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With AV receivers is sound quality more important than features?

Cambridge Audio has the chutzpah to make a high-end AV receiver that's light on features, and put the money into the sound.

The Cambridge Audio Azur 551R receiver Cambridge Audio

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post about AV receiver feature glut. Today's receiver manufacturers put an inordinate amount of time and money into designing feature-laden receivers, and feature glut might be part of the reason why today's receivers don't sound as good as receivers did in the 1980s. I get it, today's consumers rarely compare one receiver's sound with another receiver, but they can count HDMI connections, so that's where the money goes.

It's not that Denon, Onkyo, Pioneer, Sony, and Yamaha aren't trying to make great-sounding receivers, just that they think they have to sell receivers jam-packed with features. Features aren't free; receiver manufacturers have to pay licensing and royalty fees for autosetup, GUI menus, AirPlay, iPod/iPhone/iPad compatibility, home networking, HD Radio, Bluetooth, HDMI switching, digital-to-analog converters, and Dolby and DTS surround processors, sourced and manufactured by other companies.

It doesn't matter if all of the features are useful to the majority of buyers, no, features are included to make the product more attractive to potential buyers. It's a numbers game, pure and simple. The receiver with the right combination of features is judged to be the best receiver. Most buyers have 5.1-channel speaker/subwoofer systems, but manufacturers feel compelled to only build 7.1-channel receivers for the middle and upper product ranges. What a waste.

Cambridge Audio's Azur 551R receiver is a good example of one that breaks the mold, however. Mark Fleischmann noted in his Home Theater magazine review that the Azur 551 ($1,299) has just four HDMI inputs and lacks Ethernet, streaming, Internet radio, Bluetooth, AirPlay, room correction, and home-networking features, but it's a great-sounding receiver! Cambridge engineers put their efforts into the sound, which is, as I recall, the reason people used to get excited about hi-fis and home theaters.

For $1,299 you might at least expect the Azur 551R to be big and brawny, but no, it's a low-profile honey, just 4.3 inches high and weighing a manageable 22 pounds. So, sure, if it's features you want check out the offerings from the larger, more mainstream brands. If you care more about sound than gadgets, the Azur 551R should be on your short list. NAD and Rotel also offer a few feature-light receivers, but chances are they'll sound better than models from Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer and Yamaha.