An audio/video (A/V) receiver is, if you’ll forgive a slightly clunky analogy, 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 it has a profound effect on the quality of the system. If it isn’t up to the task of handling the vast amount of data that get’s thrown it at, then you could have the best speakers on earth and still get bad results. The market is a crowded one, so we’ve picked out some of the best A/V receivers for this year, ranging from sub-$300 budget options to monster units that will cost you a few grand.
A/V receivers don’t get major game-changing updates that often - home theater companies are more than likely to bring out a new bigger (or smaller/entry-level) variation of their existing models. Receiver tech is tried and tested these days, so there are plenty of familiar faces here. We compare receivers from dozens of different 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.
Our experience in home audio lets us pick out the best receivers - there are dozens available, and these are the absolute best around. We also take care to point out what each receiver is best for. Agree? Disagree? Be sure to let us in know in the comments.
Channels: 9.2 (Expandable to 11.2)
Surround Sound: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Auro-3D
Wattage Per Channel: 105/8Ω, 2ch Driven
What We Like: Unreal sound quality, virtually perfect design.
What We Don't: Not ideal for smaller rooms.
No manufacturer in the home theater space has impressed us more than Denon. Not just because they consistently deliver groundbreaking high-end receivers, like the AVR-X8500H listed below, but because they've also done what feels like the impossible. They've created a relatively-affordable 9.2 channel receiver, which can not only scale to 11.2, but which 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 the former category, however, where the AVR-X4400H distinguishes itself. The audio quality has serious weight and presence, with fantastic timing. It's also surprisingly musical – while we'd recommend a good stereo amp as the first port of call for any hi-fi system, this will happily pull double duty. And with a full complement of features - including Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Amazon Alexa support, and Audyssey room correction - you've got absolutely everything you need to build the home theater room of your dreams. However, we do have one word of warning: we think it's reasonably priced, compared to other models like the NAD and the Arcam (below), but it might still be a little bit expensive for some. And if you have a smaller room, you're better off going with something like the Sony STR-DN1080. You won't get as many channels or features, but it's still an excellent receiver.
See the Denon AVR-X4400H
Surround Sound: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Wattage Per Channel: 130/8Ω, 2ch Driven
What We Like: Huge power, great features, excellent price.
What We Don’t: Old-school looks, setup can be tricky.
At the time of writing, Onkyo has announced that they will have a new version of this receiver, the TX-RZ830, launching in June 2018. That receiver has more power (180 watts per channel) and more channels (9.2). We will update this piece as soon as we’ve heard one, but for the time being, the TX-RZ280 remains the best receiver under $1,000. And if you don’t need the increased power that the new 830 offers, stick with the 820. It’s very, very good.
You could argue that the Denon AVR-S730H and Sony STR-DN1080, both below, offer more value for money, but they don’t have nearly the power or sheer audio oomph that this Onkyo model does. You get almost 60 watts more power per channel, for one, and a serious boost in sound quality, for two. And you also get an excellent range of features, including access to both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. The receiver isn’t flawless, by any means: t looks like it came from the early 2000s, a fact that isn’t helped by the clunky display. Setup can also be a little bit tricky, in contrast to the Denon AVR-X4400H, where it’s smooth as silk. All the same, this is an excellent second option.
See the Onkyo TX-RZ820
Surround Tech: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
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-X4400H or the Onkyo TX-RZ820. 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
Surround Sound: Dolby (Various), DTS-HD
Wattage Per Channel: 80/8Ω, 2ch Driven
What We Like: One of the best 5.1 receivers available right now.
What We Don't: Lacks advanced features and surround codecs.
Sometimes, you don't need additional channels. You don't need the 11.2 channels offered by the Denon AVR-X4400H, or even the 7.2 you get with the Sony STR-DN1080. 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. At the time of writing, Pioneer are gearing up to release two new receivers, the VSX-LX503 and 303, so expect a full analysis of those soon. Right now, however, we don't think there's any need to wait.
You may not get Dolby Atmos or DTS:X, as you would with the 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 adding this receiver to your list. It's far superior to similarly priced models, like the Yamaha RX-V483 - at $250, it's not only more expensive, but isn't nearly as good, with sound quality that just can't compete. Get this one instead.
See the Pioneer VSX-532
Surround Sound: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Wattage Per Channel: 75/8Ω, 2ch 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-X4400H.
All the same, it remains a top-five 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 at roughly the same price.
See the Denon AVR-S740H
Channels: 9.2 (Expandable to 11.2)
Surround Sound: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Wattage Per Channel: 100/8Ω, 2ch 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 Onkyo TX-RZ820, 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 820 or the upcoming 830.
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 - almost on par with the fantastic Denon AVR-X4400H (and at half the price). If you can't find the other models on this list, then this is an excellent alternative.
See the Onkyo TX-NR787
Surround Sound: Dolby (Various), DTS (Various)
Wattage Per Channel: 110/8Ω, 2ch Driven
What We Like: Amazing functionality, plays well with a wide variety of speakers.
What We Don’t: The cheaper Denon sounds a little better.
Previously, we had a Yamaha in the number one spot – the amazing RX-A3070, which is still on the list below. It was a bit too expensive for what you got. However, we did want to make sure that Yamaha had a berth in the top three, because their receivers are excellent. We settled for the newer RX-A870. It’s an absolute monster.
It’s more expensive than the Denon, and we don’t think it sounds quite as good - despite proprietary tech like Yamaha's A.R.T (Anti Resonance Technology) Wedge, used to dampen vibrations. But rarely have we found a receiver that plays this well with so many speakers. It really flatters everything, no matter the brand, and it packs that in with some excellent functionality. Chief among these is Yamaha’s brilliant MusicCast tech, which lets you integrate your receiver with speakers in other rooms – you’re even able to control it with Amazon Alexa. There’s support for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, and some advanced EQ options to really get the sound the way you want. If it weren’t for the Denon in the top spot, which offers magnificent value, this would be an easy number one. As it is, it’s an excellent option if you have a little bit more cash to spend.
See the Yamaha RX-A870 Aventage
Channels: 9.2 (Expandable to 11.2)
Surround Sound: Dolby Atmos
Wattage Per Channel: 160/8Ω, 2ch 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-X4400H, 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 codecs. 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 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, rather than just Dolby Atmos.
See the NAD T 777 V3
Surround Sound: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Wattage Per Channel: 140/8Ω, 2ch Driven
What We Like: Unbelievable sound quality, killer room correction.
What We Don’t: Quite expensive, limited codec 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
Channels: 7.2 (Expandable to 11.2)
Surround Sound: Dolby (Various), DTS (Various)
Wattage Per Channel: 120/8Ω, 2ch 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 – a fact that keeps it from the upper echelons of this list. 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 sound codec from Dolby Atmos to DTS Neural:X, it’s very hard to find a situation that the FMJ 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 AVR-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, we’d be crazy not to put it on this list.
See the Arcam AVR850
Surround Sound: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Wattage Per Channel: 150/8Ω, 2ch Driven
What We Like: Terrific power and design.
What We Don’t: At this price, we’d expect Auro-3D.
The case for the defense: a good complement of channels and features, a very solid amount of power that can drive all but the hungriest speakers, a decent range of surround sound codecs, and absolutely terrific design. This model includes one of the best displays we’ve ever seen on an A/V receiver. You would have to have a heart of stone not to be impressed by all of this, and you’d have to be insane not to want the distinctive circular blue glow of a Rotel receiver in your living room. Did we mention the sound? We should mention the sound. It’s tight, controlled, balanced, and refined. No wonder plenty of our readers, in our regular Facebook series #ShowOffYourGear, have shown a preference for Rotel gear.
The case for the prosecution: at this price – already quite a bit more expensive than most people are willing to spend – we’d expect things like Auro-3D to come as standard. While it’s great to have Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, we would have preferred to have the ability to upgrade later, especially for the money you pay. If you want that feature, look to something like the cheaper NAD T 777 V3, which offers modular functionality.
See the Rotel RAP-1580
Surround Sound: Dolby V*, DTS V*, Auro-3D (Via Upgrade)
Wattage Per Channel: 140/8Ω, 2Ch Driven
What We Like: A receiver for the future.
What We Don’t: This Auro-3D upgrade thing is getting tiresome.
We waited a long time for this one. Marantz teased the upgrade to the 12 series for almost a year, and when they finally delivered, they really came through. This takes everything that made the 7011 and the 7012 so good, and boosts in all, adding new features and tweaking the overall package. Chief among these features: an additional two channels as standard, and a big boost in power.
However, it does have a couple of annoying bits that we wish Marantz would take care of. For starters, Amazon’s Alexa runs through the 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. And at this point, when you’re paying three grand for a receiver, shouldn’t Auro-3D come as standard? Why do we continually have to pay to upgrade? These annoyances 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 - or 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 though…
See the Marantz SR8012
Surround Sound: Dolby (Various), DTS (Various), Auro-3D
Wattage Per Channel: 150/8Ω, 2ch 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 codec or a receiver technology, it’s here. The feature set is just unbelievable. However, like the Arcam FMJ AVR850, this is overkill. 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. For most people, it’s an interesting intellectual exercise; it definitely deserves a place on this list, but it’s never going to crack the top 10. If, however, 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 are prepared to pay quite as much (and don’t need as many channels) try the top-rated AVR-X4400H.
See the Denon AVR-X8500H
Surround Sound: Dolby (Various), DTS HD Master
Wattage Per Channel: 50/8Ω, 2ch Driven
What We Like: Looks absolutely gorgeous, ideal for HEOS users.
What We Don’t: Barebones feature set.
We aren’t massive fans of Denon’s HEOS home speaker system. We think it’s beaten quite substantially by manufacturers like SONOS. However, for integrating into home theater, Denon have SONOS on the ropes; their HEOS AVR makes connecting your receiver with other wireless speakers a total breeze. If this is the ocean you swim in, it could be the ideal buy. It also happens to look absolutely fantastic. Seriously, when virtually every other receiver on this list is a boring grey box, it’s a blessed relief to see one that stands out from the crowd.
Unfortunately, it isn’t just the HEOS functionality that’s a problem here. The receiver feels very underpowered - 50 watts is 25 less than the cheaper - and better - Denon AVR-S740H. At only 5.1 channels, it won’t satisfy those looking for height effects. You don’t get Dolby Atmos, and the only DTS here is DTS HD Master. Again, if you’re not looking for any extra features, and simply want to power a small room with something that looks the business, then this is unquestionably a great option. The rest of us may prefer something a little bit more powerful.
See the Denon HEOS AVR
Surround Sound: Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD
Wattage Per Channel: 80/8Ω, 2ch Driven
What We Like: Good sound with added height channels.
What We Don't: Doesn't offer enough for the increased price.
As much as we love Onkyo's TX range, this particular receiver falls prey to the same trap that the Denon AVR-S740H got snagged by. Namely: it asks you to pay quite a bit more for not a huge upgrade. Yes, it's only $50 more expensive than its predecessor, the SR373, but all you get are a pair of extra height channels. Dolby Atmos? DTS:X? Please. That just isn't happening. Admittedly, you need to go a little bit more expensive – above $400, into Sony STR-DN1080 territory – to get these, but it still feels like a letdown that this new version is so similar to the old one.
That's not to say it's a bad receiver. And while it doesn't offer the superlative sound quality and focused mindset of the cheaper Pioneer VSX-532, it does manage to get the job done. The features are good, and the sound is dynamic and exciting. And of course, despite our misgivings, height channels are still nice to have. This definitely isn't top five, but it still deserves a place here.
See the Onkyo TX-SR383
Surround Tech: Dolby True HD and DTS-HD
Wattage Per Channel: 80/8Ω, 2ch Driven
What We Like: Arguably the best pure 5.1 receiver on this list.
What We Don’t: Definitely doesn’t trouble the big boys!
Small room? Just a few speakers? Dipping your toe into surround sound? Check this one out. Yamaha’s entry at the top of this list may be too much for some people, but the quality bleeds through into this one: a much smaller unit that sacrifices advanced features and additional channels for some very good quality delivered into a smaller package. If you’ve only got a small living room to fill, this will be a huge upgrade to your existing setup.
It offers basic surround sound functionality, and delivers some excellent sound quality, with deep bass and detail highs. You’ve got full Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, 4K Ultra-HD passthrough, and a reasonably intelligent (albeit slightly rough) front end. There are a lot of budget receivers on this list – we do like to cater to everyone, not just the custom-install crowd – but we think this is the pick of the bunch.
See the Yamaha RX-V483
Surround Sound: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Wattage Per Channel: 80/8Ω, 2ch Driven
What We Like: A good all-around receiver with some nice features.
What We Don't: Doesn't do enough to stand out from the crowd.
One more Onkyo model, before we get into the Krell insanity below. The TX-NR585 is a perfectly capable receiver, but it doesn't do quite enough to differentiate itself from the other models in this price range. The Sony STR-DN1080, in particular, wipes the floor with it. It may be slightly more expensive at the time of writing, but it offers much better sound quality, with a low-end and soundstage that are markedly superior. And although it offers a little more power than the Denon AVR-S740H (80 watts versus 75) we much prefer the Denon for usability.
So what do you get? This is a receiver that costs over $400, at the time of writing, so it's no surprise to see both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X here. You also get full access to streaming services likes Spotify, as well as support for a range of video codecs. Plus, there's DTS PlayFi, which allows you to talk to compatible speakers around your house. But honestly? This one is kind of bottom of the list for us. This is a very crowded price range, and while this receiver does its job well, there are others that we'd pick first.
See the Onkyo TX-NR585
And For When You Want To Get Really Serious:
Surround Tech: Dolby (Various), DTS:X (Various)
Wattage Per Channel: N/A
What We Like: The ultimate in home audio processing.
What We Don’t: Huge price tag, definitely not for conventional systems.
This is technically cheating. The Krell Foundation is a processor, rather than a receiver, which means it doesn't actually deliver amplification. You'll need a separate amplifier to power your speakers, as this is unable to do so - its purpose is solely to route audio and video signals. But oh my, what a mighty machine. And if you're upgrading your system to distinct components, Krell is an excellent place to start.
You get a smorgasbord of surround sound codecs, with the full gamut of Dolby and DTS variants - although no Auro-3D, which is surprising - as well as 7.1 channels of routing. The sound, as you can imagine, is out of this bloody world, with rich, sumptuous detail and head-pounding bass. It has a price tag that will deter all but the most dedicated of receiver fans, but this is still one hell of a piece of equipment. We even love the name.
See the Krell Foundation
|Denon AVR-X4400H||$1,599||9.2/11.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||130/8Ω||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|Onkyo TX-RZ820||$699||7.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||130/8Ω||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|Sony STR-DN1080||$598||7.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||Unknown||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|Pioneer VSX-532||$279||5.1||Dolby V*, DTS-HD||80/8Ω||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|Denon AVR-S740H||$479||7.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||75/8Ω||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|Onkyo TX-NR787||$699||9.2/11.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||100/8Ω||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|Yamaha RX-A870 Aventage||$900||7.2||Dolby V*, DTS V*||110/8Ω||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|NAD T 777 V3||$2,499||9.2/11.2||Dolby Atmos||160/8Ω||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|Anthem MRX 1120||$3,599||11.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||140/8Ω||Wi-Fi|
|Arcam AVR850||$6,000||7.2 / 11.2||Dolby V*, DTS V*||120/8Ω||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|Rotel RAP-1580||$3,850||7.1.4||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||150/8Ω||Bluetooth|
|Marantz SR8012||$2,999||11.2||Dolby V*, DTS V*, Auro-3D||140/8Ω||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|Denon AVR-X8500H||$3,999||13.2||Dolby V*, DTS V*||150/8Ω||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|Denon HEOS AVR||$429||5.1||Dolby V*, DTS HD Master||50/8Ω||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|Onkyo TX-SR383||$280||7.2||Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD||80/8Ω||Bluetooth|
|Yamaha RX-V483||$250||5.1||Dolby True HD, DTS-HD||80/8Ω||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|Onkyo TX-NR585||$400||7.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||80/8Ω||Wi-Fi|
|Krell Foundation||$7,500||7.1||Dolby V*, DTS V*||N/A||None|
*V = Various versions of the surround codec in question - too many to list here, or it would break our table. See manufacturer sites for the full breakdown.
**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!
- What Does An A/V Receiver Do?
- A/V Receiver Channels Explained
- Dolby Atmos vs. DTS:X vs. Auro-3D
- 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
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!
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) optimised 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. You have to pick one or the other. Since only the Voice Of God speaker lives on the ceiling, an Auro-3D setup would leave an Atmos sounding far from its best. 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.
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): 80 W (8 ohms, 0.09% THD). That’s for the Yamaha RX-V483, 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 eighty watts of power with around 0.09% of distortion. And if that was gobbledegook, the only thing you need to pay attention to is the bit that says ‘eighty 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-utilised 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 Denon’s HEOS speakers, you may want to pick up their HEOS AVR, which will slot right in.
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 things: couches, tables, bookshelves, children, the dog, glass windows, pictures on the walls. All of these things affect the sound. Calibrating your room - which your system will do by playing a test tone and then recapturing it through a special microphone before adjusting the sound accordingly - is 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 has this type of thing, but it can work really, really well when you use it.
Each receiver that includes it will usually include very detailed instructions about how to get this done, so it should be a fairly straightforward process - and if you have it, you’d be crazy not to do it. The receiver with the best room calibration on our list is probably the Anthem MRX 1120, which has astounding intelligence. Although at $3,500, it had better!
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-X4400H, our number one pick. At its current price, the inclusion of smart speaker functionality is a nice added bonus.