The time has come for me to invest in a new A/V receiver. It has been a number of years since my last upgrade, and the features landscape has certainly changed. If money were no object, I’d naturally want all the cool bells and whistles a modern-day receiver can offer; but, alas, that’s not the case. My budget is modest, which has forced me to take a good, long look at potential spec lists to decide which features I really want and which ones I can do without.
I don’t consider myself a hardcore audiophile, and I have a fairly modest home theater system: a 5.1-channel RBH speaker system, an HDTV, a projector, an HD DVR, and a Blu-ray player. Nevertheless, performance is still my number-one priority, in both the audio and video realms. My left/right MC-6 tower speakers demand healthy amplification, and my videophile bent demands the inclusion of a high-quality internal scaler to upconvert SD sources (1080p upconversion is fine; I don’t need 4K yet). Let’s assume the inclusion of certain staples like high-resolution audio decoding, an automatic setup tool, an adjustable crossover with plenty of settings, at least three HDMI inputs, and 3D pass-through, which you can now find even on $300 receivers. I don’t necessarily need a 7.1-channel receiver, but I think it’s a smart investment that allows your system to easily accommodate a modest upgrade in the future. Beyond these fundamentals that I consider important to any home theater receiver, it becomes a question of features that I personally want, based on my system and the way I use it.
My next A/V receiver has got to be “connected.” I don’t really care if the receiver offers a full Web platform with access to video-based services like Netflix, Amazon VOD, or YouTube. I already have that function on my TV, and you can add it via a whole host of inexpensive standalone media players or Blu-ray players. However, I would like the ability to access Internet radio stations and streaming music services (like Pandora or Spotify) directly through my receiver, as opposed to feeding them in through another device. Since my network router sits just a few feet away from my gear rack, a wired Ethernet port is a fine option for me. The ability to configure and control the receiver through a Web browser or an iPhone app is another perk. Speaking of the iPhone, the primary reason I want network capability is because I really want…
I’m an Apple gal, and I want to be able to stream the iTunes content from my computer and iPhone wirelessly to my next A/V receiver. Sure, I could just connect an Airport Express to the receiver’s input panel, or I could get a receiver with an iPhone docking port…but integrated AirPlay is just a whole lot cooler and a whole lot easier. I must confess, right now I almost never listen to music through my HT system. I can’t remember the last time I pulled out a physical disc to put in my OPPO player. My music resides in iTunes, and I listen to it in my car, through my headphones, or streamed wirelessly to a SoundCast tabletop audio system (which is connected to an Airport Express). I have no doubt that the convenience of an AirPlay-enabled receiver would change my listening habits and inspire me to revisit everything I like about my speaker system’s audio performance. A related perk would be the inclusion of technology to improve the quality of compressed audio sources (since I do buy some music from the iTunes Store, as well).
High-Quality Volume Leveling
This one has become a priority for me, and I don’t think it’s being marketed to the general public nearly as well as it could be. We’re all tired of having to grab the remote to deal with the volume discrepancies between sources. Be it Dolby Volume or Audyssey Dynamic Volume, I want it.
Don’t Treat the User Interface as an Afterthought
Spare me the days of white text menus over a black background. I want a colorful onscreen interface that’s both attractive to look at and intuitive to use…something that actually improves my home theater experience by showing me what’s available through the various sources I’ve connected and making it easy to navigate all those network-friendly services I mentioned above.
Dual HDMI Outputs with ARC
As the owner of both a projector and an HDTV, the inclusion of dual HDMI outputs would be extremely convenient. I’d also like to make use of the Audio Return Channel (ARC) function to send audio from my TV back to the receiver over HDMI–for those times when I’m accessing my TV’s Web platform to watch video-on-demand, YouTube, or some other app. Alas, this appears to be the feature that would push the receiver beyond my budget, as dual HDMI outputs tend to be offered only in a company’s higher-tiered models. A girl can dream, right?
So that’s my top-five list. Because it seems that no two HT systems are alike–and certainly, no two HT fans’ opinions are alike–I thought it would be interesting to get some other takes on this topic. So I posed the same question to a few of my fellow A/V writers, many of whom fall more firmly into the audiophile camp than I: “What are the must-have features in your next A/V receiver?”
“This is what I’d want in my next receiver: AirPlay, 5.1 analog outputs, more than five HDMI inputs, multiple sub outs, better DACs, onscreen volume numbers, and component-to-HDMI transcoding.”
“My Marantz AV7005 is pretty frickin’ up to date, so there aren’t any features that I need to have; but here’s my wish list of things I’ll want my next pre/pro to have: video streaming service support (Netflix, YouTube, Vudu, etc.); support for 11.2 channels of audio processing (surround back, height and width all at once); the latest generation of Audyssey (or similar) room correction and processing; and a GOOD iPad app. The Marantz one is just an up-sized version of the iPhone app and pretty basic. iOS and Android are the control of the future, and companies should invest in developing slick and functional control GUIs for these devices.
“How about something I don’t want? Like S-video ins and outs. Worthless they are, and it makes me sad when I see them on the back of a receiver. Another thing I don’t want: Jazz mode.”
“Multiple sub outputs with individual adjustments; AirPlay; Internet video streaming support; and a Mac-like onscreen GUI (a built-in basic Control4 controller would be great, but that might add too much to the expense). Oh, and a MUST is a way to access most features–especially all menu items–from the front panel without using the remote control.”
And the winner for best audiophile response is…
“1. High-quality, high-efficiency, cool-running amplifiers (Class D, Class H, etc.). A few receivers (Pioneer THX, most notably) have this, but most don’t.
2. Four subwoofer outputs, all independently adjustable for volume, phase, and EQ. Perhaps combined with…
3. Room correction that auto-tests for the room’s Schroeder frequency (easy to do with multiple mic positions), then corrects only below that frequency. Lexicon used to have something like this in its pre/pros–the old room-correction system worked only below something like 180 Hz. Some audio experts argue that correction is necessary only below the Schroeder frequency, and my personal experience bears that out.
4. Butterworth-certified, with a healthy royalty for me.”