AV receiver buying guide: Step up to high-quality sound

If you want true high-quality sound, you have to move up from a sound bar to an AV receiver and speakers. Here's what you should know before you buy one.

Sony STR-DN840
Sony's STR-DN840 is my favorite AV receiver pick for 2013. Sarah Tew/CNET

If you want truly great sound in your living room, a sound bar isn't going to cut it. Sound bars are convenient and offer a big boost over your TV's built-in speakers, especially on movies and TV shows, but an AV receiver paired up with even entry-level speakers takes sound quality to the next level, especially if you like to listen to music at home.

Deciding which AV receiver to buy can be overwhelming, with each model sporting tons of logos and proprietary technologies that aren't easy to understand if you're not familiar with home audio. But the truth is most of those features don't matter much and you should focus on just a few major points when making your pick.

If you just want a simple recommendation, go with the Sony STR-DN840. It's the best AV receiver value of 2013, with plenty of HDMI inputs, and it can stream audio wirelessly from just about any smartphone or tablet. You can also take a look at CNET's list of the best AV receivers, which includes some other solid alternative options, depending on what you're looking for.

But if you're looking for more information, here's what's important.

How many HDMI inputs is enough?

Now that nearly every living-room device uses HDMI, the number of HDMI inputs is by far the most important feature in an AV receiver.

Sony STR-DN1040 back panel
You probably don't need eight HDMI inputs, but it's nice to have room to expand. Sarah Tew/CNET

There's no one-size-fits-all answer to how many HDMI inputs is enough. If you love electronics, six might be just enough, whereas others could get by with three. What I can recommend is at least considering getting one more HDMI input than you currently need. Even if you feel confident that you'll never need more than four devices, you never know when a neat new product will come out -- I'm sure plenty of people wished they had an extra port as soon as Google's $35 Chromecast was announced.

Of course, you can always theoretically expand your HDMI connectivity options later with an HDMI switcher, but it's a less elegant solution. (Although a universal remote can help.) Considering the fact that you're likely to hold onto an AV receiver for upward of five years, it's worth investing in a little extra HDMI connectivity -- especially if you like new tech toys.

Strongly consider built-in AirPlay, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi

The newest marquee feature for AV receivers is built-in support for wireless technologies like AirPlay, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. AV receivers have a history of adding dubious features that aren't all that useful, but it's definitely worth considering getting a receiver with wireless capabilities.

Onkyo TX-NR626
Onkyo's TX-NR626 includes both built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Sarah Tew/CNET

Here's the pitch for Bluetooth and AirPlay: load up any app on your smartphone or tablet -- such as Pandora or Spotify -- and either technology will let you wirelessly stream it to your AV receiver in seconds. It's the ultimate in instant gratification, especially if your music habits tend to revolve around your mobile device.

Bluetooth and AirPlay are similar, but have some key differences. Bluetooth works with nearly every smartphone and tablet (including Apple devices) within a range of about 30 feet, but has somewhat diminished sound quality. AirPlay only works with Apple devices (with some exceptions). It offers superior, lossless audio quality, but requires your receiver to be connected to your home network.

Apple TV
You can add AirPlay with the Apple TV, but it's not quite as convenient for music. Sarah Tew/CNET

While it's possible to add Bluetooth and AirPlay to any AV receiver using an external device, getting it built-in can be more convenient. For example, the Sony STR-DN840 can automatically turn on and flip to the correct input whenever you select it on your smartphone or tablet -- you just can't get that level of convenience using a separate device.

Built-in Wi-Fi is less important. It makes it easier to get your AV receiver onto your home network (rather than needing a wired Ethernet connection), which enables smartphone control, firmware updates, and integrated streaming services, such Pandora or Spotify. I've found that none of those features are particularly compelling, particularly built-in streaming services, which are much more convenient to use when streamed from your tablet or smartphone. The major reason you'd want built-in Wi-Fi is that it makes it easier to take advantage of AirPlay -- the other upgrades aren't as enticing.

Sound quality: How much does it matter?

Every brand touts its superior sound, but my advice would be to not worry much about sound quality when buying an AV receiver.

That may seem counterintuitive for a device of which the entire purpose is to enable high-fidelity audio, but the reality is audible differences between typical AV receivers are subtle at best, and quite possibly nonexistent. It's a regularly debated issue for audio enthusiasts (here's a taste of the debate), but I haven't seen, nor heard, convincing evidence that modern AV receivers sound different in normal circumstances.

Pioneer SP-PK52FS
When it comes to sound quality, speakers are much more important than AV receivers. Sarah Tew/CNET

CNET's AV receiver reviews include subjective listening tests, but even resident audiophile Steve agrees the difference is subtle, which is why sound quality isn't weighted heavily in our ratings. Our subjective listening tests also factor in automatic speaker calibration, which can introduce significant sonic differences, often for the worse.

If you're a true believer in AV receiver sound quality, no doubt you'll want to buy what sounds best to you, but for those of us with fleshy ears (rather than golden ones), there's no proven reason to sweat sound quality when it comes to buying an AV receiver.

The best AV receiver is the one you already own

If you already have an AV receiver, think twice before upgrading. While smartphones and laptops get big performance increases every year, you're not going to get the same kind of boost with a new AV receiver -- the one you bought years ago probably sounds just as good.

You might also be tempted to upgrade if you have an older AV receiver without HDMI connectivity, but it's not strictly necessary. Many devices have separate digital audio outputs, allowing you to run video to your TV via HDMI and audio to an older receiver with a digital audio cable. That involves more input switching, but you can solve that problem easily with a quality universal remote like the Logitech Harmony 650 or Harmony Smart Control. You're also theoretically missing out on the superior sound quality of Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio -- digital audio cables are limited to plain Dolby Digital / DTS -- but the differences between those formats can be hard to hear even in ideal situations.

Denon AVR-3801
Don't count out your AV receiver just because it's old. Denon

Another option is connecting all your HDMI sources straight to your TV, then using your TV's digital output to connect to your receiver. The big downside is that most TVs "dumb down" incoming audio to stereo, but it's a slick workaround if you have a two-channel speaker system. In fact, this is how my own home 2.1-channel audio setup is configured, using a decade-old Denon AVR-3801. Sure, an HDMI-capable receiver would be nice, but I'd much sooner spend my money on new speakers than replace an AV receiver that still works and sounds great.

Wrap-up: Focus on the big features

Once you find a few models with the right number of HDMI inputs and the wireless technologies you want, you should have a relatively short list of models to consider. I'd recommend reading some professional reviews (including ours) before making the final choice, as well as user reviews to see if there are any long-term issues that wouldn't crop up during a review period.

But most of all, it's worth remembering that AV receivers, much more than other home audio devices, are all pretty similar. Speakers and headphones can look and sound very different, but AV receivers mostly look and sound the same. Personally, I think AV receivers could get a lot better, but they're still your best option if you want high-quality sound.


Is a 7.1 setup worth it over 5.1?

Not in my opinion. It's a classic case of diminishing returns: 5.1 sounds significantly more immersive than stereo, but the difference between 5.1 and 7.1 isn't nearly as great. Not to mention the fact that there just isn't that much content with true, discrete 7.1-channel soundtracks. When you consider all the extra hassle, plus the fact that you could put the extra money toward better (rather than more) speakers, 7.1 doesn't seem all that attractive.

What about second-zone audio?
One of the benefits of getting a 7.1-channel AV receiver (over a 5.1 model) is that the extra two channels can be used to power a second set of speakers. Most 7.1 AV receivers can even pump different audio sources into different rooms (referred to as "second-zone audio"): one person can watch TV in the living room, while someone else listens to a CD in the bedroom.

It's a neat idea, but it's much more limited than it sounds. Most AV receivers can't send any incoming digital sources (HDMI and digital audio inputs) to the second zone, which is going to include most devices connected to the receiver. You'll also need to run wires from your primary room to the secondary room, which isn't always easy. And finally, remember that you probably won't be able to control the second source with a remote when you're in another room, although AV receivers with smartphone control get around this somewhat.

So even if you think you want second-zone functionality, make sure you're aware of all the limitations. In many cases, it's easier to get a small, separate system (or Bluetooth speaker) for the second room. And if you want a true multiroom audio system, check out Sonos, which makes products that can integrate with any AV receiver.

What about watts? How much power do I need?
Comparing the wattage specs on AV receivers won't tell you much. Power ratings aren't standardized, so there's no guarantee that one company's 100-watt-per-channel receiver will sound louder than another company's 50-watt-per-channel receiver.

More importantly, for typical home theater speakers and rooms, modern AV receivers offer plenty of power. CNET's listening room is medium-sized, but we never run into AV receivers that don't have the capability to get much louder than the average person would choose.

Should I worry about automatic speaker calibration?
Automatic speaker calibration sounds like a great idea, letting you use an included microphone to adjust speaker levels and apply EQ to accommodate your listening room. In practice, it doesn't always work that well. In fact, in our recent roundup of AV receiver reviews, automatic speaker calibration was consistently off, almost always setting the subwoofer volume level incorrectly. If you really care about sound, you're better off learning how to manually set your speaker levels.

What about 4K? 3D? THX? MHL?
Given the dearth of 4K content and its dubious benefits on all but the largest TVs, there's little reason to worry about 4K compatibility (or upscaling) in an AV receiver. Nearly all HDMI-capable receivers are 3D-compatible these days, so it likely won't be a determining factor in your buying decision. There's no need to pay extra for THX-certification, as virtually all AV receivers perform perfectly well, without the THX logo.

MHL isn't essential, but worth considering, especially if you like the idea of using something like the Roku Streaming Stick. For AV receivers, you can think of an MHL connection as a powered HDMI port, which lets you connect ever-smaller streaming devices without the need for a separate power adapter.

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