What to look for in an AV Receiver

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Wires wires and more wires!

A friend of mine recently asked for some advice shopping for a Home theatre Amp, or what we call an AV Receiver (AVR) i.e. an Amplifier with Audio and Video functionality and whole lot more these days…

When shopping for an AVR it is easy to become overwhelmed with jargon and tech specs amongst the massive sea of confusion before you even consider what they sound like. I could have given my friend the below information and sent him on his way. However, his response would have been “tl;dr – just tell me which one to buy” – which is where we can help advise on a product that meets your needs. But here’s some basic advice that I hope will help…

What do you really need in an AV Receiver?

An amplifier. To be specific, most people only run a 5.1 setup (left, centre, right, and rear speakers plus a subwoofer) in their main listening room. So this means you need 5 channels of amplification and the sub preout – i.e. 5.1.  If you want to run speakers in a second zone without another amplifier then you’ll need a 7 (or more) channel receiver. The first question most customers ask us is “how many watts is this amp?” I’ve talked about this before but don’t bother comparing amplifier power ratings between brands, they are all measured differently on their specs sheets so it’s meaningless. In terms of power, find out what Ohm and efficiency rating your speakers are. Most AV receivers are designed for 6-8 Ohm speakers, if your speakers drop down below this you’ll want to allow more budget for a model with a better quality amplification/power supply section – likewise if your speakers are less than 88db efficient as this makes them harder to drive. The other option is to add a dedicated power amp, see the paragraph on preouts below. If you are going to be using your AVR for music, then I highly recommend an audition, and looking at the traditional Hifi brands offerings that are geared towards audio performance over features.

Note the buttons for controlling other sources, TV volume etc.

Check the remote.

A decent remote. The remote is thing you interact with the most; you will hardly ever touch your AVR once it is installed! Yet, half the time you can’t even see a photo of the remote the AVR comes with. You’ll want a remote that can control your other devices like your TV etc., back lit is always nice for movie nights too.

Enough HDMI inputs. How much is enough? Well, you’ll need an HDMI input for each of your Freeview/Sky, PlayStation/Xbox, Blu-ray, Apple TV, connecting PC, camera etc. I haven’t met a person who uses more than 5 HDMI inputs yet. All new AVRs should have HDMI version 1.4 or up.

Enough HDMI Outputs. Every AVR has one HDMI output for connecting to your TV, if you run two displays – i.e. a projector and a TV – then you’ll want an AVR with two HDMI outputs (note sometimes the second output is video only).

Audio Return Channel (ARC). This is standard from HDMI version 1.4 and is used for passing audio from your TV to your amp over the HDMI cable. This means, when you are using the Smart TV capabilities of your TV e.g. YouTube, Skype. You’ll be able to hear the audio without using your TV speakers or another cable and input on your AVR.

The HDMI board from the Onkyo 929.

The HDMI board from the Onkyo 929.

Measured frequency response with and without Room Eq applied.

Measured frequency response with and without Room Eq applied.

Auto room setup. I used to not worry about auto room setup/calibration as early versions tended to do a terrible job and it was better to just adjust the levels by ear. Not so anymore! However, this is a really confusing thing to compare between AVR’s as most AVR’s have a propriety form of room setup, or they use one of the levels of Audyssey. Anthem’s ARC is considered to be the best in the business, and Audyssey MultEQ® XT32 is worth paying a little extra for if you are choosing between this and a lesser Audyssey setup format. There’s a comparison of the different levels of Audyssey here for those who want to know the specific differences. In terms of Yamaha’s YPAO, Pioneer’s MCACC, Marantz’s M.R.A.C, (enough of the stupid acronyms already!!) I don’t have direct experience with their latest offerings, but essentially these work the same way by placing a microphone at various locations in your room and adjusting the frequency response to get it as flat as possible for each speaker.

Pre-outs. If like me you want to run a separate system for music or connect a power amplifier then you’ll need at least a Main L&R pre-out. All AVR’s will have a pre-out for a subwoofer, so if you’re looking at the rear picture of the amp trying to see if it has pre-outs, find the subwoofer output as the other pre-outs will be located next to it. Most higher end AVR’s tend to have a 7.1 channel preout, but a few do just have main Front L&R. It’s worth pointing out not confuse a L&R pre-out for a second zone connection.

Preout's for using your AVR as a preamp.

The Onkyo 929 showing off its 11.2 preouts for using it as a preamp.

Nice to haves

Standby pass-through. E.g. Watch Freeview on your TV with the amp turned off – using your TV speakers for sound – note this will only be for one of the HDMI inputs.

Streaming capabilities. Most of the streaming capabilities I’ve used have been pretty underwhelming on AVRs. The Airplay integration I’ve used works better than the Bluetooth variety’s, but if you’re of the Apple kind, I’d highly recommend getting an Apple TV to handle Airplay duties as this will give you more functionality and allow you to stream video as well. Spotify and other internet radio offerings, well I guess it’s up to you to gauge how important these features are, most TV’s have these built in nowadays and provide a better user experience.

Built in Wi-Fi. Good if you wish to use said streaming capabilities built into the AVR, but personally if I’m streaming video over the network then I always go for an old fashioned cable for reliability.

Two sets of speaker binding posts are required for bi-amping.

Two sets of speaker binding posts are required for bi-amping.

Bi-amp mode. This is a nice feature to give your front speakers a bit more juice. It allows you to use 4 of the internal amps to power your two front speakers, your speakers will need two sets of binding posts, and remember to remove those jumpers!

spkr-plugs

Bi-amping, uses a separate amplifier and speaker cable for the high frequencies from the low frequencies.

 

Smartphone control. Some people won’t care about this, but for the tech-heads its kind of cool being able to control your amp volume from your phone – it’s worth checking on the app capability of controlling second zones.

 

What you don’t need

Video processing. Your TV will do a better job of up-scaling and processing all the video. The AVR just needs to pass through the signal untouched, job done.

Surround modes. Hall, Acoustic, Stadium etc. all these do is make your sound worse by adding effects that shouldn’t be there. You need Stereo for music; a form of Dolby Pro Logic to make stereo audio from your TV come through in surround; Dolby Digital and DTS for proper digital surround sound; and a mode for sending audio to all speakers at the same time comes in handy too – known as Multichannel Stereo. Generally speaking, these all come standard.

THX_SELECT2_PLUSTHX certification. While this does give you some assurance that an amp is up to a certain standard, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is any better than an amp without it. It’s a marketing thing that manufacturer’s pay to have their AVR’s tested, and then get appropriately labelled depending on what criteria they meet.

 

What you won’t get for $1000

  • An AVR that does everything and sounds good.
  • An AVR that escapes the big ugly black box look.
  • An AVR that sounds comparable to a stereo amp under $1000 – even when the AVR is “100 watts” and the stereo amp is “40 watts”.

If this has left you more confused than when you started, I do apologise, but I also encourage you to give us a call and we will find the right balance between features, performance and that all important price point.