A home theater receiver is the most popular control center for a home theater and is capable of powering five or more surround sound speakers. It serves as an audio/video switch letting you select the input, whether Blu-ray Disc player, game console, cable TV set-top box, phonograph, satellite TV receiver or other input. Some receivers support multiple video outputs, and many allow you to power speakers in another room.
Introduction to Choosing a Surround Sound Receiver
There is no question that upgrading your home theater from stereo to surround sound is well worth the effort and cost. I guarantee you’ll love the difference it makes in watching movies at home. You’ll hear sounds and effects that went unnoticed in your favorite movies.
Surround Sound Formats
Your buying decision won’t be based on how many surround sound formats are supported because all quality receivers will support the most widely supported formats that it’s components are capable of handling. For example, an entry-level 5.1-channel receiver that doesn’t provide “surround back” outputs doesn’t need to include Dolby PLIIx.
If your receiver supports DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD, you’ll be ready for the best formats used on Blu-ray Discs. But here’s a short summary of some of the other common surround sound formats you’ll encounter:
- DTS-HD Master Audio – Analogous to Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio is another lossless audio codec created by Digital Theater System.
- Dolby TrueHD – Delivers 100 percent lossless audio, bit-for-bit identical to the original soundtrack typically used on Blu-ray Discs with 7.1 channel playback.
- Dolby Pro Logic IIx – A system that processes two-channel stereo, Dolby Surround, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby Pro Logic II source material and up-converts it to 6.1- or 7.1-channels.
- DTS Neo:6 – Comes in two modes: Music mode and Cinema mode. Decodes 2-channel sources for 6-channel playback with high separation.
- Dolby Digital – Supports 5.1 channels of surround sound including three front and two surround speakers plus a subwoofer.
- Dolby Digital EX – A 6.1-channel surround sound format that includes an added center rear channel.
- DTS-Digital Surround is the core DTS standard for providing 5.1 channels of discrete digital audio in consumer products, and it is the mandatory audio format on all Blu-ray Disc Players.
5.1 or 7.1 Channel or More
Most entry-level home theater receivers are 5.1-channel models, which means they provide 5-channels of full-bandwidth powered output for two front-speakers, a center-channel speaker, left and right surround speakers, plus a low-frequency effects (LFE) channel for a powered subwoofer. For small- to medium-sized home theaters 5.1-channels can provide very satisfactory surround sound.
The fact is that most Blu-Ray discs are encoded for 5.1 channels, although more are using 7.1.
While 5.1-channels provides a satisfactory to an excellent experience, with more discs being encoded for 7.1-channels, which adds a left- and right rear speaker, the surround effect is even greater. Some entry-level receivers are even beginning to offer full 7.1-channel output, such as the Sony STR-DH520. 7.2-channel receivers supply an additional LFE subwoofer line-out connection for an even more substantial low end.
There are advantages to owning a 7.1-channel model even if you don’t plan to install rear speakers. Here are some of the other ways you could use the extra two outputs:
- Front “height” speakers when employing Dolby ProLogic IIz audio format.
- Powering stereo speakers with the extra two channels in a second “zone” (room).
- Bi-amping or powering woofers and tweeters of the front main speakers with separate outputs on speakers that provide this option
9.1-Channels or More
Usually found only in high-end receivers selling for more than a thousand dollars, extra powered channels more than seven are available. Perhaps the most practical purpose is to power second or third zone speakers from the main receiver without having to buy another receiver or amp.
Power – How Much Do You Need?
If you are setting up a small home theater with small speakers then an entry-level receiver from any of the major manufacturers such as Pioneer or Onkyo will have enough power. There are a number of factors you’ll need to consider:
- Speaker impedance: 8-ohm speakers require a less powerful receiver than 6- or 4-ohm models.
- Speaker sensitivity: If your speakers have low sensitivity, you’ll need more power to get the same volume. If you know the sound pressure level (SPL) rating of two speakers you can roughly conclude that the speaker with the higher SPL will sound louder with the same receiver setting.
- Room volume: With a smaller home theater you won’t need to crank up the volume.
- Desired listening level: Do you like to host dance parties? Buy the most powerful receiver you can afford.
Home-theater subwoofers, (the .1 in a 5.1 or 7.1-channel) have built-in amplifiers and therefore don’t draw power from the receiver.
Check the power output ratings per channel to compare one receiver to another. A complicating factor is that some entry-level receivers make their numbers appear higher by only listing their power at a single frequency like 1 kHz. In North America the most common way to measure power is watts per channel for a full-bandwidth from 20Hz to 20kHz with an 8-ohm load, all channels driven. The bottom line is to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples when evaluating power ratings.
For example, I point out in my comparison of entry-level receivers that Yamaha specs their model as 85 watts/ch. 8Ω at 1kHz, 2-channels driven. Yet their specs for the next model in their lineup is listed as 80 watts/channel, 8Ω at 20Hz-20kHz, 2-channels driven. It’s unfortunate but you have to pay very close attention to how the specs are written in order to make a fair side-by-side comparison.
Total Harmonic Distortion
Also, note the total harmonic distortion (THD) spec on the power ratings. A THD below 0.1% is typical for a mid-range receiver and is another clue to the linearity and “cleanness” of the sound. Roughly speaking, THD is a measurement that indicates how well the harmonics of the input signal have been altered by the receiver’s circuitry. The lower the THD the better but small differences are most likely imperceptible to your ear.
It’s better to have a receiver/amp with a higher power rating even if you don’t listen to high volumes. That’s because source material typically has peak moments that call for short duration bursts of power that a low wattage receiver may not handle well without some distortion. Thus a higher power receiver will have more “headroom”.
Connectivity – Inputs and Outputs
When shopping for a receiver it’s imperative that you keep in mind your other components. If you’re putting together a brand new system and all your inputs support HDMI connections then all you have to do is verify the receiver has enough HDMI inputs, plus one or more for future expansion.
However, if you have a record turntable, a cassette player, a VCR, a video camera, set-top box, or an old video game console without HDMI then you need to pay close attention. I’ve observed that nowadays manufacturers are not including as many connections to non-HDMI components as they did formerly, especially for entry-level receivers.
Examine the following list and count up the number of these connections you might need before you decide on a receiver:
- Composite video inputs
- Left and right audio inputs
- Component video inputs
- Phono input
- Digital Audio Coax
- Digital Audio Optical
- HDMI In
- HDMI Out
An Ethernet LAN connector is becoming more common, even on lower-priced receivers, though generally not available in the entry-level models. What are the benefits of having LAN connectivity, either wired or wireless?
Music streaming is the main benefit of having a LAN connection
Internet Radio – once you’ve connected to your home network you can stream music from Internet radio stations. Some receivers even include free access to paid services like vTuner® giving you access to a large number of stations. Other Internet audio sources can be streamed by logging onto the streaming site from your computer then saving the site address to the receiver for later access.
Most network-connected receivers support playing music files stored on your computer or DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) media server. If you have a PC or Mac chances are you can stream your music collection.
Another benefit of being connected is the ability to download firmware updates directly from the Internet.
Pay attention to your video options when selecting your receiver because it will function as the video control center of your home theater, allowing you to switch between Blu-ray Disc player, game console, cable TV, or whatever. If you choose a mid- or high-end receiver these often include more than one HDMI out connector for a projector or second zone TV in addition to the main TV.
Use the following checklist to consider extra video options that generally aren’t included in an entry-level unit:
- An Extra HDMI – out connector for a second video/projector (entry-level receivers have one HDMI out)
- Analog component video conversion to HDMI output (aka transcoding)
- Analog composite video conversion to HDMI output
- Video upscaling, where the input signal is converted to a higher resolution than its own
Manufacturers are on-board with the fact that Apple’s iPod, iPhone, or iPad are the most popular portable music storage devices. If that’s you then look for the presence of a front-panel USB connector that is marked iPod/iPhone or similar. With this feature, which is offered on latest-generation receivers, you no longer have to purchase an expensive dock to control your Apple device for music listening using the receiver’s remote. These receivers allow you to browse by artist, playlist, genre, etc. using the remote and the on-screen display the same way you can browse when using the device directly. However, check the device support details closely if you want playback of photos and videos because not all iPod-compatible receivers have that capability.
Multi-Zone – Powering Audio/Video in other Rooms
When you consider the cost of adding a receiver in a second and third room (zones) it might be worthwhile to spend a little more on a receiver that supports playback in multiple zones. You’ll find a lot of variations in this feature. Look for a receiver that has powered speaker outlets, not just zone 2 “line out” connections which require amplification from another amplifier or receiver.
Also, check for other limitations that you might encounter. Some multi-zone capable receivers only output analog input sources, not HDMI. Also, some receivers support playing back separate source material in each room, while others only play back the same source as in the main room.
It seems like a lot of information to consider but keep in mind that unless you have audiophile tastes, if you are putting together a newer home theater in an average size room with newer components, then your requirements are probably pretty simple. For you, almost any entry-level name-brand receiver should serve nicely.
Where you’ll need to pay more attention is if you have legacy equipment to hook up, you want the most power for the price, or you have a lot of equipment to connect. Then you’ll want to dig into the details and make sure your desired features are included. Buying new equipment is a treat! Have fun!