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. Need help choosing a receiver or only want to purchase a receiver and install it yourself? Give us a call! This component 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.
What you want in a receiver:
Inputs: Make sure you have LOTS of inputs of all kinds. You never know what you might incorporate into your system so it’s better to have more than not enough. You should have a least 4 analog audio inputs especially if you are using a 2 zone receiver. You will also need 2 digital coax and 2 optical audio inputs. These days, you must have at least 4 HDMI inputs as well.
2 or 3 zone receivers: A multi-zone receiver is a great option if you want to setup a simple multi-room speaker system. It allows you to connect all your devices to one receiver, and gives you the ability to listen to one thing in one room and another thing in another room. For example, you can watch the Charger game inside and the kids can listen to an iPod outside while they play in the pool. Combine a multi-zone receiver with keypads, speaker selectors, external amps, or volume controls to add even more great features like the ability to control the system from outside. Check the receiver specs carefully. Find out if it can control AND power the zone or if it is control only and needs an external amp for power. Most 2 zone receivers control and power 2 zones. Most 3 zone receivers control 3 zones but only power 2. As a side note, we recommend using external amps to power all your other zones to maintain sound quality in the main zone.
3D ready: Receivers that are 3D ready will make your life easy when you setup a 3D system. They have the ability to pass the 3D signal from your Blu-ray player to your TV.
iPod docks: iPod docks allow you to connect your iPod to your receiver. They can charge your iPod and allow you to control your iPod via an on-screen menu sent to your TV. Before you buy, make sure the dock is compatible with your iPod or iPhone. Some manufacturers such as Pioneer include an iPod cable that serves as a dock, while others like Yamaha sell a proprietary dock separately.
Auto Calibration: Most new receiver come with a microphone you place in the main listening position then connect to the receiver. Once you plug it in, the menu should pop-up on the screen and you should only have to press start. Most calibrations will dramatically change the speaker setting for the better. You might want to tweak a couple settings here and there, but the auto calibration will give you great start in the worst case scenario.
Wattage: Manufacturers like to play with this number a bit, so you can’t always trust the label on the box. The idea behind a high wattage system is that your receiver won’t have to strain to push your speakers into high volumes. The harder it has to work, the lower the sound quality it can produce. The bigger the speakers, the more wattage they need. You may find that you need a separate amplifier to get the quality you want, but this is rare. 80-90watts per channel is average and should work for most systems. Nice tower speakers should get around 100-130 watts per channel.
Surround Sound Formats: Don’t confuse this with “sound fields.” Blu-ray has introduced new players into the surround sound world. Now we have heavy hitters like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. There are a few others as well, but these are the most popular. Your receiver must decode these new sound formats or you’re wasting your money. The difference is night and day. The new sound formats will give your system a true workout and will add a whole new element to your home theater experience.
Sound Fields: This is just a label that manufacturers can throw on the box to try to sell more receivers. It’s a variety of different sound schemes such as “concert hall, adventure movie, sports, etc.” They are all pretty much the same, and nobody uses them so this is negligible. Sometimes manufacturers will try to develop a new sound field that combats things like getting volume blasted during commercial breaks, but it’s not a reason to buy one receiver over another.
Network and streaming capable: Streaming media is great. If you’re not doing it now, you will be once you try it. If you connect your receiver to a network, you not only get the benefits of streaming media, but you can get your CRITICAL firmware updates that keep your receiver up-to-date. Some receivers such as Pioneer and Yamaha, have free iPhone apps that can interface your networked receiver.
Video Processing: A major and often over-looked part of a receiver is the video processor. A high-quality receiver uses high-quality video processors which means you get a better picture.
Class A,B or D amplifiers: Most receivers will use class A or B amplifiers to provide power to the speakers. They run hot and use a lot of power. Higher-end receivers will use a more efficient and cooler-running class D amp.
Many manufacturers will boast a line of other features and options, but the ones that are listed here are what you need to be most concerned about. If you find something we haven’t addressed here, please contact us.