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Is a stereo receiver right for you?

Onkyo's new TX-8020 receiver sells for less than $200, comes loaded with useful features, and it sounds great.

Onkyo TX-8020 stereo receiver

If you watch a lot of movies and can deal with the hassles of setting up five or more speakers, plus a subwoofer, go ahead and buy an AV receiver. We've reviewed a bunch of the latest models here on CNET, just pick the one that best suits your needs.

Then again, if you listen to more music than watch movies, a stereo receiver might be a better option. Think about it: the more speakers you buy with a fixed amount of dollars, the less good they're likely to be; the same dollar amount lavished on just two speakers will, if you choose wisely, deliver substantially better sound. I've covered lots of good stereo speaker systems.

Onkyo's new TX-8020 stereo receiver ($199) would be a great place to start. It has a couple of noteworthy features you won't see on a lot of $400 home theater receivers, starting with a phono input, so if you have a turntable, the TX-8020 definitely deserves your consideration. It also sports A/B speaker switching, so it can run two sets of stereo speakers -- one pair in your living room, another pair in your bedroom or kitchen. You will, of course, need to run wires to the other room, but still A/B speaker switching can be a very useful feature. I also like that the TX-8020 isn't a Class D or integrated circuit chip-based design, no, it's a bona-fide analog amp, just like some of my favorite audiophile amps. The receiver also has bass and treble control knobs on the front panel, so it's easy to dial-in exactly the sound you want, without exploring complicated menus. Heck, there are no menus -- stereo receivers don't need 'em.

It's rated at 50 watts per channel, has a total of five analog inputs that accept analog audio from TV, BD/DVD players, CD players, and can be used with Onkyo's $199 wireless DS-A5 RI AirPlay dock for iPod/iPhone/iPad. Or do what I do and buy a 25-foot-long cable ($12) to connect an iPod/iPhone/iPod or any portable device to the receiver. Sadly, the TX-8020 doesn't have any digital inputs.

The Onkyo TX-8020's rear panel Onkyo

If you're lucky enough to have a decent radio station nearby, there's an FM/AM tuner. You also get banana-plug-compatible speaker connectors, and the TX-8020 can safely drive a single pair of 4 to 16 ohm loudspeakers, or two pairs of 8 to 16 ohm speakers. The TX-8020 also has a subwoofer pre-out jack. What's missing is video switching, so adding a TV for stereo home theater involves a slightly more complicated hookup scheme; you'll have to run your Blu-ray and cable box's HDMI video connections directly to the TV, and audio connections to the TX-8020. You'll also need a Blu-ray player with analog outputs, like this one.

It's interesting, the $399 Harman Kardon AVR1610 five-channel (85 watts per channel) AV receiver weighs 10 pounds, but this fifty watt per channel stereo receiver weighs 16 pounds. The weight differential can mostly be attributed to the receivers' power supply sizes, and in my experience a larger power supply is a more reliable indication of a receiver's real-world power capabilities.

I compared the TX-8020 with the $219 Emotiva Mini-X stereo integrated amp while watching Eminem's excellent "Live From New York City" DVD. I played the TX-8020 and Mini-X really loud over Onkyo's terrific SKF-4800 tower speakers ($349/pair). The Mini-X had somewhat tighter bass, and a bit more detail overall, but in the end they were just a little different. The TX-4800 also shined with CDs. It has plenty of power, and the stereo sound stage was quite nice.

Considering the Mini-X is a bare-bones integrated amp with just one input, and the TX-8020 is loaded with features, the choice should be easy to make. The one thing the Mini-X has all over the TX-8020 is that it's smaller at 8.4x3.1x14.75 inches vs. the receiver's 17.8x5.8x12.9-inch dimensions.

All in all the TX-8020 offers serious value for a very reasonable price. I will report on the Onkyo SKF-4800 tower speakers next week.