An AV receiver is to home theatres what a good chef is to a great meal, or what your car is to getting downtown, it’s an essential part of the equation. But with so many different audio/video (AV) receivers on the market today, different brands, different models, different capabilities, how do you pick the right one for the job? Beyond guessing, flipping coins? That’s what this guide is all about, helping you pick a great receiver that will do you want it to do and cost what you’d like it to cost. And, as a bonus, maybe even come equipped with a few extra talents you knew nothing about but will love anyway.
We’ll look at AV receivers vs. stereo receivers, which are two very different device. And then we’ll focus on “how to choose the best AV Receiver” for you and your situation.
Here are some key things to keep in mind when shopping for an AV Receiver.
Identify what you're hooking the receiver up to. This is the most important thing to consider. Are you connecting your receiver to stereo speakers? Or a TV? If your new receiver is for music only, then you need a stereo receiver. If it’s for surround sound in a home theatre system, you want an AV receiver. If it’s for both music and home theatre, the AV receiver gets it done – and then some.
Get enough channels for now and the future. One channel is one speaker. Make sure your new receiver has enough channels for all the speakers you have now, plus those you may want to get in the future. If you want surround sound, you'll need at least five channels.
Think about everything and anything you'll be connecting to. Consider every single source you’ll want to connect to, now and down the road. For example, if you want to spin vinyl, you'll need a dedicated phono input. If you want to play music wirelessly, you’ll need Wi-Fi onboard, etc. Plus, Bluetooth, Airplay, etc., so you can play music however you want from your smartphone and tablet. You’ll want to be able to hook up any new gadget or device you get in the future, so the more connectivity your new receiver affords, the better.
Go with a receiver that comes equipped with Dolby Atmos. We explain what Dolby Atmos is and does further down. But for now, think amazing 3D-like sound that seems to hover all around you. There's also DTS:X, which is a new surround sound format designed to make home theatre audio more immersive, not unlike Dolby Atmos. The good news: most new AV receivers can play both formats.
Look for all 3 HDR formats. To help you future-proof your system, make sure the receiver you pick is equipped to handle HDR10, DV, and HLG formats.
Ability for multi-room. Some receivers can do 2, 3, 4 things at once, like run your home theatre system surround sound in one room while streaming music in another or several other rooms. Multi-room AV receivers can even play two different shows in two different rooms on two different TVs.
AV Receiver vs. Stereo Receiver
What is an AV receiver?
An AV Receiver not only powers your whole home theatre system, it’s the brains behind the whole system. The AV receiver’s job is to receive, interpret, and then process the TV audio signal via the source, like cable or dish box before sending it along to its ultimate destination the TV and speakers.
An AV receiver contains five or more amplifiers to drive five or more speakers. Why so many? A typical home theatre system has 5 speakers that, together, create surround sound, and each speaker requires its own separate audio signal from the AV receiver. These days, many home theatres have more than 5 speakers, including those that are Dolby Atmos-enabled. In fact, for the best-possible, mind-blowing effect, many home theatre systems now include a dozen or more speakers built into walls and ceilings.
So, what is a stereo receiver?
A stereo receiver contains 2 amplifiers, one for each channel and is primarily used for listening to music. Think of channels as speakers. A channel is a dedicated circuitry for one audio source, and there are two when we’re talking about stereo. The two amplifiers in a stereo receiver will power your two stereo speakers, and though you can connect a stereo receiver to a TV, you won’t get surround sound as a result. You may also run into integrated amps, which is really the same thing as a stereo receiver, minus the AM/FM tuner.
When should you use an AV receiver?
AV receivers were designed and built primarily for TVs and Big Screens using a projector to bring an authentic, cinema-like experience to the home. And given AV receivers do more than stereo receivers, you can always use your AV receiver for TV and music. On the flip side, like we said above, a stereo receiver and TV combination does not deliver surround sound on its own.
How to choose the best AV receiver.
AV receivers exist in the first place is to make amazing home theatre system surround sound possible. Yes, AV receivers now do all sorts of things, and we’ll touch on those, but overall: If you’re watching the playoffs and you want to feel like you’re IN the stadium, or watching Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dancing and you want to feel like you’re right there, in the moment, you’ll need an AV receiver connected to your TV or Projector.
What follows: Everything you need to consider when choosing the best receiver for you, your room, your tastes, and your budget.
1. Pay attention to your connections.
There’s no such thing as too many inputs or outputs. A big reason why: all the stuff that’s coming, new devices, new gadgets, new ways of doing things… it’s the future and you’re going to want be part of it. Plus, you want to make sure you can connect to everything you have now. Look for a minimum of 4 HDMI inputs so you can connect a cable box, a Blu-ray player, a PlayStation, and at least one more input for future expansion. Add an Apple TV or Roku to that last mix and boom, you’re already using all four. Planning to connect to a turntable. Be sure to look for a phono input.
2. Make sure your AV receiver is ready for your TV.
There are some very important features you’re going to want in your new AV receiver so it will work with TVs made in recent years, and TVs soon to come, plus all your video devices Apple TV, Roku, X-BOX, and so on.
4K & 4K Switching
4K is the current best-possible, highest resolution video format for consumer video at home. With 4K, the picture is so detailed, you can sit right in front of the TV with your nose almost touching the screen, and the picture still looks great. No "dots and/or lines” like we all used to see on older sets. Even on the biggest 4K TVs.
With the cost of larger screens coming down, and we mean way down, that’s important. However, to make it all happen, your AV receiver needs to be capable of switching 4K signals. If it is, you can send both sound and picture from all your video sources through your sound system and enjoy live performance-sound without losing any detail in the video.
Another feature to look out for: HDCP 2.2 support. HDCP 2.2 is the newest and latest copy-protection tech designed to stop people from illegally copying video content, particularly 4K content. Here's why it's important: If you try to watch an HDCP 2.2 copy-protected movie and your 4K Blu-ray player and/or AV receiver isn’t authorized to support HDCP 2.2 content, your screen will go black. Thankfully, all 4K TVs and receivers have at least one HDCP2.2 input.
Ideally, everyone would hard-wire physically plug in their TV to their home network, but that's not always possible, especially if you live in an apartment and can't run wires through walls. That's where Wi-Fi saves the day, allowing all the smart functions new TVs have for streaming movies, watching YouTube, etc. to work wirelessly through your network. We're beginning to see Wi-Fi built into audio systems for the same reason, so you can, for instance, stream music without having to physically connect your sound system to your router.
DTS:X & HDR Formats.
DTS:X is a new surround sound format designed to make home theatre audio more immersive, not unlike Dolby Atmos. DTS:X and Dolby Atmos are fighting for market dominance, but Dolby Atmos remains today the preferred choice. The good news: most new AV receivers can play both formats.
HDR stands for “High Dynamic Range.” It’s how and why today’s newest TVs are so spectacular when it comes to picture technology. HDR on a TV generates higher contrast within the existing pixels, expanding contrast and colour so the result is more accurate and has more depth. There are three versions of HDR, two of which are available now: HDR10 and DV Dolby Vision, and one soon to come: HLG. Though HDR10 is currently the most widely used format, iTunes, Netflix, and VUDU among others, many consider Dolby Vision the better format for picture quality. However, with so many other contributing factors, what TV it’s on, how the content was mastered in post-production, etc. It’s hard to say which HDR format is truly best.
Choose your number of channels
Like we said above, think of channels as speakers. And though most music formats only require 2 channels, left and right, the sky's the limit for true home theatre surround sound. In a nutshell, the more channels you have, the more speakers you can add – and the more speakers you add, the better and more immersive the sound.
At a very minimum we want 5 channels, to get the surround sound. But we highly recommend getting at least 7 channels. With 7 channels, you will have the same experience you get in today’s state-of-the-art digital cinemas. A big, thrilling, hang-on-tight, theatre sound.
Let’s break down benefits by channels:
2-channels: Two speakers. (A good old stereo system is now referred to as 2.0.)
2.1-channels: Add a subwoofer for impactful bass, and now you have 2.1. The "2" refers to the two front speakers, and the subwoofer is the ".1".
3.1-channels: Add a centre channel speaker so the dialog always seems to come from the centre of the screen, and we have 3.1.
5.1 channels: This is where we get into home theatre sound. Add two more speakers near the back of the room for wrap-around surround sound, and we’re at 5.1. Add another subwoofer to the setup, and you have a "5.2" system.
7.1-channels: Larger rooms, especially where your sofa is distance from the back wall, may call for rear surround speakers, which takes us to 7.1.
9.1-channels and higher, the latest thing, where we place 2 or more speakers in the ceiling for cutting-edge surround sound, Dolby Atmos. Now we’re talking actual 3D sound, where any sound can hover at any point in space. To recap: a 9.2.2 system has three speakers in front, two on the sides, two in the rear of the room, and a pair in the ceiling. Plus, two subwoofers, which are typically in the back, but can go anywhere. You'll need a receiver with 9 channels or more to power a system like this.
Again, the sky's the limit, but if you plan to keep your audio system for a while, better make sure it can handle at least 7 channels so you can experience theatre-like sound at home.
Find the right amount of power for your space.
Here’s our take when it comes to power: Don’t sweat this one. Here’s why: Say receiver “A” has 70 watts of power per channel, and receiver “B” has 100 watts of power per channel. How much audible difference is there between the two? None. Zero. The human ear can only detect power differences of 2:1, meaning you’d have to double the wattage before the human ear could detect a difference. BUT, that doesn't mean the more powerful receiver doesn’t have other advantages, which it often does, but the power difference is irrelevant and the most overrated specification in the world of audio.
“Movies have a LOT more dynamic range than most music. That is, the loud parts can be a LOT louder! It's important to get a receiver with power reserves, or the loud parts will distort. That not only sounds bad, but it can hurt your speakers. I like to see about 100 Watts per channel or more for most rooms and speakers. Even better, some receivers have preamp output jacks on the rear, so you can later add a power amplifier to boost the power. It future-proofs your power.”
If you want to add music to other rooms: Go wireless.
What to look for if you want wireless multi-room audio.
In the old days, like way back in the year 2015, if you wanted music in another room, you drilled lots of holes in walls and floors so you could run wires to speakers. And if you got fancy, you also ran wires to a keypad on the wall so you could control everything. That’s now history.
Today, you can do the same thing, minus the drilling and the wires by going wireless. And there are two ways to do this.
Many of today’s latest AV receivers come with their own wireless capability built-in, like HEOS by Denon, MusicCast by Yamaha and so on, and are controllable via an easy-to-use app on your phone, tablet, or computer. Keep an eye out for these callouts while shopping. You could have a 7 room house playing a different song in each room at the same time, with no wires anywhere. Though some receivers come with a wireless system already built-in, you can add wireless capability to almost any sound system. Companies make tiny boxes that connect to the receiver just like a CD player, and allow you to stream almost any music, wirelessly, through your sound system. As a bonus, most will allow you to stream FM radio stations from all over the country without worrying about radio reception because it's over the internet and not over the air.
Now the newest home theatre receivers are easily controlled through an app on your iPhone, tablet, or computer. At your fingertips, full operational control from any room in the house. Often, these apps are customizable, you can tweak them, so they “go” with your particular house. Take the HEOS by Denon app, for example. Instead of buttons, you can have pictures of your own rooms, so when it’s 9 PM and the party is really taking off, you don’t even have to think. It’s just “open app, see room, tap room, play music.” And because you’re doing it all through your home network, it doesn’t matter where your AV receiver is, meaning, you don’t have to point at anything like you do with a remote control.
Make sure there’s enough room.
Receivers are often bigger than you think.
An AV receiver with 5-11 amps inside needs to dissipate heat, so I recommend leaving 6 inches above it for ventilation. The cooler a piece of electronics stays, the longer it lasts. AV receivers are typically deeper than stereo receivers, so I usually recommend allowing 20 inches for depth. If space is tight, there are fan kits that can keep the air circulating to prevent your receiver from overheating.
One thing's for sure: Today’s new AV receivers are considerably bigger and heavier than their ancestors. So, putting one on a dainty glass etagere or plastic shelf won’t do, you’re going to want something seriously sturdy.
AV receiver FAQs.
The most common questions we hear from customers.
What about second-zone audio?
It’s 9 PM and you want to watch “Game of Thrones,” but someone else wants to watch an old movie on DVD. A multi-zone capable receiver gets it done by allowing you to hook up multiple video sources, your cable or satellite box, Apple TV, a Blu-ray player, and so on, and then sending that signal out to two different TVs in two different rooms. You can even watch two live TV shows at the same time with one multi-zone receiver, though that requires an additional cable or satellite TV box.
What if I already own a receiver?
If you already have a home theatre receiver and it’s anything over 5 years old, it's time to upgrade. This way, you get the latest features like Dolby Atmos. The first time you hear a movie played through Dolby Atmos, your reaction will be that's what I always wanted to hear from Day 1, absolute precise localization of every sound in each corner of the room. Further, the number of new features in a typical new AV receiver is proportional to the number of new features in a typical new TV. In other words, though there’s no need to replace a stereo receiver that often, because stereo is stereo; not much has changed. But you may want to replace your AV receiver when you get a new TV to take advantage of all the cool new stuff today’s TVs can do.
What about the warranty?
When you buy from an authorized dealer, your new AV receiver will come with the full manufacturer's warranty. What’s more, with an authorized dealer, you also get phone and email support from the dealer in addition to support from the manufacturer.
What else should you buy with your receiver?
If you don’t own a power conditioner, you’re living dangerously as far as your AV receiver is concerned. Lightning strikes, power outages, or brownouts can destroy delicate electronics in a flash, which is why we always recommend buying a power conditioner to protect your valuable equipment in the event of sudden over or under voltage.