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AV Receiver Buying Guide

Learn everything you need to know when shopping for a new audio/video receiver.

What is a Receiver?

At the most basic level, receivers take media from a source like a cable box or cd player and output it to a screen and/or speakers. An AV receiver (also known as a home theater receiver) processes both audio and video signals, sending the audio to your speakers and video to the TV. Stereo receivers, also known as audio receivers, can only handle audio signals.

AV Receivers Combine:

  1. A tuner for AM/FM, HD, satellite, and/or internet radio
  2. A preamp that processes incoming media and distributes it to the appropriate output device(s)
  3. A multi-channel amplifier to power the speakers. Many include more advanced features, but we'll get to those below.

What Will You Be Connecting to the Receiver?

When selecting a receiver, start by taking inventory of the devices you'd like it to control. For those interested only in music, will stereo sound (a left and right speaker with an optional subwoofer) suffice? If so, shopping for a stereo receiver as opposed to an AV receiver will save you some money or let you upgrade to a higher quality model. For surround sound you'll want to purchase an AV receiver, even if you don't plan on connecting it to a TV.
Take stock of the various media devices you currently own as well as those you might buy in the not too distant future. Every cable box, streaming device, Blu-Ray/DVD/CD/record player, video game system, and computer that you want to connect will need its own input port on the receiver. It's a good idea to choose a model with at least one more input than you currently need, ensuring you have room to expand your home theater set up in the future.
Next think about how many speakers you have or want. Just as media devices each require their own input port, speakers and subwoofers each require their own output port. The number of speakers a receiver can manage are referred to as channels. As an example, a 5.1 channel receiver can handle 5 speakers and 1 subwoofer.
A 5.1.2 channel receiver can handle 5 speakers, 1 subwoofer, and 2 object based surround speakers which add a vertical element to surround sound. If you're interested in this kind of 3D sound experience, there are a handful of audio formats that support it. Dolby Atmos was the first on the scene and has the most support for both music and movies including an ever-changing list of content on Netflix, Prime Video, iTunes, and Vudu. DTS:X is an alternative format that offers a similar enveloping experience and is found mostly in cinemas, on Blu-Rays, and on the go. To ensure the best sound experience, look for a receiver that supports both formats.
Finally, you'll also be connecting your home theater receiver to a screen of some sort. If you have (or want) a Ultra High Definition 4K or 8K screen, make sure the receiver you select is capable of outputting those resolutions. Similarly, if you have an HDR (High Dynamic Range) screen, your new receiver should be to process the same kind of HDR signal(s) as your TV. Check out our Television Buying Guide for more information about resolutions and the different kinds of HDR.

Inputs and Outputs

AV Receiver with an HDMI Port

Video

Now that you know what you'll be connecting to your receiver, think about how you'll connect each device. HDMI cables are the standard for transmitting high-quality audio video signals. Everything from cable boxes to streaming devices to game systems use HDMI. Count up the number of modern video devices you want to connect to your receiver and select a model with at least one extra HDMI-In port. Having an open port prevents you from making tough decisions down about whether or not your new device is more worthy of the spot than an old device.
You will probably connect the receiver to your TV with an HDMI cord as well. For those planning to connect multiple screens to their receiver, make sure it's equipped with multiple HDMI Out ports. If you have a 4K TV with a high refresh rate or any 8K TV, pay attention to the version of HDMI which the receiver supports. The newest iteration, HDMI 2.1 can handle 4K @ 120Hz and 8K @ 60Hz. Refresh rate, measure in hertz (Hz), is the number of times a screen produces a new image every second. Higher refresh rates result in a smoother picture and are especially noticeable in motion scenes common to sports, action movies, and video games.
If you want to connect older AV devices like VCRs or classic game systems, you'll probably need component or composite inputs as well. Both carry audio as well as video signals. Component cables are the red white and yellow cords you may remember from yesteryear. Composite cables added blue and green cables into the mix for higher resolutions. Check the requirements of your device and make sure the receiver you choose supports them.
AV Receiver with Component Cable Connection

Audio

The receiver's HDMI inputs will handle both audio and video signals from most AV devices. However, if you only need to transmit audio signals, from a cd player or record player perhaps, your receiver will need an appropriate input. RCA (red and white) and optical cables are the most common options.
AV Receiver with Analog and Optical Ports
Optical cables transmit audio signals digitally via pulses of light. They provide a higher sound quality than RCA cables do, nearly as pristine as that offered by HDMI. However, a pinched optical cord can block the path of light inside, preventing the signal from reaching its destination. Even so, optical cables are especially well suited for transporting audio over long distances as they aren't disturbed by electromagnetic or radio frequency interference.
Coaxial cables are another digital solution with quality on par with optical. However, these tend to be less common than either RCA or optical options.
You'll probably recognize RCA cables as the pair of red and white cords, like component cables without the yellow video cord. They transmit an analog signal with a respectable sound quality that's only slightly less impressive than the digital formats. If you plan on connecting a record player to your receiver, it will likely use RCA. Just be sure to get a receiver with a PHONO IN port to prevent background noise like clicks and pops from interrupting the music.
If you want the option to connect a smartphone, tablet, or even a portable cassette player, look for a receiver with an AUX input, ideally on the front of the unit. AUX inputs are 3.5mm ports, just like the headphone jack on any of these devices. While receivers can connect to these modern devices wirelessly, sometimes it's just easier to use a cable, especially when you have company that wants to take control of the tunes.
As for outputs, ensuring the receiver has enough speaker terminals for your setup is essential. Receivers should have 2x speaker terminals for each speaker/channel, one positive and one negative. Although they come in a variety of shapes and designs, they all connect to the same kind of speaker wire that runs to each individual speaker.

Power Needs

The amplifier in a receiver sends power to the speakers. This power is measured in watts per channel. The more watts, the louder your speakers can get. Your speakers will likely note their recommended amplifier power, often given as a range. But in general, a receiver capable of outputting roughly 100 watts per channel should be plenty for all but the largest home theaters.
The impedance of a speaker, measured in ohms, is another important variable to consider. Both speakers and receivers are typically rated for 4, 6, or 8 ohms. Make sure the ohm rating of your speakers is greater than or equal to that of the receiver. It's possible to damage your receiver by connecting it to speakers rated for a lower impedance. If you aren't sure of the impedance of a speaker, it should be noted on the unit itself. But feel free to reach out to our audio experts at 800-860-3577 if you have any questions.

Physical Size

Receivers can be rather bulky pieces of equipment. Even if you're replacing an existing unit, a new one may not fit in the same space. Be sure to measure your space and ideally leave a bit of breathing room for ventilation as receivers can generate a fair amount of heat. And don't forget to factor in room for cords! It's common to place receivers in cabinets or on shelves. Making sure you have ample room behind the unit to house excess cable makes it infinitely easier to access the back of the unit. Although you probably won't need to do so often, when you do, you'll be glad you thought ahead.

Secondary Features

The above sections cover the basics well enough to give a solid understanding of what you need to consider when buying a new receiver. Keep reading for information on some of the newer features that can take your home theater to the next level.

Wireless Music

If you want to play music from an internet radio source, your smartphone, or other portable devices, there are a handful of technologies you should pay attention to.

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi capable receivers allow you to connect to a home network and often support streaming from popular services like Spotify, Tidal, and Deezer without the need for any external devices. Wi-Fi capability can also allow you to easily update the firmware on your receiver. Many receiver brands also have apps that let you control the device from the convenience of your smartphone. By connecting your smartphone via Wi-Fi, you can control the receiver from anywhere in the house that has Wi-Fi signal.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth is another useful wireless technology, allowing you (or friends and family) to play music on your impressive sound system from their portable device. However, the range of bluetooth is limited when compared to Wi-Fi, typically requiring that you stay in the same room.

AirPlay

Apple's wireless technology is called Airplay. The newest iteration of this technology, AirPlay 2, allows you to connect to multiple devices and even lets you take a phone call without interrupting the music. And as long as your device is on the same Wi-Fi network as the receiver, you'll be able to control it. The primary drawback is that AirPlay doesn't work with Android or Windows devices.

Multi-Room Audio

If you want to fill your house with music (and maybe even the area outside your home), a receiver capable of multi-room audio is the perfect way to do so. Look to see how many zones the unit supports. A second or third zone allows you to send stereo audio to a second or third set of speakers. Keep in mind that you'll need to run speaker wire from the receiver to these other areas of the home.
However, there are wireless solutions. Sonos took an early lead in the wireless, multi-room audio space. They offer stand alone speakers as well as devices that can connect to your receiver, allowing you to play music from your smart device over your home theater system and/or any of the other speakers in the house.
The popularity of Sonos products has led just about every other audio company to release similar products of their own. Denon HEOS, Yamaha MusicCast, and DTS Play-Fi are a few of these technologies, but virtually every manufacturer has one. If you want to incorporate standalone speakers in other rooms, just make sure you stick to a single brands ecosystem. Mixing brands will mean a different app for different speakers and will prevent you from syncing playback between the two.

In Conclusion

When shopping for a receiver, the first choice you'll have to make is between a stereo or av receiver. Next, think about the devices you'll want to connect and what inputs/outputs each requires. Then make sure the receiver has enough power for your speakers, paying attention to both watts per channel and the impedance rating (ohms) of both the receiver and the speakers. And don't forget to make sure you have enough room on your shelf for the new receiver.
With the important details covered, consider whether or not you'd like to be able to play music wirelessly from your smartphone. Finally, give some thought to a multi-room set up that allows you to play the same (or different) music in various locations throughout your house. Should you have any questions, don't hesitate to reach out to our receiver specialists at 800-860-3577. We'll gladly walk you through any details you need clarified and can offer suggestions based on your specific wants and needs.
Last updated: September 2, 2020

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