Surround Sound Receiver Basics and Buying Guide
Modern receivers feature HDMI switching, Internet audio streaming, and much more.
But where to begin? This guide will help you navigate the fluff from the buff, and ensure you get the perfect receiver for your dollar.
Ignore Wattage Ratings
When you’re comparing different receivers, it’s easy to get caught in the watt game: receiver A has 100 watts, but Receiver B has 105…
The truth is, you need to double the wattage to hear a noticeable difference in volume. Two receivers of different wattage can still sound different, but one won’t necessarily be louder than another. There are lots of reasons to choose one receiver over another, but small watt differences isn’t one of them.
No, really, ignore wattage ratings
I’ve heard 50-watt integrated amps that sound way better than 100-watt receivers. There’s a lot of ways to achieve a claimed wattage rating, so they’re at best a guideline, and at worst they’re marketing nonsense. This is just to say that there are more important features than power, when it comes to receivers. But…
Speakers like WATTS
Even though I said ignore wattage ratings, speakers love power. The more power you give them, the better. When you read on the back of your speaker “Rated for 100 watts” or something else, this is a near-meaningless guideline. Far more speakers are damaged trying to play loud with too few watts than the other way around. Many companies make amplifiers rated for 1,000 watts(!). You can think of these as having a big V12 in your car. Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean you have to use it, but it makes acceleration a lot easier.
How is this not the complete opposite of the first two pieces of advice? Well, at any given price point, lets say $500, receivers are going to have very similar power outputs, regardless of their ratings (and sound very similar). If you’re spending a few thousand on an amazing sounding 2-channel integrated amp, it’s likely it will sound a lot different. That’s because there’s a lot more money spent on what makes the sound than features.
Check your owner’s manuals as to what each company says, but if a receiver is rated for 150 watts, it’s not going to blow up your speakers. Your speakers will tell you if they’re being damaged, you can’t miss it. They’ll sound terrifying, which is their way of saying “turn it down!”
All but the cheapest receivers have HDMI switching now, and it’s not worth getting one that isn’t. Make sure it’s HDMI 1.4, so it can switch the latest 3D signals.
Many receivers will have Internet Radio functionality, some even have Pandora. These are great features, and if you don’t have streaming from some other device (like a Blu-ray player or DMR), it’s great to have it here. Similarly, receivers with Internet Streaming will likely also have DLNA, letting you stream music from your computer. To me, this and HDMI switching at the most important features, but that’s obviously your call.
All receivers can play music from an iPod, but how they do it varies. The cheapest receivers will have you connect a simple analog cable. Others have included (or as an added accessory) iPod docks. The cheapest docks are merely gussied-up analog connections.
The better docks are digital connections that give you two-way communication with the receiver, letting you control the iPod with the receiver’s remote and more. iPod connectivity is expanding rapidly, with Pioneer models offering custom apps that let you control the receiver from your iPad and more. Definitely worth looking into.
Many receivers come with a version of Audyssey’s Auto EQ. After measuring your room with an included microphone, the receiver determines how to EQ its sound so as to sound best in your room. It really works, though it’s only taking the edges off. It can’t fix major acoustic problems. Worth it for better sound.
Amplifier (multichannel) output
Mid and higher-end receivers will have a multi-channel analog output. This lets you upgrade to an amplifier down the road, if so desired. A good amp, like we mentioned before, can make your speakers perform/sound better. In some cases, a LOT better. Personally I wouldn’t get a receiver without this feature, but I’m an unapologetic audiophile.
Kind of obvious, but worth mentioning. Count how many sources you have, and make sure the receiver has at least enough inputs for all of them. Cable/Satellite, Apple TV, Xbox 360, PS3, are four HDMI sources right there. Swapping cables when you don’t have enough inputs is a drag.
One of the new surround sound processing modes from Dolby (Pro Logic IIz) and Audyssey (DSX) are height channels. These speakers mount above your TV. I’ve played around with these and they’re cool, but by no means necessary. DSX does with channels as well, which in some ways are better. These formats are largely for the home theater enthusiast, and certainly aren’t worth worrying about. It’s doubtful that at any given price point you’ll be choosing between a receiver with and with these formats. Above a certain price, they’ll likely just have them.
You can’t go wrong with extra amplifier channels (7.1, etc), as long as they’re assignable to whatever you want. That is to say, if you’re not going to hook up 7.1 speakers, make sure those extra channels can be used for something else, like a second room..
As an extension of my 7.1 comment, you can never go wrong with additional channels. Being able to power speakers in a different room or outside from one receiver (and our attached sources), is fantastic. Worth it, if you can afford the added cost.
I’m on the fence about this one. Many receivers will upconvert standard definition material to HD. Your main sources, be it cable/satellite or Blu-ray, are HD or upconverted SD. A receiver isn’t going to do anything to these signals (hopefully). If you have a Wii or VCR, this scaling could serve a purpose, but keep in mind your TV is already going to upconvert any SD signal automatically, and the better TVs do a good job at this.
What’s often more important is the ability to “transcode,” as in convert analog signals of any resolution over to HDMI. This way you can plug in your older sources and only have to run one cable to your TV (HDMI).
This is actually easier than you’d imagine: spend as much as you feel you can afford. At any price there are receivers that will sound good. Just make sure it has the necessary features and inputs.
As far as brand go, personally I’m a fan of Denon, Onkyo (and Integra), Yamaha, Pioneer, and Marantz. I know others who are fans of Sony (especially ES). You really can’t go wrong with any of the models from these big names.
Here’s a smattering of models, by no means complete, that are worth checking out at different price points.
Denon AVR-1312 5.1 Channel A/V Home Theater Receiver (Amazon:$249)
Denon AVR-1612 5.1 Channel A/V Home Theater Receiver (Amazon:$349)
Onkyo HT-RC260 7.2-Channel Home Theater Receiver (MSRP:$549, Amazon:$339)
Yamaha RX-V667 7.2-Channel Home Theater Receiver (MSRP:$599.95, Amazon:$408.87)
Onkyo TX-SR608 7.2-Channel Home Theater Receiver (MSRP:$599, Amazon:$419.95)
Pioneer VSX-1020-K 7.1 Home Theater Receiver (Amazon:$549)
Marantz NR1602 AV Receiver (Amazon:$649.95)
Denon AVR2312CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver (Amazon:$849.99)
Follow me on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff
Have a question for the HD Guru?