In the second installment of our Good Better Best series, we turn our attention to the AV receiver. We previously surveyed the HDTV landscape and discussed what you can/should expect to find at the different price levels. The AV receiver category might be even more confusing, with so many options available at so many price points. A casual glance at the specs won't necessarily help you distinguish one product from another, or one price class from another; it's only when you dig a little deeper that the differences start to emerge. Once you figure out what your AV system demands in terms of power, connectivity, and features, it'll be easier to narrow the field. So, let's start digging...and please do keep in mind that we're painting broad strokes here. This type of story demands generalizations that may not apply to every available AV receiver on the market, and sale prices (especially this time of year) certainly can alter the landscape.
Peruse the offerings at Best Buy or Crutchfield, and you'll see that $250 to $300 is the average starting point for an entry-level multichannel home theater receiver. The entry-level AV receiver is usually going to offer five channels of speaker amplification, with the ability to connect one or sometimes two powered subwoofers. These days, even the entry-level models have built-in decoding for higher-resolution Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, but you won't find the new Dolby Atmos decoding that adds the height element.
The connection panels on these entry-level models are digital-centric, at least on the video side. It's common to find four to six HDMI inputs that support 4K and 3D pass-through, but you're less likely to find component/composite video inputs. Of course, you'll find an assortment of digital and analog audio inputs. You won't find multichannel preamp outputs beyond the subwoofer out; preamp outs allow you to use the receiver with an external amplifier, generally to get more (and, often, better) power.
Speaking of power, entry-level receivers usually have less of it, as manufacturers assume you'll mate this receiver with smaller, easier-to-drive bookshelf or satellite speakers. Oh sure, the spec may say 140 watts per channel just like a more expensive model, but all specs are not created equal. A receiver's power rating changes based on a number of factors, including impedance (eight or six ohms), how many channels are being driven, the level of distortion (THD), and whether it's measured at only one frequency or across the frequency range. Just as an example, Best Buy lists a certain entry-level receiver as having 140 watts per channel, but a closer look reveals that said rating is at one kilohertz with one percent THD at six ohms. Crutchfield lists the same receiver at 80 watts per channel from 20 Hz to 20 kHz with 0.08 percent THD at eight ohms.
In terms of outputs, you can expect a single HDMI output to feed the signal to a single display. These entry-level models lack the advanced video processing chips that support video upscaling and the transcoding of analog signals to digital HDMI output; the receiver simply passes through what it gets from the source. Zone-two audio outputs are less common at this price range; if you do find one, it's likely going to be a non-powered, line-level output, so you would need to use powered speakers or some other form of amplification in the second audio zone. And you'll have to listen to the same source in both audio zones. A zone-two video output is highly unlikely in the entry-level category.
Speaker setup can usually be accomplished via an automatic setup feature using a supplied microphone. However, if the company offers a more advanced version of its automatic room setup and EQ control, you're not going to get it at this price. The room correction system will probably only take measurements from a single seating location and will apply very basic corrections, often only to the speakers and not the subwoofer.
In the features realm, these budget receivers usually don't offer network connectivity and all the perks that go with it, like integrated music-streaming services, DLNA streaming, remote control apps, and advanced IP control. Most of them will have a front-panel USB port to play music from a connected phone or tablet, but you're less likely to get a USB port that supports hi-res audio playback. Some but not all models include Bluetooth to wirelessly stream music, as well as MHL support to connect compatible mobile devices via HDMI.
In general, budget receivers put more emphasis on providing the core features and functions than they do on offering the best performance. They just aren't designed to deliver the power and finesse of their big brothers, but they will get the job done for the casual AV fan who's assembling a modest HT system.
Here are a few examples of AV receivers in the entry-level category: Onkyo TX-SR333 ($299), Denon AVR-S500BT ($249), Yamaha RX-V377 ($299.95), Pioneer VSX-524-K ($249.99), and Sony STR-DH550 ($279.99).
Now let's talk about what you get when you step up from those entry-level models and move into a very crowded landscape of mid-level AV receivers. The major manufacturers often have several receiver options in the price range from about $400 to $999. With each step up in price, you get a little more functionality.
The first feature that's usually added, compared with the entry-level models, is Internet connectivity and integrated streaming services like AirPlay, DLNA, Pandora, Spotify, and Internet radio. Bluetooth support is more common. A lot of the other features will look similar to the entry-level category.
The next step up sees the transition to 7.2-channel receivers, meaning seven channels of amplification (to add surround back speakers) and dual subwoofer preouts to connect two powered subwoofers. From there, you can expect to see a modest step up in power (with lower distortion) and better compatibility with a variety of speakers. If your speakers have a lower impedance that dips down near four ohms, you want to be more careful in what AV receiver you choose. Check to see if a model is rated into four ohms or at least certified to handle four ohms. Check out our article How to Pick the Right Amp for Your Speakers (or Vice Versa) for more on this topic.
As you move up in price, you'll also see the addition of features that give the receiver more flexibility. For instance, an "entry-level" 7.2 receiver may allow you to assign the extra two amp channels to power a second zone, while the step-up model may also let you use those channels to bi-amplify (give more power to) the front left/right speakers, and the zone-two capability might be independent, meaning you can listen to a different source in each zone.
The higher-priced models in this range should include better video processing chips that allow for upconversion of lower-resolution sources (up to 4K in newer receivers), and these models have the legacy-friendly analog video inputs, with the ability to transcode them to be output via HDMI (they will often have a component video monitor output, as well).
It's much more common to find dual HDMI outputs that allow you to send your sources to two different display devices, which is great if you own both a TV for everyday viewing and a projector for movie night. Some models may allow you to watch different video sources through each monitor output.
Dolby Atmos also enters the picture at the higher end of this category, although a 7.2-channel receiver is only going to get you a 5.2.2 Atmos system, which is the most basic and arguably the least effective setup because you only get the front height channels and not the rear ones. (Learn more about Dolby Atmos here.)
In this range, you can also find receivers with more advanced automatic room setup and EQ, with measurements taken from more locations and more filters applied, including subwoofer EQ. For instance, a manufacturer that uses Audyssey may move up from Audyssey 2EQ or MultiEQ to MultiEQ XT. (You can get more details on the different flavors of Audyssey here, and check out Dennis Burger's in-depth look at automated room correction here.) Mid-level receivers often include some form of dynamic volume and dynamic range control to help deal with the volume disparities between sources and scenes.
Other features to look for in the mid-level range (should you need them) include support for hi-res audio playback from USB and/or DLNA devices, MHL-equipped HDMI inputs to connect mobile devices, HDCP 2.2 copy protection to support future 4K source components, and multichannel preamp outputs to mate the receiver with a better external amplifier.
Here are a few examples of AV receivers in the mid-level category: Sony STR-DN1050 ($599.99), Onkyo TX-NR636 ($699.99), Yamaha RX-V577 ($549.95), Harman/Kardon AVR 3700 ($999.95), Denon AVR-S900W ($599), and Pioneer VSX-1124-K ($599.99).
The dividing line between mid-level and high-end receivers is hazy at best and certainly subjective based on your budget. The average consumer likely considers $1,000 to be a whole lot to spend on an AV receiver, while an enthusiast understands that you can easily spend $2,000 to $3,000 and beyond for a top-shelf model. In this article, we're not going anywhere near the topic of perceived value and whether or not a $3,000 receiver performs three times better than a $1,000 model with a similar feature set. Let's just say that, as you move up to the best of the best that a manufacturer has to offer, you expect the receiver to offer ample power and versatility to drive whatever speakers you bring to the table, and you understand that different models can have a very different "sound." It is often the most subtle performance nuances that distinguish one model from the next and build brand loyalty amongst high-end enthusiast shoppers.
Higher-end AV receivers often have to compete with separate preamplifiers and amplifiers, ideally combining both of those strengths into one intuitive design. What you expect is the use of higher-quality components at every level, as well as the company's top-shelf AV performance technologies and higher-quality construction and design that help isolate the audio and video elements. Balanced XLR outputs are often available in the top-shelf receivers, as are the full complement of multichannel preouts, for those who like the receiver's preamp stage and user experience but prefer to bring their own amplification.
At about $1,600, we start to see the arrival of 9.2-channel offerings, which has become more meaningful with the arrival of Dolby Atmos. A 9.2-channel Atmos receiver can give you a 5.2.4 setup with height speakers in the front and back. For those who want to go even further, 11.2-channel models start at roughly $2,400. These products will usually offer the top-shelf version of the auto setup and room correction system (think: Audyssey MultiEQ XT32).
High-end AV receivers generally have more robust whole-house features, allowing you to use the receiver as a hub to send both audio and video signals to two or three zones. The inclusion of HDBaseT in some models lets you send A/V signals over long runs of CAT cable. Given all the advanced functionality, these models may (should) come with a higher-quality remote (and probably a second-zone remote), but also look for features like RS-232, IR ins/outs, IP-based control, and built-in control modules for Crestron, Control4, etc.--to integrate the receiver into a complete home automation and control system.
I want to finish with quick word about features in the high-end realm. Naturally, the top-shelf models from the mass-market guys like Onkyo/Integra, Pioneer, Yamaha, Sony, Denon, and Marantz are likely loaded with all the connection options and networking features. But, when you peruse the offerings from specialty manufacturers like Cambridge Audio, Anthem, and NAD (which don't really have as much of a presence at the lower price points), you may notice that the AV receivers aren't quite as feature-rich. These companies tend to put all the focus on the sound and picture quality and not pony up for the licensing fees on all those streaming/connectivity perks. We're not knocking that approach at all, as many of those peripheral features can easily be added to your system through another device. It's just a question of whether you really want them integrated into your receiver or are willing to give some of that up in pursuit of a certain level of performance or a certain "sound."
Here are a few examples of AV receivers in the high-end category: Cambridge Azur 751R v2 ($2,999), Anthem MRX 710 ($1,999), Denon AVR-X5200W ($1,999), Marantz SR7009 ($1,999), Sony STR-DA5800ES2 ($2,099.99), and Integra DTR-70.6 ($2,800).
• Visit our AV Receiver category page to see all the receiver models we've reviewed.
• The Good, Better, and Best HDTVs on the Market Today at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Five AV Categories That Are Much Cheaper (and Better) Than They Were Five Years Ago at HomeTheaterReview.com.