An audio-video (AV) 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 AV 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 AV receivers. And to complete your speaker setup, see our article on the Best Home Theater Systems.
Table of Contents
- Our AV Receiver Picks
- Best of the Rest
- AV Receiver Comparison Table
- AV Receiver Buying Advice
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 105/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Powerful, muscular sound matched with terrific features.
What We Don't: Remote control feels stuck in the stone age.
If you’re looking for the very best AV receiver on the planet, Denon is the only company you need to know about. In our opinion, they are leagues ahead of their competitors, and the AVR-X3600H proves it. It truly is one of the best receivers we’ve ever tested, impressing us with hard-hitting, muscular sound that really gave our movies an edge. It smokes any other receiver here, even beating out competitors like the $1,499 Marantz SR6014, our pick for surround sound. It does help that the X3600H has a wealth of useful features— not just a full complement of surround sound programs, but also genuinely useful and intuitive tweaks. The X3600H has 9.2 channels of audio, which is more than enough for most people, and it also includes the ability to add an additional two channels if you want to expand later.
The biggest downside you’ll face with the Denon AVR-X3600H is the remote control. It feels stuck in the stone age, and is clunky and an intuitive to use. We also would have liked to see some integration with wireless speakers, like those from Sonos. If that’s a deal breaker for you, then check out the Integra DRX-3.3, below, which is also slightly less expensive at $999. But outside of these minor points, we simply don’t think you’ll find a better AV receiver— not just for this price, but anywhere.
See the Denon AVR-X3600H
Dolby Atmos: No
Wattage Per Channel: 145/6Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Offers a lot for the price, with good sound and features.
What We Don't: Not really suited to floorstanding speakers.
If you are a beginner in the world of home theater and surround sound, the Sony STR-DH590 is the receiver to go for. It gives you all the features you’ll need to get started with a basic surround speaker setup, and draws its wealth of features from its bigger brother, the bestselling STR-DN1080, featured below. You get five speaker channels, allowing you to use speakers at the side or rear, and there’s full 4K passthrough so you can get the very best out of your picture. The sound quality is solid, too. While other receivers like the $279 Denon AVR-S540BT have a little more sonic weight to them, the STR-DH590 delivers great precision and detail.
One of the things to bear in mind with the Sony STR-DH590 is that it doesn’t play well with bigger floorstanding or tower speakers. It simply doesn’t have the finesse or power to drive them effectively, meaning you’ll get subpar sound. If you go for this receiver, we recommend smaller satellite or bookshelf speakers. But really, that’s one of the few downsides. If you’re on a budget, or looking to dip your toe into surround sound, the STR-DH590 is one of the easiest ways to start.
See the Sony STR-DH590
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 90/6Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Easy and affordable wireless functionality via Yamaha’s solid MusicCast software.
What We Don't: Limited HDMI ports, and other receivers have better sound.
In the world of home theater, there are several options for incorporating wireless surround speakers and avoiding pesky speaker wire. Sonos, Denon and Yamaha are the top contenders, but receivers with Sonos functionality are expensive, and Denon’s HEOS tech doesn’t always work well. Yamaha, On the other hand, are both affordable and easy. The RX-V685 receiver incorporates their MusicCast software, which makes it easy to use compatible speakers for surround sound. Wireless home theater can be very expensive or finicky, but fortunately, the RX-V685 is the polar opposite. It also happens to be a solid receiver in its own right, with good sound and full Dolby Atmos / DTS:X functionality.
If the RX-V685 has one major 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. We also argue that other similarly-priced receivers, like the $649 Denon AVR-S960H, offer better sound quality. But ultimately, we’ve picked the Yamaha because it does wireless audio effectively, at a much more affordable price than its competitors.
See the Yamaha RX-V685
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 90/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Great sound quality, and useful features that work really well with music.
What We Don't: Lacks a few key features that we would have liked to see at this price.
Using an AV receiver for music in addition to home theatre can really simplify your life, as it enables you to use a single box for everything. But if you want to do this, you need a receiver that treats music just as well as it treats movies, and in all our testing, the Denon AVR-S960H did the best job here. In our opinion, it ticks both the boxes we look at the great musical playback. The first is solid sound quality, which feels like it really lifts the detail out of the music. The second is a range of features geared towards enjoying music, like a phono input for your turntable, and wireless music streaming from services like Spotify. Other receivers, like the top-ranked Denon AVR-X3600H, offer these too. But they are even more expensive, or do not sound quite as good.
It does help that the Denon AVR-S960H performs well for movies, although it is missing a few key features we would have liked to see. There’s no ChromeCast, which limits what you can stream from your mobile device. There is no room correction software, and you can’t upgrade beyond 7.2 channels. However, if you want a single box solution for both your music and visual needs, then the Denon AVR-S960H is the way forward.
See the Denon AVR-S960H
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 110/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: A terrific update that improves the sound quality, boasts plenty of clever features.
What We Don't: Does best in larger rooms, won’t perform as well in smaller spaces.
All of the receivers on our list can do surround sound. But doing it well is a different story, and doing Dolby Atmos (in our opinion, the best you can get right now) well is even more challenging. That’s why we think the Marantz SR6014 is the best option if you demand the ultimate in surround sound. It’s not just that it gives you all the features you need, including a range of codecs; that’s a given. It’s that present sound quality that really emphasises the individual channels, and lifts out the detail, punch, and clarity. While we think the $1,099 Denon AVR-X3600H offers better overall value and features, it just can’t compete with the SR6014 in terms of raw audio quality.
However, to really get the best out of Marantz SR6014’s sound, you’ll require a large room that measures over 400 square feet, which might not be possible for some. That isn’t to say that the SR6014 will perform poorly in smaller rooms, but you’ll lose some of the subtle nuances in the sound. We also think this model is quite expensive – you do get a significant range of features, along with that superb sound quality, but the price may turn some people off. Regardless, we think this is significantly better than just about every other receiver on this list, including the previous titleholder for this category, the Denon AVR-X4500H.
See the Marantz SR6014
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 110/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Finally someone redesigns the AV receiver.
What We Don’t: The high price makes it inaccessible for most.
One thing you may have noticed with our list, even if you’re only moderately alert, is that virtually all the receivers look the same. Same design, same control schemes, identikit names. Don’t blame us; blame the industry. Which is why the NAD T 778 is such a breath of fresh air. It’s the first receiver we’ve seen that actually looks cool, incorporating NAD’s excellent touchscreen technology and a vivid, bright display. This brand-new receiver sounds stupendous, with a stunning range of features, and is a highly competitive alternative to the likes of the Arcam AVR20. Of all the four-figure monsters here, the NAD T 778 is the most interesting and exciting.
The high price may make people pause, however. The T 778 is one of the most expensive receivers on this list, and given the touchscreen tech and the stunning range of features, that’s hardly surprising. However, it’s out of reach for most people, which makes it hard to recommend that everybody buy it. There are also some puzzling omissions, like the lack of DTS:X – all you get is DTS Master Audio.
See the NAD T 778
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 90/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Clean Sonos integration makes wireless speaker audio a breeze.
What We Don't: We think it’s overpriced right now.
Sonos speakers a hugely popular, and with good reason: when it comes to wireless audio, they are among the easiest and best sounding options available. Their products are slowly becoming more and more integrated with AV receivers, and we think the Integra DRX-3.3 does the best job here. It easily allows you to link existing Sonos speakers to it, as well as play any audio through the Sonos Connect app. If you own speakers from the company, and you want to integrate them into a compelling home theater setup, then the DRX-3.3 is the best way to do it in our opinion.
The problem is, Sonos integration aside, the Integra DRX-3.3 doesn’t do anything particularly special. Other less expensive receivers, like the $649 Denon AVR-S960H, arguably offer better sound quality. And since we are talking about price, it must be said that the DRX-3.3 is quite expensive for what you get. It’s a great option for Sonos integration, but it definitely has its downsides.
See the Integra DRX-3.3
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 Yamaha RX-V685. 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-S750H, 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: 90/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Significant price drop makes this incremental update worthwhile.
What We Don't: Lacks some features, and has an outdated interface.
Previously, we would have advised against the Denon AVR-S750H. It was an incremental update on the 740H, and cost about $200 more. But the price dropped recently to a much more affordable $499, so we think we can recommend it over its older brother. It’s an excellent receiver, with a huge range of features and warm, engaging sound quality. You can add wireless speakers via Denon’s HEOS functionality (although the less-expensive Yamaha RX-V685 is a better option for this) and there are clever features like Apple AirPlay 2 and smart assistants included.
However, it is features where the Denon AVR-S750H struggles. As good a receiver as it is, it’s a real puzzle that it doesn’t have Google ChromeCast, which most other receivers above it in this list have. We also have to give it a black mark for the on-screen interface, which is hugely clunky and outdated. While these issues mean that the Denon AVR-S750H is the second choice, it’s still a very good one overall.
See the Denon AVR-S750H
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 140/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Incredible sound and power at a surprisingly affordable price point.
What We Don't: Only worth the cost if you plan to use advanced music features.
We previously featured the Anthem MRX1120 at this spot on the list, but we’ve found an alternative that does what the MRX1120 does, for about $500 less. The Pioneer SC-LX904 may have a higher price than some are willing to spend, but it delivers absolutely epic sound. It has a huge amount of power at 140 watts, and the included surround sound software makes it a perfect choice for big rooms. It’s not quite as good as the Denon AVR-X8500H, but it’s also about $1,000 cheaper. That makes it a superb second banana.
However, there’s no escaping the fact that the majority of the cost goes towards the advanced music features of this model. If you enjoy playing music through your receiver, the Pioneer SC-LX904 has you covered. This model includes features like multiroom audio, Sonos compatibility, and even compatibility with high-end music software like Roon. These options are great to have, but if all you’re doing is buying a receiver for your home theater setup, you’ll be wasting your money here. Regardless, the SC-LX904 does exactly what it’s supposed to, at a very good price.
See the Pioneer SC-LX904
Dolby Atmos: No
Wattage Per Channel: 70/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Good sound quality, room for two subwoofers.
What We Don't: Outdated design features, like spring clips for speaker wire.
We are always very careful about recommending receivers under $300, as they can be hit and miss. The Denon AVR-S540BT, fortunately, is the former. It may be parsimonious with features, especially when compared to models like the $278 Sony STR-DH590, our top budget pick. But it makes up for it with solid sound quality that has real punch and pizzazz. We also like the fact that it’s a 5.2 system, meaning it can handle twin subwoofers—a rarity at this price point. If you’re a bass head, the AVR-S540BT could be a great option.
The most glaring downsides, in our opinion, are the dated design and the lack of features. The Denon AVR-S540BT may offer good sound, but it uses spring clips for speaker wire attachment, as opposed to the more common and much friendlier binding posts. That makes it fiddly and irritating to setup. And compared to other budget receivers, here, the AVR-S540BT loses out big time. It offers only Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master surround sound, which are very limited options. We like it for pure sound quality, but it’s far from the best receiver here.
See the Denon AVR-S540BT
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 some of the pricier models 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.
The problem is that the sound quality isn't nearly as meaty as the Denon AVR-S-750H, which actually costs much less 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 going 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 choice.
See the Onkyo TX-NR686
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 the more expensive AVR-X3600H – 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: 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.
The Denon AVR-X4700H is is a punchy, powerful 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 Arcam 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-X4700H 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.
See the Denon AVR-X4700H
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 AVR20, 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 AVR-X3600H. 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
Dolby Atmos: Yes
Wattage Per Channel: 110/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Unbelievable sound quality and power.
What We Don’t: Staggering price tag, no Auro-3D.
If you want excellence, and are prepared to pay for it, then you should go talk to the folks at Arcam. They make some incredible sounding and incredibly expensive receivers, of which the AVR20 is the latest. It’s stupendous; not just in terms of sound quality, but in its unrivaled dedication to larger surround sound setups. If you have a huge listening room, and a great set of speakers, then perhaps you can take advantage of the AVR20’s nine channels, along with its six height channels. Were it not for the enormous price, which puts it out of reach for most people, we think the AVR20 would be in the top spot.
It offers significantly better sound than the top-ranked NAD T 778, although sound isn’t everything.There’s at least one puzzling omission here, which is Auro-3D. For a $4,000 receiver with six height channels, you’d think the AVR20 would have the capacity to deal with this particular surround sound codec. While this may only be a problem for a minority of listeners, the huge price tag affects everybody looking for receivers, and makes this one unimaginable for the majority. But as a high-end pick, there’s none better than the Arcam AVR20.
See the Arcam AVR20
Dolby Atmos: No
Wattage Per Channel: 50/8Ω, Two-Channels Driven
What We Like: Compact design, and it supports high-resolution audio.
What We Don't: Very overpriced for what you get, and it’s very underpowered.
AV receiver design is very static and boring, with a few exceptions. The Marantz NR1510 is one of those, offering a simple, compact interface that is simple and effective. While it doesn’t differ all that much from other receivers, in terms of feature set and sound quality, it does offer a sleek control setup, and is easy on the eyes. If you find yourself frustrated by the big-black-box approach of other receivers, the pint-sized NR1510 may be the way to go.
However, in our opinion the Marantz NR1510 has some serious issues that stop it being a top pick. It’s not only underpowered at 50 watts, and has very few surround sound codecs (just Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master) but it is also way too expensive right now. For less than half the price, you can have the Sony STR-DH590, which is not only more powerful but has more surround sound options. Heads up: Marantz recently announced NR1711, an 8K receiver based on this design. We have yet to test it, but it may be a better value proposition. It’ll cost around $799.
See the Marantz NR1510
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 Sony STR-DN1080, 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 AV Receivers Coming Soon
Yamaha are due to release a new line of Aventage receivers this year, called the RX Series. The receivers start with the seven-channel RX-A2, and go all the way up to the 11-channel RX-A8. All the new Aventage receivers will support HDMI 2.1, which means you’ll get an even better picture, including 8K video. This is a very uncommon feature right now – none of the receivers on our list have it yet – and we fully expect at least one of the Yamahas to crash its way onto this list very shortly. If great picture is important to you, and you’re in the market for a receiver, it may be worth waiting until these are out. We don’t have any details on price or release date, we will bring full impressions as soon as we can.
As Dolby Atmos and DTS:X are the dominant surround sound software programs available, that's what we've focused on when comparing AV 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.
|NAD T 778||$2,999||9.2||Yes||No||110/8Ω||Blue./Wi-Fi|
|Yamaha RX-A880 Aventage||$900||7.2||Yes||Yes||100/8Ω||Blue./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 AV Receiver Do?
- AV Receiver Channels Explained
- Common Surround Sound Software
- Room Size
- Wattage Explained
- HDMI Explained
- 4K Explained
- Bluetooth vs. Wi-Fi
- AV Receivers and Sonos
- Connecting Your AV Receiver
- Room Calibration Explained
- AV Receiver Placement Explained
- Smart Receivers: Amazon Alexa and Google Home
Got multiple speakers? Planning on a surround system? Then you need an AV 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-S750H, 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 AV 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 AV receiver as a phone, and a surround sound codec as an app on that phone.
There are many, many surround sound codecs. 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 - we'll tackle six of the most common ones. 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 Atmos and DTS:X are.
Dolby Atmos is, as far as we are concerned, the best surround sound available. 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: AV receiver, amplification, and speakers. If you’re upgrading an already existing home surround system, you would need a Dolby Atmos-compatible AV 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. If you're looking for a good pair of up-firing Atmos speakers, we recommend the Klipsch RP-500SA (full review here).
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).
DTS:X 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.
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 Denon AVR-X8500H which will allow you to upgrade to Auro-3D functionality via a firmware update.
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.
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 as common, but it's definitely useful in certain circumstances. You'll find it in plenty of receivers, including the $600 Yamaha RX-V685.
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.
|Denon AVR-X3600H||$1,099||9.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby Surround, Dolby True HD, DTS:X, DTS HD Master, DTS Neural:X, DTS Virtual:X|
|Sony STR-DH590||$278||5.1||Dolby Digital, Dolby Dual Mono, DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS-HD High Resolution Audio, DTS, DTS 96 / 24|
|Yamaha RX-V685||$600||7.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Surround, DTS:X, DTS-HD Master Audio|
|Denon AVR-S960H||$649||7.2||Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Atmos, Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization, Dolby Surround, DTS:X, DTS Virtual X, DTS HD Master, DTS Neural:X|
|Marantz SR6014||$1,499||9.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby Surround, Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization, DTS:X, DTS HD Master, DTS Neural:X, DTS Virtual:X|
|NAD T 778||$2,999||9.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS Master Audio|
|Integra DRX-3.3||$999||9.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby Surround, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization, DTS:X, DTS Neural:X, DTS True-HD|
|Sony STR-DN1080||$598||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-S750H||$499||7.2||Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Atmos, Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization, Dolby Surround, DTS HD Master, DTS:X, DTS Neural:X, DTS Virtual:X|
|Pioneer SC-LX904||$2,999||11.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby Surround, Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization,Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS:X, DTS Neural:X, DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS-HD High Resolution Audio, DTS 96/24, DTS-ES, DTS Express|
|Denon AVR-S540BT||$279||5.2||Dolby TrueHD, DTS HD Master|
|Onkyo TX-NR686||$700||7.2||DTS:X, DTS Neural:X, Dolby Atmos|
|Yamaha RX-A880 Aventage||$900||7.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Surround, DTS:X, DTS-HD Master Audio|
|Denon AVR-X4700H||$1,699||9.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Surround, DTS HD Master, DTS:X, DTS Neural:X, DTS Neo:X, Auro-3D|
|Denon AVR-X8500H||$3,999||13.2||Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Surround, DTS HD Master, DTS:X, DTS Neural:X, Auro-3D|
|Arcam AVR20||$4,000||9.1.6||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X|
|Marantz NR1510||$599||5.2||Dolby TrueHD, DTS HD Master|
|Pioneer VSX-934||$479||7.2||Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS Virtual:X, DTS Neural:X, DTS-HD Master Audio|
One of the most common questions we get via email is what we mean when we refer to big, medium, and small rooms. We’ll admit: in the past, we haven’t always been clear about what this means. Part of this is because it’s actually quite hard to define – after all, how long is a piece of string? And despite having standards for just about every aspect of a piece of equipment imaginable, the home theater industry has yet to quantify room size. Given how important it is to take into account the size of your room when choosing an AV receiver, that’s probably not a good thing. So let’s settle this once and for all. Bear in mind that this is our take on it, and should be used more as a guideline than anything else.
A small home theater room should be considered anything with floorspace up to 130 square feet, whereas a medium room is up to 250 square feet, and a large room is anything above 250 square feet. We got those figures by chatting to our contacts at home theater companies. While none of them had a definitive answer, it was easy to get an average from their responses. You’ll notice that we’ve gone for square feet and floorspace, rather than cubic feet and total room volume. While the volume of your room does have an impact on the sound, we think that, as long as your ceilings are at least eight feet high, you’ll be fine. You don’t want to go above 12 feet, generally speaking. It’s also worth noting that a home theater room should, ideally, be rectangular with the system projecting out from one of the short ends. We appreciate this isn’t always achievable, especially if you live in a small apartment, but ultimately, you’ve got to work with what you have.
You could argue that our approach is unscientific, but we believe these guidelines will hold true for the majority of people. For example, it’s pretty clear that our the $1,499 Marantz SR6014 will be best suited for rooms above 250 square feet, thanks to its large power output. Any space smaller than that simply won’t get the best from your receiver. And given that the SR6014 costs $1,499 at the time of writing, you really want to get the best out of it.
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): 105 W (8 ohms, 0.08% THD). That’s for the Denon AVR-X3600H, 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 receiver unit, both analog and digital, and we could spend quite a while going into great detail of which ones you’ll need. By far the most important ones are the HDMI inputs. You'll want at least a few of these, as it's 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, this detail could be super important. But do you actually need all 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 cash. But on the other hand, these pieces of tech last for quite a while, and you will probably own yours for years. Over those years, you’ll certainly collect new electronics, new gizmos, new devices...all of which will need a discrete HDMI port. Really, what you're going for here is a balance: the number of ports you'll use now, plus one or two reserved for the future.
It’s an exciting time for HDMI at the moment - as much as you can ascribe excitement to a cable connection. HDMI 2.1 is slowly coming into operation. This is a very good thing, as it allows the transmission of ultra high quality video, including resolutions up to 10K. It’s especially important if you’re a gamer, as HDMI 2.1 is capable of transmitting 120 frames per second, meaning you get silky smooth graphics. The best part is that the physical connectors are exactly the same – all that’s changed is the internals on the cable. At the moment, there are very few receivers and sources that actually transmit HDMI 2.1 signals, which means it will be a while before the upgrade makes a real impression. However, there’s no question that it’s the direction we’re headed in. Manufacturers like Yamaha are throwing everything they have into releasing HDMI 2.1 receivers.
4K, if you don't already know, is a standard of content with ridiculous visual fidelity and color sharpness. It sounds tricky, but all this number describes 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-S750H, 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.
Even though there are plenty of 4K-ready TVs - so many bits of AV gear exist these days that you might fool yourself into thinking it's something you need to have - the truth is that 4K is not yet a necessity. The main issue is that not enough content is produced in 4K yet, meaning most of what you'll see has been 'upscaled’ and 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 less, you're getting it anyway.
You’ll notice that we discuss only 4K here and not 8K. 8K content is, as you can imagine, significantly more visually detailed than 4K, at 8,192 x 4,320 pixels. But while manufacturers might be trumpeting it as the next big thing, the reality is that it has yet to make serious inroads into the world of home theater. There is almost no 8K content available yet, and until the widespread implementation of things like HDMI 2.1, that’s unlikely to change. For now, you shouldn’t buy a receiver based on whether or not it can handle 8K content, as you’re unlikely to find many movies or series you can watch at that resolution.
Something new to many AV 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 use any Sonos wireless speakers, you already are aware of just how simple they are to setup and use. For the most part, Sonos has kept this technology to themselves, which meant that those with traditional home theater systems have had to rely on inferior connectivity software. Fortunately, that’s changing. Sonos recently unveiled a collaboration with Onkyo and Pioneer that will allow their outstanding tech to work with certain AV receivers.
What does that mean in practice? You’ll be able to control receiver volume by using the brilliant Sonos app, and you can also attach up to three Sonos Port devices to your receiver. That means you can stream any receiver audio directly to other Sonos speakers and subwoofers, which essentially allows you to build a full home theater system that incorporates wireless Sonos audio.
That’s a massive leap forward, and it could make designing a surround sound setup much easier. Right now, however, only a few receiver models have this functionality, although you can expect many more to include it in the coming months. Of the models that use Sonos, we think the $999 Integra DRX-3.3 is the best one currently available, so check that out if you’d like to experience the simplicity of the Sonos ecosystem.
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 Denon AVR-X8500H, which has astounding intelligence.
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 AV receiver in a crowded TV cabinet. Do not do this. AV 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.