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How to buy an AV receiver in 2021

If you want truly great sound, you have to move up from a soundbar to an AV receiver with separate speakers. Here's what you should know.

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If you want true home theater sound in your living room, even the best soundbar isn't going to cut it. Soundbars are convenient, easy to set up and sound much better than your TV's built-in speakers, especially for TV shows and movies. But an AV receiver paired with a set of separate speakers takes sound quality to the next level, with immersive, powerful audio that trounces a soundbar, particularly if you listen to music as well as home theater.

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. Features such as Dolby Atmos, 8K, HDR10 Plus, eARC and more. 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 want a quick recommendation, here it is:

Sarah Tew/CNET

Not the most up-to-date spec-wise but it offers everything you need -- great sound and excellent connectivity. It also offers the widest streaming compatibility of any brand with AirPlay, Chromecast built-in and DTS Play-Fi. It may not do 8K but it will do the rest, and very well.

Read our Onkyo TX-NR696 review.

 

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The more modern recommendation over the Onkyo is the Yamaha RX-V6A. It's the best AV receiver value of the past 12 months, with plenty of HDMI inputs (including 8K and eARC support), plus it can stream audio wirelessly from just about any smartphone or tablet, although it does lack Chromecast.

Read our YAMAHA RX-V6A review.

 

Then add these

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you like your dramas just as much as you love your singer-songwriters the Elac Debut 2.0 B6.2 offers extraordinary levels of detail in a compact budget speaker. It offers excellent build quality and can form the heart of a great AV system. 

Read our Elac Debut 2.0 B6.2 review.

 

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

What about HDMI?

Now that nearly every living-room device uses HDMI, the number of HDMI inputs is a very important consideration. There's no one-size-fits-all answer to how many is enough, though. If you love electronics you might need six or more, whereas others could get by with three or less. I recommend getting at least 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 Sony's PlayStation 5 was announced.

Sony STR-DN1040 back panel

You may not need seven HDMI inputs right now, but at some point you will.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

4K vs 8K? Just when you thought that it was safe to buy a 4K TV, the manufacturers found another four K's seemingly behind the sofa. Some new receivers like the Yamaha above support 8K via HDMI 2.1, but they can be worth considering even if you don't see an 8K TV in your immediate future. 

One interesting part of this new breed of receivers is eARC -- the ability to pass Dolby Atmos from a TV and other hi-res formats to your home theater system. This you can use and if you have a compatible TV you don't need to worry about the number of HDMI ports on your receiver, just use the television as a switcher.

HDMI 2.1 might also be important for gamers who want to take advantage of the latest features available on the Xbox One X/S and PlayStation 5, namely 4K/120Hz and VRR, but they're not a must-have on a new receiver. In general we recommend connecting those consoles directly to a compatible TV, not to the receiver, and using eARC or an optical connection to pass audio to the receiver.

If you opt for a pre-2020 receiver though make sure it has at least 4K compatibility, to make the most of 4K streaming and gaming. This means one that boasts at least HDMI 2.0a and HDCP 2.2 certification.

Read: Best AV receiver for 2021

Built-in Wi-Fi, AirPlay and Bluetooth

AV receivers have a history of adding dubious features that aren't all that useful, but built-in support for wireless technologies such as multiroom audio, AirPlay, Chromecast and Bluetooth are very useful. Here's the pitch for wireless connectivity: 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.

While most receivers now connect to the Internet over Wi-Fi, it's worth looking to a receiver that's compatible with streaming services. Some receivers have their own proprietary apps -- such as Yamaha's MusicCast or Denon's HEOS -- most are also able to offer direct connection to popular apps such as Spotify and Pandora.

homepod-echo-google-home-1

Smart speakers allow you to control a modern AV receiver

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Bluetooth, AirPlay and Chromecast built-in 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 is designed for Apple devices, with some exceptions. It offers lossless, CD-audio quality, but requires your receiver to be connected to your home network, while AirPlay 2 adds multi-room capability. Google Chromecast is also able to stream to multiple rooms, is compatible with both Android and (increasingly) iOS apps, and offers higher-than-CD hi-res quality (24bit/96kHz). 

One other key feature that modern receivers allow is voice control -- being able to ask your Google Assistant or Amazon Echo for a song and having it play through the receiver is one of life's small joys. 

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. The Onkyo TX-NR696, for example, can automatically turn on and flip to the correct input whenever you select an audio app on your smartphone or tablet -- you just can't get that level of convenience using a separate device.

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 not as noticeable as the differences between speakers. It's a regularly debated issue for audio enthusiasts, but to many people all AV receivers sound the same in normal circumstances.

Most receiver brands are geared towards providing better home theater sound than music -- though there are some exceptions including Denon and Marantz. Be aware that some receivers are also tuned specifically for each market: for example, a Sony receiver will sound differently in the US to the way it does in the UK or Australia.

Pioneer SP-PK52FS

When it comes to sound quality, speakers are much more important than AV receivers.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Depending on the age of your receiver the most recent thing you'll be missing out is support for new formats such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.  You might then be tempted to upgrade if you have an older AV receiver without HDMI connectivity, as you'll also miss out on the higher bitrate formats Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio. Coaxial and optical digital cables are limited to plain Dolby Digital/DTS but the differences between those formats can be hard to hear even in ideal situations. 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.

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 downside is that some TVs "dumb down" incoming audio to stereo, but it's a slick workaround if you have a two-channel speaker system.

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.

FAQs

Is it worth buying a 7.1 setup over 5.1, especially for Atmos?

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.

Though Dolby Atmos uses at least 7 channels -- whether in 5.2.1 or larger 5.4.1 configurations -- balancing ceiling-pointing speaker on top of your existing speakers, or dotting even more around your seating position, doesn't seem all that attractive when you could put the extra money toward better (rather than more) speakers.

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 our roundup of the best Wi-Fi systems that will integrate with most AV receivers.

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-balance, 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.