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Home theater receiver setup guide

Tips on how to hook it up and tweak it like a pro


Choosing the right connections and using the proper settings will help you get all the audio and video performance you paid for.

Here are a few tips that will help make your receiver setup go more smoothly:

  • Have all of the materials you'll be using (cables, tools, owner's manuals for all of your gear, etc.) assembled together before you begin.
  • Keep a flashlight handy so you can clearly see all of the markings on your receiver's input and output jacks.
  • Labeling your audio/video and speaker cables at both ends also helps to keep things more organized when your installation is underway. Crutchfield offers some handy pre-printed labels for this very purpose. 

Getting your receiver setup properly can have a huge impact on the performance of your system.

There are two basic kinds of cables you'll need to connect your system: audio/video patch cords designed to handle the low-level analog or digital music and picture signals, and speaker wire to carry the amplified sound from the receiver to your speakers. The first step is to identify the types of connections your receiver and the other components in your system offer, then determine which connections and cables to use to get the best possible performance.

Keep in mind, there's usually more than one way to connect A/V gear to your receiver. If you're connecting a great many components, you may not be able to use the most recommended connection for all of them. We'll provide suggestions to help you choose a different connection type if you run into this situation.

So let's get started!

Speaker connections

Before you connect your speakers, you'll need to determine where you'd like to place them. This will help you find good routes for your speaker wire, and ensure that you've got enough wire to connect all your speakers. Keep in mind, where you position your speakers will impact sound quality a great deal. See our speaker placement video and Julie's home theater speaker placement article for more info on this important subject.

5.1 speaker placement
Take a little extra time to set up your speakers properly, and your ears will thank you.

Choosing speaker wire
The type of speaker wire you use can also make a difference. The right thickness, or gauge, of wire and the type of connectors attached to the ends will help ensure optimum sound quality and easier connections. If you have to use long runs of wire, choosing a heavier gauge will allow more power to reach your speakers for better sound. You may also want to consider using speaker wire terminated with banana plugs or pin connectors for simpler hookups. See our article on speaker wire and connections for more info.

Bi-amping your speakers

Bi-amping speakers

Jumpers connect the two sets of binding posts for regular use (left). For biamping, remove the jumpers (right).

If you've got a seven-channel receiver but you're only using five speakers and a powered subwoofer, you might be able to put those extra two channels to work. Most newer seven-channel receivers let you redirect their rear surround amp channels to send the power to a pair of bi-amp compatible front speakers (these are speakers that have two sets of binding post inputs instead of the usual single pair). You'll enjoy more dynamic, higher quality sound from your bi-amped front speakers — a great feature for anyone who listens to a lot of stereo music.

Connecting your audio components

You've got four main options when making audio connections — HDMI (which carries both audio and video), optical digital, coaxial digital, and analog stereo RCA.

Now, you won't necessarily find all these connection types on every component you own, or on the back of your receiver. (For example, many stereo receivers only offer stereo RCA inputs, since they can't reproduce the surround sound that digital audio connections are often used to deliver.) But in cases where you do have options, choose the highest quality connections you can. Whenever possible, we recommend using a digital connection.

When to use HDMI

HDMI should be your top choice. It can carry both high-def video and digital multichannel audio — so you get both picture and sound through a convenient single-cable connection.

Components that may offer HDMI connections include:

  • HD cable and satellite TV receivers
  • Blu-ray Disc™ and DVD players
  • some gaming systems

 When to use optical or coaxial digital audio

Not only can optical and coaxial digital audio connections carry multichannel audio for surround sound, they can also provide crisper, more detailed stereo sound than an analog connection. These are especially good options when connecting video components that don't support HDMI but do offer digital surround sound.
Components that may offer digital audio connections include:
  • DVD players
  • cable and satellite TV receivers
  • some HD Radio tuners
  • some satellite radio tuners
  • gaming systems (usually via a proprietary adapter cable)

When to use stereo RCA

Components that may offer only stereo RCA audio include: Stereo RCA connections can be found on just about every audio component. With older gear, this may be your only audio connection option. However, as discussed above, we recommend making a digital audio connection if you can.

  • cassette decks
  • some CD players
  • some HD Radio tuners
  • older gaming systems (usually via a proprietary adapter cable)

Connecting a turntable
If your receiver has a phono input, connecting your turntable is simple. (If you don't have a phono input, you'll need a separate phono preamp, or a turntable with a built-in phono preamp.) Just connect your turntable to your receiver's phono stereo RCA inputs on your receiver, as well as the adjacent ground wire terminal to help prevent potential hum.

Connecting iPods® and smart phones
A lot of receivers these days include jacks that allow you to hook up a portable device. Some simply offer a front-panel mini-jack for connecting to your portable device's headphone output. Other models include a USB port to connect a flash drive or a portable device via a USB cable. Some receivers also feature a proprietary connection for a brand-specific iPod dock. These docks let you integrate an iPod into your home system to enjoy its music, and maybe even video through your best speakers and TV. Of course, you can also connect your MP3 player or iPod to just about any receiver using either a mini-to-stereo RCA cable, or regular stereo RCA cable (depending on the outputs on the player or dock).

Getting the best sound from your TV's tuner
If you'll be receiving over-the-air TV broadcasts, you'll likely want some way to hear the audio from those broadcasts through your receiver and speakers, rather than just through your TV's speakers. This is especially important with high-def broadcasts, which generally include surround sound. Most HDTVs include an optical digital output that can pass those surround signals to your receiver. You can also use a stereo analog connection, although you won't get surround sound. New receivers with the latest version of HDMI (1.4a) include support for an ARC (Audio Return Channel). When you use an HDMI cable connection to your compatible television, it will send the audio channel back through your receiver to provide digital-quality surround sound, if it's present in the signal.

Ethernet: your key to the world beyond

Many receivers provide you with an Ethernet connection. Some receivers offer Internet radio via this port and may also have DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) certification. A DLNA-certified receiver connected to your home network can access content (such as digital photos, videos and music files) from other DLNA-certified products (including many computers) that are also connected to your network.

Getting the picture

In addition to handling all your audio signals, many receivers these days are designed to process and route your video signals. This can be especially helpful if, for example, your TV doesn't have enough of a certain kind of video input to accommodate all your gear. And as you'll see in our descriptions below, it may also help reduce the total number of cables you have to run to your TV, depending on your receiver's capabilities.

Basic video switching
Virtually all home theater receivers, as well as some stereo models, offer some form of basic video switching. These models allow you to switch easily between sources, but in some cases, they can only pass along a video signal to your TV via the same type of connection that it came in on. For example, if you connected two components via component video, one via HDMI, and one by composite video, you'd need to run another one of each of those types of cables between your receiver and TV.

Video conversion — more convenient switching
Some home theater receivers offer "video conversion" — the ability to accept a variety of incoming video connections from the components in your system and pass them all to your TV through a different type of video connection. For example, if your Wii™ is hooked up to your receiver via S-video, but your receiver has a higher-quality output like HDMI, and offers HDMI video conversion, you'll be able to send that video signal (plus all your other video sources) to your TV via a single HDMI connection. Now, you'll still be seeing the lower-quality S-video picture, but it means you won't have to switch inputs on your TV every time you want to watch a different source — the main benefit here is convenience.

Video upconversion — get the best signal possible
Along with video conversion, some receivers offer video upconversion, or "scaling." These receivers can upgrade any video source to a superior high-resolution video signal that more closely matches the capabilities of your HDTV. Your DVDs and older video sources will look cleaner and more detailed. However, there are limits — don't expect your VHS tapes to look high-def.

(It's worth noting that some manufacturers may use the term "video upconversion" to describe video conversion. But unless your receiver's manual includes instructions on setting the resolution you'd like to upconvert your signals to, it's not video upconversion.)

What we recommend
As you can see in the descriptions above, you get the biggest advantage when your receiver offers video conversion or upconversion. Both offer a streamlined, one-cable connection to your TV, plus upconversion gives you the added benefit of improved video performance. In fact, we generally don't recommend routing video signals through a receiver with basic video switching. For more info, watch our short video on conversion and upconversion.

Connecting video components

Below, we've made suggestions and offered illustrations to help you get the best video performance. You can see that whenever possible, we recommend a high-definition-capable connection.

When to use HDMI
HDMI should generally be your top video connection choice. It can carry detailed high-definition signals, including 1080p — the highest resolution currently available. It's also the only A/V cable that can carry 3D video signals. Plus, it can carry high-resolution, multichannel audio signals like Dolby® TrueHD and DTS-HD™ Master Audio.

Components that may offer HDMI connections include:

  • HD cable and satellite TV receivers
  • Blu-ray Disc™ and DVD players
  • some gaming systems, such as Xbox 360™ and PS3

When to use component video
Like HDMI, component video can carry a high-definition signal. In most cases, you won't be able to get top-quality 1080p video signals via component video, but you'll still enjoy a great-looking, high-resolution picture. That makes component video an excellent alternative to HDMI. Keep in mind that, unlike HDMI, component video can't carry audio signals, so you'll need to make a separate audio connection.

Components that may offer component video include:

  • some cable and satellite TV receivers
  • DVD players
  • some gaming systems (usually via a proprietary adapter cable)
When to use non-HD video connections

On older gear, S-video and composite video connections might be your only options. Most new receivers don't offer S-video connections, leaving composite video as the only way to go.

Components that may only offer S-video or composite video connections include:

  • older DVD players
  • older cable and satellite TV receivers
  • older gaming systems (usually via a proprietary adapter cable)
  • many iPod docks
  • VCRs

Connecting your cable TV or satellite service
If you have a cable or satellite receiver, you'll usually make a connection between the wall jack and the tuner box via a single coaxial RF cable. However, when you connect that box to your receiver (or TV), that's your chance to get the best possible picture. We recommend using the best video connection your cable or satellite box will permit, starting with HDMI or component video for an HD-capable box.

3D TV and home theater receivers

If you want to watch 3D TV at home, there are a few must-have pieces. You'll need a TV capable of displaying 3D video, and special 3D glasses for everyone watching. You'll also need a 3D video source, like a 3D Blu-ray player and 3D Blu-ray movie, as well as an HDMI cable to connect it to your system.

So where does a home theater receiver fit in? Well, if you plan on switching your 3D video sources through your receiver, you'll need one capable of passing those 3D video signals on to your TV.

Now, if you don't have a 3D-capable receiver, you could run 3D video signals directly to your TV via HDMI, and run an optical or coaxial digital audio cable to your receiver for surround sound. That's a less-than-ideal solution though.

Having a 3D-capable receiver in your 3D TV system gives you a couple of key benefits. First, you'll still be able to enjoy the convenience of running a single HDMI cable to your TV (as opposed to one from your receiver and one from your Blu-ray player). Second, you'll still be able to get the ultra-high-resolution soundtracks available on Blu-ray discs, like Dolby® TrueHD and DTS-HD™. (Those formats generally require an HDMI connection, so optical or coaxial digital won't cut it.)

Receiver settings — dialing it in for top performance

Once you've gotten everything connected, you'll need to go into the receiver's menus to get everything up and running. If you haven't already read it, now is the time to dig into the owner's manual. We've defined some of the most common settings you'll encounter below, so you'll know what to expect. You'll find detailed instructions for these types of settings in your receiver's owners manual.

Assigning inputs
If you look at the back panel of a receiver, you'll notice that a lot of inputs are grouped under labels, like "DVD." Connecting your DVD player to the grouped inputs means that the DVD video and sound will play together.

But what about inputs that aren't grouped under a common label? Component video, HDMI, and digital audio inputs often fall in this camp. So if you wanted to connect your DVD player to a component video input and an optical digital audio input, you'd have to tell your receiver that the video and audio signals from those two inputs should be played at the same time. That means you'll have to "assign" those inputs, labeling them as the same source.

Speaker setup
For the best performance from your speakers, especially when it comes to surround sound, you'll need to give your receiver some information about the type of speakers you have and how far away they are from your listening position.

Most home theater receivers offer automatic speaker calibration — all you've got to do is plug in the included microphone, position it in your favorite listening seat(s), and start the auto calibration. The receiver uses the sonic information collected by the microphone to adjust the level, delay, and other settings for each individual speaker. (You can also enter this kind of information manually if your receiver doesn't have auto-calibration.) Check out our video on auto-calibration for more info.

Video conversion and resolution
If you're taking advantage of your receiver's video conversion or upconversion, you'll need to tell it which sources it should convert, and which output it should use to send those signals to your TV. For upconversion, you'll also need to tell the receiver what resolution you'd like your video upconverted to.

A quick word about surround settings
When you pop in a DVD, play a video game, or put any audio signal through your receiver, the receiver's front panel will light up with some terms that might not be familiar. Generally, these terms will tell you what kind of sound processing your receiver is using. For full details on common audio formats and terms, check out our surround sound article.

Also, a quick troubleshooting tip: If you find that your receiver isn't playing a surround sound source in surround sound (or not playing it in the format you expected), there are two easy possible fixes. First, check your source component's audio settings to make sure it's outputting a surround signal. Second, try cycling through your receiver's surround settings (often a knob on the front panel) to see if you can select your preferred processing.

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