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My Favorite Home Theater Receivers of ALL Time

by April 25, 2018
Denon AV Receiver in Gold

Denon AV Receiver in Gold

Although I've been professionally reviewing AV gear since I started Audioholics way back in 1999, I've also been an audio enthusiast since my childhood. It is, after all, why I pursued a degree in electrical engineering and eventually left my profession designing audio communication systems for government defense to commit to this website.  Lately I've been reminiscing about my favorite AV receivers I've either owned, reviewed or had personal experiences with throughout the years. I'm not implying these are necessarily the best products of ALL time (though arguably a few on this list are), but they are nonetheless standout products that left a good impression on me.

WARNING: Reading this article may create a sudden urge for you to pick up one of these later models second hand to integrate into your modern home theater by bypassing the video switching to still enjoy old school quality audio.

My Favorite AV Receivers of ALL Time YouTube Discussion

Pioneer VSX-D1-S Dolby Pro Logic® AV Receiver

MSRP: $1,400, 1988

Pioneer VSX-D1S ReceiverMy first surround receiver I got as a Christmas present my junior year in high school was a 4-channel Dolby Surround Pioneer VS-X4500S, which was rated at 100wpc for the front channels and I believe about 15wpc for the surrounds which were a lousy chip amp design. I was so proud of having this receiver and the fact that it had paralleled Speaker A/B connections allowing me to plug my Cerwin Vega D-2s and my friend’s Fischer speakers with 15" drivers into it simultaneously so we could have house parties and make the place shake to Depeche Mode Violator.  Anytime I walked into a McDuff's electronics, I salivated over the Pioneer D1-S flagship model.  I absolutely loved the oversized amber front panel display and all the bells and whistles that came with it. This baby was one of the first to have Dolby Pro Logic on board with 130wpc for the front L & R, 40wpc for the center and rears. I remember being blown away by a Top Gun demo at the store and it was my first realization that a consumer could bring realistic surround sound from the movie theaters to their homes. 

Harman Kardon AVI-200Mkii Dolby Pro Logic Integrated  Amplifier

MSRP: $500, 1996

HK AVI-200MkiiIt wasn't until I got to college and worked for a hi-fi shop that I was exposed to better audio gear. When I took home a two-channel Rotel amplifier to compare to my Pioneer receiver powering my new JBL LX-44 speakers, I finally realized how much better things could sound with solid amplification. The bass impact alone was night/day, especially when listening to Steely Dan's Aja. I couldn't afford the Rotel, so I went with a Harman Kardon AVI-200mkii integrated Dolby ProLogic amplifier instead and sold my Pioneer. This model was based off their AVR-25mkii receiver sans the tuner.  Although this amp section was actually rated for slightly less power than my Pioneer, the sound was vastly superior. Part of the reason for this was the Pioneer receivers of that era were all about employing as much negative feedback as possible to get the lowest THD #'s on paper which was to the overall deteriment of the sound quality.  Harman touted their "high current" design, and you could see by the larger power supply, and bigger heatsinks, that this thing meant business. The surround channels were a chip amp design sadly but I was more enamored with the quality of the main stereo amplifier that this thing had. I never bench tested it, but it sounded meatier than my Pioneer and it got me closer to that Rotel experience. It served me well throughout the last couple of college years. I eventually gave it to my cousin who managed to short-circuit it and blow it up within two weeks. Tragic.

Onkyo TX-SV828THX Dolby Pro Logic Receiver

MSRP: $800, 1996

Onkyo TX-SV828THX ReceiverMy brother and I used to battle it out to see who could have the best AV receiver. At the time, I had the Harman Kardon AVI-200MKii in a four-channel set up.  He had to put me in checkmate and get the model right below the TX-SV919THX flagship from Onkyo.  Unlike the 919 model, the TX-SV828THX was one of the first AV receivers with equal power ratings across all channels with a fully discrete amplifier section.  The 828 was rated at 100 watts/ch x 5 and weighed over 30lbs and was THX certified which actually meant something useful back then. It even had the ability to be upgraded to Dolby Digital 5.1 via their external ED-301 processor which connected via DB-25. My brother never did get the 5.1 DD decoder for it, but we were both stunned at how incredible this receiver sounded and filled his living room with the melodic sounds of Genesis - We Can't Dance VHS concert. He won this round of receiver wars with me, but I would live to fight another day.

Yamaha DSP-A3090 Dolby Digital Integrated AV Amplifier

MSRP: $2,500, 1997

Yamaha DSP-A3090After graduating college, I was ready to pursue my first true 5.1 system. I purchased a Yamaha RX-V992 Dolby Digital AV receiver that was rated at 80wpc x 5 and 25 watts x 2 with a full discrete amplifier section. Back then, receivers were more honestly rated so these were real watts. This baby weighed a whopping 31lbs and retailed for $1000. I was as happy as pie listening to the Fleetwood Mac - the Dance DVD in 5.1 discrete surround sound on my new Pinnacle Aerogel speaker system with an RBH 1010-SE subwoofer. But always feeling the upgrade bug, I couldn't help but notice my local Sound Advice was closing out the DSP-A3090 integrated amplifier. They let me take one home to demo.  I instantly fell in love with its MUCH more refined sound quality compared to my RX-V992. Although both amps had the same power rating, the DSP-A3090 weighed about 15lbs more and just sounded meatier, cleaner and "audiophile." The amps were definitely more conservatively rated as you could gleam from the distortion ratings but more importantly, the actual resultant sound quality really delivered the sonic goods.  The DAC in the DSP-A3090 was also much better and for once I found an AV component that equaled or rivaled the DAC of my Sony ES DVP-S7700 DVD player.

I then added 2 front height effects channels and explored the music DSP modes to expand the soundstage of my CD's to the next level. 3 months later, I traded in my Sony DVD player for a cheaper model so I could upgrade to the Yamaha DSP-A1 since it had DTS processing and 5.1 multi-channel inputs for future expansion. In every conceivable way, the DSP-A1 was superior, but it never left the same impression on me that the DSP-A3090 did. I was a true Yamaha fanboy after that especially when they threw down the gauntlet with their masterful RX-Z1, RX-Z9 and RX-Z11 flagship receivers!

Sony STR-DA7ES DD/DTS 7.1 AV Receiver

MSRP: $1,400, 2002

Sony STR-DA7ESBack in the day, Sony was making awesome AV receivers that went toe-to-toe with the likes of Onkyo, Denon and Yamaha.  The STR-DA7ES was built like a tank and had a nice, meaty fully discrete amp section rated at 120wpc x 7 with DTS 96/24 processing on board.  The sound quality of this receiver was excellent. I remember setting one up for a friend whose system utilized a complete RBH Signature SE 4-ohm speaker setup and the amp section had no issues driving them to reference levels. The touch screen remote was pretty cool and easy to use. The onboard DSP processing was based on the venerable TA-E9000ES AV processor, which was one of the best at the time and gave Yamaha a run for its money. In my opinion, to this date Sony hasn't made a receiver of this caliber, which is sad considering they obviously have the technical chops to do so.

Denon AVR-5805 DD/DTS 10CH AV Receiver Super Destroyer

MSRP: $6,000, 2005

Denon AVR-5805The Denon AVR-5803 was my first experience with a Denon receiver that left me in awe at how well it performed and measured. I was also amazed at how complete and ahead of the curve it was compared to its competition in bass management via its variable crossover settings, which were assignable to channel groups. It also had dual independent subwoofer outputs, which were unique at that time. A year later, Yamaha finally moved away from their fixed 90Hz subwoofer crossover on their receivers with the release of the RX-Z9 thanks Denon’s leadership on this. The toroidal power supply on the AVR-5803 was massive as were the dual heatsinks with high-current discrete output devices delivering 170 watts x 7 into 8 ohms.  I came up with a way of using the unused amps to bi-amp my front channels, which powered my RBH 1266-SE/R towers as well as a separate dedicated amplifier. Denon liked this idea so much that they offered it as a standard feature in future models. This feature was later copied by the rest of the industry in their products.

The Denon AVR-5805 took the solid foundation of the AVR-5803 up a few notches by putting what I would argue was the BEST amplifier section and DAC's to date in any AV receiver. This 100lbs monster had 170 watts/ch x 10 fully discrete amplifier section with heavy duty output devices fully stable into 4 ohm loads. It also had independent surround sound decoding for 2 rooms, along with HDMI connectivity and Audyssey MultEQ XT and THX Ultra2 Certification.  It had the most flexible power amplifier assignment options including the ability to drive 2 sets of speakers for the main channels, bi-amp the main channels, or run 2 sets of side surround speakers with independent delay and level control, and 3 subwoofers with independent delay and level adjustments. The AVR-5805 even had 2 sets of Multi-Ch outputs in case you wanted to add separate power amplification and 2 sets of Multi-CH external inputs in case you wanted to interface with more modern processing like a Blu-ray player that could decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD. This was also their first AV receiver to incorporate HDMI version 1.1 inputs and outputs.

Denon AVR-5805 Inside View

Inside view of the Denon AVR-5805 10CH AV Receiver Technological Marvel

This was truly a separates killer and its bench test proved it outperformed many similarly-priced separates alternatives.  Denon won the receivers’ arms race with the AVR-5805 and proved to the world it could build a statement piece that does EVERYTHING right with masterful performance. If the AVR-5805 was part of the imperial fleet, it would surely be a Super Star Destroyer.  I don't think we will EVER see a receiver built like this again since the market has abandoned the "super receiver" concept. However, as Obi-Won said, it was definitely an elegant weapon for a more civilized time.


Yamaha RX-V1 GoldI hope you enjoyed my little trip down memory lane of my favorite AV receivers. (Yeah, ok, there’s an integrated amp or two in here also. So sue me.) From a technology standpoint, these products are now obsolete but the fidelity they offered is still notable, and in some models, absolutely legendary.  It's too bad that surround processing/decoding technology changes so rapidly, often rendering these products incompatible with today's latest HDMI HD hardware. However, for those that have a special place in their heart for "vintage" Super AV receivers from the golden age (early 2000's)  long gone, where build quality and solid amplification took precedent over features, you can still integrate one of these beauties into a modern home theater system if you do all of the video switching through your HDTV display device. Best of all, you can pick up a used Yamaha RX-Z1, Marantz SR-14EX, or Denon AVR-5803 on the audio classifieds or eBay for a fraction of their original retail price, making them a compelling alternative to paying retail for lower-end current models that don't have nearly the gravitas of these products. 

What are your favorite AV receivers of all time? Please share your picks and experiences in the related forum thread below.


About the author:
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Gene manages this organization, establishes relations with manufacturers and keeps Audioholics a well oiled machine. His goal is to educate about home theater and develop more standards in the industry to eliminate consumer confusion clouded by industry snake oil.

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