition.
The Matching Game: Getting your receiver and speakers to play nice
Getting great sound from your system requires that you match up your speakers’ needs with your receiver’s capabilities. Now that you know how to identify what a receiver can do in terms of power and processing, consider what your speakers need to sound their best. To do this, we’ll need to look at some speaker specs.
Impedance: As we mentioned before, your speakers’ impedance is the level of resistance that that is given to your receiver’s signal. An 8-ohm impedance rating is pretty typical, and speakers with this impedance play nicely with a very broad range of receivers. Once that number starts to drop, though, you will need more and more stable power. For example, 4-ohm speakers are tough to drive and will require an amplifier with more oompf.
Generally speaking, the more bass you demand from your speakers, the more power you will need to feed them.
Sensitivity/SPL: Your speakers’ sensitivity refers to how loud they play per given watt of power. The resulting SPL (sound pressure level) is noted in terms of db (decibels). A speaker with low sensitivity will need more power to make it play as loudly as a speaker with high sensitivity. Generally, most speakers live between 85dB and 95dB per watt, with some exceptions on both ends of the spectrum. If your speakers live on the low end, plan on a higher-powered receiver to get them performing their best. Keep in mind that sensitivity is not an indication of sound quality. It just means it can play louder with less power.
Bandwidth: Generally speaking, the more bass you demand from your speakers, the more power you will need to feed them. The introduction of the self-powered subwoofer has lifted a lot of responsibility from the receiver. Systems that use smaller bookshelf or satellite speakers and leave the earth-shaking task to the subwoofer, require a little less power from the receiver. Those who employ full-range speakers that produce a lot of bass will probably need more power. There are exceptions, though. Highly sensitive speakers tend to put out plenty of bass with less power. Yet another reason to look at your speakers’ sensitivity.
For more information on choosing speakers, check out our speaker buying guide here.
Surround sound support
5.1, 7.1, 7.2, 9.1, 11.2… While it is a foregone conclusion that any A/V receiver will support some manner of surround sound, the surround sound formats it can handle are still an important consideration for receiver buyers. Surround sound options were already numerous, and have advanced considerably in recent years with the addition of object-based surround sound like Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro-3D, meaning the topic is … well … involved. So involved, in fact, that we wrote a separate guide dedicated to it, which is posted here.
Most mid- to high-level receivers come with some form or another of an auto-setup tool for speaker setup and calibration. While we concede that these tools can be quite useful for those intimidated by their receiver’s user menu, we maintain that they run a distant second to a manual calibration. If auto setup is appealing to you, be sure to read up on which systems work well and which don’t. In any case, we recommend you check out our home theater calibration guide so that you can do the job yourself and do it better.
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 2.0a is the latest version and supports 4K Ultra HD and high dynamic range (HDR) as well as older technologies like 3D video, 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 (aka 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 lower resolution signal and “upscale” it to a higher resolution so it will look better on your HDTV. The resulting signal won’t magically make HD sources look like 4K, but will be noticeably better looking than 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 mentioned above). 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 fairly new additions to receivers, but are rapidly becoming commonplace. Setting up Wi-Fi on your receiver may not always be the easiest process, but it often beats trying to set up cable runs from your router. That said, it almost never offers the same stability as an Ethernet connection.
Bluetooth: While it initially gained popularity in the worlds of headphones and portable speakers, this is another technology that is becoming so common it’s nearly expected in receivers. The sound quality won’t be as good as what you can get over Wi-Fi, but if a friend wants to play a few songs from their phone, this is the easiest way to do so.
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 into 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 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 mobile devices, thus eliminating the need for docking stations, which are becoming increasingly less common.
Distribution: Serving up other rooms
Multiroom 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.
Wireless multiroom audio: While Sonos initially made this popular with its own standalone speakers, wireless multiroom is rapidly becoming a hallmark feature on receivers from some brands. The only problem is compatibility — Denon uses its own HEOS, while Yamaha uses MusicCast, and others use the DTS Play-Fi standard. If you already own products that use one of these technologies, the choice is fairly simple, but if you don’t and wireless multiroom is important to you, some research will be in order.
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 overall sound quality.
Make sure the person giving you the demo uses the same speakers with each receiver you listen to.
Use the same speakers with each receiver. Different speakers have different sound characteristics, so make sure the 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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