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Home theater receivers buying guide

Find the surround sound receiver that's right for you

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The rumble of speeding cars behind you grows gradually louder, echoing off the surrounding buildings. A faded black hood edges into view on the left, the booming roar of its engine eclipsing the sound of wind whipping through your windows and a street full of honking horns. A sudden squeal of tires on the right signals a narrow miss as you clear the intersection, while the shriek of metal on metal tells you that the car on the left wasn’t so lucky.

A home theater receiver is the key to truly immersive, movie theater-like entertainment at home. In addition to providing impressively detailed surround sound, today’s receivers act as a connection hub for a huge variety of audio/video sources. This article will walk you through the basics of home theater receivers, and then offer guidance on choosing the right model for your home.

The basics: What is a receiver?

Yamaha Receiver

Three components in one – a preamplifier (“preamp”), a tuner, and an amplifier.

A receiver combines three components in one  – a preamplifier, a tuner, and an amplifier. The preamp lets you select which source you’d like to listen to or watch. With today’s receivers, that can mean anything from over-the-air radio broadcasts to the smartphone in your pocket.

The preamp section also processes incoming audio and video signals from all your different sources. Once upon a time, signal processing meant controls for bass, treble, balance, and loudness. But today’s receivers can decode numerous surround sound formats, and feature a huge array of digital processing circuits designed to improve sound and picture quality.

Traditionally, the tuner section just let you enjoy over-the-air AM or FM broadcasts. Some of today’s receivers no longer include an AM tuner, but many have added more modern music sources such as HD Radio™, satellite radio, and Internet radio. Many modern home theater receivers let you enjoy digital content from smartphones or other devices connected via USB, or from networked, DLNA-enabled computers and hard drives.

MOG, Pandora, Rhapsody, Spotify

Some receivers also tap into popular online music services such as Pandora®, Rhapsody, and Spotify. Others feature wireless technologies like Apple AirPlay® and Bluetooth (a separate adapter may be required), allowing you to wirelessly stream music from compatible smartphones and other devices.

The amp’s job is to create a visceral, exciting, and engaging soundtrack to match the on-screen video. You'll need a receiver with enough power to satisfy the speakers you've chosen and to really rock the room you're in.  

What today’s receivers can do


Connect to a wide world of entertainment sources

All of today’s home theater receivers let you access attached components, such as a Blu-ray player, cable or satellite box, video game console, CD changer, etc. You can also tune into radio stations via the receiver’s built-in tuner. For models that connect to a home network, this includes Internet radio stations.

But as discussed above, many modern receivers offer a whole lot more. Click on each component in the sample system below to get a sense of the types of sources you can connect.

A plethora of sources can be connected to a home theater receiver
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Receiver –

A home theater receiver powers your speakers, provides surround decoding and audio/video processing, and enables easy switching between connected sources.

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TV –

Having a home theater receiver can make your system easier to use. If you have all your components routed through, you may be able to run just a single HDMI cable to your TV, and you'll never have to switch inputs on your TV.

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Blu-ray –

Connect your Blu-ray player to your receiver via HDMI for top-notch picture quality.

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Sonos CONNECT–

If you've got a multi-room music system, chances are you can make your home theater system a part of it. For example, this Sonos CONNECT music player could connect to a home theater receiver via optical or coaxial digital audio or analog stereo audio connections.

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Cable/satellite box –

Use an HDMI connection to get the best picture and sound from your cable or satellite box. Also, be aware that some set-top boxes, such as the Apple TV®, require an HDMI connection.

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Video game console –

Connect the Xbox 360®, Wii U, and PS3 via HDMI for the best picture and sound. If you have Wii, you'll want to use component video and stereo audio connections.

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Router –

Most Internet-ready receivers will need a wired connection to your home network.

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iPod®/iPhone®/iPad® –

Wireless technologies like Apple AirPlay® and Bluetooth let you stream music from compatible smartphones, tablets, and other devices.

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Speakers –

Be sure to select a receiver that can provide plenty of power to your speakers. In general, larger speakers need more power.

connected components

Deliver detailed surround sound

If you're new to home theater, the wide array of surround sound options can seem a bit overwhelming. Don't worry, though — all of today's home theater receivers will let you enjoy surround sound with movies from Netflix®, TV shows stored on your DVR, video games, and more. Along with decoding Dolby® Digital and DTS® soundtracks found on DVDs, HDTV broadcasts, and other programming, all current home theater receivers can also handle Dolby® TrueHD and DTS-HD® Master Audio, two high-resolution surround options available on Blu-ray discs. See our article on surround sound formats and our surround sound formats chart for more info.

5.1 surround sound diagram

The five channels of amplification in a 5.1 surround sound system provide power to two front speakers, a center speaker, and two surround speakers. A powered subwoofer (the ".1") provides deep bass for realistic full-range sound.

Any home theater receiver will have — at minimum — the five channels of amplification necessary to reproduce 5.1 surround sound. (The ".1" in 5.1 refers to the dedicated subwoofer channel; subwoofers are almost always self-powered and therefore do not require amplification by your receiver.) Some receivers include additional channels of amplification, and could support 7.1 or even 9.2 surround sound.

Improve your system’s picture and sound

Microphone Front panel Calibration

Most new home theater receivers include automatic speaker calibration. Plug the included microphone (left) into the microphone input on the receiver's front panel (middle). The receiver plays test tones, then calibrates the signals it sends each speaker to better suit your room (right)

Because most of us don’t have acoustically ideal living rooms, there are a lot of obstacles that can hamper a speaker’s sound. For example, although an overstuffed armchair next to the end table may really tie the room together, it may also absorb too much sound from your back left speaker, muddying the surround sound.

That’s why most home theater receivers these days come with automatic speaker calibration. Just plug in the included external microphone and set it up in your favorite viewing and listening spots (some receivers can calibrate for six or more positions). The receiver sends full-range test tones to each speaker, listening for dips in frequency response, slight timing delays, and other audio imperfections. Then, the receiver calibrates the signals it sends to each speaker with the goal of achieving the type of sound you’d hear in a more acoustically ideal space. In the example above, a receiver with auto-calibration might play the back left speaker a little louder than the back right speaker in order to overcome the muffling effect of the armchair.

Check out our video about automatic speaker calibration for more info.

Better music playback

Most home theater receivers include special sound modes specifically for music listening. For example, stereo music modes allow you to listen to just the front two speakers and subwoofer. Modes such as Dolby Pro Logic IIx transform two-channel music into multi-channel surround sound. Some receivers also feature audio processing designed to improve the sound quality of MP3s and other compressed digital music.

If you plan to connect high-quality music sources, you may be interested in a higher-end model that takes extra steps to protect audio signal integrity. For example, some receivers have an audio-only mode that shuts off video circuits, minimizing potential sources of noise. Other models simply let you play the music in its original form, without applying any audio processing at all.

(A quick side note though: if you want really high-quality music playback, you may also want a separate, dedicated stereo music system. See our article on building a stereo music system for more info. Or check out our article about surround sound for a music lover for ideas on putting together a system that can do both.)

Razor-sharp picture

On the video front, some higher-end receivers offer sophisticated video processing to improve the image quality of all your sources, whether standard- or high-definition. These models can upscale analog content to 1080p or even 4K and can clean up a lot of the graininess and noise from compressed videos, such as those found on online video sites. The receiver calibrates each video source independently, so that each can look its best. As an added bonus, these receivers can send everything to your TV via a single HDMI cable.

How much receiver do I need?


Enough for your TV and your room

Larger screens and rooms call for larger speakers -- and larger speakers will need a more powerful receiver.

If you have a smaller room and viewing screen, then smaller speakers and a lower-powered receiver can work well.

In our experience, a big picture calls for big sound. If you’ve invested in a 65” LCD or a 106” projection screen in a larger viewing room, then you’ll want equally impactful sound – consider getting larger speakers and a more powerful receiver that’s capable of driving them. On the other hand, if you’ve got a 46” screen in a medium-sized den, then smaller speakers and a lower-powered receiver are a fine option.

Enough for your speakers

When matching a receiver to a set of speakers, the main problem to avoid is having too little power. Using a receiver that is underpowered for the task may result in distorted sound, and puts you at risk of overheating your amp and damaging your speakers over time. Keep in mind though that all watts are not created equal. Some manufacturers employ more stringent testing standards than others. Look for full-bandwidth power ratings measured over the entire range of frequencies audible to human ears – 20 to 20,000 Hz. That's generally a more reliable indicator of quality amplification than ratings measured over a smaller frequency range (or those rated at just a single frequency).

You’ll also want to check your speakers’ sensitivity rating. Lower sensitivity ratings indicate power-hungry speakers that will require more “juice” from your receiver to produce the same volume as speakers with higher sensitivity ratings. See our speaker FAQ and glossary for more info.

Want more sonic punch? Look for high-current power

The dynamic peaks that help make movie soundtracks and music so exciting can impose intense short-term demands on a receiver. High-volume special effects like explosions or loud orchestral passages can quickly deplete a receiver’s power reserves, resulting in sound that’s flat and uninvolving. Models with high-current power are particularly well equipped to handle these challenges, reproducing dramatic surges of sound with more punch and greater fluidity than other receivers with similar wattage ratings.

How many channels of power do you need?

The answer to this question depends on how many speakers you’d like to connect, and how you’d like to connect them. Most surround sound systems have 5.1 channels — five speakers and a subwoofer — but many receivers these days support 7.1 channels.

So what could you do with those extra two channels? Most 7.1 receivers let you assign the additional two channels to suit your needs. For example, you could use them to power a pair of speakers in a second listening zone. Or, if you have a large room and want fuller surround sound, you could create a 7.1-channel surround sound system. Finally, some models let you assign those two channels to compatible floor-standing front left and right speakers (known as “bi-amping”), giving you a fuller, more detailed front soundstage. See our articles on powering your multi-room system, bi-amping your speakers, and surround sound speaker placement for more info.

5.1 surround system diagram

A 5.1 system can provide full-bodied, immersive surround sound in small-to-medium sized rooms. If you're setting up a 5.1 system in a large room, consider a higher-powered receiver and larger speakers.

7.1 surround system diagram

A 7.1 surround sound system is a great option for large rooms. The two additional back surround speakers provide more seamless surround effects.

9.2 surround system diagram

If you're creating a large theater room, with multiple rows of seating, you may want to consider a 9.2 surround sound system. Back surround speakers ensure convincing surround effects. Depending on your receiver, you can use the two additional front speakers to add width or height to your front soundstage. Finally, an additional subwoofer (".2") ensures deep, room-filling bass.

Multi-room system diagram

Most 7- or 9-channel home theater receivers let you assign extra channels of power. For example, you could enjoy 5.1 surround sound in your main room, plus stereo music on your deck. Or, you may be able to bi-amp your front left and right speakers for punchier, more detailed sound.

Getting it all connected: inputs and outputs

If you’re not already familiar with home audio/video connections, hooking up a home theater receiver can seem daunting. But you can get most of the way there by keeping one basic rule in mind: always use the highest-quality A/V connection available. In most cases, that means using HDMI. If the component you’re connecting doesn’t have HDMI, you can fall back on a combination of component video and optical or coaxial digital audio.

Click on the jacks in the back panel photo below to see descriptions. Read our articles on audio/video interconnects and setting up your receiver for more info.

Home theater receiver back panel jacks

M-XPort

M-XPort

Today's Bluetooth-ready receivers require a separate, proprietary adapter for Bluetooth connectivity. The name of the input varies by brand -- check the receiver's owner's manual for details.

Control connections

Control connections

These connections enable various forms of system control. For example, if you had your home theater system hidden away in a nearby closet and can't control your receiver using your usual remote, you may use some of these to control the receiver. Options here can vary by model, so be sure to check the owner's manual for details.

Network

Network connection

Most Internet-ready receivers require a wired connection to your home network.

Digital audio

Digital audio connections

Coaxial and optical digital audio inputs let you connect audio-only components, like a CD player or multi-room music player. You may also use digital audio inputs to get surround sound from audio/video components; for example, you could connect a DVD player via component video and optical digital audio.

HDMI in/out

HDMI connections

HDMI inputs allow you to connect high-definition components, like a Blu-ray player, cable box, and video game console. The HDMI output sends those video signals along to your TV. If your receiver has video conversion or upconversion, the HDMI output can also send along video signals from component and composite video inputs.

7.1 Ch in

7.1 input

Some SACD players feature 7.1-channel audio outputs - connect them to your receiver's 7.1-channel audio inputs to enjoy surround sound from your SACDs.

Composite video

Composite video connections

Composite video is the lowest quality video connection. With older video components, it may be your only option. But we recommend going with component or HDMI if you can.

Component video

Component video connections

Component video is an excellent back-up when HDMI isn't an option. It can deliver high-definition video, and provides a smooth, progressive-scan picture for non-HD sources.

Antenna

Antenna

Most receivers still have an FM tuner and antenna connection. Some models may also offer HD radio or satellite radio.

Analog in/out

analog in/out

The stereo audio inputs let you connect any component with stereo audio outputs. However, if HDMI, optical or coaxial digital audio connections are an option, you'll likely get better sound quality. The stereo audio outputs can send stereo music to a receiver in a second listening room.

Pre out

Pre out

Use these outputs to connect a separate, external amplifier. In that case, the receiver provides the pre-amplification processing, and passes the signal onto the external amp for amplication.

Speaker Connections

Speaker connections

Here's where you connect your speakers. Be sure to match each speaker's location in your room to the label on the receiver.

Power

A/C in

Some receivers feature detachable power cables - a bonus if you might be interested in swapping out the included power cable for a high-quality one down the road.

Figuring out what you need

Start by making a list of the video and audio components you own or want to own. Beside each, note the type of connection(s) it calls for. This will help you determine how many and what types of inputs and wireless connections you’ll need on your new receiver. You’ll want to make sure it’s got enough of each type of audio/video connection for your existing gear. Ideally, it’ll give you a little room to grow, too.

For example, if you were using the sample chart below, you’d want a receiver with at least four HDMI inputs (and preferably extra to allow room to grow), two HDMI outputs, Apple AirPlay®, and a built-in HD Radio tuner. Print our blank component connection chart to figure out how many of each input and output you need on your new receiver.

Click to showhide our sample component connection chart

Components

Have it or want it

Connection types

TVs

Outputs

HDTV 1

Have

HDMI with ARC (“audio return channel”) for over-the-air broadcasts

HDTV 2

Want

HDMI or component video + stereo audio

Audio/Video sources

Inputs

Blu-ray player

Have

HDMI

Xbox 360

Have

HDMI

Cable or satellite box

Have

HDMI

Apple TV

Want

HDMI

Over-the-air TV

Have

(See “HDTV 1”)

iPhone

Have

AirPlay (wireless audio), Bluetooth (wireless audio, adapter may be required), or compatible USB input

CD player

Have

Optical or coaxial digital audio input, or stereo audio input

HD Radio

Want

Tuner built into receiver, or can be added via proprietary connection

Turntable

Have

Phono input

Connecting your HDTV

Many receivers can convert analog video signals, such as those from the original Wii (or other devices connected by component video), and send them to your TV via HDMI. Receivers with video conversion won’t improve the image quality of any analog sources. The main benefit is having just one cable running from your receiver to your HDTV. If you connect a Wii via component video (an analog connection) to a receiver without video conversion, you’ll also have to run a component video cable to your TV and change the TV’s input selection when, for example, you switch from your Blu-ray player to your Wii.

As discussed above, some receivers also feature video upconversion. In addition to giving you single-cable convenience, these models can enhance the quality of both standard- and high-definition video sources.

Connecting a second TV

Dual-room setup

Want multiple viewing areas at your next playoffs party? A receiver capable of sending video signals to two TVs simultaneously will give sports fans plenty of room to watch the action.

If you’d like to connect a second HDTV, think about what you’d like to be able to watch on that TV, and pay close attention to a receiver’s capabilities. Receivers that simply have a second HDMI output will play the same content on both TVs. If you want to be able to watch different content on each screen, look for receivers that have an “independent zone 2 HDMI output” (or similar phrasing).

If you’re looking at a receiver with an independent zone 2 HDMI output, also be aware that it may not be able to play all connected sources on the second TV. For example, many HDMI zone 2 outputs can’t convert or upscale analog signals, which means that any sources connected by composite, S-video, or component video wouldn’t be viewable on the second TV. One possible workaround is to use the receiver’s component video output instead of zone 2 HDMI.

If you’d like help setting up a dual-TV system, give us a call at 1-888-955-6000.

A quick note about 3D TVs

Virtually all new home theater receivers are 3D-capable. Even if you don’t have a 3D TV now, there’s a good chance your next one will be 3D. But don’t worry — with 3D-capable receivers and TVs, your regular 2D content will still look great.

Connecting your audio/video sources


Getting surround sound from over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts

There are a couple of ways you can get surround sound signals from your TV’s tuner back to your receiver. Many newer home theater receivers and HDTVs include HDMI connections that support an audio return channel, or “ARC.” ARC-capable HDMI connections can carry audio signals from the TV back to the receiver so that you can enjoy OTA broadcasts in full surround sound. If ARC isn’t an option, many TVs include an optical digital audio output in order to get OTA surround signals to your receiver. See our article on connecting your HDTV for more info.

Some receivers let you stream music from a compatible smartphone or other device

Add flexibility to your system using wireless technologies

More and more receivers include technologies to wirelessly access content. Those with AirPlay or Bluetooth (an adapter may be required) can access music on compatible devices, while those with DLNA can often access music, videos, and photos. In addition to cutting down on cable clutter, these technologies can make your system more flexible. For example, say your friend comes over and wants to play you a cool new album they just bought. With an AirPlay-enabled receiver, they could play it through your system using their iPhone or iPod touch. See our article on AirPlay for more info.

Connecting a turntable

If your turntable has a built-in phono preamp, you’ll be able to connect it to any receiver via standard stereo audio cables. If it doesn’t have a phono preamp, you’ll need a receiver with a phono input, or you’ll need to add a separate phono preamp between your turntable and receiver. See our article about turntables for more info.

(Shop for phono preamps)

Be aware of limited connectivity options in certain cases   

Note that for some newer components, such as the Apple TV, HDMI may be the only video connection option. There may be workarounds – for example, sending video to your TV via HDMI and audio to your receiver via optical digital – but you’ll lose some of the convenience and streamlined connectivity that today’s receivers offer.

Also, if you’re trying to connect older video components that don’t have HDMI or component video connections, note that some newer receivers don’t have S-video inputs. In that case, composite video may be your only option.

Should you set up your receiver for multi-room music?

If you’re interested in building a multi-room music system, you’ve got a lot of options. To figure out what kind of system is best for you, consider what kind of content you’d like to listen to and how you’d like to listen to it.

Many home theater receivers can work as part of a multi-room music system. You may want to go with this more traditional type of multi-room system if you’d like to be able to listen to the sources connected to your receiver. For example, if you want to be able to listen to the game while you’re grilling outside, installing a pair of outdoor speakers and connecting them to your home theater receiver may be the way to go. It’s worth noting, however, that most receivers can only play sources connected via analog audio in the second listening area. One possible workaround is to make two audio connections from the same component: a digital connection for your main listening area, and an analog connection for your patio. For more details on setting up receiver-based multi-room system, see our article on Powering a Multi-room Music System.

If, on the other hand, you’re interested in accessing digital music sources – including your own music collection, Internet radio stations, as well as services like Pandora and Spotify – a wireless multi-room system, such as Sonos, may be a better fit. For more info, see our article about wireless multi-room options.

Usability: on-screen displays and remote controls

In almost every respect, today’s sophisticated home theater receivers are more fun and more capable than those of previous generations. They offer more refined video processing, more detailed surround sound, and a ton of entertainment options. Perhaps the biggest challenge that receiver designers face is how to conceal all that complexity and make their products easy to operate.

A clear, intuitive GUI (the graphical user interface that displays on your TV screen) can make initial setup quicker and easier, and can also improve certain aspects of day-to-day use. To get a sense of what makes a good GUI, we set up a few home theater receivers in the Crutchfield Labs and gave them a try.

Usability: on-screen displays and remote controls

This "NET TOP" screen provides a menu of networked entertainment options.

  • Easily find content stored on your networked computers or choose an online entertainment source.

  • Step-by-step hookup help.

  • This screen shows you where to connect the microphone for automatic speaker calibration.

  • This screen shows you where to position the microphone and prompts you to begin the calibration process.

  • Now it helps you with connection of audio/video components, such as your Blu-ray player and cable TV box.

  • Checking your network connection.

  • This "NET TOP" screen provides a menu of networked entertainment options.

  • With Powered Zone 2 off, the graphic shows the third set of speaker terminals driving front width speakers for the main home theater system.

  • With Powered Zone 2 on, the graphic shows the third set of speaker terminals driving your Zone 2 speakers.

  • The initial network connection screen.

  • This speaker setup screen shows the "extra" speakers assigned to Zone 2.

  • This screen shows that the low-pass crossover for the subwoofer output is set at 80 Hz.

  • You can manually set things like the distance of your speakers from your listening position, or you can rely on automatic calibration.

  • If you like, you can tweak the output level for each speaker.

  • Yamaha receivers offer digital soundfields that mimic the acoustics of famous performance venues.

GUI features we liked

Explanatory text

“PL IIX Music Panorama,” “TrueHD Loudness Management,” “i/p scaler” – the titles for receiver settings are not always immediately clear or intuitive, and their meanings can change depending on where you are in the menu system. That’s why having simple, plain-English definitions of what each setting does can make a huge difference when it comes to usability. Instead of taking the time to search through the receiver’s owner’s manual, or just making a choice and crossing our fingers, we can make an informed decision on the spot.

Effectively using connected sources to test your setup

During the setup process, even experienced A/V geeks may accidentally connect cables to the wrong input, or even forget a cable altogether. And although double-checking cable connections is generally the first trouble-shooting step, it can sometimes take a little time to figure out exactly where something went wrong.

That’s why we love interactive GUIs that use our sources to check connections during the setup process. For example, as the last step in testing our Internet connection, the Denon 3313 asked us whether we could hear the Internet radio station it was playing. Similarly, Onkyo’s 717 walked through each of our connected A/V components, playing the picture and sound from each and asking if both were working correctly. 

Remote apps for smartphones and tablets

Some receiver manufacturers offer Apple and Android apps that allow you to use your smartphone or tablet as a remote control (with compatible models). Although we tend to use the receiver’s remote for things like initial setup and source selection, the remote apps are generally much better at things like navigating digital music sources and controlling multi-zone playback.

Yamaha remote app for iPad

Yamaha's remote app for iPad offers easy touchscreen control for multi-zone playback, as well as volume control, source selection, browsing free Internet radio streams, and other functions.

So, for example, we’d opt to use a standard remote if we were settling in to watch a Blu-ray movie. Finding the volume button in the dark is easier with a hard-button remote, and quicker than navigating into a smartphone or tablet app.

If, on the other hand, we wanted to listen to Pandora or Spotify, the app offered much quicker, more intuitive navigation. Instead of using the hard-button remote to laboriously scroll through lists of artists, genres, etc., we could use the app to simply tap the content we wanted to listen to. The apps also made multi-zone playback a snap – being able to see and select each zone and source was more straightforward than pressing a combination of buttons on the included remote.

Marantz remote app for smartphones

Marantz's remote app lets you make selections from online music services like Spotify.

Next steps

Ready to start shopping? Check out our selection of home theater receivers.

Still want to do more research? Here are some other articles you might find useful:

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