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Home theater receivers: The complete beginner's guide

How to find the surround sound receiver that's right for you

N

othing beats surround sound for movies and TV – and surround sound starts with a home theater receiver. But a receiver can give you a lot more than that. We’ll walk you through the most important and coolest features so you know what to look for.

Covering the basics

A home theater receiver (also known as an AV receiver) brings immersive, theater-like surround sound to your living room. It acts as a connection hub for a variety of audio, video, and internet streaming sources. And it uses video processing and surround sound decoding to make movies and TV look and sound their best.

A receiver is a connection hub for all your A/V gear

A receiver routes incoming video signals from your cable box, Blu-ray player, and other devices to your TV. At the same time, it directs the audio from these devices to your speakers.

How much power do you need?

Home theater receivers have built-in multi-channel amplifiers to power a full complement of surround sound speakers. How much power do you need? The ideal wattage for your receiver depends on the size of your room and the power requirements of your speakers.

Receiver output power scale

You’ll often see a range of acceptable wattages to power a given speaker. To get the clearest sound with minimal distortion, aim for the high end of this range.

What kinds of inputs and outputs do you need?

Look at the back panel of any AV receiver and you’ll find lots of different connections for audio and video components. Most of your gear will connect to your receiver via HDMI cables, which carry both audio and video signals.

HDMI connections with HDCP 2.2 and 4K capability

To allow for system expansion, get a receiver that has more HDMI inputs than you need right now. Want to connect two TVs? Look for a receiver that has more than one HDMI output. Check out our article on multi-zone video for more information.

If you have audio components without HDMI connections, an RCA or optical digital connection is your best bet.

Wood cabinet with turntable and home theater receiver

Got a turntable? For the easiest connection, look for a receiver with a dedicated phono input. For trickier scenarios, see our article on how to connect a turntable to a receiver.

For a comprehensive list of AV receiver ins and outs, including older video connections, check out our Home AV Connections Glossary.

How many channels do you need?

We usually recommend receivers with at least seven channels. Even if you’re just starting with a pair of speakers or a 3.1 system, you can always add more as your budget permits.

Dolby Atmos surround sound

With seven or more channels of power, you can play cutting-edge surround sound formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. They use in-ceiling speakers or special up-firing speakers to project sound from the ceiling.

Want to listen to music out on the patio? Get a seven-channel receiver and you can use five channels for surround sound and two channels to hook up a pair of stereo speakers outdoors or in another room.

Multi-zone audio/video diagram

Most A/V receivers can provide power to at least two zones. See our article on how to power a multi-room music system for details.

Get the right fit

You may need to think about how your current living room setup will accommodate an AV receiver. See our receiver placement tips and our small home theater ideas article for some helpful suggestions.

Not sure where your speakers will go? We've got speaker placement tips for all sorts of rooms.

Slimline receiver next to full height receiver

A slimline receiver like the Marantz NR1609 (left) is about half the height of a typical home theater receiver (right). It's perfect when space is at a premium.

Advanced features

AV receivers are great for hooking up all kinds of audio components, but your music choices don't stop there. You'll find plenty of AV receivers with built-in support for popular streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and TIDAL.

Receivers that have built-in Bluetooth let you play anything you want from a Bluetooth-equipped phone, tablet, or computer.

Home theater receivers can reproduce top-quality audio, so naturally most of them are compatible with popular high-resolution audio formats like FLAC and DSD.

Wireless multi-room music

Many receivers work with multi-room music platforms that let you stream music to compatible wireless speakers you have set up throughout your home. You can create different zones and control what's playing in each room with an app on your phone or by using voice commands.

If you want your receiver to be part of a wireless multi-room music system, you have quite a few options. The current list is as follows:

How about wireless surround sound?

Customers have been asking us about wireless surround sound for years, so we're very excited that technology has finally advanced enough to make it a reality. We expect to see more and more wireless surround sound solutions in the coming years, but there are a couple of compelling options already.

All Yamaha MusicCast receivers from 2018 on support wireless surround sound with the addition of MusicCast wireless speakers.

Convenient control options

The remote controls included with most home theater receivers have extensive options for switching sources and dialing in settings.

Many remotes have "scene" buttons, which are presets for specific activities like watching TV or listening to the FM radio. Press a scene button to select the source and all the settings you need to enjoy it.

Scene-button shortcuts make life easy for guests, babysitters, or anyone else who doesn't want to learn how to operate your system. Receivers typically come with a few pre-programmed scenes. You can easily edit them and add new ones.

Using scene presets on a remote control

Convenient "Scene" buttons on a receiver's remote let you quickly fire up your favorite sources and settings.

App control

Just about every AV receiver with network capability offers a free app to use your phone or tablet as a remote. They make it easy to switch sources, adjust the volume, tweak settings, and stream music from online sources.

Remote apps for receivers

Remote apps are the easiest way to control your receiver’s multi-zone features. You can choose which rooms to play music in, and select the music for each room.

Voice control

Voice control integration adds a new level of convenience to today's home theater receivers. When you don't have your phone or remote handy, you can just speak.

Denon receiver next to Amazon Echo Dot

Receivers with voice control capability work together with voice-activated virtual assistants like the Amazon Echo Dot for easy control of your A/V system.

Some receiver models support voice control with Amazon Alexa, and others support Google Home voice control. Whichever your preference, you can use verbal commands to:

  • power your receiver on or off
  • control volume on the receiver
  • play and pause music; skip or go back to the previous track
  • mute/unmute the receiver
  • change the receiver's input selection
  • link or unlink rooms in a multi-room music setup
  • control music playback in different rooms

Whether you use Alexa or Google Home, voice control functionality is constantly improving. Alexa is always acquiring new skills and the Google Assistant gets smarter all the time.

We're here to help

Have questions about hooking up your new receiver? Check out our setup guide. Need help choosing the right receiver? Get in touch with one of our Advisors.

Our expert Advisors know the gear inside and out. Your Advisor can send specific Crutchfield pages to your screen, saving you a lot of browsing time. You'll get a shopping cart loaded up with everything you need for your home theater.

Free lifetime tech support is included with your Crutchfield purchase.

  • Ray from Newfane,VT

    Posted on 11/23/2022

    I have some very good speakers (Focals) and a new smrt TV (Smsung) but need to replace my old amp which isincompatible with the TV Will a new AV receiver be compatible with the speakers? Recommendatios appreciated in the lass than $800 range

  • Mwangi Gitemi from Federal Way

    Posted on 10/3/2022

    Thanks for the information I've got so far. This is what I've been looking for. I will be buying an AV soon.

  • Jim Williams from St. Petersburg

    Posted on 8/30/2022

    I've become paralyzed from all the choices and analysis, so just not confident in what will best meet my needs. Looking to upgrade my current system. Mostly used for tv and movies, with music being secondary. Have approximately 8yr old Yamaha and on-wall Def-Tec Mythos 7. Definitely not an audio file. Don't have a great ear, but want good sound for movies. Thinking Arcam AVR 20 or 11 but are those more music focused receivers? Then look at Anthem or Marantz. Are they too "commercial" and won't deliver good quality sound. How do any of these pair with Focal 826-D? Are they too music oriented speakers? Is Klipsch better for a theater set-up? Is all of this overkill for someone who doesn't have a good ear for quality music and just wants to "feel" the action of the movie and clearly understand the dialogue as I get older and the hearing isn't what is used to be? How to decide? Thanks for any help.

  • Jim Williams from St. Petersburg

    Posted on 8/30/2022

    I've become paralyzed from all the choices and analysis, so just not confident in what will best meet my needs. Looking to upgrade my current system. Mostly used for tv and movies, with music being secondary. Have approximately 8yr old Yamaha and on-wall Def-Tec Mythos 7. Definitely not an audio file. Don't have a great ear, but want good sound for movies. Thinking Arcam AVR 20 or 11 but are those more music focused receivers? Then look at Anthem or Marantz. Are they too "commercial" and won't deliver good quality sound. How do any of these pair with Focal 826-D? Are they too music oriented speakers? Is Klipsch better for a theater set-up? Is all of this overkill for someone who doesn't have a good ear for quality music and just wants to "feel" the action of the movie and clearly understand the dialogue as I get older and the hearing isn't what is used to be? How to decide? Thanks for any help.

  • Danny R Watts from Lewisville

    Posted on 11/6/2021

    Previous owner left 7 Onkyo speakers on the wall. The 3 largest of these are at the tv and the other 4 smaller are spread around the room. What kind of receiver do I need?

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 11/8/2021

    Thanks for your question, Danny, and congrats on your new home!

    You'll likely want a seven-channel home theater receiver to power your speakers. We'll want to gather a little more info about the speakers to make a recommendation, so I suggest giving one of our Advisors a shout to go over your options. Thanks again for reaching out!
  • Shawn from Mechanicsburg

    Posted on 10/11/2021

    I just moved into a new home, the previous owner decided to install a 5 speaker surround sound for the main living area as well as add 8 speakers inside for the kitchen, office, the main walking area, bar area and 2 outside speakers. He let me know one of the two previous receivers went up and now I am left with one Onkyo TX SR508 I believe it is partially connected to the TV. I at first wanted to buy just one receiver (am looking at a 7.2 channel) but I am considering just updating both just to ensure a clean start. I wanted to know he has a speaker selection device mixed in as well...any guidance on what to buy to power this unique setup as well as any other components to make this correct? Thank you for your help in advance.

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 10/11/2021

    Thanks for reaching out, Shawn. Please give one of our Advisors a call for help mapping out the right equipment for your system.
  • Bernie Bunuan from Metro Manila

    Posted on 10/9/2021

    Hello. I've been thinking of buying my first AV receiver in the next few months. The Pioneer VSX-831 caught my eye until it recently got sold out during an online sale. Now I have my eye on the VSX-834. However I noticed that later models, like the VSX-834, don't have RCA inputs for video anymore. I know VCRs are dead but I still have mine and I don't want to dismiss the possibility that one day I might use it again. I read there is an RCA/HDMI converter but the quality is poor, especially for true HD televisions and higher. Should I just aim for newer models?

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 10/11/2021

    Thanks for reaching out, Bernie. You've astutely observed that many of today's home theater receivers do not have as many analog video inputs as they once did. That's a trend we've seen for a while now, with many new receivers only supporting HDMI.

    With that in mind, a composite-to-HDMI converter may well be the ticket for integrating your VCR into a new A/V system. Quality options like Metra's ethereal CS-AVHDM are worth a look if you aren't able to find an in-stock receiver with the inputs you want.
  • David Leingang from San Marcos

    Posted on 8/18/2021

    You didn't really answer the power question. For example with two front tower and one center speakers each rated at 100w RMS, two rears at 50w RMS each, should not the receiver provide more than 100w per channel to prevent distortion?

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 8/19/2021

    Thanks for reaching out, David. I understand your frustration. Wattage is one of those tricky topics where so many of the answers begin with, "It depends."

    In your example, I would have no issue using a 100 watt-per-channel receiver to drive your entire system. Yes, on paper the rear speakers are getting "too much" power. But in actuality, they may only draw 20 or 30 watts of actual current in a given moment. That's because the wattage output of most amplifiers fluctuates based on the particular passage being played — it's dynamic, and almost never approaches maximum output.

    As long as you're not hearing distortion, you can safely use an "overrated" receiver with your surround speakers without issue.
  • Jim Shivers from Birmingham

    Posted on 8/17/2021

    My Denon 750 AV receiver shows a variety of options for audio play back (eg. stereo, Dolby, DTS), with options being different based on the source material. Does the receiver automatically default to the "best" option? For example if I am watching a Blu-ray movie, does it automatically select the preferred setting based on the audio signal from the Blu-ray? If not, how do I choose? At least with Blu-rays, the available audio coding is shown (in very, very small print) on the case, but with other sources I have no idea what compression technology is used.

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 8/19/2021

    Hi Jim, thanks for your questions. Yes, your receiver has the option to automatically select the best playback mode for a given source. I recommend setting your AVR-S750H to "Auto Mode," which means it intelligently matches the incoming signal to the right format (Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD, etc.).
  • David Darnall from Savannah

    Posted on 7/19/2021

    Hi, Dave Here, I have a Onkyo TX-NR709 7.1 AV Receiver. I am using stage 2 for my patio. I have Klipsch 5-1 speakers with a powered sub woofer. My center chanel speaker is under my TV and my 4 surround speakers are mounted at the four corners of my listening room front and rear. Where would I put, and how would I connect atmos speakers to what I have now?

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 7/23/2021

    Hi Dave, thanks for reaching out. There are a few ways you can add Atmos to your system: in-ceiling speakers, upward-firing speakers, or wall-mounted speakers that angle sound effects toward you. There are even some specialized sound bars that deliver convincing overhead effects.

    This article has a good breakdown of how Atmos works, along with a look of the different gear options. If you go the conventional speaker route, you'll need a new home theater receiver with Atmos processing (your Onkyo predates the technology). We can certainly help with any of the above — feel free to give our Advisors a call any time.
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