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AV Receiver Buying Guide: Get the Best HDMI Receiver

by November 18, 2014
One of these

One of these

On the AV Rant Podcast, I'm often asked about gear to purchase. Home theater gear is generally a non-trivial purchase for people. Most folks have to save up for a period of time in order to buy the equipment they desire. Understandably, people want to make the best decision of what to do with that money, and that causes stress. We're going to try to help curtail that problem by answering the question: How to Buy an A/V Receiver?

Let's begin by defining the job on a typical A/V Receiver.  The AV Receiver serves as the brain or (Central plexis is Borg lingo) of your home theater system.  It does all of the audio and video switching and processing, as well as provide the power to your speaker system. It's really important to chose the right caliber of AV Receiver to meet your needs while also having an eye on the future for possible expansion.

When Should I Upgrade My AV Receiver?

First let's talk about the things people worry about that they probably shouldn't:

1) Amplifier Power

Reading through manufacturers' websites, it is clear that they value amplifier power. As the prices of their receivers increase, so does the rated amplifier output. It is rare to see a receiver at a high price point with identical power ratings to a cheaper model in a manufacturer's lineup. Even if it is only a five watt-per-channel increase, there is always an increase. So, wattage must be important right?

Power Sweep Receiver

Check out our amplifier measurement article

The dirty secret of the home theater world is that most consumer-level speakers can be paired with even an entry level receiver, and do just fine. While a 120 watts-per-channel A/V receiver has the potential to sound better than 100 or 80 watts-per-channel A/V receiver, the fact is that you are usually using only a few watts at any given time on a continuous basis. There are a lot of reasons for this, but if you are trying to decide between two receivers and one has slightly more power, don't let this be your final decision making parameter.  This is especially true as amplifier ratings are often not consistent from manufacturer to manufacturer, or even from model to model for a single manufacturer.  You'll need to account for  how power is rated  (i.e. bandwidth, distortion level, number of channels driven, etc.) to do the best apples to apples comparison. 

Watts are NOT always created equally and we recommend reading the following article to better understand why A/V Receiver Amplifier Power Ratings

2) Weight

The idea that the heavier A/V receiver or amplifier is better has been around forever. This is a down-and-dirty method for determining the size of the power supply (usually an EI core or toroidal transformer). The heavier one usually has a larger power supply and therefore has more power reserves. There is some merit to weight being an indicator of quality, as you need a big power transformer to deliver lots of power to your speakers.  However, in addition to a hefty power supply, a powerful receiver needs a generous capacitor storage bank to reduce AC ripple and help sustain power reserves. The power supply dumps power into the capacitors, and they provide the instantaneous power that your speakers might need. Moreover, your receiver could have the world's largest power supply, but without large, well-engineered output transistors in the amplifier's output section and a good amount of heat sinking to keep them from thermal overload,  the receiver could still limit the amount of sustained power available to the loudspeakers.  This is especially true for low impedance loads that will demand higher current draw from the receiver's amplifier section which in turn will cause it generate more heat.

Be careful when using weight as a determination of quality. Manufacturers know people are looking at the weight as a measure of quality. Look for higher-priced receivers with "features" such as extra-thick aluminum front plates and other weight gaining changes that have little chance of making a sonic difference. In really high-end and high-dollar offerings, will often beef up the chassis and some may even go so far to add extra fins on the sides just to add weight.

boulder 3050

These amps weight 450 pounds each! Worth every bit of their $205k/pair price?

3) Latest "Must Have" Feature

HDMI HDCP 2.2As is the case with all products that are continually upgraded, each model-year brings a new round of features that we've never seen before. This year it was the Dolby Atmos surround processing and HDMI 2.0. Next year it will likely be full HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 support and DTS:X or Auro-3D (even though Denon and Marantz have already adopted the latter). Whatever it is, don't jump on the "gotta have it" bandwagon without serious thought.

Check our our 4k and HDMI 2.0 breakdown

A few years back, the "big feature" was Apply AirPlay. AirPlay is Apple's wireless streaming solution allowing you to stream content from your iPhone, iPod (some models), or iPad over WiFi. Manufacturers were plastering their adoption of this wireless streaming solution all over their marking material. Did some people buy specifically for AirPlay? Probably. But how many of them actually use it? This year the "must have" is Dolby Atmos. If a buyer isn't going to put speakers high up on their walls or on their ceiling (or buy Atmos-enabled speakers), purchasing an Atmos receiver doesn't make sense. Don't get caught up in the hype unless you are sure you'll actually use the new feature(s) that your current A/V receiver may be lacking.

So what are the important things to consider when making an A/V Receiver purchase?

1) What features are "must haves" for you?

There are a ton of features included in receivers these days. Video processing, room correction, multiple zone support, height and ceiling speakers, wireless streaming, Bluetooth...the list goes on. It can be overwhelming. We recommend that you find a couple features that are important to you and start to weed out the choices. Do you absolutely need a second zone of audio? That will help reduce the number of choices. Do you have a room correction software that you really want? What about number of channels, number of inputs, number of subwoofers, or a particular piece of gear (like a vinyl player) that requires a specific input? Once you've got a short list of "must have" features, the number of receiver options should reduce from "all of them" to "all of them at this price and higher". The next step is figuring out which is the least expensive option that gives you everything you need.

Speaker Assignment

Speaker/Amp Assignment for Denon AVR-X5200W AV Receiver

2) How many channels will you actually use?

These days it is hard to find a receiver that has less that seven channels of amplification. If you are only looking for one room (a single home theater system) any receiver will do. But if you want to utilize some of the newer surround sound formats, you'll need either a receiver with more channels of amplification, or preamp outputs for additional speakers. Not all receivers support multiple zones of audio, so knowing how many zones you'll actually use is important. This should further reduce the number of lower priced receiver choices.  If you can't budget for a new A/V receiver with all of the necessary internal amplifiers built-in to support a full fledged 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos system, make sure the model you're choosing has preamp outputs to allow you to accommodate your future expansion needs.

3) What gear will you be connecting to it?

On the most basic level, you'll want to make sure your new receiver has the number and types of inputs you require. If all of your sources connect via HDMI, you'll need to count the number of HDMI inputs on the back of the receiver. But if you have legacy devices with component, composite, or (God help you) s-video connection, you'll want to ensure that your new receiver has the correct inputs and also that video upconversion is available. This feature (generally available on all mid-priced receivers and higher) takes all your video inputs and transforms them to your preferred video output (usually HDMI). This is a huge convenience that eliminates the need to switch inputs on your TV when switching sources.

denon avr 5803

Is this enough?

As you go up in receiver prices, you'll find tons of options that sound fantastic. Video processing, network streaming, wireless connections, and much more. While these are all useful features, many people already have boxes that fulfill these roles. Do you have a nice Blu-ray player? You likely don't need video processing (especially if you invested in an Oppo player - one of our favorites). Do you have a game system (Xbox or Playstation), a newer "smart" TV, or one of the streaming solutions from Apple, Roku, or Google? You don't need streaming.

On the other hand, if you have an external amplifier that you want to connect, you'll need to make sure the receiver has preamp outputs at least for the front left/right channels. If you have a record player, you'll need a phono input (unless you have a preamp for your player). Mostly, knowing your gear will help you reduce the number of higher-priced receiver options.

4) What speakers will you use and in what room?

Here we finally get to amplifier power. Most receivers will be just fine to power most speakers in most rooms (yes, that's a lot of mosts). Consumer-level speakers are generally 8 ohms and most rooms in your home won't be mistaken for a large arena. Even in a "great room," any A/V receiver can push speakers to ear-bleed levels. The fact is that your ears will give out long before your receiver runs out of power.  However, this doesn't mean all A/V receivers will sound identical, though we've found receivers in the same price class will tend to sound similar.

But what if you are really worried about loudspeaker impedance compatibility with your A/V receiver?

First, check out the impedance specification for your speakers. If it says 8 ohms nominal, you'll be fine. Next, do an Internet search for your speakers and "hard to drive." If you don't come up with a lot of people complaining about their speakers, you'll be fine. Lastly, check out your room. If it isn't cavernous or full of absorptive room treatments, you'll be fine. If you are still worried, buy the receiver from a place with a good return policy, and run your speakers very loud for an hour. Feel the top of the receiver. If it could cook an egg, you may want to get an external amp or bump up to the next level of receiver. The fact is that the most taxing sounds should be coming from your subwoofer. If you are crossing your speakers over at 80 Hz as we suggest, and have a decent sub, any receiver will be fine.

Under no circumstance do we ever recommend using the low setting of a receiver's impedance switch if that model offers such a feature.

See: Setting the A/V Receiver Impedance Switch


We'd like to say that this is a definitive guide on receiver buying. Of course, every person's needs are unique. What we have tried to create is a general guide on how to whittle down your choices. Next you can use something like our $500 receiver comparison to quickly see which receivers have exactly what you need. Once they are down to a reasonable level, choosing between the available options will be as much an emotional decision as it is a rational one. Our hope is that, in the end, you purchase a receiver with all the features you need without paying for features you don't. Happy shopping!


About the author:
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As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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