Soundbars may be convenient, easy to set up and perform better than your TV's built-in speakers, but if you want true home theater sound in your living room, even the best soundbar isn't going to cut it. An AV receiver paired with a set of separate speakers takes sound quality for your shows and movies to the next level, offering immersive, powerful audio, which also makes music sound great.
In this article:
- Quick recommendations
- What about HDMI?
- Built in Wi-Fi, AirPlay and Bluetooth
- Sound quality: How much does it matter?
- The best AV receiver is the one you already own
- Wrap-up and FAQs
With proprietary technologies such as Dolby Atmos, 8K, HDR10 Plus, eARC, virtual height speakers and more, making a decision on which AV receiver to buy can be overwhelming. But the truth is some of those features don't matter much and you should focus on just a few major points when making your pick.
That said, if you want a quick recommendation, here it is:
The Onkyo TX-NR6100 is the current best AV receiver value. It offers with plenty of HDMI inputs (including 8K and eARC support), plus it can stream audio wirelessly from just about any smartphone or tablet, including Chromecast from Android phones and Nest speakers. The Onkyo features a big, open sound, and plays music really well, to boot.
Then add these
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.
You can also take a look at CNET's list of the best AV receivers, which includes some other solid alternative options. If you're looking for more information or context, here's what's important.
What about HDMI?
Almost every AV device sold today uses HDMI, making the number of HDMI inputs on a receiver a very important consideration. There's no one-size-fits-all answer to how many is enough, though. If you love gaming and stremaing you might need six or more, whereas others could get by with three or less. We 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 -- we're sure plenty of people wished they had an extra port as soon as Sony's PlayStation 5 was announced.
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, manufacturers found another four K's seemingly behind the sofa. Some new receivers like the Onkyo above support 8K via HDMI 2.1, and 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 and other hi-res formats from a TV to your home theater system. If you have a recent, 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 Series X and S and PS5, namely 4K/120Hz and VRR, but they're not a must-have on a new (or second-hand) receiver. If your receiver doesn't have HDMI 2.1 inputs you can connect those consoles directly to a compatible TV, not to the receiver, and use eARC or an optical connection to pass audio to the receiver. Early 8K receivers had an issue known as the 4K/120Hz bug, which meant they couldn't pass VRR content, mainly from the Xbox Series X. However, any new receiver you buy in 2023 should be free of this issue.
If you opt for a older receiver, though, make sure it has at least 4K compatibility, to make the most of 4K streaming and gaming for the latest TVs. This means one that boasts at least HDMI 2.0a and HDCP 2.2 certification.
Read more: Best AV Receiver for 2023
Do I need Wi-Fi, AirPlay or 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 you will be able to wirelessly stream music 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 Tidal.
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 it has somewhat diminished sound quality. AirPlay is designed specifically for Apple devices, with some exceptions, and it offers lossless, CD-audio quality. Unlike Bluetooth it does requires your receiver to be connected to your home network, while the upgraded AirPlay 2 adds multiroom capability. Google's Chromecast built-in 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-NR6100, 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.
That said, most receiver brands are geared towards providing better home theater sound than music -- though there are some exceptions including the sister brands 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.
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 8K, 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.
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.
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 is great, most content is still either in stereo or 5.1. To add to that, Atmos uses at least seven channels -- whether in 5.1.2 or larger 5.1.4 configurations -- and so balancing ceiling-pointing speakers on top of your existing speakers isn't as big of an upgrade as putting 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 often 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. In general, try to look for a rating like "20Hz-20kHz, <1% THD in stereo" if it's available. Keep in mind that more than 1% distortion is noticeable and you wouldn't want to drive your speakers that hard.
That said, 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.