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Best AV receiver for 2021

We compared affordable, feature-filled AV receivers from Denon, Onkyo, Sony and Yamaha. Which one wins?

Want to find the best AV receiver for the money? I've tested some of the most popular big-black-box options from the major brands, and the feature sets, connectivity options and performance levels in a home cinema are impressively high in this middling price range. From Dolby Atmos to Wi-Fi music streaming to voice control -- and high-quality audio -- these AV receiver models have everything a home theater enthusiast needs. 

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Which receiver comes out on top?

Of the receiver models I've reviewed in the past two years, the 2019 Onkyo TX-NR696 is still my favorite pick for best AV receiver for a home theater system. The Yamaha offers easy setup, excellent usability, great surround sound with plenty of headroom, easy speaker setup, solid looks and a suite of useful features. The Onkyo AV receiver retails for more than $500, but this great surround-sound receiver is regularly on sale for under that. Even at $580 the TX-NR696 is a great deal. However at the moment it appears to be out of stock, as is the excellent new Yamaha RX-V6A. Onkyo will refresh its range with new models in June of this year, but if you need something right now the Sony STR-DN1080 is the one to buy.

In recent times, many receiver manufacturers have gotten off the "yearly refresh merry-go-round," with only Denon and Yamaha making new models in 2020. Meanwhile, Sony hasn't updated its line since 2017 (and it's still good). Even though older models won't bring you the latest features -- 8KVRR (Variable Refresh Rate) and so on -- all of the receivers below will offer you the best sound.

The Yamaha RX-V6A is one of the few receiver models that has debuted since 2019 and, despite a couple of minor dings, offers excellent sound and up-to-date features. The Sony STR-DN1080 also puts in a good showing despite being from 2017. I have rated the Yamaha, Sony and Onkyo as "excellent," with just a little daylight separating their overall CNET ratings. They're all great performers and, as prices fluctuate regularly, if you can find one that's significantly less expensive than the others, go for it -- your speaker system will be well served in any case.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Onkyo TX-NR696 is the best AV home theater receiver for those looking for a budget-ish option. This receiver was released in 2019 with a wealth of connectivity that supports multiple audio formats and gives a big, bold sound. It isn't the direct replacement to my favorite receiver of 2018, the TX-NR585, but this step-up AV receiver model offers a number of improvements, including a bump in power (80W to 100W) and a front-mounted HDMI port (in addition to the six HDMI inputs on the back). This video and audio receiver offers streaming protocols, including built-in Chromecast, DTS Play-Fi, Spotify Connect, AirPlay and Bluetooth. The only thing we didn't like was the remote control (it was just a bit too much, even with all those connectivity options). If you can find the TX-NR696 under $500, that's great, but if you can't it's still worth the extra coin.

Read our Onkyo TX-NR696 review.


Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The Yamaha RX-V6A may offer a fresh look at AV receiver design with futuristic edges, but it also doesn't skimp on sound quality. The RX-V6A could make you forget about ever visiting a cinema again, and it's no slouch with music, either. This Yamaha receiver offers Wi-Fi connectivity, AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Bluetooth and Yamaha's MusicCast system for streaming from your devices. This Yamaha AV receiver is the most future-proof option of this roundup so far, with 8K pass-through and VRR for compatibility with the Xbox Series X and PS5.

Read our YAMAHA RX-V6A review.


Sound United

One of only two mainstream designs released in 2020, Denon's AVR-S960H may not be as glittering and shiny as the Yamaha RX-V6A but it still offers excellent sound quality. The receiver is laid-back, blends well with forward-sounding speakers and replays music beautifully. In addition it has almost everything you need, including voice control via both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant speakers, Dolby Atmos and Apple AirPlay 2 and two HDMI outputs. While 2019's excellent AVR-S750H is still available, if the price you see for it is $619 you might as well pay a bit more for the feature and power bump the S960 offers.

Read our Denon AVR-S960H review.


Sarah Tew/CNET

The Sony STR-DN1080 got our Editors' Choice Award in 2017, and it's still an excellent AV receiver package, albeit getting slightly long in the tooth. Sound quality isn't quite as strong as those of the Denon and Onkyo, but they're all very close. If you want a receiver that offers ease of use and integrates both AirPlay (but not AirPlay 2) and Google Chromecast built-in wireless streaming, this is a great AV receiver option. It even uses virtual speaker relocation technology to optimize sound in the room where you set it up. Don't pay full price, though -- it has been on sale in the past for between $400 and $500.

Read our Sony STR-DN1080 review.


What to look for in a $500-ish receiver

AV receivers are notoriously complex, with reams of features and confusing technical specifications (What's "ultra HD"?) How will that affect the sound quality? Why is setting up a surround sound system so complicated? I'm going to sum up the most important ones right here.

4K HDR compatibility

You want to make sure your new receiver can keep up with the latest TVs and video gear. Standards do change all the time, but the bare minimum right now is support for HDR and Dolby Vision (at least HDMI version 2.0 or better). All of these models support 4K and HDR video. 8K is coming, eventually, but most recorded content is still going to be in 1080p or even worse for many, many years. If future-proofing is a concern for you, the Yamaha RX-V6A and Denon AVR-S960H offer 8K compatibility. 


The rear panel of the Onkyo TX-NR585 offers six HDMI inputs.

Sarah Tew/CNET

As many HDMI inputs as you can afford

With most televisions and set-top boxes supporting HDMI, you should buy a receiver that has as many of these HDMI input ports and outputs as possible. Front-mounted HDMI ports are kind of like an appendix -- unneeded, because most users don't hot-plug HDMI devices -- making the number of rear inputs what's most important (how else are you going to connect your Blu-ray player, Nintendo Switch, soundbar and all your other devices?). The Sony and Onkyo in this roundup both have six rear-mounted HDMI ports while the Denon and Yamaha go one better with seven. If you want to connect two different displays -- a TV and a projector for example -- all but the Yamaha offer a second HDMI output. You should also be sure you have an extra HDMI cable or two on hand -- these things are like the second sock of a pair in that you can never find them when you need them.

You don't really need Dolby Atmos 'height' speakers

Most receivers in the $500-and-above price range include Dolby Atmos capability and DTS:X, but the effects they have on your home theater movie-watching can be subtle, or in most movies nonexistent. In other words, don't worry about missing out on these formats if you don't install an extra height speaker or two. Mounting your rear surround speakers high on the wall will get you halfway there in terms of quality, immersive sound.

Wi-Fi music streaming

Most midrange receivers have onboard Wi-Fi network connectivity for wireless music streaming through your speaker system. There are plenty of standards for wireless streaming services, but the most universal are Spotify Connect, Apple AirPlay 1 and 2 and Google Chromecast built-in. If you're looking to build a multiroom system with a variety of AV systems and speakers with wireless connectivity, these are the three flavors to aim for. The Onkyo and Sony are the only two devices that support all three. The Denon receiver model lacks wireless streaming via Chromecast but ups the ante to AirPlay 2 and the proprietary HEOS system. Yamaha has its own MusicCast in the meantime.

For more general information on what you should be looking for, check out the AV receiver buying guide from 2016.

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