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AV Receiver Review
Why Buy an AV Receiver?
We spent dozens of hours researching and comparing the best AV receivers under $600 to help you find the right one to upgrade the theater experience in your entertainment room. After researching each receiver’s power handling, audio format options and available connection types, we believe the Sony STR-DN 1080 is the best option overall in this price range because it combines lots of power and great features. The Yamaha AVENTAGE RX-A670 is slightly less powerful and only has four HDMI inputs, but like the Sony receiver, it has an impressive feature set that includes multidimensional surround capabilities.
The Pioneer VSX-LX102 is cheaper than the aforementioned Sony and Yamaha receivers and has a similar feature set and power output for 6-ohm speakers, so if you want to spend less than $450 on a new home theater receiver, it is the best option.
Why Upgrade Your Receiver?
A good rule of thumb for a home entertainment system is to match the quality of your AV receiver to the quality of your speakers. If you’re using cheap speakers, an expensive AV receiver isn’t going to make them sound amazing, but upgrading the speakers to match the AV receiver can make a huge difference. Conversely, if you invest in expensive speakers, you won’t know it unless you upgrade your AV receiver too.
The biggest reason for poor audio and blown speakers is the amplifier, which is a core component of an AV receiver. Either the amplifier is too powerful for the speakers, for example when you pair an expensive receiver with cheap speakers, or not powerful enough like when you have expensive speakers with a cheap receiver.
You’re more likely to blow your speakers with an underpowered amp than with an overpowered one. This is because you’ll push the amp to its limits to reach the volumes you want, and the speaker and cabinet components won’t be able to handle the mechanical repercussions of receiving constantly overdriven amplification. When the power handling of the amp matches the speakers, you get the most out of your sound system. If you're interested in upgrading your speakers, we reviewed the best home theater speakers, including center channel and bookshelf speakers, which, along with floor standing speakers and subwoofers, are the components of a 5.1 or 7.1 surround system.
AV Receivers: Finding the Best for You
AV receiver price varies widely. On the low end, you can get a receiver capable of powering four speakers for between $100 and $300. On the flip side, you can easily spend over $3,000 on one of the best AV receivers for a dedicated home theater room. For most people, a midrange AV receiver is perfect for a home surround sound system – a living room setup with five to seven speakers. As such, we looked at the best AV receivers with an MSRP of around $500, though some cost as little as $350 and some cost closer to $600.
Not only is this the price range most people shop in, but limiting our selection by price allows us to make a fair comparison – there’s no way to fairly compare a $3,000 receiver with a $500 one or a $500 receiver with a $200 one. A receiver’s power handling, number of channels, audio codec decoders and total connections depend a lot on its price, and this is one product where you definitely get what you pay for.
AV Receivers: Common Features
All the AV receivers we reviewed have some features in common, whether the device costs $450 or $600. These features are often the manufacturers’ main marketing fodder; however, since each one comes standard, they didn’t carry any weight in our review.
AV receivers are primarily amps for channeling audio to various speakers. There is very little, if any, video processing. The video signal simply needs to pass through the AV receiver to the TV without degrading. This means that the HDMI connections need to support 4K video. Fortunately, all the AV receivers in this price range support this ultra-HD video format.
Wi-Fi & Bluetooth
Wireless connectivity is a big selling point with AV receivers. With Wi-Fi, you can connect to internet radio stations like Pandora and Spotify and send audio signals to Wi-Fi speakers in other rooms. With Bluetooth, you can stream audio from any app you want.
Dolby TrueHD & DTS-HD
Each AV receiver has a different list of audio codec decoders from Dolby and DTS. However, every receiver supports Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD. These are the most common, and most necessary, codecs for lossless theater-style surround sound.
Getting the best possible sound from your AV receiver requires meticulous attention to how the speakers are arranged and how the levels are mixed on each channel. Every room has different acoustical characteristics and challenges. With time and experience, you can learn to make these adjustments by ear. But until then, you can use the room calibration tool that comes with your AV receiver.
Room calibration uses a microphone that you place in the middle of your home theater. Audio is played over the system and an internal processor uses the microphone to adjust the channels automatically. Your ears should always make the final judgments, but the room calibration tool provides a good starting point.
AV Receivers: Five or Seven Channels
Manufacturers usually market their AV receivers with the number of channels each supports as the first identifier. But what is a channel? And what’s the difference between a 5.1, 5.2, 7.1, 7.2 and 5.1.2 system?
The channels are the outputs for the speakers, so this number indicates the type of surround sound system you can set up. For example, a five-channel receiver has channels for the front left, front right, front center, surround left and surround right. A seven-channel receiver has two extra channels for back left and back right or overhead left and overhead right, depending on how you want to set it up.
The number after the first decimal represents the number of subwoofer pre-outs the receiver has – a .1 sends low frequencies to one subwoofer, and a .2 sends low frequencies to two subwoofers. The subwoofers aren’t powered by the receiver like all the other speakers and require their own power source. If there are three numbers in the output designation, the third number is for multidimensional surround speakers supported by Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. You can only add vertical projecting speakers to a 7.1 or 7.2 receiver that supports those specific codecs. A 5.1 or 5.2 receiver will not have Atmos or DTS:X outputs.
When you listen to your favorite band, you’re listening to a song that’s mixed to two channels – a left and right channel. This is called stereo mix. A masterful mix creates enough space that you can not only hear all the instruments, but also pick out where they’d be positioned on a stage. Now imagine the kind of depth you could get if the sound was mixed to five or seven channels instead of two. This is where the sound formats on your AV receiver come into play.
Dolby and DTS are the two rival brands that develop codecs for the surround sound formats used in theaters. Directors and sound engineers mix the soundtrack for the theater according to these formats, which means that if you want to hear what the director intended, your AV receiver needs to be capable of decoding the codec and sending the assigned audio to the various channels.
The most common format is still 5.1-channel surround sound, so it’s the format you’ll mostly use with your 7.2 AV receiver. That said, more directors are starting to use Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, which are 7.1-channel surround sound formats that include overhead channels. You will see the Atmos and DTS:X formats designated as 5.1.2, which means there are five surround speakers, one subwoofer and two multidimensional surround speakers.
The best formats are discrete, which means that each channel has specific information coded to it from the Blu-ray or DVD. The audio assigned to these channels is independent from the audio assigned to other channels.
However, if your AV receiver doesn’t support a specific format, you can choose a matrixed format. Also developed by Dolby and DTS, these options use proprietary algorithms to analyze a stereo signal to send various parts to the channels. In other words, it tries to mimic the discrete surround sound by upmixing a stereo signal to more than two channels. These can have varying degrees of quality, depending on the source. Matrixed formats are great for watching TV shows with surround sound but often terrible for listening to music.
Most formats on a Blu-ray are also lossless, which means that the audio is stored on the disc without any compression. Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD are lossless codecs. If your source is on a DVD, the audio format is heavily compressed because the DVD doesn’t have the storage capabilities to hold lossless audio.
AV Receivers: What We Evaluated, What We Found
An AV receiver is the unsung hero of your home entertainment system. Once everything is connected to it, your home theater experience largely rests on the quality of your TV, speakers, furniture, taste in movies and snack selection. The receiver isn’t the star of the show, but the show can’t effectively happen without it.
We evaluated the following specifications so you can easily compare what you get from each receiver. As mentioned earlier, there are different levels of receivers. If these specifications don’t meet your requirements, you’ll need to look at progressively more expensive receivers until you find one that has what you want.
The specification that most differentiates $3,000 receivers from $200 receivers is power. As such, we looked at each receiver’s rated power output. That said, manufacturers know that power handling is the main consideration, so they often provide overstated specifications.
For example, if the receiver has weak amplifiers, the manufacturer will often only list the rated power output for speakers with a 4-ohm impedance because this provides the biggest wattage. However, most home theater speakers have an 8-ohm impedance. It’s easy to see a 100-watt rating at 4 ohms and think it’s better than the 80-watt rating for 8 ohms on a different receiver, but the output is about half as great. Since most home theater speakers are rated for 8 ohms, we favored these power ratings, though we also considered the outputs for 6-ohm speakers.
In addition, we considered how well the manual explained power handling. It’s important to have properly powered speakers. If the power handling information is vague or poorly described, it usually means that the amplifiers aren’t very powerful, which also means you run the risk of underpowering your speakers.
Supported Audio Formats
As mentioned earlier, every receiver we reviewed has Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD, which are the current gold standard for surround sound formats. However, beyond those, the list of formats the receivers support varies greatly.
In almost every case, if the receiver supports a Dolby format, it also supports the corresponding DTS format, as these rivals generally develop very similar codecs. For example, Dolby Atmos includes overhead channels, and DTS:X provides the same. The quality difference between Dolby and DTS is hotly debated, with more audiophiles online generally preferring DTS formats. The more formats a receiver supports, the better.
We looked at the back of each receiver to see what you can connect to it. The most important of these connections are the HDMI inputs. Most of the receivers we looked at have four or six. A good rule to follow is to have two HDMI inputs more than you need, as this allows for future expansion.
What Else Is Important?
After power handling, audio formats and all the toys you can connect to your receiver, there are a few other features you may want to consider.
Most of these receivers are big, boxy devices. They can be over 10 inches tall, 20 inches wide and 17 inches deep – better make sure yours will fit wherever you plan to put it.
In addition to the number of HDMI inputs, we looked at which legacy inputs, such as analog audio and digital inputs, component inputs, and composite inputs, each receiver has. These are all used by older technology. While you likely don’t still use a VCR or a first-generation video game console, legacy inputs are necessary if you want to connect them.
Since most movie soundtracks have a 5.1-channel format, you may not know what to do with the extra two channels on your 7.1-channel receiver. You could upmix the audio, which simply means that you send the same signal from one or more channels to the additional channels as well. However, with two-zone audio, you can connect the two additional channels to speakers in a different room.
For it to truly be two-zone audio, you must be able to choose a different audio source for the second zone. For example, you could simultaneously play music in the second zone and watch a movie in the first zone.
Help & Support
We looked at each receiver’s warranty term, which varies significantly from model to model. You can expect your receiver to last anywhere from six years to a decade, and most have a two-year warranty.
We also considered the support options each manufacturer provides. AV receivers aren’t simple devices, and if you have trouble, the manufacturer should be able to help. The best companies provide educational resources to help you become a master of home theater.