Update (February 12, 2009): Check out our follow-up story, with full reviews of all the products mentioned here.
I receive a lot of e-mail asking why we haven't reviewed many AV receivers in recent months. First off, let me say: mea culpa. Reviews coverage of this category has suffered, mostly because AV receivers are among the most time-consuming products to analyze (because they now need to be examined in detail for their audio and video performance). But enough of the excuses; here's what we're doing to remedy the situation.
We're concentrating our efforts on receivers that deliver the maximum value in the sub-$500 range. That means as many HDMI inputs as possible (ideally, at least four), support for Blu-ray lossless audio decoding (Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio), and the ability to convert analog video inputs to HDMI (i.e. HDMI upconversion of composite, S-video, and component inputs). That latter feature is becoming somewhat less important now that most every new home video device tends to sport an HDMI output, but there are still plenty of sources--most notably the Nintendo Wii--that don't.
With those bullet points in mind, here are five models on our reviews radar. All of the models listed below are 7.1-channel models that offer lossless audio decoding, HDMI inputs, automatic speaker calibration, onscreen interfaces, built-in compatibility with Sirius and/or XM satellite radio, and analog-to-HDMI video conversion:
Denon AVR-1909 ($600-$650, review coming soon): This receiver can upscale incoming analog video to 1080p, but it's generally more expensive than the competing models listed, and only has three HDMI inputs.
Onkyo TX-SR606 ($430 or less): This update to 2007's excellent Onkyo TX-SR605 includes four HDMI inputs, and delivered an impressive bang for the buck. However, we found the analog-to-HDMI video conversion to be subpar, so those with non-HDMI video sources might want to consider the alternatives.
Pioneer VSX-1018AH ($470 or less): While this Pioneer receiver only has three HDMI inputs--and no S-video connections at all--it delivers many of the features found on Pioneer's upscale Elite receivers at a far lower price.
Sony STR-DG920 ($500 or less): This Sony receiver offers a graphical onscreen interface and four HDMI inputs. But like the Pioneer above, it includes no S-video inputs or outputs.
Yamaha RX-V663 ($500 or less, review coming soon): The Yamaha's otherwise impressive spec sheet is marred by the fact that it's got only two HDMI inputs.
Keep in mind that the Onkyo is the only one we've actually reviewed so far, with the Yamaha, Denon, and Pioneer soon to follow. (We're hoping to get the Sony as well.) Still, even just from the spec sheets, I think it's safe to say that any of the models listed above would be a better buy than the most recent AV receiver we reviewed: the Panasonic SA-BX500. That model had a fat list price of $800, but it lacked many of the niceties found in most of these models (no onscreen interface, no analog-to-HDMI video conversion--just to name two big ones).
So, let us know: Are you considering any of the receivers above? Do you have others that you're interested in? Or, if you already own one of these--or another recent model--let us know if you would recommend it to a friend (or not), and why.