AV Receiver and Amplifier Power Ratings Trends: Manipulating Wattage Ratings
Originally published: Nov 9th, 2004 by Patrick Hart
Stereo reproduction in the fifties morphed from separates built by small high-end manufacturers like Saul Marantz to entrepreneurs like Sidney Harman who is credited with marketing the first receiver. Throughout the early sixties Harman-Kardon was joined by other American companies like H.H. Scott, Lafayette and Fisher until, toward the end of the decade, the Japanese joined the receiver category with lower cost receivers touting "innovations" like my (first receiver) JVC with a 5-band equalizer built-in.
At the time I had been used to a Marantz Model 7C pre-amp and Model 15 amp so the JVC, in comparison, sounded like absolute dreck. But there was no denying that the receiver configuration brought prices and quality music playback down to price points affordable to many more consumers.
In the seventies, the second wave of better-built, better-sounding receivers came first from the likes of Superscope who had bought the Marantz name from Saul Marantz in 1968. The Marantz 2230 (30 watts x 2), 2245 (45 watts x 2) and 2270 (70watts x 2) where sold in huge quantities and were carried in the line for six years! (Even after these models had been superceded by newer models!) This receiver line was absolutely dominant through the mid seventies quantity-wise. Though, little known to consumers, successive iterations of the exact same model had fewer and fewer parts. The result was, at the end of these three models' six year run, that their sound quality compared to the original production was severely compromised.
We've noticed a recent trend with the latest Dolby Atmos/DTS:X AV Receiver releases. Instead of publishing unclipped full bandwidth power with two-channels driven into 8 ohm loads per FTC mandate, ALL of the major AV receiver manufacturers are now touting power with only one-channel driven, at 1kHz, into a 6 ohm load and 10% distortion. This type of testing scenario inflates the power rating up to 2X the former FTC way of rating power. Only when you search for the fine print on the manufacturers websites or spec sheets do you actually find the two-channel continuous ratings. We decided it was time to republish this article and also supplement it with the following YouTube video citing examples of these latest AV receivers.
AV Receiver Power Ratings Game YouTube Video Discussion
The Good Ole Days
The 1970's to 1990's
The Marantz 2270 (70wpc x 2)
The success of Marantz' Japanese-produced receivers emboldened companies like Yamaha, Denon and Onkyo to enter the US receiver market.. These manufacturers naturally targeted the high-end audio specialist retailers to sell their receiver lines. These retailers were the same guys who had started out, many as hobbyists themselves, selling separates in the fifties and early sixties. It was at this point, in the mid seventies that 100 watt x 2 receivers where first introduced. (So was quadraphonic 4-channel, but that debacle only caused the refocusing of the most desirable stereo receivers to be the 100-watt top-of-the-line models.)
The eighties saw the expansion of the market further with the introduction of the compact disc (1983). By this time the stereo receiver category had matured toward specific price points. Usually, five or six models, ranging from around $300 to $1200, were offered by the well known mid hi-fi brands like the big three of Yamaha, Denon and Onkyo. The step-ups within these price categories were always power and added features. Other than a "best seller" at a price point below $500 the next most sought after receiver was usually the manufacturer who could hit the magic 100 watts per channel at less than $1000 retail.
In the alternative tier of dealer distribution were the other brands who because they sold in far less quantities than the big three, might have slightly different product line-ups with slightly differing emphasis on power ratings and features. These included Harman-Kardon, Rotel, NAD, Marantz and a couple of others.
A most important "product positioning" fact needs to be taken into consideration at this time. Almost all competitors in the mid-fi categories also offered integrated amplifiers and separates which were the step-up configuration of choice if your were looking for "better" sound, higher power or more perceived value. Remember also that the receiver was an American (and partially Canadian) phenomenon. The Japanese home market and the European market had no receivers, as receivers were considered less desirable, lower-fi, by the rest of the world.
The Yamaha CR-2020
In 1986 Yamaha introduced the DSP-1 Digital Soundfield Processor which just happened to have the original 3-channel Dolby Surround on-board. This Stereo Review Product of the Year was showcased in the (first) Yamaha Home Theater at the 1987 Consumer Electronics Show and caused a sensation which shifted the gears for an entire industry for many years to come.
The stereo-only receiver gave way to surround receivers and continued to gain momentum as better surround technologies like Dolby Pro-Logic took hold. Other receiver manufacturers were quick to add their own versions of enhanced listening environments like Jazz Club and Stadium, all of which required more than the traditional two left and right front channels to reproduce.
The "race", as it were, was on. But without guidance from any quarter as to what exactly constituted good or even adequate surround the question of how much power to allocate to how many surround channels was left up to the product management and bean counters of the individual companies. All that was available was Dolby's recommendation that the surround speaker have a low end frequency response down to 100Hz with its high end frequency response rolled off after 7kHz. To most designers at the time this said that we were free to put any cheap little 4" full range speaker in a box and it would meet the surround requirement.
The 100 watts per channel ideal was still found in at least the top-of-the-line receivers of this time. Even though the surround and center channel power ratings were lower as the engineers did whatever they could to still hit long established (stereo receiver) price points with multi-channel products.
I Still Want My 100 Watts!
The design-to-a-specific-cost criteria that was cast in stone in the early seventies, remained through the eighties, into the nineties and is carried on today. What happened in the early eighties is that Japanese manufacturers found it was not profitable to continue designing receivers in multiple sizes for the military, European, Canadian and American markets. Too much money was going into the cosmetics, faceplates and chassis of receivers which weren't stackable with other components. So in ~1982, just as the CD was coming to market, mostly all Japanese manufacturers picked 2 sizes for components; 350mm "midi" size and 430-435mm "standard" size. This set the width for a generation of products and helped to stabilize the stackability issue plus the faceplate and chassis cost at the same time.
For a receiver with an analog amplifier the highest percentage cost is for the transformer and filter caps which make up the power supply. Add to this the cost of the chassis, the packaging, a couple hundred other electronic parts, faceplates and knobs, lighting displays, owners manuals and the requisite remote control and you've got yourself a fairly narrow range of options from which to work at any given price point.
Through the late eighties and into the early nineties, receivers always had at least the left and right stereo channels touting the most power. One hundred watts seemed to have been the magic number back in the stereo-only era and that 100 watt RMS per channel figure held its cache in the transitional receivers of this period. Whatever price-point receiver had the magic 100 watts per channel was, if not the biggest seller in a manufacturer's line, then the most sought after.
Just prior to Dolby Digital it had become "uncool" to have less power for the center channel since it was promoted as being vital for movie dialog. So the new paradigm became 100 watts x 3 for left, center and right front speakers. But it was still okay to have less power and lower quality speakers for the surround channels because the Dolby Pro Logic then available was used mainly to produce ambient sounds like crowd noise and rain.
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We all know this, we see it all the time.
But how did this trend start?
What I recall happened when I became Yamaha's Product Manager in 1983 (from Kenwood Car Stereo) was as follows:
The Japanese audio manufacturers had all just decided to standardize component widths to 430-435 mm while mini component width which was common in products in Japan and I think the European market at the time was standardized at 350 mm. With this move the gargantuan high power receivers like the popular Sansui 5000 which dominated military exchanges all of the world ceased to be produced. So all manufactures were now tasked with getting (true RMS) higher power out of this much narrower, standard receiver width.
Second, Yamaha was really concerned with meeting UL specs because they and all their competitors were trying to come out with and market what they wanted the American audio consumer market to believe were proprietary amplifier typologies that “sounded better” than their competitors. For instance, Yamaha came out with a pyramid shaped amplifier with “X-power”. But unfortunately X-power was based on Bob Carver's small 200 Watt per channel 6“ x 6” x 6" cube topology. So I recall the bottom line with X-power was Yamaha's US-based certification engineer (named Lucky, no joke) told me at one time he had blown up 25 pre-production prototype amps Yamaha, Hamamatsu, Japan had sent him, none would pass UL.
Next, Yamaha Japan started asking me about the old IHF, Institute of High Fidelity power specs that Julian Hirsch (deceased) of Stereo Review followed which is essentially the same 20Hz - 20kHz, 8 ohm @ 0.XX% spec (at that time in the late 60's and early seventies still called cycles per second) that you are trying to get back to now. Yamaha's engineers told me they were having a really hard time meeting the full 20 Hz to 20 kHz bandwidth power spec at 8 ohms, how about if they used 6 ohms, would that be okay for our U.S.-only receivers? In the same breath they promised they would keep the 8 ohm 20 Hz to 20 kHz full bandwidth spec for Yamaha's integrateds and separates which were sold world wide.
It has been decades since Yamaha receivers first wowed specialist audio dealers (six hundred selling Yamaha at the time) and baby boomer audiophiles like me when introduced in the early seventies. At that time (wide and deep) Yamaha receivers stood alone against lesser manufacturers products which claimed 500 watts!, 1000 watts!. The power amplifier ratings game cycle as you have so astutely observed has sadly come all the way back to where we were then.
The one good piece of news I can share Gene is that when I began designing speakers for Marantz in Sun Valley, CA in 1971 Dawson Hadley (deceased) Marantz's chief engineer of American-built integrated's and separates started me off wiring the internals of my prototype speaker designs with twisted 14-gauge wire, a trick he had learned from JBL's Bart Locanthi (deceased). Physics don't change, but sadly a new generation of snake oil sales and marketing slubs seem to be ever-present. Sigh…
JEITA - Japanese Electronics Industries Trade Association.
It is another way of rating which is followed in products in Japan. Please correct me if I am wrong.
avengineer, post: 978307, member: 62593
HP 334A introduced in 1968 would read .1% full scale, down to .01% residual. The Tektronix AA501 would go to .001% with the SG504 oscillator as the source. The Tektronix 5L4N spectrum analyzer (early 1970s) had enough dynamic range to read THD (and separate it from N) well below 80dB. All pre-dated AP, and if I recall correctly, the founders of Audio Precision worked at Tek on the AA501 and related devices first, then left Tek to start AP.
BPI had some distortion analyzers, too. IIRC, we had the 3000 at the store where I worked.
Splicer, post: 1089571, member: 63410I appreciate your compliments. We are here to cut through the nonsense in marketing which sometimes makes us unpopular with the manufacturers and the fanboys too. At the end of the day, we share a common goal, a better audio experience without all the fluff. Hope you can participate more on this forum too.
Gene, I just wanted to say THANKYOU for pretty much vindicating me on AVS. For years I have been ‘complaining’ that the marketing used on these lower (and sadly, upper as well) end subs always stating ‘1000 watts!’ (as an example) and always been chastised for doing so. But as you said in the video, look at the fine print to see the REAL numbers. The inflated, unusable and unrealistic numbers provided anymore are no more than marketing snake oil. Sort of like directional cables but I digress.
Just wanted to say thanks, I enjoy all of the Audioholic videos and the friendly bantar that accompanies them.
Just wanted to say thanks, I enjoy all of the Audioholic videos and the friendly bantar that accompanies them.