Your receiver will be the center of your entire home theater system. It will control all your audio, power your speakers, and act as a switch for all your video. Used correctly, a receiver can make your system easy to use and provide great family entertainment for many years to come. Used incorrectly, it becomes your worst nightmare. It pays to invest in a quality receiver so if you’re going to spend a little extra, spend it here. This is really important so this section is rather long.
The receiver crash course
Amps and Receivers: An amplifier only provides power to a speaker. A receiver takes audio input from several devices and translates that input into sounds that a speaker can play. It will also have an amplifier built-in. Most people will just use a receiver to power and control their system, but high-end speakers will need a receiver to control the sound and dedicated amplifiers to power them.
Channel: A channel is a unique speaker output. Each speaker terminal on the back of the receiver represents a channel. For example: a 2 channel receiver powers two speakers and can only provide 2 different sound streams at any given time. A 5 channel receiver connects and powers 5 speakers and each one can play a totally unique sound from the others.
5.1 and 7.1: This refers to the amount of speakers and subwoofers a receiver can handle. The number before the decimal is the number of speakers and the number after the decimal is the number of subwoofers. For example: 5.1 = 5 speakers, 1 subwoofer. 7.1 = 7 speakers, 1 subwoofer. 7.2 = 7 speakers, 2 subwoofers. Any good surround sound receiver should be at LEAST a 7.1 receiver.
HDMI: HDMI is the wire you will use to connect all of your high-def devices. Using this one wire will allow you to send high quality picture and sound to your receiver. It’s so easy to hook-up that anyone can do it. You can’t get 3D, 1080p, or the new surround sound formats if you don’t use this cable. The more, the merrier, but less than 4 is unacceptable these days.
Analog Input: This refers to standard audio connections. Analog cables are the red and white RCAs that we have been using for decades.
Digital Input: There are three kinds of digital inputs: optical, HDMI, and digital coaxial. When you refer to “digital inputs” on a receiver, you’re normally referring to optical and digital coaxial. Older equipment (like old DVD players) won’t have HDMI outputs. In that case, you have to use a digital coaxial or optical audio cable in order to get surround sound out of that device. Make sure your receiver has at least 2 of both types.
Video Switching: Video switching is a MUST, especially if you’re not using a universal remote. If your receiver can’t do video switching, don’t buy it. In previous years, surround sound was hard to use. You connected all your audio cables to your receiver and all your video cables to the TV. When it came time to use your system, you had to change the TV to input 3 then change the receiver to input 2 and hope for the best. It doesn’t have to be that way anymore. If you run all the video and audio cables to your receiver and one video cable from the receiver to your TV, a good receiver will handle all the video switching for you. For example, if you are connected this way and want to watch TV, you set the receiver to “TV.” If you want to watch a DVD, set the receiver to “DVD.” The picture will switch for you. With HDMI, video switching is a piece of cake. Connect all your devices to your receiver using HDMI and use one HDMI to go from the receiver to the TV and you’re done.
Upconversion: This is another must-have feature in any receiver. An upconverting receiver takes all the video inputs of any kind, and converts them into a signal that can be transmitted via HDMI or component video. If the cables to your TV are installed in the wall and it’s going to be too hard to install more, an upconverting receiver is the answer. Here is an example: You connected your Wii to the receiver using standard a/v cables. Your cable box is connected to the receiver using HDMI. Your old DVD player is connected to the receiver using s-video. Your upconverting receiver is connected to your TV with one HDMI cable. An upconverting receiver it will take all those signals and turn them into a signal that can travel through the HDMI cable to the TV. Now when you want to play the Wii, you turn your receiver to video 1, and you will see it on the screen, and hear it through your speakers. Switch it to DVD, and you can see your DVD on the screen, and hear it through your surround sound speakers. Don’t question it. Be sure your receiver can upconvert to HDMI or component video (if those are the cables you have installed).
Now that you understand receiver jargon, it’s time to talk about specifics.
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