The receiver at the center of my home theater system is showing its age. I bought it back in my post-college apartment days, and its six 100-watt audio channels and Dolby Pro Logic encoders—combined with JBL surround speakers—blew my budget. Its humble audio and video connections are composite RCA. Today, my DVD player routes component video to inputs on the TV, with audio routing to the receiver—a compromise to improve overall quality. The original speakers are long gone, but that sub-par receiver still sits in my living room. In fact, the receiver is the only piece of my system that's more than 2 years old.
Contrast my antiquated receiver with my PC setup. My home office sports a 7.1-surround configuration of studio-grade reference monitors meticulously positioned for optimal listening. DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 EX surround processing make movie viewing on a 21" LCD monitor an intense experience. With a USB add-on, even my widescreen laptop outputs 7.1 surround sound. Guess where I spend most of my time?
For some reason, my fiancée is reluctant to join me at the desktop for an evening of movies and popcorn. She's convinced the couch is more comfortable. Sure, the TV screen is much bigger and we can sit side-by-side, but my ears are left craving a more complete audio experience. So, while my better half arranges our bridal registry and shops for bridesmaid dresses, I'm thinking about upgrading the receiver in our home theater setup.
Time to Shop
Before I begin receiver shopping, I need to decide what features I want. First, I want something I can live with for at least 3 years. Therefore, I need a receiver that can deliver the latest in surround-sound processing. Upgrading my office sound system from 5.1 to 7.1 improved sound perceptibly, so exploring anything less for the living room would lead to disappointment.
Surprisingly, maximum watts per channel make little difference in audio quality across the available 7.1 options—at least as far as my ears can tell. With all speakers being equal, turning up a 110-watt receiver to levels at the high end of my listening threshold resulted in audio quality negligibly different from a receiver that offers 55 watts per channel. Car chases, jazz licks, and crunchy guitars all sound great at either power level.
For my testing, I used the DTS Surround track on The Fast and the Furious DVD and the Dolby Digital EX track from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Although neither film is a huge cinematic achievement, the audio in each case is far above average. The Fast and the Furious has some of the most aggressive sound effects ever to come out of Hollywood. The Phantom Menace is the first (and arguably the best) implementation of Dolby Digital EX. I also listened to a few in-store DVD-Audio (DVD-A) selections, which sound amazing but don't really fit my musical tastes.
I don't yet have HDTV in my house, but I've already had occasion to drool over picture quality, so the receiver I choose needs sufficient bandwidth for HD signal processing. All my video-playback devices, with the exception of my digital video camera, have component-out capability and digital audio connections, so both connection types are must-haves on my shopping itinerary. Virtually every receiver in this class supports six or more analog inputs for DVD-A and SACD components.
One major difference among receivers is whether they switch component-video connections through one common output to the TV, in addition to sampling video up from S-video and composite to component out. Switching of component-video connections through a common output lets you make only one component connection out to the TV from the receiver, whereas upsampling takes lower signal-quality S-video and composite connections and passes them out to the TV through component connections, which also means fewer wires running behind the entertainment center. When you already have wires running to the DVD player, a CD changer, a record player, a VCR, an AudioTron, and a Tivo, any reduction in wiring is welcome.
Another feature of note is THX Surround EX 7.1 decoding. You might ask, Isn't THX just a certification process? That's only partially true. THX Surround EX 7.1 is available only in THX-certified receivers and amplifiers. It represents a custom THX decoding process for Dolby Digital EX-encoded sound, requiring a 7.1 speaker configuration with two additional rear speakers to recreate the center-back surround channel. This two-speaker rear-channel configuration is a mono pairing, with both speakers outputting the same audio. The decoding process is similar to the way Dolby Pro Logic interprets stereo sound as surround, extrapolating the audio from a surround configuration and adding rear-channel information. THX refers to THX Surround EX as a 5.1 "enhancement" rather than a full-blown processing specification, but Dolby Digital EX sounds different when decoded with anything other than THX Surround EX 7.1. Availability of this feature doesn't start appearing until you look at receivers above the $999 level.
In preliminary comparisons, most LCD remote control interfaces seem convoluted. Battery life can be a problem, too. With other major factors being equal, receivers with LCD remotes are typically $100 more expensive than similar units that offer the more mundane pushbutton variety. Remote style is a matter of personal taste. As a group, pushbutton remotes remain more intuitive, especially when the receiver supports onscreen programming through the TV.
I'm hopeful that more and more component manufacturers will begin directly integrating Internet radio and XM broadcasts into the home theater environment. As much as I enjoy listening to This American Life on NPR, the 40 FM presets included on most receivers is becoming more and more silly. Music broadcasts are digital events in my world. XM is essential for the connected home, and streaming audio downloads to the home theater would certainly make them more attractive. So far, Onkyo is the only company addressing this situation—although I didn't find any receiver with built-in XM and 7.1 surround. For the time being, my current setup includes separate devices for streaming XM and Internet audio.
When I started writing this article, I began by defining three distinct price points—a low, medium, and high end for the typical consumer (disregarding the super high-end stuff priced above $5,000). However, by insisting on 7.1 surround support, everything I want starts at about $700, which is probably more like medium. Therefore, two distinct pricing clusters emerged in my search. The first range starts at about $700, with varying features boosting that price tag to $1500. A second range, which I would consider high end, starts at about $2500 and goes up to about $5000. A few models fall between the two ranges, but those seem to be merely overpriced midrange models.
I've selected several receivers from each pricing cluster. The major difference between models in the under-$1500 range and the more expensive models is build quality. The more expensive models exhibit less noise, use better power supplies, and typically live up to the criteria necessary to achieve the high-end THX Ultra2 certification. My personal budget is limited to something less than $1500, but I noticed an obvious quality difference between models in the under-$1500 range and models in the over-$3000 range.
Great Under-$1500 Receivers
Harman Kardon AVR 330
This model's two-tone black-and-silver design makes it by far my favorite-looking receiver. At 55 watts per channel, the AVR 330 at first glance is one of the weaker receivers in this price range. Chances are, you'll never notice. As I mentioned earlier, most home-theater setups never come close to pushing the limits of receivers that boast twice the power. I debated about featuring Harman Kardon's AVS-430 unit, which offers 65 watts per channel and an LCD remote, but those features don't justify the $200 price difference. Decoding support for DTS ES 6.1, Dolby Digital EX, DTS Neo:6, and Dolby Pro Logic II (as well as Harman Kardon's proprietary Logic 7 processing) is standard at this price level. This receiver was the first one I looked at and also the lowest-priced model in my comparison. After beholding the squealing tires and revving engines of The Fast and the Furious, I could have walked home a happy man without looking any further (at least from an audible perspective).
Custom audio configuration for each input sets this receiver apart from all other units in this price range. This capability lets you define custom audio playback rules for each device. Bass management works in several modes too, with the option to define crossover levels (40Hz, 60Hz, 80Hz, 100Hz, 120Hz, and 200Hz ) for all speakers as a group or dividing them into subgroups (front left, front right, center, and surround). Bass management is further customizable at the input level, letting you choose separate bass settings for the CD player and DVD player, for example.
Multiroom support lets you divert power from back surround speaker outputs to remote speakers instead, with a second remote included for the additional room. The main remote control features many tiny buttons that are impossible to navigate in low light. Another strike against the remote is lack of compatibility with other brands. On the plus side, it supports a few macro functions and as many as eight Harman Kardon devices.
Located in the middle of Denon's receiver line, the AVR-2803 is a solid choice with plenty of power and numerous input options. With seven 90-watt channels (including two back-surround outputs), this unit offers plenty of audio bang for your buck. Audio decoding supports DTS ES 6.1, Dolby Digital EX, DTS Neo:6, and Dolby Pro Logic II. Component video is switched, requiring fewer connections back to the TV. I honestly couldn't determine a huge difference in audio quality between this model and the AVR 330. You wouldn't know it boasted an additional 35 watts per channel of headroom, which I think is more a testament to the Harmon Kardon build quality than a knock against this receiver.
Like others in this range, the remote is the pushbutton variety, with support for as many as seven other components from most brands. Therefore, you can multitask, performing functions such as modifying DVD settings and changing the TV channel without switching modes. Play controls are centrally located and glow-in-the-dark. This remote is one of the most user-friendly I've encountered.
Channel-balancing the speakers is accomplished through the use of a test tone and manual trim-control adjustment (which is rare in receivers at this price point). Bass management offers multiple subwoofer crossover frequencies (40Hz, 60Hz, 80Hz, 100Hz, and 120Hz) but lacks the AVR-330's depth of customizability. Multiroom support uses two back channels for optional output to a second room. However, someone needs to create some usable wireless speakers before I get too excited about multiroom support.
For the truly connected home-theater experience, Onkyo offers a breakthrough in the under-$1500 category: an Ethernet connection for streaming audio from a hard disk or Internet radio stations. Support for 30 Internet presets saves tons of time recalling favorite stations. If you plan on upgrading to 7.1 surround and need PC integration, this receiver makes more sense than purchasing a media-center device such as the Turtle Beach AudioTron in combination with a new receiver. As much as I love my AudioTron, I would list it on eBay in a second if I were to purchase this receiver.
The TX-NR801 is THX certified. Decoding supported on this device includes THX Surround EX 7.1, DTS ES 6.1, Dolby Digital EX, DTS Neo:6, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS 96/24. Something about the THX Surround EX 7.1 configuration offers better-quality playback than Dolby Digital EX. The specification is supposedly based on the same technology, but the rear-speaker configuration sent chills up my spine during the pod race in The Phantom Menace.
The TX-NR801's remote offers a much better layout than the Harmon Kardon AVS-330's remote, but it isn't quite as intuitive as the Denon remote. Backlighting, however, makes viewing buttons in the dark a piece of cake. Onscreen display further eases configuration.
The one feature I'd wish for in this model is composite and S-video up-conversion to component, although support for conversion from composite to S-video is included. A slightly higher-powered model, the TX-NR901, weighs in at $500 more.
If you don't care about streaming Internet radio but want to pack a solid punch, this receiver might be the one you want. Each of the seven channels receives a powerful 120 watts. Support for both 720p and 1080i HDTV ensures integration with all HD content. Decoding support for DTS ES 6.1, Dolby Digital EX, DTS Neo:6, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS 96/24, and THX Surround EX 7.1 gives you a complete surround experience.
Like the rest of the receivers in this category, the RX-V2400 uses binding-post speaker terminals rather than the weaker spring-loaded variety. Component-video up-conversion takes S-video and composite signals and switches them through to the component connection, which means you need only one connection to the TV instead of three, reducing cord clutter.
A Silent Cinema feature delivers Dolby Digital or DTS experience through headphones. Ever tried watching a movie with headphones on? It's not as cool as filling a room with sound, but Silent Cinema tries valiently. Yamaha's Parametric Room Acoustic Optimizer, available for speaker configuration on this model, uses a special microphone to configure speakers to the room they live in. As cool as this feature sounds, manual intervention is nevertheless recommended for best results.
The RX-V2400 permits on-screen setup, and its remote sports few buttons, which makes finding features easy enough. Backlighting the buttons would make the remote better. Macros do add a nice bit of functionality. Yamaha keeps the front face of the receiver clean by hiding inputs.
Before the release of the RX-Z9, this receiver was the top of the Yamaha line. But this 130-watt, seven-channel workhorse is still impressive enough to be nearly anyone's top choice. Connections would never be in short supply, with enough RCA and S-video options to supply several rooms. Surround decoding includes the gamut of available options, including DTS ES 6.1, Dolby Digital EX, DTS Neo:6, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS 96/24. The only item missing is THX Ultra2 certification, which is something Yamaha has intentionally shunned until recently. This receiver is a distinct departure from everything priced lower, offering a certain clarity and solidity.
As with Harmon Kardon's AVR-330, you can customize bass and level controls for each mode of operation. The one missing configuration is bass-crossover settings specific to each mode—a standard feature in models even higher in price. The unit's overall weight belies the quality of its components. Spacing for the myriad of inputs on the back is surprisingly generous, making connections painless.
The remote is a touch-screen LCD, which reminds me vaguely of a Palm Zire's display, only more confusing. Actually, the remote is a Yamaha-branded version of the popular Phillips Pronto. Someone needs to create a longer-life battery and improve the UI for these LCDs before I'll be tempted to convert. Multiroom support is built in but doesn't have the same dramatic convenience as other models with additional remote controls.
To truly test this receiver's capabilities, find a DVD-A selection that includes a DTS 96/24 track. Although I'm not personally seeking DTS 96/24 support on my new receiver, the technology will take your breath away. I don't think DVD-A will improve my old Stooges records, but jazz in 7.1 surround is a thing of beauty. This feature, combined with 100MHz video bandwidth switching, help make this receiver a steal in the flagship-model category.
For almost any home theater system, 130 watts per channel is more than enough, and the TX-DS989ver2's THX Ultra2 certification guarantees a great combination of hardware under the hood. Support for THX Surround EX 7.1, DTS ES 6.1, Dolby Digital EX, DTS Neo:6, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS 96/24 decoding make for a complete surround-processing package.
Onkyo offers software upgrades through the RS-232 port on the unit's back panel, which helps extend the useful life of the TX-DS989 beyond that of other models at this price point. THX certification and upgradeability might make this receiver a better choice than the cheaper Yamaha RX-Z1, although I honestly couldn't determine much difference between the audio clarity of the two models.
At this price level, manufacturers seem to assume you won't need up-conversion from inferior video connections to component output. I suppose the assumption is that you can afford other great components if you're spending this amount of cash on a receiver, but I've noticed this assumption isn't true for all setups. Many people tend to cling to outdated hardware longer than it's useful, which should make up-conversion a staple at all price points.
Although most of the receivers at this price point sport touch-screen remote controls, this Onkyo model sticks with backlit push buttons, which is just fine with me. Its buttons are nicely arranged, with plenty of room and easy viewing in low-light settings. A small LCD display at the top of the remote keeps track of your modes. Several programmable macro choices help make remote functionality everything it should be.
It might be worth holding out for the next generation of this model coming in June, the TX-NR1000, which is priced more in line with the Denon AVR-5803A and boasts swappable hardware, IEEE-1394 connections for DVD-A, and the Net-Tune technology that makes the TX-NR801 so attractive. Pay close attention to the hardware swapping option; this may represent the future of high-end audio (if only it would use 802.11g instead of Ethernet).
If you can swing the price tag, the Denon AVR-5803A is a winner on all fronts. Its 170 watts dedicated to each of eight channels makes this unit a powerhouse in the all-in-one receiver category. Denon spared no expense making sure this receiver is at the head of its class, putting all digital processing duties on separate circuits for optimal performance. Digital-to-analog conversion is handled by two 192KHz/24-bit processors per channel, for a total of 16. Analog-to-digital is also handled by 192KHz/24-bit processing, providing much-needed bass management for DVD-A and SACD source components. Surround support for THX Surround EX 7.1, DTS ES 6.1, Dolby Digital EX, DTS Neo:6, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, DTS 96/24, , and Dolby Headphone means high-quality listening in any scenario.
Why can't my budget be this big? The wattage on this thing delivers crystal clear sound at levels that would knock a deaf man on his butt. Phantom Menace's pod race is more realistic than a trip to the local NASCAR track. As for The Fast and the Furious, the only reality enhancement the Denon requires is the stench of rubber on pavement and some dirt blowing in my face as the street rods leave the line.
Multiroom support handles as many as three rooms, including the ability to send both audio and video to two rooms simultaneously. Audio in the second room supports only stereo playback, but how many homes really need full-blown home theater playback in two rooms simultaneously? The third room is audio only.
The 5803A is the only model I looked at that has an LCD touch screen I like. The interface seems noticeably easier to navigate than others I tried. The remote base station supports both RF and IR, which means the remote will work from any of the three rooms in your multiroom setup—a smart feature for any remote. The base station doubles as a charger, which should be required for all touch-screen remotes.
Which'll It Be?
I'm still trying to make up my mind about which model will find a new home in my living room. I'm currently leaning toward the Yamaha RV-2400, because it seems to pack one of the best price/feature ratios in the group. Then again, maybe I'll sneak the Denon AVR-5803A onto our bridal registry and see what happens.