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Trading Amplifier Quality for Features in AV Receivers - A New Trend?

by July 18, 2015


Originally Published: March 16, 2009

Let’s face it. We live in a world of instant gratification. Status quo doesn’t keep us complacent for long. Even when we’ve got great material possessions, we demand newer and better all the time. We do this with cars, homes, and especially electronics. The A/V industry seems to be moving at a more rapid pace than even the computer one with the major Japanese electronics manufacturers introducing new A/V receiver models every 8 months. By the time you purchased your new receiver, the manufacturer has already tested its replacement model and is getting ready to stock the shelves of their local retailers with it.

Once wind of the new models gets out, old model sales plummet and consumers run frantically to be the first on their block to own this new wonder machine with improved performance promised by the manufacturer. But are you really getting better performance with the newer model? Or are you trading amplifier quality for features? This article will be primer for what’s to come in our verification testing to better answer these questions.

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

Onkyo 828Let’s flip the clocks back 10-15 years ago to one of my favorite Pro Logic receivers from Onkyo, the TX-DS828. It was a THX rated five channel receiver that had a very meaty amp section for the main channels. Back in that day it wasn’t a requirement to have equal power for all channels since Dolby Digital wasn’t implemented in consumer gear yet. I recall speaking to a tech at Onkyo about some operational questions I had relating to this receiver. He told me “don’t get rid of that baby, the replacement models coming don’t have the same punch”. I didn’t think much of that until a few generations later where a similarly priced Onkyo receiver was not only lighter in weight, but had a reduced power rating for the front channels but equal power for all five channels

Sure it sported new Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 decoders but for listening to two channel sources, it just didn’t sound the same to me or my brother when we ran some comparisons. On a positive note, getting DD/DTS decoders built in was certainly a worthy trade off. It is costly for manufacturers to not only integrate the parts for these features, but to license the technologies as well. Only your listening habits could govern your decision based on these trade offs. Being a two channel enthusiast like me, my brother kept what he had and waited. The features in this case weren’t worth trading for amplifier quality.

Yamaha DSP 3090A similar example I recall was with one of the industries first fully integrated 5.1 Dolby Digital receiver, the venerable flagship from Yamaha, the DSP-A3090. It was actually an integrated amp as it lacked a tuner. This beast weighed a whopping 46lbs, had dual rows of heat sinks, a large E-core transformer and generous capacitive power bank reserves. It was also the first equal power (5 x 80wpc) 5.1 channel A/V product on the market. The sound quality was fabulous. The amps were sonically very warm and rich and had no problems driving 4 ohm loads on all channels simultaneously. I owned this unit before I started Audioholics. A few months after I bought it, the RX-V2092 came out. Its rated power was 20wpc higher than the older DSP-A3090 but it also weighed a few pounds less. Did Yamaha somehow change the laws of physics? Not likely.

Yamaha 2092What I discovered in my listening comparisons between the two amplifiers was that the less powerful DSP-A3090 sounded much smoother and more natural, especially when driven at high power levels. Despite it didn’t put out as much rated power, the sonic differences between the two to my ears was night and day. Years later I discovered why this was the case. Yamaha was biasing the rails higher (using a higher voltage rail with less available current) to yield a more impressive power spec for marketing purposes.

For a full explanation about this, read: Product Managing Receiver Platforms

In addition, they used lower quality output devices and cut costs in other components as well. Hey you can’t blame them. The RX-V2092 retailed for almost $900 less than the DSP-A3090 and had a lot more features. It was really a win/win scenario for most consumers, especially those that wanted a more up to date receiver for less money with more perceived power.

Yamaha DSP A1It wasn’t until they released the DSP-A1 that they had a truly direct replacement and better performing product than the DSP-A3090 for a modest increase in retail price which most consumers were willing to spend. This would be the eventual receiver both my brother and I would settle on in our theater rooms and it served us well for many years to come. The balance between performance and features that Yamaha struck with this unit was all aces.

During this time period, it was easy for manufacturers to churn out newer models for roughly the same price as the predecessor that not only performed better but gave the consumers more features to boot. The industry wasn’t moving at the rapid pace as it is today, so replacement models came less frequently and most were modest enhancements with no funny business in trading off amplifier performance. We watched flagship models from many manufacturers steadily increase in size, power and price. The market welcomed this as did consumers wallets.

More Features Please

Denon 5805When 5.1 wasn’t “good enough” for consumers, they demanded 7.1. Of course the industry marketed this as a must have feature and review magazines simply buttressed their argument. As a result manufacturers now had to add two more channels of pre-amplification and amplification, more connectors, and more processing to create those extra channels in the same chassis. They had to accomplish this for roughly the same price as the 5 channel predecessor. Since power components don’t come cheap, they couldn’t increase the size of the power supply and keep the cost the same. This meant flagship models would see a modest cost increase which eventually lead to Denon building one of the BIGGEST most expensive and in my opinion best multi channel receivers ever made, the AVR-5805. For years Yamaha and Denon battled it out on who could outdo the other. Denon of course put the whole industry in checkmate with this $6k behemoth. It took years for other companies to dare to approach this price class in a receiver and just while others such as Yamaha and Pioneer did, Denon decisively scaled back their next flagship, the AVR-5308CI and went full forward with cost no object separates. They banked on those that wanted the ultimate performance would go the separates route while placing more emphasis on the latest features and technologies in their receiver line at the most affordable price points. 

Denon 3600Let’s go back to non flagship models and the evolution of their power supplies as more channels were added. A best case scenario would have been to simply use the power supply of its 5.1 predecessor and just add two more channels. Power amplifier companies do this all the time. But, receivers are tight on space and short on budget so this usually means also compromising the power supply. Looking at another classic A/V receiver, the Denon AVR-3600DTS, lets see how this worked. This receiver was a battle tank, tipping the scale at nearly 50lbs and a rated power of 140wpc x 5. It decoded DD and DTS but lacked component video switching and was only 5 channels. So what followed for Denon in the next model cycle for the 3800 series? An AVR-3801 which was a 7.1 channel A/V receiver but weighed in at only 37lbs and the power rating was reduced to 105wpc x 7. So now you’ve got your component video switching, more processing features and multi zone options, but if you wanted a beefier amp section, you’d have to jump up to the  slightly costlier AVR-4800.  One thing about Denon (as of recent) is when they don't make a direct replacement model in terms of power/performance within a series, they don't continue to increment the model structure the same way (ie. the AVR-4308CI is NOT a direct replacement for the more powerful AVR-4806CI, nor is the 5308CI a direct replacement for the more powerful AVR-5805CI).  They could have easily labeled those models as AVR-4808CI, and AVR-5808CI and called it a day.  Kudo's for Denon for making it a bit more transparent than some of the other brands in this regard.

It’s clear in these examples that we’ve traded some amplifier performance. But we’ve also gained some very useful features such as:

  • Component video switching
  • On Screen Display
  • Improved bass management
  • 7.1 DD EX / DTS ES
  • Multi Zone functionality
  • Multi Channel inputs and outputs

Editorial Note on More Channels:

7.1 NOT good enough? Dolby recently announced PLIIz which builds upon PLIIx by adding height channels. It will be interesting to see how receiver companies integrate yet another two channels of amplification into their budget line of receivers for the new Pro Logic IIz feature offered from Dolby. Does this mean more trade offs for more channels? Aren’t we getting a little to channel happy?

Still More Features Please

Kellogs HDMIToday we are in a world gone crazy for HDMI. I am surprised by now Kellog’s hasn’t released an HDMI compatible breakfast cereal. Up until recently, most consumers didn’t really know what HDMI was for, but they were told that every device they purchase going forward should have it else they wouldn’t have a true High Definition experience. HDMI barely operated correctly when it was first implemented into products. To this day, I still witness compatibility issues between products enabled the latest HDMI protocol vs. 1.1 and below.

Nonetheless to get us up to date, we need the following features in our A/V receivers:

  • 7.1 Channel Dolby Digital / DTS, Dolby TrueHD, DTS HD decoding and all matrixed flavors (ie. PLIIx, DTS Neo, etc)
  • Automatic room correction
  • Video up-conversion and scaling for component and HDMI
  • OSD support via HDMI
  • HDMI video post processing
  • Networking functionality

In order to do that, we are talking big time licensing fees and some serious hardware to do it. Today’s A/V receivers have more in common with a PC than most people realize as a result.

So many years ago at the $2500 price point, we could get 5 channels of balls to the walls high performance 50lb A/V receivers with good ole fashion linear A/B amplifiers. Today for that same coin we get a state of the art networking A/V control center with all the latest decoding and processing in a more compact form factor. Are the amps as robust or as powerful as yesteryear? I think not. Do most people care? Probably not! This is especially true when considering the trend towards compact speaker packages for aesthetic purposes over hulking towers and the MP3 / iPod craze over uncompressed formats. The majority of end users don’t need the extra power. Those that do, tend to go the separates route anyways. In most cases, trading a bit of amplifier performance for the latest feature implementation is a good compromise. The bottom line is if you want bleeding edge technology on the cheap, something has to give, excluding flagship models, usually. The receiver companies that don’t make these compromises in their budget, high volume line of product are typically light-years behind in processing and the latest features that you the consumer demand from them. Those that take the calculated risk that features will sell over basic performance are still the top dogs at in this business. They give the consumers what they asked for.

Assuming the A/V receiver has quality preamp outputs, one can simply add external amplification if they so need it. Most dedicated processors don’t always offer the latest features since their model cycles are much longer than A/V receivers. With more and more people using A/V receivers as a pre/pro, this is becoming quite a common practice among A/V enthusiasts. Most of the time it's also a very sensible one

So Watts the Problem?

I totally understand and respect the tradeoffs between amplifier power and features in budget A/V receivers. Heck just a few years ago, you couldn’t get a 7.1 A/V receiver with HDMI 1.3a A/V processing and decoding for under $2k, now you can get them for under $500 with OSD support via HDMI no less. That’s progress!

What I do take issue with, however, is when a receiver company releases their next generation of receivers at the same price points with virtually the same operational features, but cost-reduces the power supply in attempts to increase profit margins.

Let’s take a look at the differences between two $549 Yamaha receivers as an example. Yamaha isn’t the only brand I’ve noticed this trend with mind you.

Yamaha RX-V663 Yamaha RX-V665

Yamaha RX-V663 Yamaha RX-V665
Retail $549 $549
Power Spec 95wpc x 7 full bandwidth 90wpc x 7 at 1kHz
HDMI (I/O) (2/1) (4/1)
Component Video (I/O) (3/1) (2/1)
A/V inputs 5 with s-video 4 (composite only)
Digital inputs 3 opt / 2 coax 2 opt / 2 coax
HDMI Up conversion Yes to 1080p
HDMI Pass thru No Yes
Speaker a/b A + B
A only
Dimensions (W x H X D) 17 1/8” x 6 3/4” x 15 1/2” 17 1/8” x 6” x 14 3/8”
Weight 26.2 lbs 18.7 lbs


The upgrades for the new model (RX-V665) includes HDMI up-scaling to 1080p, HDMI pass thru to enable video when your receiver is turned off, and 2 more HDMI inputs. The downside is no s-video, one less optical input and a significant reduction in power. When a receiver company rates their amp at 1kHz, this usually means a full bandwidth measurement will be about 10-15% lower. Thus I suspect if we were comparing apples to apples, the RX-V665 would only output around 70wpc compared to the 95wpc rating of its predecessor. Of course with nearly an 8lb weight reduction and considering both receivers use linear A/B amplification, this also likely means the RX-V665 doesn’t have the power reserves to drive multiple channels with as much poise and finesse as the RX-V663.

For the above example, the consumer must decide whether or not the upgraded features of the new receiver are worth the sacrifice in amplifier quality. I suppose it depends if the end user leans more towards emphasis of video features than audio. If they desire both and one day have intentions of adding external amplification, than doesn’t this become a moot point?

Not always. From my testing of A/V receivers from various manufacturers, most of them simply slap preamp outputs on the back of their receivers for a marketing feature. It is a very inexpensive way to impress the unsophisticated user into being awed. They usually don’t put decent op-amps that have enough output to drive external power amplification to its full potential without the internal preamp of the receiver first clipping and going into gross distortion. Remember these receivers are designed as a closed loop system to work optimally with their own internal components. If the manufacturer is cutting costs in the power supply of their product to offer you more features, it’s a safe bet they aren’t giving you a higher quality preamplification section to power an external amplifier.

More Gain is Better?

Emotiva XPA-2I once picked on Emotiva for creating their latest series of amps with higher than usual voltage gain (32dB unbridged, 38dB bridged). A typical high performance amp only a few years ago had around 29dB of gain via the unbalanced inputs meaning if a preamp drive level was around 2Vrms it would be capable of driving a 400 watt amplifier to full rated power without clipping itself and turning off. I found many budget receivers couldn’t drive their preamp outs any higher than 1.2Vrms without clipping and distorting or shutting down. That meant an amplifier with a similar gain structure would only be capable of being driven to 142watts when that receiver was used as the preamp! In the case with the Emotiva XPA-2 amp of 32dB of gain, that same 1.2Vrms would drive it to its full rated 250 watts/channel specification. When I spoke to the company President, Dan Laufman, he said they deliberately sacrificed a bit of SNR in order for their amp to be more compatible with receivers being used as preamps to drive them. This approach makes a lot of sense! Axiom Audio also has a similar gain structure in their A1400-8 Class D amplifier and for the very same reasoning though they claim to have achieved this without sacrificing any SNR.

So with these latest generation of budget featured packed receivers, it must be determined whether or not these models have high enough quality preamp outputs to drive external amplification should the end user decide the internal amps just aren’t cutting it for them. The end user must also be mindful of the mating amplifier they are choosing to ensure it will work well as a system. We will be rounding up as many budget receivers we can to run a full range of testing on them to answer this grueling question.


FlagshipHaving done this job for some time now, I’ve noticed this trend with many of the major brands over the years. Companies go through up and down cycles and as a result lose market share. As long as technology keeps evolving, manufacturers will do their best to cram in features of next generation products that were only previously found in their flagship models. While IC integration will trickle down technology, reducing production costs making it easier to achieve this, there will usually be other compromises in the lower end models to realize the feature count.

Finding that balance of basic performance compromises vs. relevant features is the equation that receiver manufacturers must figure out when launching their new platforms. It seems Yamaha has upset this delicate balance with their latest RX-Vxx5 series of receivers.  We will be paying careful attention to this trend for all manufacturers during our product evaluations to recommend whether or not these new dream machines have the audio chops of their predecessors or if they’ve got the tools to adequately drive external amplification for those looking for more power in their next home theater experience. Don’t just run out and buy the latest model because it’s newer. Stop and think if the model you currently have meets the performance vs feature balance that is right for your needs and how the newer so called “improved” model fits into that equation. All the features in the world can’t replace clean undistorted dynamics which we believe makes up most of the WOW and magic in the newer HD audio formats.

Editorial Note on A/V Receiver Market leader Comment (5/04/09)

When this article was originally published, I stated that Denon has now become the market leader in A/V receiver sales.  I have since then found that my source for this information was incorrect as Yamaha continues to be the marketshare leader of A/V receivers in the USA.  My apologies for posting incorrect data


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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