An audio/video (A/V) receiver is the quarterback of your home theater. It’s not just because it tells everything where to go, routing signals to different speakers and screens. It’s because a good quarterback makes the team better - and a good receiver will bring the best out of your home theater speakers. The market is a crowded one, so we’ve picked out some of the best A/V receivers for this year for you to choose from - whatever your budget, or room size. When making this list, we chose to only include receivers that have the ability to power speakers. You won't find any surround sound processors or preamps here – just full, integrated A/V receivers. For more background information on A/V receivers, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 125/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Unreal sound quality, virtually perfect design, enhanced power supplies.
What We Don't: Not ideal for smaller rooms.
With the AVR-X4500H, Denon retain the top spot on our list. This receiver's predecessor, the AVR-X4400H, was the previous winner, and having heard the most recent version, we think Denon deserve to hold the title. This is a punchy, powerful, relatively-affordable 9.2 channel receiver, which can not only scale to 11.2, but also delivers a staggering amount of technology for the price. It easily beats comparable models from Onkyo, Yamaha, and NAD in both sound quality and feature set. It's one of the best-sounding receivers on this list, and definitely the best sounding in this price range.
Normally, we aren't fans of incremental updates. However, Denon have kept the price the same as the previous model, while managing to add in some significant changes to the circuitry. The AVR-X4500H may have an identical housing to the receiver before it, but the internals have been overhauled, including the addition of upgraded power supplies for even cleaner sound. You get everything you'd expect, including Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Amazon Alexa support, Audyssey room correction, and even Auro-3D. It must be said that, if you don't have the cash, this may not be the receiver for you – and it's certainly not ideal for smaller rooms. If you're dealing with a smaller space, you're better off choosing something like the Sony STR-DN1080 or Onkyo TX-NR686. You won't get as many channels or features, but they are still excellent receivers.
See the Denon AVR-X4500H
A Close Second (And $1,250 Less)
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 100/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Great range of features for the price.
What We Don't: Sound quality isn't super-exciting.
The Onkyo TX-NR686 is an ideal alternative to the Denon AVR-X4500H, above, especially if you don't need the additional channels and power. For almost all setups, this is an excellent choice, boasting a great range of features for the price. These include the ability to add speakers in an additional zone, meaning this could easily power the audio in an entire house. You also get not one but two subwoofer outputs, meaning that the entire house will shake on its foundations.
It must be said that the reason this is at number two, despite the attractive price and features, is that the sound quality isn't nearly as meaty as the Denon AVR-X4500H and others on this list. It's still very good – you certainly won't feel shortchanged. But it doesn't have the punch or excitement other receivers have, and if you really want to experience movies and streaming series in the best possible way, it's worth spending a little bit extra for the Denon. You also don't get quite as many surround sound options - just Atmos, DTS:X, and DTS Neural:X Otherwise, this is an excellent – and more affordable – second choice.
See the Onkyo TX-NR686
Best Budget A/V Receiver
Dolby Atmos: No
Wattage Per Channel: 80/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: One of the best 5.1 receivers available right now.
What We Don't: Lacks advanced features and surround software.
Sometimes, you don't need additional channels. You don't need the 11.2 channels offered by the Denon AVR-X4500H, or even the 7.2 you get with the Onkyo TX-NR686. If you have a small room, with not a lot of space for speakers, this could be the answer to your prayers. It's an incredible receiver at an even better price, and only the lack of advanced features - like network functionality and Alexa compatibility - keep it from being higher up. If value-for-money is your main concern, this is where you should be looking.
You may not get Dolby Atmos or DTS:X, as you would with the pricier Denon AVR-S740H, below, but you get surprisingly excellent sound quality. The receiver delivers 80 watts of power, which isn't huge. But it more than makes up for it with audio that is dynamic and expressive, able to translate what's happening on screen with a high degree of accuracy. If you have less than $200 to spend, then we strongly recommend this receiver.
See the Pioneer VSX-532
Best High-End A/V Receiver
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 120/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Unbelievable sound quality and power.
What We Don’t: Staggering price tag, way too much for most people.
Bottomless bank account? Home theater room the size of a concert hall? Well then, Sir, Madam, or Other, step right this way. We'd like to introduce you to the most jaw-dropping receiver we've ever seen. For almost everybody, the Arcam AVR850 would be overkill, but if you can afford it, and have a need of something with this much grunt, you're in for one hell of a ride.
At 120 watts per channel (two-channels driven), and the ability to deal with just about any surround sound program from Dolby Atmos to DTS Neural:X, it's very hard to find a situation that the AVR850 can't handle. In fact, we can only think of one: the ability to run a 13.2 channel system, which is something better managed by the Denon AVC-X8550H, below. But outside of that, you've got to work hard to find a problem with either the sound quality or the design, both of which are flawless. This kind of receiver is ideal for large listening rooms, and, although it's not even within sniffing distance of affordable for most people, we'd be crazy not to put it on this list. It's the ultimate A/V receiver.
See the Arcam AVR850
Best A/V Receiver for Large Spaces
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 150/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: A truly unique receiver.
What We Don’t: Most people will never find a use for it.
At a time when home sound systems are getting smaller, smarter, and more compact, Denon decided to go in the opposite direction. They've created this truly stupendous receiver, with 13.2 channels. Yes, you read that right. That's 13.2 native - available from the get-go without any additional preamps. Eight height speakers? Why not?
At the time of writing, there's simply nothing else quite like it. And if you can imagine a type of surround sound program or a receiver technology, it's here. The feature set is just unbelievable. However, like the Arcam AVR850, this is overkill for most people. It's something that should only be bought by those who can take full advantage of its speaker channel complement. Otherwise, you're just wasting your time. If you have a big room and want to experience the joys of something like Auro-3D, then this is most definitely the receiver you should go for. It services a niche market, but it does this incredibly well. If you want the same Denon quality, but aren't prepared to pay quite as much (and don't need as many channels) try the top-rated AVR-X4500H. By the way, this is known as the AVC-X8500H in the UK and Europe, because...actually, we have no idea why. We've asked Denon for an answer, and will update when they reply.
See the Denon AVR-X8500H
Best A/V Receiver for Small Spaces
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 80/6Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Performs exceptionally well in small spaces, wireless functionality.
What We Don't: Hard to upgrade later, if you move to a larger space.
Filling a small room, and making it sound like a big one, is an art. The Yamaha RX-V585 has truly exceptional performance in this area. It delivers tight, compact, powerful audio quality that really lets you feel every punch and explosion, and it never feels like the audio is being compromised because of odd wall angles, or small spaces. While the Pioneer VSX-532, above, may cost around $300 less than the Yamaha RX-V585, the Yamaha pips it in being ideal for smaller rooms. Part of this is its ability to use wireless speakers for its rear surround channels, and subwoofer. Your space will go a long way when there are fewer wires to clutter things.
Leaving space aside, it still manages to be a very good receiver. You get Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, which should take care of the majority of your surround sound needs, as well as excellent audio tuning and calibration via Yamaha's proprietary software. If this receiver has one downside, it's that it only has four HDMI ports. While they can all handle 4K video playback, four isn't very much – if you plan to add more sources later, this may pose a problem. Still, it's a minor issue, and for those of us without a ton of space, this makes a huge amount of sense.
See the Yamaha RX-V585
Best of the Rest
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: Unknown
What We Like: Terrific sound and user interface.
What We Don’t: Doesn’t quite compete with bigger models.
Several other sites place the STR-DN1080 at the top of their lists. We are not several other sites. While we think it's solid – especially for the price range – it doesn't quite get the edge over the Denon AVR-X4500H or the Onkyo TX-NR686. All the same, it's got excellent sound quality, not to mention power: 165 watts, which is more than enough to power just about any speaker currently on the market. And it easily beats out the similarly priced Denon AVR-S740H, below, in most categories. There's only really one exception, which is Amazon Alexa functionality. The Denon has it; the Sony does not. You may want to take that into consideration before buying.
We also love Sony's interface, which continues from the one present on the old 1060, and is very easy to use. We appreciate the fact that it not only has Dolby Atmos and DTS:X functionality (not usually seen at this price range) but also DSD functionality. That means it can play ultra-high-resolution audio files; a nice touch, and not one you see often. Here's to the…1090? 1100? What we wouldn't give for some original receiver names…
See the Sony STR-DN1080
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 75/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: A great mix of tech and features with stellar sound.
What We Don't: Not enough of an update to justify the expense, HEOS functionality still finicky.
Here's our problem with the AVR-S740H. It's an update to the 730H, which was previously in the upper echelons of this list. That receiver was excellent, and this one is too. The problem is, the new version costs $479 – $130 more expensive than the 730H. It also doesn't offer any improvement in terms of audio, focussing on updated video standards, including 4K Ultra HD, HDR, Dolby Vision and Hybrid Log Gamma. If you feel those are important enough to pay for, then by all means, get this one. But we're not wild about expensive updates that don't offer anything new, and this definitely qualifies. It's especially glaring given how many advances Denon are taking in receiver tech – just look at our top pick, the Denon AVR-X4500H.
All the same, it remains a great receiver. Very few receivers deliver 7.2-channel audio that sounds quite this good, with this much depth and intensity to the sound. The features are excellent, and you can even use the HEOS functionality to add Amazon Alexa to the mix - although we think it's just a touch finicky, which is a problem that carries over to the newer model. Our take: at this point, you should probably buy the Sony STR-DN1080, which is a far better receiver for only a little bit more money.
See the Denon AVR-S740H
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 100/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Huge range of streaming options.
What We Don't: No preamp outputs available on this model.
If we're being honest, the Onkyo TX-NR787 leaves us in a slightly strange position. We like it… but we don't like it more than the cheaper Onkyo TX-NR686, at currently sitting at number two on this list. Yes, it may be newer, but it doesn't feel like it does enough to justify its own existence. And outside of the streaming options – which are far more extensive on this receiver – there's no real reason to choose it over the 686.
However, it still deserves a spot on this list, because even though it can't compete with its bigger brothers, it's an excellent receiver in its own right. You get all the expected features, including those amazing streaming options, and it even has ChromeCast built right in. The sound quality is excellent, even if not quite powerful enough to topple the really big boys. If you can't find the other models on this list - including the 686 - then this is an excellent alternative.
See the Onkyo TX-NR787
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 100/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Amazing functionality, plays well with a wide variety of speakers.
What We Don't: Not enough of an upgrade on the 780 to justify the extra cost.
The newest entry in Yamaha's RX-A receiver range is an absolute monster. It gives you a hell of a lot for your money, including more HDMI ports than ever before, as well as Yamaha's excellent YPAO room calibration. While this isn't quite as easy-to-use as the Audyssey calibration found on Denon systems – like our top pick, the more expensive AVR-X4500H – it's still excellent. You also get tech like Yamaha's A.R.T (Anti Resonance Technology) Wedge, used to dampen vibrations. Furthermore, rarely have we found a receiver that plays this well with so many speakers. It really flatters everything, no matter the brand.
So why is it so far down the list? Because it doesn't have quite enough to improve on the previous model, the RX-A870. Sure, you get a little more power and a few more HDMI ports, but was that really worth charging an extra $230? We don't think so. We would much rather receiver companies do a genuine update, instead of incremental ones, and so we can't help but penalised Yamaha here. If you don't need the extra power or HDMI ports, get the previous version and save yourself some money.
See the Yamaha AVENTAGE RX-A880
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 160/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Terrific audio quality and unique modular design.
What We Don't: Not suitable for casual listeners.
When evaluating receivers, we don't just put the most expensive ones at the top of the list. The reasoning behind this is because receivers that cost over $1,500 often have specialized uses – ones which may be above the desires of many listeners. Other models – like the Denon AVR-X4500H, at the top of this list – offer more value for money. But that doesn't stop receivers like the NAD T 777 V3 from earning a place on this list, and it does so because it has one truly unique selling point.
The T 777 V3 has a modular design, meaning you can swap cards to give it access to different surround sound programs. That means there's no need to replace the receiver if a new, advanced version of Dolby or DTS comes along; just buy a new card, and it's good to go. That's a feature that no other receiver on this list can boast, including ultra-high-end ones, like the $6,000 Arcam FMJ AVR850. It essentially makes this receiver future-proof. Add fantastic sound quality (thanks to Dirac room correction), and you've got a real winner. It is, however, expensive, and if we are being picky, we would have liked to see DTS:X included with this receiver as standard, rather than just Dolby Atmos.
See the NAD T 777 V3
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 140/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Unbelievable sound quality, killer room correction.
What We Don’t: Quite expensive, limited surround sound program support.
One thing that sets Anthem apart from the others is room correction. Theirs is among the best in the business, and it turns this receiver from an already powerful part of your system to an absolutely essential one. With the correction enabled, the sound is just unbelievable, squeezing a huge amount of power and depth into your living room.
It’s a big system, too, with native 11.2 functionality. While it would be nice to see something like Auro-3D or DTS Neural:X here, the support for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X is quite sufficient, as is the 4K functionality, wireless connectivity, and simple user interface. It should be said that we do still prefer the Denon at the top of this list, which we think offers better value for similar functionality, but if sound quality is what you’re looking for, then this should be your first port of call. When it’s set up and humming, it’s absolutely unbelievable. You will, however, pay through the nose for it - be sure to take that into account.
See the Anthem MRX 1120
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 90/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Perfect for high-end SONOS users.
What We Don't: Outside of one killer feature, it's a pretty straightforward receiver.
Right now, very few A/V receivers work with SONOS wireless speakers. The only other one on this list is the amazing Onkyo TX-NR686, at number two. Consider the Integra DRX-3.2 is a high-end version of the Onkyo, offering similar functionality with speakers from SONOS, and making it easy for the two to talk to each other. It helps that it's a great stand-alone receiver in its own right, with full Dolby and DTS:X functionality, and decent sound and power. The DRX-3.2 is also THX Certified, meaning that it meets certain objective audio standards, and is well suited to larger rooms.
Here's the issue we have, however. If you're about to spend $1,000 on a receiver, then you're probably not going to be satisfied with using a group of inexpensive SONOS One speakers as surrounds. In which case, the DRX-3.2 rather overshoots its market – those who will buy it almost certainly have a 5.1 or 7.1 system lined up and ready to go. It's a great high-end receiver, with plenty to recommend it, but if you're after something SONOS-capable, we'd suggest choosing the Onkyo TX-NR686. It also doesn't help that the front-end of the DRX-3.2 is a nightmare mishmash of buttons.
See the Integra DRX-3.2
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 140/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: A receiver for the future.
What We Don’t: This Auro-3D upgrade thing is getting tiresome.
Marantz teased the upgrade to the 12 series for almost a year, and when they finally delivered, they really came through. The SR8012 takes everything that made the 7011 and the 7012 great, elevates it all, and adds new features, tweaking the overall package. Chief among these features: an additional two channels as standard, and a big boost in power. It's not quite as powerful or as vastly over-specced as the company's AV8805 processor, which boasts an astounding 13 channels - similar to the Denon AVR-X8500H - but we don't consider stand-alone processors on this list. So for now, this is the most beastly receiver that Marantz has to offer.
However, the SR8012 does have a couple of annoying bits that we wish Marantz would take care of. Amazon's Alexa runs through HEOS (made by Denon, who along with Marantz are owned by the same company, Sound United). HEOS is fine, but it still feels like a weird and clunky way to run a system this expensive. That aside, this is a receiver that is clearly looking to the future. Buy this, and you shouldn't have to buy another one for quite a while. By the way, if you need less power and want to spend significantly less, while enjoying the same solid build and sound, it may be worth looking at second-hand versions of the 7011 and 7012. You could even go for newer, cheaper models released by the company, like the 5012 and 6012. Those aren't nearly as good as the other models on this list, but they can do the trick in a pinch.
See the Marantz SR8012
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 110/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Great features and sound for the prices.
What We Don't: Other receivers offer more audio detail.
Yamaha's new RX-A1080 is a seriously fun receiver. On the surface, there's nothing particularly new or innovative – nothing that will take on the mighty Denon AVR-X4500H, at the top of this list. But for only a couple of hundred dollars less, you get a receiver that is extremely capable. It doesn't have the audio detail of the Denon, with timing and dynamics that felt a little bit imprecise, but the overall sound quality is still solid. It also offers just about every feature you'd expect.
One of the things it does do well is the design. This may come as a shock, but most A/V receivers look virtually identical, with only minimal differences. There's not a vast difference between the RX-A1080 and other models here, but it still offers sleek design, with most of the main controls hidden away. And we love the silver color scheme. Ultimately, consider this a highly viable alternative if receivers like the aforementioned Denon are either too expensive, or sold out. For 7.2 Dolby or DTS setups, it will do very well.
See the Yamaha RX-A1080
Dolby Atmos: No
Wattage Per Channel: 150/6Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization Technology is pretty solid.
What We Don't: Too expensive for what’s offered.
Denon’s newest crop of receivers is ideal if you want height surround sound without having to incorporate additional speakers. The AVR-S650H incorporates a technology known as Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization Technology. As the name suggests, it does a passing impersonation of height audio, using complicated digital witchcraft to deliver sound from above. The AVR-S650H is one of three new receivers that incorporate this technology – you can also buy the S750H and S950H, which come with increased power. All of the receivers include Denon’s HEOS tech for wireless listening, and come with upgraded internals to improve overall sound quality.
However, even at this low price, we think there are better receivers available. We still prefer the sound and functionality of the Onkyo TX-NR686 ($349), and for only $80 more, the Pioneer VSX-934 offers full Atmos support. We also think that, while Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization Technology sounds good, it’s nowhere near as effective as true Dolby Atmos, and feels like a slightly lesser experience. Ultimately, the AVR-S650H is a solid receiver and deserves to be on this list - especially if you want to mimic height speakers - but it’s not our first choice.
See the Denon AVR-S650H
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 160/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Good surround sound for the price.
What We Don't: Other models offer better sound and functionality.
We consider the Pioneer VSX-934 a good alternative to the Yamaha RX-V585, due to it’s attractive price point and range of features. Chief among these is the inclusion of Apple AirPlay 2. If you like streaming wirelessly from your iOS device, then this could be an excellent option for you. It also delivers superb surround sound with a huge range of codecs available. The sound quality – especially the low-end – has excellent weight and presence to it. You’ll feel every explosion, punch, and bullet impact.
In our testing, we liked this receiver, but it didn’t quite knock off the titans above it. It’s a very good option, and felt like it was versatile enough to work in both big and small rooms, but it didn’t do anything we hadn’t already seen before. Think of it as a workmanlike receiver, with an acceptable range of features, that you can count on to get the job done.
See the Pioneer VSX-934
New A/V Receivers Coming Soon
If there’s one company that’s going to rule the second half of this year, it’s Onkyo. They’re gearing up to release five new receivers. The premier ones are the TX-RZ740 and TX-RZ840. Both of these models come with a feature known as IMAX Enhanced, a collaboration between IMAX and DTS that guarantees fantastic picture at 4K and up. They are also both THX Certified Select, which means they’ll sound really freaking good. We are estimating the TX-RZ840 to cost roughly $1,500, and the TZ-RZ740 at $1,200. Here’s hoping we can include them on the list in our next update.
If those big beasts don’t float your boat, then check out the upcoming TX-NR696, also from Onkyo. This doesn’t have the IMAX certification, but it does come at a much friendlier price ($900). It’s available as both a 5.1 configuration or as a 5.2.2, and will be ready for purchase soon. Expect full impressions when we’ve had a chance to listen.
As Dolby Atmos and DTS:X are the dominant surround sound software programs available, that's what we've focused on when comparing A/V receivers. If you want a full list of each receiver's surround-sound programs, check out the table below for our explanation of lesser-known ones.
|Yamaha RX-A880 Aventage||$900||7.2||Yes||Yes||100/8Ω||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|NAD T 777 V3||$2,499||9.2||Yes||No||160/8Ω||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|Anthem MRX 1120||$3,499||11.2||Yes||Yes||140/8Ω||Wi-Fi|
*All wattage ratings are for two channels driven, which is what manufacturers commonly list. If you’re running all channels, expect the wattage per channel to be a little lower!
**Conn. = Connectivity - whether something has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
- What Does An A/V Receiver Do?
- How We Chose our List of A/V Receivers
- A/V Receiver Channels Explained
- Dolby Atmos vs. DTS:X vs. Auro-3D
- Less-Common Surround Sound Software Explained: Dolby TrueHD vs Dolby Digital Plus vs DTS: Neural X
- Wattage Explained
- HDMI Explained
- 4K Explained
- A/V Receiver Connectivity: Bluetooth vs. Wi-Fi
- Connecting Your A/V Receiver
- Room Calibration Explained
- A/V Receiver Placement Explained
- Smart Receivers: Controlling Your Receiver With Alexa or Google Home
- DTS:X Pro Explained
Got multiple speakers? Planning on a surround system? Then you need an A/V receiver. We used a quarterback analogy earlier, but perhaps a better one is air-traffic control. A receiver takes all the incoming audio and video signals, and reroutes to them their correct locations on the fly, sending audio out to your speakers and video from your games console (for example) to your TV. If it's a good receiver, it will sharpen and improve the signals before sending them on, using its converters and amplifiers to make things better.
A lot of the picks on this list don't actually look like much. They are fairly dull, bland boxes with a bunch of controls on them, and a bewildering array of inputs and outputs around the back. But without this box, your home theater setup is going nowhere. There are a few key components inside each box. There's a preamplifier and an amplifier, for handling audio signals, a set of video inputs to work out where to send the visuals, and a decoder to separate the two. In addition, there may be a separate surround sound decoder, which splices the audio into its different channels and makes sure they get to the correct speaker. And by the way, it's only functional if you have speakers to plug into it, or if you've got a full home theater system where the central component needs an upgrade. Good hunting!
Unlike other products, A/V receivers don't get game-changing updates that often. Home theater manufacturers are more likely to launch larger (or smaller) variations of their existing models. We always try to feature the latest and greatest, but we'll also recommend when you could get an almost-as-good, slightly-older product for less cost. We compare receivers from dozens of manufacturers, taking into account everything: whether they have Dolby Atmos or DTS:X (or both), their wattage, what their connectivity is like, price, and more. Using that knowledge, we've made picks for our best overall receiver, best budget, best high-end, and many others. Disagree with our picks? Be sure to let us in know in the comments.
You've probably noticed the numbers 5.1, 7.1, and 9.2 floating around this article. What's up with that? Well, this number refers to the amount and type of speakers in the setup: the first (5, 7, 9, whatever) refers to the number of high end and mid range speakers, while the second one (the .1, sometimes .2) refers to the subwoofer, or low-end speaker. Simply put, the more quality speakers there are, the more rich and dynamic your sound is likely to be. At the same time, you're likely to pay more the higher those numbers get.
5.1 and 7.1 are considered the standard - the basic number of channels which a given receiver might have. Any receiver above about $500 will almost always offer 7.2 channels, allowing for seven speakers and two subwoofers. Even cheaper models, like the Denon AVR-S740H, come with 7.2 speaker channels. A 5.1 system would include three front channels (a center speaker, designed to sit under your TV, and two bigger ones just off to the left and right), and two on either side of the listening position. A 7.1 would add two more, behind you. A 9.1 or 11.1 system is where you start adding height speakers - something only a few receivers can actually take, like the incredible Denon AVR-X8500H, which offers a massive thirteen channels. This kind of thing is usually undertaken when you have a large room, and don't mind doing some DIY to mount your speakers! Worth noting: the subwoofer channels (the .1 or .2) will require their own power, meaning you'll use a different connection to that from your speakers. We'll go into this in more detail below. And some receivers, like the cheaper Denon above, also allow you to expand your channel quota by adding more amps into the mix.
Simply put: surround sound aims to deliver multi-dimensional sounds that move around in the same way as objects would in real life, by adding height to our aural perception. Surround systems rely on multiple speakers positioned in front of, behind, to the side and, sometimes, above your listening position. What makes surround sound possible are codecs: software code converting digital ones and zeros into an audible sound. They take the sound being sent into your A/V receiver, and tell it where to go and how to be reproduced. If you’re not into reading tech specs, you can think of an A/V receiver as a phone, and a surround sound codec as an app on that phone. There are many, many surround sound codecs, but there are the just three main ones you’ll need to worry about. Let’s break them down.
Let’s start with the DTS:X system. This is the easiest one out of the lot to integrate within an already existing 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound setup, and as such it’s perfect for beginners. If you’re just getting started in surround sound, and you already own some speakers or plan on getting a basic setup, this is the one to go for. DTS:X’s approach to improving the listener’s experience is by “freeing the audio content from specific speaker channels” and is purely software based - there are no physical requirements for the number of speakers or their locations when setting up the system. It’ll work with any conventional speaker setups, up to 32 speakers.
With a DTS:X-enabled receiver connected, the rest of the setup is straightforward, really - the auto-calibration system optimizes all dialogue and sound effects feeds for you. The system’s menu also allows user-definable level adjustment, and can even boost hard-to-hear dialogue above the other sounds. Plus, older format movie and game soundtracks and even stereo music files can all be played through DTS:X - the conversion (from non-DTS:X sources) uplifts the content with an added spatial audio realism. For best results, it is recommended that you play content (Blu-ray discs or streaming Digital Media) optimized for DTS:X.
Then there’s Dolby Atmos. Where Dolby Atmos differs from conventional surround set-ups is by necessitating one, two or more extra pairs of ceiling speakers. Such elevated “reflecting” speakers will be positioned above your existing floor-level surround speakers, allowing for sounds to move between top and bottom. If starting from scratch, there are many Dolby Atmos enabled packages available to purchase, ready-in-a-box, including everything you need: A/V receiver, amplification, and speakers. If you’re upgrading an already existing home surround system, you would need a Dolby Atmos-compatible A/V Receiver. The biggest investment, though, would be for the additional elevated speakers - even for a minimal Dolby Atmos setup, you would need at least two ceiling speakers on top of a regular surround set, if not four.
Now you’re probably thinking: really? Drilling holes in my ceiling? Fortunately, the guys who make Dolby are wicked smart, and they’ve come up with an alternative solution. Instead of installing speakers in or on the ceiling, you can add speakers on top of your existing towers, with drivers projecting upwards. Atmos-enabled speakers can come with such drivers already built-in, and you can buy Atmos-modules that will work with your existing speakers. Worth noting: These additional up-firing speakers have their own speaker terminals to make them into separate, dedicated channels. This of course increases the number of amp speaker outputs needed - you might have to invest in additional amplification if you've already used up all of your amp’s available speaker connections.
Dolby Atmos have their own way of naming their height-elevated setups, because surround sound systems weren’t confusing enough already. A 5.1.2 Atmos set-up would be like a traditional 5.1 surround system (in other words, five speakers and a subwoofer) but with an added pair of ceiling speakers (or Atmos modules): the '2' in 5.1.2. Similarly, a 7.1.4 Atmos set will be like a 7.1 conventional surround setup with two extra pairs of ceiling speakers or Atmos modules (hence the 4 in 7.1.4).
Auro-3D is kind of a dark horse here. Dolby has a huge market share, and DTS:X is gaining fans fast, but Auro-3D’s technological requirements have seen it struggle, despite the fact that it’s pretty incredible. It requires two extra height levels added to the conventional surround experience: wall mounted height speakers installed on the sides, as well as a single main ceiling speaker- the awesomely-named Voice Of God speaker. Found in 9.1, 11.1 and 13.1 configurations, Auro-3D is surprisingly flexible. For example, if you are already using a 5.1 you can start your upgrade to an Auro 9.1 setup by adding four wall speakers - two above your two main speakers, and two above your two surrounds. If upgrading a 7.1 surround set to an Auro 3D layout you’d need an additional speaker above each surround and center speaker plus the added single ceiling channel.
We need to point out that an Auro-3D installation (or an upgrade from a regular surround system) can be a bit tricky due to the very specific positions, heights and angles of the additional Auro-3D overhead layers and wall speakers. This plays a major role in achieving the best possible audio quality. And unless you’re rich enough to have two home theater rooms, you aren’t going to be combining an Atmos system with an Auro-3D one. Similarly, Auro-3D won’t be happy with multiple ceiling speakers or up-firing drivers. If all that sounds splendid, then take a look at a receiver like the Marantz SR8012 which, for a small fee, will allow you to upgrade to Auro-3D functionality.
We've already detailed the three main surround sound types you can and should expect to see in your receiver: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro-3D. But as you will have noticed from looking at the comparison table, above, there are dozens of other surround sound types. Some are pieces of legacy software, some have very specific applications, and some are just there because…we don't know. Hardly anybody has ever used them. While we aren't going to break down every single one (we'd be here all day, trust us) it's worth touching on a few. You might never need to know what DTS-ES 6.1 Discrete is - honestly, we have to look it up every time we come across it - but it's definitely worth knowing what Dolby TrueHD and DTS Neural:X are.
Dolby TrueHD is the surround sound program used when your receiver isn't quite cool enough to have Dolby Atmos. If your source is Atmos-capable – like, for example, a Blu-ray disc – but your receiver isn't, the mix will be output as Dolby TrueHD. It's an eight channel mix, which is still good, but not nearly as good as Atmos. It's in direct competition with DTS-HD Master Audio. As you can imagine, this does much the same thing, but for sources decoded with the DTS:X format. Essentially, if you see either of these, it means that your receiver will still be able to take a Dolby Atmos or DTS:X mix and do something with it, even if it is incapable of those high-end surround sound programs. Our top budget receiver, the Pioneer VSX-532 has DTS-HD Master Audio.
DTS Neural:X is a little bit trickier. Let's say you have a source that only offers 2.1, 5.1, or 7.1 audio – in other words, audio that has been mixed for speakers at ear-level. Let us also say that you have a system with height speakers. That's when DTS Neural:X would kick in, extrapolating height information from the mix, and playing it through those speakers. It's not nearly as efficient as DTS:X, or is common, but it's definitely useful in certain circumstances. You'll find it in plenty of receivers, including the $549 Onkyo TX-NR686.
Finally, let's talk about Dolby Digital Plus. This is what you'll be using if your system doesn't have height speakers, but you still wish to use a Dolby audio mix. It's not always a good idea to do this, especially when DTS:X it's so good, but some receivers don't have that, and so Dolby Digital Plus is worth knowing about. Put simply, it's the standard non-Atmos Dolby software, and will give you surround sound without the height elements.
For reference, here is a list of our A/V receiver picks, with every surround sound program they offer.
|Denon AVR-X4500H||$1,599||9.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Surround, DTS HD Master, DTS:X, DTS Neural:X, DTS Neo:X, Auro-3D|
|Onkyo TX-NR686||$349||7.2||DTS:X, DTS Neural:X, Dolby Atmos|
|Pioneer VSX-532||$240||5.1||Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD Master Audio|
|Arcam AVR850||$6,000||7.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby Surround, DTS:X, DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS-ES 6.1 Discrete, DTS-ES 6.1 Matrix, DTS 5.1, DTS Neural:X|
|Denon AVR-X8500H||$3,999||13.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Surround, DTS HD Master, DTS:X, DTS Neural:X, Auro-3D|
|Yamaha RX-V585||$500||7.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Surround, DTS:X, DTS-HD Master Audio|
|Sony STR-DN1080||$600||7.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital, Dolby Dual Mono, DTS: X, DTS HD MA, DTS HD HR, DTS, DTS-ES, DTS 96 / 24|
|Denon AVR-S740H||$479||7.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Surround, DTS:X, DTS Neural:X, DTS HD Master|
|Onkyo TX-NR787||$447||9.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, DTS:X, DTS Neural:X, DTS-HD Master Audio|
|Yamaha RX-A880 Aventage||$900||7.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Surround, DTS:X, DTS-HD Master Audio|
|NAD T 777 V3||$2,499||9.2||Dolby Atmos|
|Anthem MRX 1120||$3,499||11.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Surround, DTS:X, DTS Neo:6|
|Integra DRX-3.2||$1,000||9.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby Surround, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS:X, DTS-HD Master Audio,|
|Marantz SR8012||$2,999||11.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby Surround, Dolby TrueHD, DTS HD Master, DTS:X, DTS Neural:X|
|Yamaha RX-A1080||$1,200||7.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Surround, DTS:X, DTS-HD Master Audio|
|Denon AVR-S650H||$399||5.2||DTS:HD Master, Dolby TrueHD|
|Pioneer VSX-934||$479||7.2||Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS Virtual:X, DTS Neural:X, DTS-HD Master Audio|
This is the amount of power that the amp will push through to your speakers, and it can be as low as 30 watts (W) and as high as 500 watts. You’ll need to make sure your speakers can actually take this level of power, and again, there’s no point paying for power that is going to be overkill in the room (or which isn’t going to fill it up enough of it). You need to look at the wattage, which will give you an idea of how powerful your sound is going to be. We spent some time thinking about which stat to list here, and in the end, you'll see that for most of our amps, we list wattage for two channels driven - two channels being the minimum (we think) that a receiver takes.
The first thing you might be wondering is: if a receiver is 7.2, then why are they being rated for two channels of sound? That, my friend, is because the two channel ratings look better than the seven channel ones, which are considerably lower. However, almost all receivers will be able to deliver enough power, so don’t stress about it too much. It’s more important to match speakers well, and you can do that by looking at output specs. Here’s an example of a typical manufacturer stat: Rated Output Power (20Hz-20kHz, 2ch driven): 75 W (8 ohms, 0.08% THD). That’s for the Denon AVR-S650H, and what it means is that when two channels are receiving power with eight ohms of electrical resistance, between the ranges of 20Hz and 20kHz, you’ll be getting seventy-five watts of power with around 0.08% of distortion. And if that was gobbledegook, the only thing you need to pay attention to is the bit that says ‘seventy-five watts of power’. Find a speaker that can take that particular wattage at eight ohms, and you’re good to go. We explain it in a lot more detail here - don’t worry, it’s easy!
There are a huge number of connections on the back of any given unit, both analogue and digital, and we could spend quite a while going into all of them, and which ones you will need. By far the most important ones are the HDMI inputs. You'll want at least a few of these, as it's by far the most-common and most-utilized type of port.
When we say HDMI I/O, we mean HDMI Inputs/Outputs. Usually, there are more of the former than the latter, and depending on how many HDMI-capable gadgets you have, they could be super important. But do you actually need those seven HDMI ports? For most of us, three or four will be more than enough. So why are you going for a unit that has more than double what you need? You think those things come for free? No way. You pay for extra ports, so think carefully about how many pieces of equipment you're going to be using before you shell out your hard-earned. But on the other hand: these things last for quite a while. You will probably own yours for years. And over those years, you will collect new electronics, new gizmos, new devices...all of which will need a discrete HDMI port. Really, what you're going here is a balance: the number of ports you'll use now, plus one or two left over for the future.
4K, if you don't know, is a new standard of content with ridiculous visual fidelity and color sharpness. It sounds tricky, but all it is is a picture size: 3,840 by 2,160 pixels, to be precise. It means that no matter how big your actual TV, there will be 3,840 by 2,160 pixels packed onto it, making for a clearer picture. 4K is what a lot of receiver makers set their reputations by these days, and it's the thing you'll see featured most prominently. But several other receivers, like the Denon AVR-S740H, offer support for different video standards. It's probably a bit much for our purposes to go into here, but we do offer an explanation of the different types of video in our roundup of the best Blu-ray players.
On that note: there are plenty of 4K-ready TVs, and so many bits of A/V gear exist these days that you might fool yourself into thinking it's something you need to have. But, the problem is that not enough content is 4K yet, meaning most of what you'll see has been 'upscaled': translated to a 4K setting without actually being 4K. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The good news is that all the picks on our list are 4K-ready. Even if you couldn't care, you're getting it anyway.
Something new to many A/V receivers in the last few years is the advent of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Long may it continue! Bluetooth streaming allows you to send audio from your phone or tablet out to your receiver, to be played by your surround speakers. It is easy and convenient, but even at higher encoding levels (like aptX, or Bluetooth 4.1, which allow more data to be sent faster) it isn’t a patch on wired sound, which is always going to be better.
Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is giving speaker wire a run for its money. Connecting a receiver to your home Wi-Fi network means you can play music or video from anything else connected to it, like your PC. It’s also less prone to dropouts than Bluetooth, and as we mentioned, it sounds better. The downside? It adds another device onto your home network, which we’re betting is probably already crawling with devices. One nifty Wi-Fi trick: some manufacturers, like Denon, have made their receivers compatible with their wireless multiroom speakers. That means you can set up complex wireless systems that allow you complete control of your music. If you have some of Yamaha's new receivers, like the RX-V585, you'll be able to use wireless speakers for your rear and subwoofer channels.
We actually have a full guide to this, explaining every single connection on that crazy-complicated rear of your receiver, and what to do with it. But here’s a very short version, if all you need is a quick reference. It covers one of the more common setups.
- Connect your Blu-ray player or console to one of your receiver’s HDMI In ports, using an HDMI cable.
- Using speaker wire of at least 16-gauge, connect your speakers to their individual channels. You do this by unscrewing the cap, and threading your stripped wire through the hole so the metal wire makes contact with the metal speaker port. Then screw the cap back on.
- Each speaker has a red (+) connection, and a black (-) connection. Black to black, red to red. Always. A sharpie to color in the right split on the wire may be helpful.
- Connect your subwoofer to the Pre Out port, using a standard RCA cable.
- Connect your TV to the receiver’s HDMI Out port, using a standard HDMI cable.
- Plug in the receiver and subwoofer. Yes, we put this last for a reason. DO NOT DO ANY CONNECTING WITH YOUR RECEIVER PLUGGED IN. EVER.
- Turn on your TV and receiver. Switch to the relevant HDMI input using your TV remote. Follow the on-screen setup instructions.
You don’t play your music or movies in a vacuum. Your sound comes out in a room filled with objects: couches, tables, bookshelves, children, the dog, glass windows, pictures on the walls. All of these things affect the sound. Calibrating your room involves playing a test tone and then recapturing it through a special microphone before adjusting the sound accordingly. It’s a crucial part of the whole home theater experience, and will help you get the best out of your receiver, and indeed your whole system. Not every unit utilizes this type of technology, but we often find it to be a great bonus. Most receivers with room calibration technology will usually include very detailed instructions on how to set it up, so it’s often a fairly straightforward process. And we highly recommend doing so, if you can. The receiver with the best room calibration on our list is the Anthem MRX 1120, which has astounding intelligence. Although at $3,500, it had better!
Currently, the best room calibration software is known as Anthem ARC Genesis. It’s the latest version of Anthem’s ARC software, and includes some significant improvements. It now works on both Windows and Mac, and offers not only supreme room correction, but a variety of customizations. When given the option, you can be as detailed as you want with your calibration. If you’re interested in making the room sound good, then we recommend ARC Genesis – or at the very least, another form of reputable room correction software.
Something we saw far more often than we’d like: someone placing their A/V receiver in a crowded TV cabinet. Do not do this. A/V receivers can get really hot - especially after a few hours of operation. It won’t catch fire, but it may shut down, and you’re definitely shortening its lifespan. Give it some room. Two inches (at least) on the top, sides and rear should be more than enough to allow air to circulate.
But - we hear you say - it’s an ugly machine! I want to hide it away! We get it. Receivers aren’t pretty, even at the top end of the price ranges. But hiding them away causes more problems than it solves, as it also means you may not be able to use your remote. If you have to put it in a cabinet, make sure it at least has enough space. You could also invest in a remote extender, which means you don’t need line-of-site to the receiver to control it. A better option would be to place the receiver in an open-face cabinet, or on the floor out of the way. Whatever you choose, just make sure you give it a little room, yes?
Receivers are, for the most part, big, clunky workhorses - it’s usually a struggle to get manufacturers to include technology that the rest of the audio world is already enjoying. Case in point: smart control. You might be able to tell Alexa to lower the volume on your SONOS ONE speaker, but good luck doing it with your home theater system. OK - that’s not quite fair. There are several receivers on our list which do include smart speaker control, usually using Amazon’s Alexa software. That means you will, in fact, be able to raise and lower volume, pause playback, and even adjust inputs merely by speaking loudly from your couch. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, it’s not nearly as simple or straightforward as it could be. For one, none of the receivers on our list have native Alexa integration – the virtual assistant isn’t actually installed on any of their systems. To use an assistant, you’ll need to connect your receiver to a compatible smart speaker, like an Amazon Echo Spot or a Google Home.
We won’t go into how to do that here – the methods differ between manufacturers – but the upshot of it is that you need your receiver and your smart speaker to be on the same Wi-Fi network. Connecting them shouldn’t be that tricky, but you do need to be aware of the limitations of using them. For example, you may struggle to issue voice commands while a movie or a series is playing at top volume. Ultimately, at this point, you shouldn’t let smart speaker integration sway you when deciding to buy a receiver. It’s nice to have, and can be helpful, but it’s often far more effective to simply use the included remote to get the job done – especially for everyday things like changing the volume or muting playback. We’ve highlighted the receivers that contain Alexa on this list – the best of the lot is the Denon AVR-X4500H, our number one pick. At its current price, the inclusion of smart speaker functionality is a nice added bonus.
We never dreamt it to be true, but it appears as if DTS:X Pro is going to be available for home use for the first time. There's a very good reason we haven't mentioned it before this paragraph, and why you may not have heard of it. It's the kind of thing that's only used in very select movie theaters, as it involves up to 32 channels. That is certifiably insane.
Recently, a company called Trinnov, who make ultra-high-end gear, have announced that they will be releasing the Altitude32 A/V receiver, which offers object-based sound (here's an explainer) for those of us with way too many speakers in our lives. We'll be honest: for the moment, this is just a curio. Breathless press releases aside, it's the kind of thing that will only appeal to a niche audience, and we can't see it making our main list at any time in the future – no matter how good it may be. Still, it's exciting that this kind of technology is being made available for the home market, even if there need to be a few developments before it becomes more widely available.