AV receivers are combined amplifiers and input selectors – a crucial component of a home theater system. They switch between all your HiFi and TV components, drive your surround sound speakers, and send the video signal out to the TV. That’s basically it – they are the central hub all of your AV equipment. Yet there’s a huge range of receivers on the market, so the choice can be a little overwhelming. What exactly should you be looking for in a new AV receiver?
This article is aimed at the regular Joe – if you’re an audiophile who cares about the exact DAC chipset, you’ll probably splutter at various points. Please don’t think this article is aimed at you!
It’s very easy to underestimate the number of inputs you’re going to need. While your needs might not be quite as ridiculous as our esteemed gaming editor Dave LeClair and his hundreds of retro gaming consoles, you may be surprised how quickly those inputs get used so always buy a model with more than you need to allow for future expansion. Five of my HDMI inputs are already in use.
Start by making a list of all the equipment you need to connect to the receiver, and the type of connections they need – older equipment may have:
- Component audio and video (5 RCA plugs)
- SCART (mainly European)
- Stereo audio (2 RCA plugs, or just a 3.5mm single jack)
- Composite audio and video (3 RCA plugs – red/white/yellow)
- TOSLINK optical audio
Most receivers will be able to accommodate perhaps one or two of each legacy device, but the main number you find advertised will refer to the number of HDMI inputs.
A mesmerising array of sockets awaits you at the rear of an AV receiver!
It’s safe to say that any expansion you need will be in the form of HDMI. HDMI is the modern standard for transmitting digital audio and video signals – one cable to rule them all. Even the previous generation of games consoles use HDMI, and most computers now include HDMI output sockets. When calculating how many inputs you need then, add a few to allow for future HDMI devices.
Higher end models may also support more than one HDMI output, to allow you to choose between a TV or projector, for instance. You won’t find this in budget models, so a simple external HDMI switch/matrix can be used instead.
One caveat to look out for: 3D equipment and AV receivers don’t play nice due to differing HDMI standards. Unless you buy a receiver specifically designed to work with 3D signals, you may be stuck connecting your 3D devices directly to your TV or projector. This won’t affect most of you, but worth bearing in mind.
4K Passthrough and Upscaling
The newest video standard to arrive in the next few years is “Ultra HD”, or 4K – if you want your receiver to be compatible, make sure it features 4K passthrough. Of course, you’ll need a TV capable of displaying that too. Matt Smith’s advice was to basically avoid 4K TVs for now.
Upscaling means your receiver will convert a lower resolution video source to a higher resolution – 1080p, or even 4K on very high end equipment. Unless you have money to burn and are particularly attached to a very old device, forget upscaling, you don’t need it – and your TV probably does a better job of it anyway.
Surround Sound Channels and Power
Surround setups range from 5.1, 6.1, 7.1, 9.1 to a rather ridiculous 11.1 speaker system. The “.1” refers to a subwoofer, responsible for bellowing bass sounds; you may even find “.2”, which means it supports two subwoofers like the Onkyo TX-NR616. A good 5.1 setup is more than sufficient for the average living room, but some Blu-ray movies are encoded for 7.1 if you’re after the absolute best.
Discussing audio decoders like Pro Logic is a little out of the scope of this article – suffice to say, your receiver should at least handle DTS and Dolby Digital (used for movie soundtracks), and Dolby Pro Logic II (which can process a stereo source into 5.1 channels).
Power refers to the sound output per channel – usually around 50 to 150 watts. The speakers you buy should be of a matching power for the best performance. Larger rooms require a higher power. The physical size of a speaker is largely aesthetic and has little to do with the quality of the sound it produces, so don’t just think “bigger is better”.
You can save money by buying an AV receiver and surround speaker set deal, and you won’t have to worry about matching up power ratings or impedance values.
Connectivity and Extra Features
Many receivers will now add additional connectivity with computers, mobile devices, or network storage. Here’s some keywords to look out for:
- DLNA – Digital Living Network Alliance – so you can stream photos, videos and music from compatible sources. If you do buy a compatible player, here are 6 DLNA sources you can try.
- Wireless or ethernet connectivity – if the receiver does offer DLNA, it will need to connect to your network somehow.
- Internet Radio – for connection to services like Spotify.
- AirPlay – for iPhones or iPads to output audio and video to with ease.
- Smartphone control – in addition to a regular IR remote, your receiver may have iOS or Android apps to control it.
If you have a computer, media center, smart TV or gaming console, most of this functionality is already available, so don’t base any judgement on these added features. If you have them, that’s nice, but certainly don’t pay extra – these features tend to be outdated rather quickly as new services come along.
- Allow for a few more HDMI inputs than you need; make a list if you have specific requirements for older components, or be prepared to buy an adapter/converter.
- Future-proof with 4K passthrough, but it’s not going to be essential for a good few years yet.
- Forget upscaling.
- 5.1 surround is more than enough; bigger rooms will require a greater power rating though (around 150w).
- Save money and hassle by buying an AV receiver and matched speaker set.
- Don’t worry about gimmicks like Spotify or DLNA.
Budget AV receiver sets start at around $300 for a complete package, and truly offer excellent value for money. At the top end, an AV receiver alone can be $2500. Onkyo, Denon and Yamaha are all reliable brands – don’t go for a no-name import. It’s always a good idea to actually visit a showroom and listen to the system first.
Do you have any more tips for buying an AV receiver? Where did you buy yours, and are you satisfied with it?