How To Buy A Receiver
Ultimately, it comes down to price and priorities. $800 will buy a darn good AV receiver with 4K video switching and Dolby Atmos. On the other hand, if music is a higher priority for you than movies with surround sound, that same $800 will buy you a super fine (better than darn good) 2-channel stereo receiver (but no surround sound).
how to buy a receiver
Bottom line: AV receivers were designed and built primarily for TVs as a way to bring an authentic, cinema-like experience to the home. And given AV receivers do more than stereo receivers, you can always use your AV receiver for TV and music. On the flip side, like we said above, a stereo receiver and TV combination does not deliver surround sound on its own.
DTS:X is a new surround sound format designed to make home theater audio more immersive, not unlike Dolby Atmos. (Remember the old Mac vs. PC war? Same thing. DTS:X and Dolby Atmos are fighting for market dominance, but Dolby Atmos remains today the preferred choice.) The good news: most new AV receivers can play both formats.
An AV receiver with 5-11 amps inside needs to dissipate heat, so I recommend leaving 6 inches inches above it for ventilation. The cooler a piece of electronics stays, the longer it lasts. AV receivers are typically deeper than stereo receivers, so I usually recommend allowing 20 inches for depth. If space is tight, there are fan kits that can keep the air circulating to prevent your receiver from overheating.
There are many, but our favorites are: Yamaha, Marantz, Denon, Arcam, NAD, and Sony, to name a few. For specific models, our Top Receivers of 2023 guide slices, dices, and compares the best AV receivers of the year.
Every receiver outputs electrical power, measured in watts. You need these watts to make your speakers work. Very obviously, some AV receivers are more powerful than others, and the more power you have, the more money you will end up paying. But how much power do you need?
Now obviously, there are other reasons why the Marantz costs so much, like high-quality internal components and additional features, but the key takeaway is this: you should choose a receiver that outputs the right power for your room. And that means the least amount of power you can get away with.
The Onkyo TX-NR6100 is the current best AV receiver value. It offers with plenty of HDMI inputs (including 8K and eARC support), plus it can stream audio wirelessly from just about any smartphone or tablet, including Chromecast from Android phones and Nest speakers. The Onkyo features a big, open sound, and plays music really well, to boot.
Almost every AV device sold today uses HDMI, making the number of HDMI inputs on a receiver a very important consideration. There's no one-size-fits-all answer to how many is enough, though. If you love gaming and stremaing you might need six or more, whereas others could get by with three or less. We recommend getting at least one more HDMI input than you currently need. Even if you feel confident that you'll never need more than four devices, you never know when a neat new product will come out -- we're sure plenty of people wished they had an extra port as soon as Sony's PlayStation 5 was announced.
You can always theoretically expand your HDMI connectivity options later with an HDMI switcher, but it's a less elegant solution. (Although a universal remote can help.) Considering the fact that you're likely to hold onto an AV receiver for upward of five years, it's worth investing in a little extra HDMI connectivity.
Just when you thought that it was safe to buy a 4K TV, manufacturers found another four K's seemingly behind the sofa. Some new receivers like the Onkyo above support 8K via HDMI 2.1, and they can be worth considering even if you don't see an 8K TV in your immediate future.
One interesting part of this new breed of receivers is eARC -- the ability to pass Dolby Atmos and other hi-res formats from a TV to your home theater system. If you have a recent, compatible TV you don't need to worry about the number of HDMI ports on your receiver, just use the television as a switcher.
HDMI 2.1 might also be important for gamers who want to take advantage of the latest features available on the Xbox Series X and S and PS5, namely 4K/120Hz and VRR, but they're not a must-have on a new (or second-hand) receiver. If your receiver doesn't have HDMI 2.1 inputs you can connect those consoles directly to a compatible TV, not to the receiver, and use eARC or an optical connection to pass audio to the receiver. Early 8K receivers had an issue known as the 4K/120Hz bug, which meant they couldn't pass VRR content, mainly from the Xbox Series X. However, any new receiver you buy in 2023 should be free of this issue.
If you opt for a older receiver, though, make sure it has at least 4K compatibility, to make the most of 4K streaming and gaming for the latest TVs. This means one that boasts at least HDMI 2.0a and HDCP 2.2 certification.
AV receivers have a history of adding dubious features that aren't all that useful, but built-in support for wireless technologies such as multiroom audio, AirPlay, Chromecast and Bluetooth are very useful. Here's the pitch for wireless connectivity: Load up any app on your smartphone or tablet -- such as Pandora or Spotify -- and you will be able to wirelessly stream music to your AV receiver in seconds. It's the ultimate in instant gratification, especially if your music habits tend to revolve around your mobile device.
While most receivers now connect to the internet over Wi-Fi, it's worth looking to a receiver that's compatible with streaming services. Some receivers have their own proprietary apps -- such as Yamaha's MusicCast or Denon's HEOS -- most are also able to offer direct connection to popular apps such as Spotify and Tidal.
Bluetooth, AirPlay and Chromecast built-in are similar, but have some key differences. Bluetooth works with nearly every smartphone and tablet (including Apple devices) within a range of about 30 feet, but it has somewhat diminished sound quality. AirPlay is designed specifically for Apple devices, with some exceptions, and it offers lossless, CD-audio quality. Unlike Bluetooth it does requires your receiver to be connected to your home network, while the upgraded AirPlay 2 adds multiroom capability. Google's Chromecast built-in is also able to stream to multiple rooms, is compatible with both Android and (increasingly) iOS apps, and offers higher-than-CD hi-res quality (24bit/96kHz).
One other key feature that modern receivers allow is voice control -- being able to ask your Google Assistant or Amazon Echo for a song and having it play through the receiver is one of life's small joys.
While it's possible to add Bluetooth and AirPlay to any AV receiver using an external device, getting it built-in can be more convenient. The Onkyo TX-NR6100, for example, can automatically turn on and flip to the correct input whenever you select an audio app on your smartphone or tablet -- you just can't get that level of convenience using a separate device.
That may seem counterintuitive for a device of which the entire purpose is to enable high-fidelity audio, but the reality is audible differences between typical AV receivers are not as noticeable as the differences between speakers. It's a regularly debated issue for audio enthusiasts, but to many people all AV receivers sound the same in normal circumstances.
That said, most receiver brands are geared towards providing better home theater sound than music -- though there are some exceptions including the sister brands Denon and Marantz. Be aware that some receivers are also tuned specifically for each market: for example, a Sony receiver will sound differently in the US to the way it does in the UK or Australia.
If you already have an AV receiver, think twice before upgrading. While smartphones and laptops get big performance increases every year, you're not going to get the same kind of boost with a new AV receiver -- the one you bought years ago probably sounds just as good.
Depending on the age of your receiver the most recent thing you'll be missing out is support for new formats such as 8K, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. You might then be tempted to upgrade if you have an older AV receiver without HDMI connectivity, as you'll also miss out on the higher bitrate formats Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio. Coaxial and optical digital cables are limited to plain Dolby Digital/DTS but the differences between those formats can be hard to hear even in ideal situations. Many devices have separate digital audio outputs, allowing you to run video to your TV via HDMI and audio to an older receiver with a digital audio cable. That involves more input switching, but you can solve that problem easily with a quality universal remote.
Another option is connecting all your HDMI sources straight to your TV, then using your TV's digital output to connect to your receiver. The downside is that some TVs "dumb down" incoming audio to stereo, but it's a slick workaround if you have a two-channel speaker system.
But most of all, it's worth remembering that AV receivers, much more than other home audio devices, are all pretty similar. Speakers and headphones can look and sound very different, but AV receivers mostly look and sound the same. Personally, I think AV receivers could get a lot better, but they're still your best option if you want high-quality sound.
One of the benefits of getting a 7.1-channel AV receiver (over a 5.1 model) is that the extra two channels can often be used to power a second set of speakers. Most 7.1 AV receivers can even pump different audio sources into different rooms (referred to as "second-zone audio"): one person can watch TV in the living room, while someone else listens to a CD in the bedroom.
It's a neat idea, but it's much more limited than it sounds. Most AV receivers can't send any incoming digital sources (HDMI and digital audio inputs) to the second zone, which is going to include most devices connected to the receiver. You'll also need to run wires from your primary room to the secondary room, which isn't always easy. And finally, remember that you probably won't be able to control the second source with a remote when you're in another room, although AV receivers with smartphone control get around this somewhat. 041b061a72