One of the major choices you are going to have to make when beginning or upgrading your home theatre is which receiver will help make it all come together. Some people refer to these as AV receivers, or audio video receiver, others prefer HT, or home theatre receivers. Trust that no matter how you refer to them, they are one and the same.
With the sheer number of options and technical specifications, the process of purchasing a new AV receiver can be an overwhelming prospect. In practice, it is simply a matter of determining your needs and eliminating the units that do not meet them. This step-by-step approach will allow you to confidently move forward and find the receiver that will make your home theatre come alive for years to come.
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What is a receiver?
Receivers are literally the brain of a home theatre system. They connect all of the components of your home theatre, seamlessly integrate them, and simplify the process to enjoy music or movies at home. Gone are the days when you would require separate amplifiers and tuners for your stereo equipment, although there are still manufacturers that offer separate components if you are committed to that route. If you are looking for an easy, one-stop approach to home theatre, an AV receiver is your solution. That’s the simplified version. Read on for a little more detail.
In the early days of home audio, prior to the inception of a receiver in 1954 by Harman Kardon, home stereo enthusiasts had to use individual components to listen to their turntables or the radio, and they needed a source, like a radio tuner for AM or FM broadcasts. The tuner needed to be connected to a pre-amplifier, which boosted the tiny signal generated by the tuner, to a signal level which a power amplifier could work with, and then send a more powerful signal to the system’s speakers. In some cases, both the pre-amplifier and power amplifier are joined into a single chassis, to form an integrated amplifier.
A receiver, then, combines three components into one device. These components are: a radio tuner (for AM/FM/SW reception or even internet radio, using ethernet or WiFi), a pre-amplifier (being the most important part of the amplification process and to which all sources are connected to allow for tone and volume control adjustments, including the ability to switch sources), and the power amplifier, to which the speakers are connected.
How does it work?
If you mentally separate your home theatre components into two categories, input devices (Blu-ray Player, PVR, Apple TV etc.) and output devices (TV, speakers) the AV Receiver is what creates the home theatre experience, taking the video signals and sending them to your TV or projector, while simultaneously amplifying the audio through the speakers.
The advent of HDMI has made connecting all devices easy and efficient; a single cable can now transfer digital high definition (or better) video and multi-channel audio, and the receiver decodes it all and sends it where it needs to go. A decade ago you would need a separate audio and video cables to connect a single device. Not only has the quality of the home theatre experience increased over time, it has never been so accessible.
Technological advances in both audio and video have substantially increased the options available to you. Filtering through the reams of technical specifications can be a daunting experience, so having an understanding of these options and how they impact what you can and can’t do will make this purchase the enjoyable journey it should be.
In the simplest form, it is a process of elimination that will culminate in reducing your options to minor differences within one or more manufacturers, at which point you can determine the best fit for you based on budget, individual preferences, and product performance. Let’s first consider your audio requirements, and then we will move on to the video requirements.
What are my audio requirements?
Determining the audio requirements of your home theatre receiver is a process that begins by answering a few simple questions.
Do I want stereo or surround sound?
The first question you should be asking yourself is whether you are going to be setting up a surround sound system with multiple speakers around the room or if you will be using only two speakers to listen to the audio playback of your music and movies. Music is still recorded in stereo, meaning there are only two channels, a left and right, whereas movies are now released with upwards of 11 separate channels of unique audio to create a surround sound experience.
If your answer is stereo, you have greatly simplified the purchasing experience and need only look at stereo receivers. If you believe you will at some point make the leap into surround sound, you may want to consider a surround receiver now to keep that option open down the line.
If your answer is surround sound, there are many options, and to narrow your search we come to the next key decision point.
How many channels do I need?
This can also be represented as how many speakers will be used in your setup. Every AV receiver is advertised using a series of numbers, such as 5.1 or 7.1. Understanding what these numbers mean will be essential to narrowing your search.
The first number refers to the number of channels available to the listener. The foundation for every surround system is the front three channels: the left, center, and right speakers. A 5-channel setup will add two rear surround channels, and a 7-channel system will take it a step further and add two side surround channels.
The second number refers to the number of subwoofers the receiver is designed to handle. Having one sub will be enough to please the strong majority of home theatre enthusiasts. There are a couple of applications where adding a second sub may be necessary, but it is usually a product of personal choice. Determining the size and number of subs you will require for your home theatre is a product of the size of the room and the size of the sub. The more cubic footage in a room, the larger the subwoofer(s) you will require to fill the space with low end punch.
A major advance in surround technology has incorporated a completely new field of sound coming from above the listener, resulting in a more immersive audio experience. This was created by the brilliant sound engineers at Dolby, and is called Atmos.
You’ll note that some receivers are Atmos enabled, and these units will allow you to incorporate the height field into your home theatre by adding pairs of either ceiling speakers or special Atmos modules to your existing ground supported speakers. It is important to remember that each pair of Atmos speakers will require two of your surround channels be dedicated to them. So your 7.1 Atmos receiver will essentially give you a 5.1 surround system with 2 Atmos channels. If you want a 7.1 surround system with 2 Atmos channels, you will require a 9.1 receiver, and so on.
Once you have decided which how many channels of audio and how many subs you are going to utilize in your home theatre, narrowing your search becomes much easier. You now only need to consider receivers that will, at a minimum, drive the number of speakers you have decided you want in your home theatre. It’s as simple glancing at those two numbers every receiver will boast and determining if they make the cut.
Do I want speakers on the deck or in a second room?
Many AV receivers offer a feature that allows you to setup a second zone, enabling you to drive a second pair of stereo speakers in another room. If you are planning to take advantage of this flexibility, there are some important considerations you will want to factor into your decision.
First of all, not all receivers are created equal; therefore this feature may mean different things on different units. Older receivers will have a feature noted as “Room A/B,” which allows you to switch between rooms, however, it doesn’t mean you can listen to different sources in each room. If you want to listen to music on the deck while your kids are watching a movie you will need to find a receiver that has “Multizone” functionality.
Typically, this will allow you to send separate audio signals to different zones and control the volume independently. There are some variations on how a receiver will allow this to happen. Some will only send a stereo signal to your second zone, meaning you would have to connect RCA cables from your source device even if it is already connected via HDMI. Others will strip the audio from an HDMI connection, and direct it anywhere you choose, others still will allow for wireless audio to be streamed and output in multiple zones.
You need to be aware that utilizing the multizone feature from a single receiver requires two of your available surround channels, so you need to account for this when determining the total number of channels your receiver powers in order to fulfill your home theatre dreams and drive a second room. To get around this, some receivers have multizone “pre-outs” which are not amplified. This means you would either need to have powered speakers or a second amplifier to use this feature.
If having Multizone functionality is a feature that you are planning to utilize, it is critical to understand the capabilities, and limitations, of the receivers on your shortlist and ensure they meet your expectations.
What does Wattage mean?
There is plenty of misinformation out there about Watts and from experience, it is one of the least understood terms in the audio universe. I will do my best to not further muddy the waters.
If you wish to delve into the physics of audio and get an intimate understanding of the relationships between wattage, amperage, and ohms there is plenty of information on the Internet that would illustrate them in mathematical equations and scientific terms. Attempting to sum that up here would only serve to confuse, so for the purpose of this piece I will simply flag a couple of important points around wattage that should satisfy the strong majority of home theatre scenarios.
First off, there is not a direct correlation between wattage and volume, so let’s divorce ourselves of this idea now. Wattage is simply a measurement of the “power” that the amplifiers inside your receiver can deliver to your speakers, and a measurement of the “power” your speaker is able to receive. While it may be an easy conclusion to draw that more power usually means more volume, factors such as the sensitivity and the resistance level (Ohms) of your speakers will contribute far more. For the remainder of this guide, all references to speakers will assume an 8 Ohm resistance, which is what the vast majority of consumer-grade speakers are built to.
Can I have too much power?
Remember the opening scene of Back To The Future, when Marty McFly connects a guitar to a giant woofer, turns every dial on the amps to max, and as soon as he touches the strings it explodes while throwing him clear across the room? That was perhaps the only part of this movie actually based in fact! When you over-drive a speaker, you are going to damage it.
Using amplifiers that output more than your speakers are designed to handle can be problematic and may cause damage. So if you already have speakers at home that you are buying for, you need to understand the wattage they are rated to ensure you don’t accidentally overpower them.
Is there such a thing as not enough power?
Yes, there is. While some very nice receivers or amplifiers may output as little as 25 watts per channel, there are some limitations you need to be aware of, particularly if you are attempting to push the amp to its upper limits to increase the volume. At louder volumes, or during a peak output moment (explosion in a movie) a low wattage amplifier may clip, which then sends an electrical pulse to the speaker and can damage it.
How to match speakers to amplifiers
The easiest way to ensure you have a good match that will minimize your ability to inadvertently damage your speakers is to find the RMS (root means square) power rating of the speakers and ensure that your amplifier is able to deliver that wattage. Ideally, you want headroom on your amplifier because RMS represents the average, or continuous, power level required to maximize the speakers potential and does not represent peak levels.
A good rule of thumb is to have RMS amplification that can output 50% more than the RMS rating of your speaker.
Example: You have speakers that are RMS rated at 75 watts.
75 x 1.5 = 112.5. An amp that outputs 110-120 RMS watts is ideal for this speaker.
The speaker will also have an amplification range, but keep in mind the closer you get to the outer edges of that range, the easier it will be to damage the speaker.
How loud will it be?
Understanding the relationship between speaker sensitivity and required amplification is important, and why watts do not equal volume, but the capacity for volume. Loudness is represented in decibels (dB) and measured using a sound pressure level meter (SPL). All speakers have a sensitivity rating, calculated by placing an SPL metre 1-metre away from the speaker and sending a test tone called pink noise with 1 Watt of power.
In the specs of a speaker, you will see this represented as: Sensitivity: 90 dB @ 1W/1m.
Without getting into the science, the higher this number, the more efficient the speaker, the less amplification is required to achieve high volumes. The lower this number, you will need exponentially more amplification to achieve higher volumes. A highly efficient speaker can achieve the same decibel with a fraction of the wattage of an inefficient speaker.
Listening distance and room size will also impact the perceived volume, or loudness, of your speakers. If you are in a small room, you will require less amplification, whereas larger rooms naturally will require more, again depending on the efficiency of your speakers. There are calculations you could do if you know the sensitivity rating, room size, and loudness you are looking to achieve to figure out exactly how much amplification would be required. We’ll save that for another day.
Most of today’s receivers are equipped to allow you to wirelessly stream music directly to it and through it. Assuming you have a wireless network in your home, any number of online subscription-based streaming services can be accessed or you can simply play music off your wireless devices like smartphones or iPads over a Bluetooth connection. If you are looking for a specific platform, such as Apple AirPlay, check the specs to ensure it is supported.
Need some tips on choosing wired vs wireless speakers? Take a look at the “How to Choose Speakers for your Home Theatre” on the Best Buy blog.
What are my video requirements for my new receiver?
At this point, you should have a good idea of the minimum audio requirements of your new receiver and the process of elimination should have narrowed the field pretty dramatically. The majority of the hard work is complete and you are well on your way. Now let’s take a quick look at the video capabilities of AV receivers and some of the questions you should consider.
What resolution is my main display?
The resolution of your monitor or projector, which could be standard definition, high definition, or 4K, will determine how far you need to go with video processing capabilities.
There are 3 resolution standards that today’s video operates on: standard definition (SD), high definition (HD), and 4K. (Yes, 8K televisions have started to appear in stores, but 8K content will take a little while still to establish itself.) DVD’s are produced in standard definition, and while HD is the new broadcast standard and all major networks produce everything in HD, they simultaneously run SD channels for those who may not have HD monitors. Blu-rays are minimum HD, and most are now offered in 4K, as are the odd live sports broadcast.
Many receivers are now capable of upscaling video from SD into HD or all the way to 4K. So you can plug in all of your sources, from a DVD player to Blu-ray, PVR and the receiver will take that video signal, regardless of source and output either 1080p or 4K. If you have a new HD or 4K display this will be a great feature, and if you are planning to upgrade to HD or 4K over the lifecycle of your receiver you may want to look at upscaling and capitalize on this.
Keep in mind that not all things are created equal, and the video processing capabilities may be vastly different on different receivers, even from the same manufacturer. If upscaling video is important to you, I recommend testing the receivers in your shortlist to find the best result before purchasing as you may find some video processing falls short.
Some receivers will offer HDMI pass-through, which allows the video signal to bypass the internal video processing and go directly to the display device. This will be particularly helpful if you have a lot of 3D content that you are going to watch and still want to run all your HDMI patches through the receiver and only have one HDMI connection to your monitor. It is also a nice feature in the event you do not want to upscale any of your video and prefer seeing it as it was created.
Choosing your receiver
Once you have a grasp of the features you need in your receiver, and gone through the process of elimination, you should have a nice shortlist that meets all of your needs. At this point, you have a couple more choices to make and I would suggest that finding your perfect match is now a matter of performance and personal preference.
Different manufacturers use different electronics to create their products, and therefore you may still be able to detect minor differences in the audio or video. Some are known to have a flat response to audio, others may have a tendency to sound bright, just as you would find with speakers. Listen to one or two songs, on a single pair of speakers, with the receivers on your short list to see if you like one more than the others. You may not hear any difference at all, but at least you will have done your due diligence.
Likewise, as noted above, if you are using the video processing, test that out as well. Make sure that switching between sources is clean, that there is not any unwanted pixelation on the screen or artifacts that aren’t usually there when the signal is not going through the receiver.
Once you have completed the performance tests and you still have a couple units to decide between, it’s now really a matter of personal preference. Are there any other features you like that separate them? Does one look better to you? Are you more comfortable with one brand over another? Is there a major difference in the cost? Will one work in your home setup better than another? You may have other factors that matter to you, and once these questions have been answered, you should be able to confidently move forward.
Take the next step
High-quality home theatre has never been as accessible as it is today. Technological advancements will probably make that statement hold true for all time. Having a home theatre that serves you and your families needs is a rewarding and enjoyable experience, and it all starts with the heart of your system, the AV Receiver. Find the right one for you at Best Buy.