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New AV receiver features to look for in 2010

AV receivers don't change as much as other home theater products, but there are still a few new features every year that you need to be aware of. CNET rounds up the changes for 2010.

Denon AVR-1911 back panel
The relatively sparse back panel of the Denon AVR-1911 is a good example of the less is more trend in midrange AV receivers in this year.

New models of AV receivers always roll out later in the year and we're in the midst of rounding up the best midrange models of 2010. AV receivers certainly don't change as quickly as other home theater products, like HDTVs and Blu-ray players, but every year there are few new features that are important to be aware of when making a buying decision. Here's a quick look at some of the changes to look out for this year in the midrange price level.

3D pass-through
Even though it's a completely new feature for 2010, 3D compatibility is already essentially an expected feature, with receivers as cheap as the $230 Denon AVR-391 capable of passing a 3D video signal from a 3D source to a 3D HDTV. Though it's unlikely that most buyers will be upgrading to 3D this year (given the cost and lack of content), it's a good "future-proofing" feature to have since you'll probably want to hold onto your receiver for several years.

Audio return channel

It's really not that difficult to run a separate audio cable back to your receiver, but it's still a nice bonus feature. HDMI.org

Audio return channel (ARC) is one of the new features supported by HDMI 1.4, but just because a receiver has HDMI 1.4 doesn't mean it has audio return channel. That's because it's not a mandatory part of the HDMI 1.4 spec, and manufacturers can choose whether to include it.

Confusion aside, it's a worthwhile feature that allows TVs to send audio back to an AV receiver over the same HDMI cable that is carrying video from the receiver to the HDTV. That's useful if you're using your HDTV's over-the-air tuner or perhaps one of its built-in streaming media services (such as Netflix or Amazon VOD), and want to listen with your surround sound system. It's not a revolutionary feature--it's only saving you the hassle of making an extra connection from the TV's digital audio output--and it only works with new HDTVs that support ARC, but it's still a nice bonus to simplify your home theater setup.

Standby pass-through
Standby pass-through is another HDMI-centric feature that enables the receiver to continue to pass audio and video signals over HDMI, even when the receiver is in standby (off) mode. This flexibility is nice for times when you may not want to fire up your full surround sound system (such as late at night), but still want to access your home theater gadgets and use your TV's built-in speakers. Standby pass-through isn't available on every model, so you'll need to need to check the specs to find the right model.

Dolby ProLogic IIz
ProLogic IIz made its debut last year and it's become widely adopted this year, as it's included on every midrange AV receiver we're reviewing. We can't say we were fans when we listened to the technology last year, but if you're into the idea of using "height" channels to expand your soundstage, you'll get it on virtually every midrange AV receiver available this year.

iPod/iPhone via USB
Last year the Pioneer VSX-1019AH-K was the only AV receiver in its price class that allowed you to connect an iPod/iPhone directly via USB, which is one of the reasons it received the Editors' Choice Award. This year, the feature is much more common, with the Pioneer VSX-1020-K, Denon AVR-1911, Marantz NR1601 all supporting it. It's certainly better than the alternative of having to purchase a pricey, separate iPod

Missing features: phono input, multichannel analog inputs, S-Video inputs
If you haven't been up-to-date with AV receivers in recent years, there are several features you might be expecting that manufacturers no longer include. S-Video inputs have been missing for quite some time, and this year manufacturers are also increasingly leaving out AV receiver staples like multichannel analog audio inputs and phono inputs.

For the most part, we're OK with these omissions, as nearly every home theater product supports HDMI now. If you do have older products that use these connections, in most cases there's a workaround or you'll need to make sure you choose a receiver that has the right connections; for example, the Yamaha RX-V667 still offers multichannel analog inputs.