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ELECTRONICS FORUMS
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April 2008
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Receivers
A/V receivers are the hub of home-entertainment systems

The receiver is the heart of a contemporary home-theater system. Nothing recreates the theater experience inside your home better than a multichannel receiver. But today's receivers do much more than unlock the multichannel sound encoded in movie soundtracks and on high-definition TV broadcasts.

A receiver serves as the hub of your entertainment system, connecting video sources such as a TV, DVR, DVD player, VCR, and cable or satellite box, and also audio components such as speakers, a CD player, cassette deck, and turntable. Many receivers have HD-capable connections, so they can pass along high-def 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.


WHAT'S AVAILABLE

Sony is by far the biggest-selling brand of receivers. Other top sellers include Denon, Harman Kardon, JVC, Onkyo, Pioneer, and Yamaha.

Most receivers sold today are capable of handling the multichannel audio in DVDs and some TV programming, but stereo receivers are still available. Here's how they differ:

Stereo. 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.

Multichannel. 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-EX 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.

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 many new Blu-ray discs now contain one or more higher-resolution audio formats, such as Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD High Resolution (both compressed "lossy" formats), True HD and DTS-HD Master audio (compressed "lossless" formats), and uncompressed PCM. To enjoy these more detailed high-resolution audio soundtracks, look for a receiver with either 7.1-channel analog audio inputs, or a built-in decoder and HDMI connection that supports these new formats.

Power output for multichannel receivers is typically 75 to 150 watts per channel. Price: $200 to $500 or more.

THX-certified. Some high-priced multichannel receivers have been certified to meet THX standards. That indicates that 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.


HOW TO CHOOSE

First, don't assume that pricey brands outperform less-costly ones. We've found fine performers at all prices. Points to consider:

How many channels do you want? A receiver with 5.1 channels is suitable for most entertainment today. Down the road, content with 6.1 or 7.1 channels will be more common. A receiver that can support the additional channels will give you some future-proofing but will probably cost more than a 5.1 model. Remember that you need the appropriate speaker setup to get the full effect of 6.1 or 7.1 channels. If you're primarily interested in playing music or making the simplest upgrade to your TV sound, a stereo receiver (hooked up to two speakers) might be all you need.

How many devices do you want to connect? Even basic multichannel receivers generally have enough A/V inputs for a CD or DVD player, a VCR, and a cable box or satellite receiver. Mid- and high-priced models usually have more inputs, so you can connect additional devices, such as a camcorder or a digital-video recorder such as TiVo, or a game system.

The number of connections isn't the only issue; the type also matters. Composite-video inputs, the most basic type, can be used with everything from an older VCR to a new DVD player. S-video and component-video inputs are used mostly by devices that provide better picture quality, such as DVD players, digital-cable boxes, and satellite receivers. To get high-definition TV programming or enhanced-definition output from a progressive-scan DVD player, you must use a component-video input or an HDMI input. If you have or plan to buy an HDTV and a high-definition DVD player, look for an HDMI input, which is necessary to carry the highest-resolution video.

On a receiver, all video inputs except HDMI require a companion audio input. The basic left/right audio inputs can be used with almost any device to provide stereo sound. To connect a turntable without the need for a separate phonograph amplifier, you need a phono input.

To route multichannel sound from DVD players, digital-cable boxes, and satellite receivers, you generally use a digital-audio input. With this input, digitally encoded multichannel sound is relayed on one cable to the receiver, which decodes it into separate channels. The input on the receiver must be the same type—optical (the more common type), coaxial, or HDMI—as the output on the other device, or you will need a converter. You usually have to buy digital-audio, S-video, and component-video cables, as well as speaker cables. Cable prices vary greatly. We've found that expensive brands don't offer much advantage over lower-priced cables.

What kind of music do you like? Any receiver can reproduce stereo sound. Most multichannel models have digital-signal processing (DSP) modes that process two channels to simulate a sound environment, such as a concert hall. For multichannel music from SACD or DVD-Audio disc player, get a receiver with 5.1 analog inputs.

How big is your room? Make sure a receiver has the oomph to provide adequate volume: at least 50 watts per channel in a typical 12x20-foot living room, or 85 watts for a 15x25-foot space. More power is needed for a huge room, plush furnishings, inefficient loudspeakers, or high volume levels.

Is the receiver compatible with your speakers? If you like to blast music for hours on end, get a receiver rated to handle your speakers' impedance. Most receivers are rated for 6-ohm and 8-ohm speakers. If used with 4-ohm speakers, such a receiver could overheat and its protection circuitry would shut it down.

Is it easy to use? Look for legible displays and well-labeled function buttons. Some receivers add an onscreen menu, which displays settings on your TV screen. An auto-calibration feature adjusts speaker sound levels and balance to improve the surround effect. Models with a test-tone function help you balance the sound yourself. When deciding where to place your receiver, allow 4 inches or so of space behind it for cables and at least 2 inches on top for venting to prevent overheating.

And if setting up a home theater is a bigger project than you want to tackle, consider professional installation.