Home theater receivers: The complete beginner's guide
How to find the surround sound receiver that's right for you
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
Not sure where your speakers will go? We've got speaker placement tips for all sorts of rooms.
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.
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.
Denon's HEOS AVR is a 5.1-channel receiver that lets you connect two HEOS wireless speakers to its left and right surround channels for wireless surround sound. You can also wirelessly connect a HEOS-compatible subwoofer.
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.
Convenient "Scene" buttons on a receiver's remote let you quickly fire up your favorite sources and settings.
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 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 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.
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.
- 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
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.