The receiver is the heart of a contemporary home-theater system and helps re-create the theater experience inside your home. But today's receivers do much more than unlock the multichannel sound encoded in movie soundtracks and on HDTV broadcasts.
A receiver serves as the hub of your entertainment system, connecting video sources such as a TV, digital-video recorder, DVD player, VCR, and cable or satellite box, and also audio components such as speakers, a CD player, cassette deck, and turntable. Many receivers can route high-definition video signals.
Receivers started out as audio equipment, providing AM and FM radio tuners, stereo sound, and switching capabilities. But as they have taken on a pivotal role in home entertainment, they've lost some audio-related features that were common in the past, such as tape monitors and phono inputs. Manufacturers say they must eliminate those less-used features to make room for others. Even so, a stand-alone receiver generally provides more functionality than one bundled with speakers as a home-theater-in-a-box system.
Sony is by far the biggest-selling brand of receivers. Other top sellers include Denon, Harman Kardon, Onkyo, Pioneer, and Yamaha.
Most receivers sold today are capable of handling the multichannel audio in Blu-ray discs, DVDs and some TV programming, but stereo receivers are still available. Here's how they differ:
Basic receivers accept analog stereo signals and provide two channels of amplification for a pair of speakers. For a simple music setup, you can add a DVD or CD player to play CDs. A basic home-theater setup consists of a TV and DVD player, a receiver, and a pair of speakers. This setup gives you the most noticeable improvement in TV audio. Stereo receivers typically output 50 to 100 watts per channel. Price: $125 to more than $250. Models geared toward audiophiles can cost thousands of dollars.
Most of the action today is in the multichannel category. This is the type of receiver needed for a full-featured home-entertainment system. Most new receivers have 6.1 or 7.1 channels; some have 5.1.
Here's what that means: Dolby Digital 5.1, the longtime standard for multichannel audio, has five full channels—front left and right, front center, and two rear—plus a .1 low-frequency bass-effects channel, which is typically sent to a separate, powered subwoofer.
Dolby Digital is used on DVDs and digital TV programming. A rival format, DTS, also offers 5.1 channels. DTS is used on some DVD movies and often on recordings of studio and live performances. Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES are newer formats that add one or two rear channels to the 5.1 setup, for a total of 6.1 or 7.1 channels. Some receivers, such as models from Denon and Onkyo, include a new Dolby format, Dolby Pro Logic IIz, which adds "height" speakers above the front left and right pair to add depth and dimension to 5.1- and 7.1-channel soundtracks.
Any receiver with 6.1 or 7.1 channels can also support 5.1 as well as audio formats with fewer channels. Most new receivers also have some type of digital sound processing that synthesizes multichannel audio from two-channel source material. To take advantage of true surround-sound capability, you need the appropriate number of speakers in a setup capable of reproducing full-spectrum sound.
Some receivers support Dolby Headphone decoding, which provides a surround-sound experience with standard headphones.
In addition to Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1, the soundtracks on Blu-ray discs contain one or more high-resolution audio formats, such as Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD High Resolution (both compressed "lossy" formats), Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD Master audio (compressed "lossless" formats), and uncompressed PCM.
Power output for multichannel receivers is typically 75 to 150 watts per channel. Price: $200 to $500 or more.
Some high-priced multichannel receivers have been certified to meet THX standards, which means they can replicate theaterlike sound in a home environment. The higher cost of those receivers generally isn't worth it unless you want especially high-fidelity movie sound from your home theater. Power for THX models is typically 100 to 170 watts per channel. Price: $500 to $2,500 and up.