What kind of A/V receiver do I need for my home theater?

A/V receivers act as the nerve center of your home theater system. They perform a host of essential functions, including decoding your DVD’s surround sound formats, driving your loudspeakers, and switching between audio and video components. If you want high-quality surround sound, you need a high-quality A/V receiver.

However, when it comes to features, it’s not always obvious which ones are considered essential and which ones the casual movie watcher can live without. Before you make your purchase, spend some time researching each feature in depth (see further information below), because you don’t want to end up with a receiver that fails to meet your expectations.

Why do I need an A/V receiver?

Simply put, you need an A/V receiver–also commonly referred to as a home theater receiver–to enjoy movie soundtracks in all their glory. A/V receivers offer at least five channels of audio amplification, enough to power two front speakers, two rear speakers, and a center speaker. (Most subwoofers come with a built-in amplifier.) Stereo receivers, by contrast, power only two speakers at once. If you’re a music fan who doesn’t care much about watching movies in surround sound, a stereo receiver makes perfect sense, and many audiophiles argue that stereo receivers are the best choice for high-end music listening. However, if movies are your thing, or you like the idea of a receiver that’s designed to serve as a command center for all of your audio and video components, an A/V receiver is a must. And keep in mind that A/V receivers offer a host of music-specific features that stereo receivers can’t touch. In other words, there’s no right answer; it all depends on your needs.

How much should I expect to spend on an A/V receiver?

You can find a decent A/V receiver in the $150 ballpark or a feature-packed receiver for more than $2,000, but generally most people will pay between $200 and $600. Entry-level receivers (less than $300) perform all of the essential home theater functions; however, they are often a bit lacking in power and aren’t as loaded with features as mid-range models. High-end receivers, not surprisingly, offer still more features, along with a cleaner, more powerful, and more sophisticated sound. Plus, many high-end receivers offer multi-room functionality, letting you power your living room, bedroom, and patio speakers all at once, and sometimes even listen to different audio sources simultaneously–a CD in the bedroom and a DVD in the living room, for instance.

Receivers generally fall into one of three price points:

Entry-level receivers (less than $300)

• Basic 5.1-channel surround decoding (Dolby Digital and DTS); some 6.1-channel formats

• Power ratings of 50 to 100 watts. Keep in mind that low-cost receivers often boast inflated power ratings; look for receivers with full-bandwidth power ratings (20 Hz to 20 kHz) rather than single-frequency or limited-bandwidth ratings.

• Solid connectivity, including several component video, S-video, and digital audio inputs. Many entry-level receivers also offer component video switching–see “What do I need to know about switching and connectivity?” below.

Mid-level receivers ($300 to $600)

• Additional surround modes, including most 6.1- and 7.1-channel modes

• Onscreen setup through your TV makes control easier

• More simulated sound fields (often referred to as DSP modes)

• Higher-quality electronics and more honest power ratings

• More inputs, including front-panel digital inputs

High-end receivers ($600 and up)

• A/B speaker switching or multi-room amplification

• Highly accurate power ratings and pure sound quality

• Superior bass management options

• Automatic room tuning and setup

What is surround sound?

Surround sound is obviously the main reason that most people buy home theater receivers, which is why even the cheapest A/V receivers offer Dolby Digital and DTS decoding. Dolby Digital is the de facto surround sound standard, thanks to the popularity of DVDs that adopted the format early on. (HDTV followed suit more recently.) DVD manufacturers encode each DVD with 5.1 channels of discrete Dolby Digital audio, which your receiver then decodes and sends to your home theater speakers. The format creates a rich audio soundstage that brings movie soundtracks to life with crisp dialogue, realistic-sounding special effects, and deep bass.

Although less common, many manufacturers also encode their DVDs in 5.1-channel DTS format. DTS uses higher data rates (i.e., less compression) than Dolby Digital, which leads many people to claim that DTS soundtracks sound more accurate. There’s no penalty for preferring one or the other, however, as your A/V receiver can decode both.

Most entry-level receivers also offer Dolby Pro Logic II circuitry, which converts two-channel stereo sources into plausible-sounding 5.1-channel soundtracks. This is ideal not just for playing music through surround sound systems, but also for watching TV shows and VHS movies. A newer version of Pro Logic II, called Pro Logic IIx, takes it to the next level by creating 7.1-channel sound out of stereo sources. DTS offers a similar format to Pro Logic II called DTS Neo:6.

Surround sound options start to get more sophisticated once you leave the entry-level range, mostly by adding more channels. Systems with 6.1 channels offer an additional rear speaker, often located directly behind the listener; on the other hand, 7.1-channel systems have two additional rear speakers for the ultimate in surround sound versatility. To accommodate listeners with such setups, many mid-range receivers offer Dolby Digital EX–also known as THX Surround EX–and DTS-ES (Matrix and Discrete) surround formats. Each format supports both 6.1- and 7.1-channel speaker systems, and many newer DVDs are now encoded in one or both of the formats to take full advantage of the technology.

If you currently own a 5.1-channel speaker setup but are planning to upgrade to a 6.1- or 7.1-channel system in the indefinite future, it might be worth your while to invest in a mid-range receiver now so that you’re well-prepared for the transition.

Other things to pay attention to:

• The total harmonic distortion (THD) of your receiver, which gauges how “clean” the audio signals will sound–a particularly important trait for people who like to crank the volume. For best results, choose a receiver with a THD level below 0.1 percent.

• The sensitivity of your speakers. The higher your speakers’ sensitivity rating (measured in dB), the less power they need to produce a certain volume. Speakers with lower sensitivity ratings, by contrast, require much more power from your receiver. A speaker with an 86 dB rating, for example, requires twice as much power to play at the same volume as a speaker with an 89 dB rating. The same is true for an 89 dB speaker as compared to a 92 dB speaker.

• The impedance of your speakers. Most receivers can drive 8 ohm speakers with no problem, but 4 ohm speakers are more demanding. Make sure the receiver you choose is up to the task.

• The size of your room. Big rooms need more power to fill the space, whereas small rooms can do with less amplification.

Is power a concern with an A/V receiver?

Power is important in A/V receivers. Not only do you want to own a receiver that’s powerful enough to drive your home theater speakers, but you need to make sure the power rating is up to par. Look for a receiver with a full-bandwidth power rating (20 Hz to 20 kHz) rather than a single-frequency or limited-bandwidth rating. Audiophiles also consider the receiver’s continuous (RMS) power rating important. Some receivers offer impressive peak power ratings–meaning they can deliver a lot of power over a short period–but aren’t quite as reliable during long audio passages. If you really want to make your system sound good, find a receiver with a high continuous power rating (often expressed as “watts RMS” or “watts continuous”).

What do I need to know about switching and connectivity?

Aside from the surround sound decoding, the primary difference between a stereo receiver and an A/V receiver is video connectivity. A stereo receiver generally offers multiple audio inputs and outputs for such items as your CD player, turntable, cassette deck, and other audio devices; however, an A/V receiver ups the ante by also offering video inputs for DVD players, satellite and cable receivers, HDTV receivers, digital video recorders, game consoles, and more. The advantage of video connectivity is simple: Whereas many TVs don’t have enough inputs to satisfy all the video components on the market, many A/V receivers do, with such connection types as HDMI, component video, S-video, and composite video. And once you’ve connected all of your components to the receiver, you can quickly switch between audio and video sources via your remote control.

For some consumers, however, mere video connectivity isn’t enough, especially if you hook up a bunch of components. The problem is that you’ll need to run a cable between your receiver and TV for each connection method you use (one for component video, one for S-video, etc.) to transfer the signal. That is, unless you buy a receiver with video conversion, which can run the signals from a variety of connection methods through a single cable. The most versatile receivers offer HDMI conversion, which can send all the signals from composite, S-video, component, and HDMI sources through a single HDMI cable. However, many receivers also offer component or S-video switching.

At the next level, more expensive receivers also offer a feature called video upconversion, which not only sends the signals through a single cable, but also upgrades the video resolution of non-HD sources–within limits, of course.

As a general rule, less-expensive receivers offer fewer inputs and outputs, which might not be a problem today, but could lead to problems down the road should you want to add components to your system. Most entry-level receivers offer a basic combination of component video, S-video, composite, and RCA audio inputs, a few digital audio inputs, and a 5.1-channel input for DVD-Audio or SACD players. As you spend more money, you can expect more of each connection type, along with such additional options as digital audio outputs for connecting digital recording devices, a phono input, and a pre-amplifier audio output (5.1, 6.1, or 7.1 channels) for adding an external amplifier.

What are my options for a multi-room setup?

As receivers get more sophisticated, so too do listeners, and nothing screams audio sophistication like a multi-room speaker system. Some mid-range receivers offer what’s called A/B speaker switching, which essentially lets you switch between two different sets of speakers–an ideal option for listening to a CD in the living room and bedroom at the same time. More robust receivers boast multi-source/multi-zone options, with connections for up to three rooms and the ability to play two audio sources at the same time. With a multi-zone system, your son can listen to a surround sound movie in the living room while you play a CD through the kitchen and back patio speakers–all through the same receiver.

What other features should I consider with my A/V receiver?

• DSP modes: The more expensive the receiver, the more simulated surround modes it typically offers. Each surround mode replicates a live environment, such as Cathedral, Rock Club, Sports Arena, etc.

• iPod integration: Many manufacturers are now selling receivers with custom iPod docks. The docks not only charge and amplify your iPod, but they also let you control the music and video selections via your TV screen and receiver remote.

• Satellite radio ready: In a similar vein, satellite-radio-ready receivers not only make it easy to connect a satellite tuner, but also display song titles, station names, artist info, and more on the receiver’s display or TV screen.

• Gold-plated input/output jacks and five-way binding posts: The former improves the signal transfer, while the latter offers the most versatile connection methods for speaker cables. Neither is essential, but both help deliver a superior sound and a longer system life.

Source : Amazon.com