HomeTheaterReview's AV Receiver Buyer's Guide

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HomeTheaterReview's AV Receiver Buyer's Guide

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If you're a home theater enthusiast and a regular HomeTheaterReview.com reader, chances are very good that you know pretty much exactly what you're looking for in a new AV receiver. You read reviews to help narrow your choices a little, but you go into those reviews pretty well-versed in which products are likely up your alley and which ones are almost certainly dead ends. The platonic ideal of the "Best AV Receiver" already exists in your mind. And let me just say, from the bottom of my heart: if that describes you, you're our people. You're the reason we keep this site going.

But this guide is not for you.

If, on the other hand, you have a home theater system, or you're looking to put one together, but you're not a self-described enthusiast; if it's time for you to buy a new AVR due to age, mechanical failure, HDMI compatibility issues, or the fact that you don't already own one at all, and you feel overwhelmed by options; if you simply don't have time to dig through all of the standalone reviews to find which model is right for you--let's talk. You're exactly the right audience for this guide, and hopefully by the end of it you won't feel so lost.

Before we get there, though, there are a few questions we need to answer first. Consider it a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure for AV shoppers, except that none of the choices is likely to result in your untimely demise. (If you don't have time for a proper interrogation, feel free to skip on over to page two to bypass all of the justifications and explanations, and just read our recommendations).

First Question: Is now the right time to buy a receiver?
If you've paid any attention to the AV receiver market for the past few years, you may have noticed that what you buy today might be obsolete next year in terms of HDMI connectivity and features. That's kinda still true now, but it's also kinda not. Answer this question for me: are you likely to buy an 8K TV in the next few years? If not, you can buy a new AV receiver today and rest easy.

I say that because 8K TVs are bringing with them a new HDMI specification--2.1--but many of the most compelling features of that specification are already trickling out in this year's receivers. Namely, features like Enhanced Audio Return Channel (eARC) and Auto Low Latency Mode (ALLM). The features that you'll be missing out on if you buy now instead of waiting until 2020 mostly boil down to support for 10240 × 4320 resolution video ("10K") at 120 frames per second.

Second Question: How many speakers do you need?
Read over the latest AV receiver reviews and you'd be led to believe that anything less than sixteen channels hardly counts as a proper home theater these days. Don't feel beholden to this notion. Even if you want to build a full-blown object-based* Dolby Atmos/DTS:X sound system with speakers on every flat surface of your listening room, you might find that--depending on the depth of your room from back to front--you won't really hear an appreciable difference between four and six overhead speakers. Indeed, if you have a room that's not all that deep, you may also find that it isn't really worth it to go with seven speakers at ear level versus five.

(*For what it's worth, I'll be using "object-based" as a shorthand for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X throughout this guide. You don't really need to understand what that means, but in case you're curious: these new 3D surround sound formats rely on audio objects to position sounds in three-dimensional space. Instead of a mixer saying, "This bullet moves from the front right speaker to the left rear surround," he or she assigns the sound of the bullet to a virtual object that moves through 3D space. Your AV receiver or preamp then decides which speakers it should use to deliver that sound based on the layout of your speaker system.)

Atmos and DTS:X speaker setups follow the old convention of 5.1 and 7.1 channels, with the addition of an extra dot and an extra numeral: e.g., 5.1.2 would be a simple 5.1 system (five ear-level speakers and at least one subwoofer) with the addition of two height (or ceiling) speakers. 7.1.4 would be a 7.1 setup (5.1 plus two rear surrounds in most cases) plus four overhead speakers.

Atmos_speaker_layout.jpg

Add up the first numeral and the last, and you know how many channels of amplification you need, since subwoofers have their own built-in amps. For 5.1.2, you need seven amplified channels--the same as you'd need for a 7.1 setup. For 5.1.4 or 7.1.2, you need nine channels of amplification, and most AV receivers that are so-equipped can easily be configured for either setup.

Many such receivers also allow you to add some number of additional outboard amps to the equation if you want to expand even further. But if you're willing to pay the price, you can easily find good mass-market AV receivers with 13 channels of amplification built in--enough for a 7.1.6-channel setup.

"But wait!" I hear you asking: "What about 7.2.6 channels?" Yes, you'll often see receivers that use a 2 instead of a 1 in the second digit. This sometimes means that the receiver is capable of sending unique low-frequency signals to two independent subwoofers in your room, each of which can be EQ'd and delayed separately. But that's not always the case. Sometimes it just means that the receiver has two subwoofer outputs that operate as if you took a single subwoofer output and stuck a y-splitter on it. That's an important distinction that we'll touch upon later, once we start to narrow down our choices.

And hey, if you don't care about Atmos or DTS:X, that's cool, too. Not everyone needs overhead speakers. In fact, when I'm reviewing an object-based receiver, I hang temporary ceiling speakers then pull them down when I'm done. For day-to-day listening, 5.2 or 7.2 works great for me. I find the aggressive mixes of most Atmos and DTS:X movies to be kitschy and distracting.

The good news is, if you feel the same way, there are still some really great options for simple ear-level surround sound systems, even though object-based surround dominates the discussion. Or you can simply buy one of the fancier models and ignore the outputs you don't want to use.

But before you make a decision about whether or not to go with (or forgo) a full-blown Dolby Atmos/DTS:X setup, you really should seek out a demo and hear the difference for yourself. You may think it's the cat's pajamas, and it would be a shame to buy a 7.1-channel receiver now only to realize six months down the road that four overhead speakers really make your tasty bits tingle. 

Third Question: How many watts per channel do you need?
Figuring out how much power you need from an AV receiver is tough, partly because power ratings can be wholly misleading. You might find a great AVR that meets all of your other needs and see that it lists 200 watts per channel on the side of the box, only to read the fine print and discover that said 200 watts is only achievable if you connect a single speaker to it and play homebrewed recordings of Rainforest Pygmy chants at midnight on the summer solstice. I'm exaggerating a little, but not by much.

A more realistic example: you may find that an AV receiver that boasts 125 watts per channel on the side of the box only really delivers 55 watts of clean power per channel once you connect two speakers to it and feed it a full-frequency signal--and even less than that by the time you connect seven or nine or however many speakers.

The bottom line is this: how much power you need really depends on how big your room is and the specific characteristics of the speakers you're installing in it. If you want to understand more about the relationship between speakers and amps, you can read my primer on the topic: How to Pick the Right Amp for Your Speakers (or Vice Versa).

Fourth Question: How many HDMI inputs do you need?
Whatever answer you come up with, add at least one to the total, just to be safe. The good news is, most AV receivers these days offer seven HDMI inputs. The bad news is, that's exactly how many HDMI inputs I need for my main media room (satellite box + Control4 home automation controller + UHD Blu-ray player + Roku Ultra media streamer + Kaleidescape movie server + PlayStation 4 + Nintendo Switch), with no room to grow. Who really needs an Xbox One X anyway, though?

Ultimately, this consideration can keep otherwise great receivers out of the equation, even if you only need a simple speaker setup without a ton of power. The simple fact of the matter is that, as mentioned above, you can leave speaker outputs unused, and even drive small speakers with huge amps with no problem. But if you have more HDMI sources than you have HDMI inputs, adding an external HDMI switcher can make your AV system unnecessarily complicated to control.

HDMI_inputs.jpg

Fifth Question: Do you want a fancy audiophile brand or something you can buy at Amazon or Best Buy?
You may be asking right now: "What's the difference?" That's not an easy question to answer, but you'll often find that most AV receivers sound remarkably similar, as long as they deliver equal power. And I mean actual equal power, not the number on the side of the box.

Step up to an audiophile offering, though, and you'll likely find that you get better, more robust amps with more realistic power ratings, so you have a better idea of how the receiver will perform in your room. You may not get quite as many features as you will on the current crop of big-box-brand receivers, mind you, but it's up to you to decide how important those features are. 

arc-genesis-screens.jpg

What you'll also find is that stepping up to an audiophile brand likely gets you better room correction, which is really the number one differentiator between most receivers, at least in terms of how they sound. If you want to understand the differences between the most common room correction systems, read my updated primer on the topic: Room Correction Revisited.

Sixth Question: Stop asking me questions and just tell me what to buy!
That's not a question, but I hear you.

A lot of people will likely disagree with this advice (pop a bowl of popcorn before dipping into the comments section, because this is going to lead to some Real Housewives-level drama), but most people who want a mass-market receiver should just buy the Denon or Marantz model that checks off all the right boxes in terms of HDMI inputs, speaker outputs, amplification ratings, and price (in pretty much exactly that order of priority).

That's not to say that other mass-market manufacturers don't make receivers with a lot of compelling features. If you're already invested in Yamaha's MusicCast multiroom streaming ecosystem, okay. A Yamaha might make more sense for you. If Sony's five-year warranty sparks joy in your heart, sure thing--get a Sony. But remember: if you already knew those things, this guide isn't really for you.

For most people, a Denon or Marantz offers the right mix of features, performance, reliability, and most importantly, ease of setup. Their setup wizard holds your hand through the entire setup process in a really intuitive way.

What's more, while most AV receiver manufacturers rely on their own proprietary (and often lacking) room correction systems, Denon and Marantz use Audyssey, which I didn't really dig just a few years ago, but which has developed into a very respectable room correction and auto-speaker calibration system in recent years. (Compare my original primer on room correction to the updated guide to see just how much Audyssey advanced recently.)

In case you didn't know already, Denon and Marantz are sister companies. The main differences between them these days mostly boil down to their amplification and a resulting subtle difference in sound. If you tend to use your AV receiver mostly for movies, Denon may be your better pick. If you do a lot of music listening, you might prefer Marantz's HDAM (Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Module) circuitry, which contributes to a sound that many people describe as more musical.

If you want an audiophile receiver, my advice is just as simple: get an Anthem. You'll pay a good bit more, but for now, Anthem Room Correction is one of the three best room correction systems on the market (the other two being Dirac and Trinnov, the latter of which is limited to super-expensive preamp/processors). If some company comes along and starts offering a great AV receiver with Dirac built in, this advice might get a little more complicated. But for now, the receivers I've reviewed with Dirac onboard have some really weird limitations that might frustrate all but the most enthusiastic home theater hobbyists.

Click over to Page Two to find the best AV receiver for your needs...


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