How to Buy the Right AV Receiver
Everything You Need to Know About Buying a New AV Receiver
As the centerpiece of any modern consumer entertainment setup, the humble home theater receiver plays a huge role in how people enjoy media. Unfortunately, they’re often some of the most neglected components in a typical arrangement. While audio enthusiasts are no strangers to new subwoofers, speakers and peripherals, many still struggle with AV receivers that are as old as they are.
Fortunately, it doesn’t matter whether homeowners want to enjoy their next-gen console games with full high-definition sound or get rid of their bulky antiquated tape decks; there are a few basic tips that can make choosing a receiver a far more enjoyable experience. Here’s what listeners should know before they dive in.
Compatibility: Surround Sound and Output Connectivity Formats
Most modern AV receivers, TVs, computers and gaming consoles work with surround sound in various formats like Dolby, THX DTS. Try not to get confused by the numbers or wowed by salespeople who tout the advantages of overblown systems. Just remember that not all output sources support the same level of surround sound; instead of going for broke, pick something that will function with all the devices it’s going to service. It is a good idea to make a checklist of all of the components that will be run through the AV receiver and what connections they require for optimal performance. See below.
New Receiver Needs List
- Gaming Console like PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One (HDMI)
- Television (HDMI)
- Blu-ray Player (HDMI)
- Laptop or Computer (HDMI)
- Bluetooth Music Receiver (Toslink Optical)
- Media Box like Roku or Apple TV (HDMI)
The example above shows the need for 5x HDMI inputs and 1x Optical Input. This should help you when selecting a receiver to purchase.
Be aware of the fact that modern AV receivers aren’t limited solely to AV-only connectors. Many come equipped with Ethernet, USB, Wi-Fi, Apple Airplay, DLNA, Satellite Radio and other digital protocols that also transmit various forms of data. Setting up a complete home entertainment network or distributed media server may be less troublesome with receivers that boast diverse interfaces.
Keeping a Home Theater Receiver up and Running
Part of the reason many consumers want to graduate from their old systems is that they’re outdated enough to make using otherwise convenient modern devices a truly Herculean labor. How does one prevent this from happening with a new system?
While choosing a modern AV receiver with decent surround sound and a host of digital inputs is a good start, it’s also smart to think about the internal components. Unfortunately, many manufacturers don’t publicize details about the chips and electronics they employ inside their products. This isn’t indicative of cheap parts; it’s just reflective of the fact that the vast majority of casual consumers wouldn’t know the difference either way.
On the other hand, this does mean that if a home theater receiver is advertised as using a specific processing chipset, it may very well be cutting edge. Common receiver parts like digital-to-analog converters (DACs), for instance, are a dime a dozen, and though they play major roles in turning digital information into audible sound, manufacturers produce them in the millions on a yearly basis. When they’re publicized as being part of a specific stereo, it’s usually because they stand out enough to merit mention.
Power and Speaker Matching
Of course, all that digital connectivity and surround sound processing capability isn’t worth much if a home theater receiver and speakers don’t work as a team. Don’t simply trust a random consumer review or a manufacturer’s claim that a system will function well with a specific output arrangement; always check the standardized power ratings to match speakers and receivers.
It is very important to match your speaker’s needs to the receiver’s output power capabilities. If the receiver is not powerful enough for the speakers, the receiver will cut out and you could risk damaging it. You should match the specifications from your speakers to the specifications of the receiver using ratings like power per channel and impedance.
Power ratings, for instance, should always be expressed in root mean square (RMS) power, not peak power. Unlike peak power that can swing high or low without actually being sustained for a significant amount of time, RMS power is akin to a statistical average; it’s far more reflective of a home theater receiver’s ability to produce a continuous output for long periods of time.
Power quality is also important. Receiver wattages should be specified in terms of how many channels they can drive at the cited power level. For example, power supply output capacities are limited, and most units can’t deliver as much per-channel power when they’re driving multiple surround sound channels as they would if they were only supplying a single line. Similarly, different frequencies require varied quantities of continuous power. In short, keep an eye out for ratings that specify the frequency ranges and number of channels at which official measurements were made.
Don’t forget to match speaker impedances. Impedance is a form of electrical resistance that takes the varied resistance of speaker coils and other frequency-dependent circuits into account. Failure to match an AV receiver to appropriate output devices can result in weak sound if the receiver’s internal amplifier can’t drive the speaker. Also, remember that some speakers have higher sensitivity than others, meaning their design allows them to create louder sound without using as much power.
Sound Quality and System Control
Choosing from the many different control schemes available with modern speakers isn’t simply a matter of preference; those knobs and sliders are often indicative of a system’s capacity. AV receivers that let users tweak more settings may be built around better sound processors, but don’t count on control functionality to overcome inadequate innate response. While it’s great to have a high-powered home theater receiver, units with high total harmonic distortion (THD) ratings may indicate that the manufacturer sacrificed sound quality in an attempt to wow consumers with sheer loudness.
Making a Final Decision
So which of these factors is the most important? To the true audiophile, balance is paramount. Judge receivers by comparing all of their individual characteristics to paint a more accurate picture of how they’ll perform overall, and don’t be afraid to test drive them in person.