The world of audio is more than just speakers and headphones. Dig deeper, and you’ll come across audio gear names and terms you would have either not heard of before or may be familiar with but have little understanding of. A receiver is one such audio equipment that most audio enthusiasts think they know about fairly well to only realize the harsh truth later – for instance, when trying to set up their audio system.

A 2-channel and 4-channel receiver, as their names suggest, are different. The term “channel” denotes speaker(s); it can power or amplify. A 2-channel receiver typically powers two speakers. A four-channel receiver can work with a true multi-speaker setup, making it ideal for surround sound setups.

To learn more about the differences between a 2-channel and 4-channel receiver, it’s imperative to get a complete understanding of what a “receiver” is in the first place, how it works, and the purposes it serves. If you’re out in the market looking to buy a receiver for your audio or home theater setup, read this article in its entirety.

What Is a Receiver?

A receiver is an electronic device that receives (surprise!) digital signals (audio and/or video) from different input sources. It transmits them to devices that can appropriately output those signals.

For instance, it ensures the audio signals go to your loudspeaker and not to your TV or video projector. Similarly, it makes sure the video signals are correctly discerned from the input signals and directed to your display device and not your speakers.

The input devices an AV receiver usually supports are Blu-ray disc players, DVD players, video game consoles, etc. The devices output information to include loudspeakers, TVs, monitors, projectors, and other similar devices.  

A receiver also helps switch between various inputs seamlessly, amplify audio signals, carry out speaker equalization, etc. In short, a receiver can be your HDMI switch, a DAC (digital-to-analog converter), an audio processor, a multi-channel amplifier, and a radio tuner built into one.

Receivers can be of different types, but they have primarily categorized as i) stereo receiver and ii) AV receiver.

Stereo Receiver

A stereo receiver is meant for audio output only. It supports various audio inputs, which include RCA, auxiliary, and at times Bluetooth. Stereo receivers are not amplifiers or are more than just an amp.

Stereo receivers differentiate themselves from an amplifier as they let you select your audio input source. A dedicated amplifier, on the other hand, is not always guaranteed to come with that option. Not to mention, stereo receivers also have volume controls.

A stereo receiver also lets you alter the incoming audio’s sound signature, besides just the volume. In other words, if you want to increase/decrease the bass and treble of the audio being played, a stereo receiver lets you do that.

AV Receiver

Unlike a stereo receiver that deals with audio, an AV (audio/video) receiver is designed to accept an array of inputs, including digital optical, digital coaxial, HDMI, RCAs, auxiliary, Bluetooth, etc. In simpler terms, an AV receiver can also accept video inputs and output them to a TV or other display, which a stereo receiver cannot.

An AV receiver is a crucial element in any home theater setup since it can hook up a host of audio and video gear and ensure they work in unison. Most importantly, the receiver eliminates the need to individually connect various devices and switch cables manually each time you need to switch things up.

If you’d like to know more about a receiver and how it works within a home theater setup or how pivotal of a role it plays, watch this video:

Should you go stereo receiver or AV receiver? Picking an AV receiver over a stereo receiver or vice versa is up to an individual. If you’re going to purely listen to your vinyl records, for instance, a stereo receiver would be just fine. If, however, you need to plug your receiver into your TV, connect it to your Roku or Apple TV, and/or want to listen to the radio, go for the AV receiver.

More details on which receiver to choose are discussed below.

AV Receivers and Its Connectors

An AV receiver brings a lot more to the table than a stereo receiver if the number of connectors it can use is any indication. The following are the various input/output connections on an AV receiver:

Analog audio connections typically employ RCA plugs, with the inputs and outputs being standard. The output ports are mainly provided to work with cassette tape decks. Analog audio connections that use XLR connectors are not common, typically found on more high-end or expensive receivers.

Some AV receivers could also have phono inputs to connect a turntable to a magnetic cartridge. That said, these inputs are not commonly found on receivers. A few AV receiver manufacturers are embracing phono inputs due to the increased popularity of L.P. record players. The phono input feature allows people to use a turntable to give their vinyl collections a listen.

AV Receiver and Video Connections

The following are the video connectors of an AV receiver in some detail:

  • Composite Video: Composite video connections employ RCA plugs on both ends. The video format is used as standard on pretty much all AV receivers, which allow you to switch video devices, including cable boxes, VHS players, DVD players, and gaming consoles.
  • S-Video: On the other hand, S-Video connections employ a DIN connector, offering better quality compared to composite video. SCART connections usually provide the best standard definition (SD) videos, thanks to RGB signaling. SCART delivers audio and video in a single link. That said, S-Video and composite could be offered alternately over a SCART connection.
  • Component Video: Component video is ideal for analog videos as high definition (HD) and higher definitions have become common. The YPbPr signaling offers a solid compromise between video resolution and color definition.
  • HDMI: HDMI and AV receivers have grown synonymous as the connector offers both video and audio transmission. However, HDMI is a comparatively recent technology, and it, therefore, is fraught with issues.

For instance, there have been problems such as HDMI-linked devices not talking to each other well – a phenomenon referred to as the “hand-shake.” The issue is quite widespread with satellite/cable boxes connected to a TV or any display via an AV receiver.

HDMI connections offer various levels of support. Some only switch video, not providing the audio processing facility. Some cannot handle multi-channel LPCM, commonly used for HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc players to send out the best audio possible.

How Is a Receiver Different From an Amplifier?

An amplifier boosts an audio signal for playback through speakers. A receiver, on the other hand, receives signals from devices and outputs them. But since an AV receiver comes with a built-in amplifier, it also functions as an amplifier. Some receivers could even pack in a preamp.

While a receiver and amplifier do not look different from the outside, a receiver packs more functions and features. In most use-case scenarios, there’s not much of a difference between how the two perform, and it is advisable to go with the receiver since it’s more versatile and lets you add more gear to your setup in the future. A dedicated amplifier, on the other hand, is a “one-trick pony.”

Having said that, if your home theater setup consists of speakers that demand more power than what your receiver could realistically supply, or you are planning to incorporate more speakers into your setup your receiver cannot handle, a dedicated amplifier must be thrown in along with the receiver.

For example, if your receiver has five amplifiers and you have seven speakers to drive in your setup, the receiver may not be up to the task. If you skip the amplifier and continue feeding your power-hungry speakers with just the receiver, the receiver may overheat, not provide enough power to all speakers, break down, etc.

What Is a 2-Channel Receiver?

A 2-channel receiver is a stereo receiver that offers two amplification channels. The receiver, with its two built-in amplifiers, can power up to four speakers. The number of speakers you can pair with your 2-channel receiver depends on the speakers’ power requirements.

For example, if you fancy listening to uncompressed music and the speakers you use have 90dB (decibel) efficiency, 200 watts of power will be more than adequate. On the other hand, 50 watts of power is good enough to listen to jazz, light classical, and similar genres.

Related HTH Article: AV Receivers: How Many Watts Per Channel Do You Need?

What Is a 4-Channel Receiver?

A 4-channel receiver is one that has four separate amplification channels for four different speakers: usually, the left speaker, right speaker, center speaker, and a subwoofer or a center-surround channel at the rear.

Dolby Pro Logic, a technology that processes surround sound, consists of a surround channel and a center channel merged into the right and left channels using the matrix method, thereby offering four channels in total. Receivers that employ Dolby Pro Logic can distinguish surround and center channels from the right and left channels.

Most modern AV receivers come with the Dolby Digital decoder alongside a S/PDIF input that could be hooked on to a Dolby Digital output-providing source.

How to Choose Between a 2-Channel and 4-Channel Receiver

As mentioned above, to make the right choice between a 2-channel and a 4-channel receiver, know your requirements and preferences.

If you are only going to listen to audio on your vinyl records – for instance, and want a receiver to just transmit and amplify the sound to your beloved speakers, a 2-channel receiver will be more than adequate.

If, however, your requirements include video output too and you want the receiver to play an integral role in your home theater scheme of things, a 4-channel receiver is needed to amplify multiple speakers. Based on the number of speakers you’ve got installed and/or the equipment’s power requirements, you might need an AV receiver with more than just four channels.

Not to mention, like the 2-channel stereo receiver, a 4-channel AV receiver can also route and amplify sounds signals to the speakers from the source. It also brings more functionalities to the table: Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital, and other surround sound formats.

Long story short, an AV receiver can do what a 2-channel stereo receiver can, but the same thing doesn’t work the other way around.

As mentioned above, a 4-channel AV receiver can do both audio and video. But if you’re sure you don’t need video functionality in your receiver or don’t have a home theater setup in place, it just doesn’t make sense to opt for the 4-channel over the 2-channel.

By going with the 2-channel receiver, you need not put up with the bigger size and added weight of the 4-channel machine. A 4-channel receiver is usually larger and heavier than its smaller sibling as it must accommodate the various components that facilitate increased functions and features.

If you think buying a 4-channel receiver is still the right choice, with your mind fixated on the future setup, remember you can always buy an AV receiver when the need arises. The existing 2-channel receiver could be held for an unadulterated audio listening experience, or you may liquidate it to fund your AV receiver or home theater system purchase.

Not to mention, by the time you set up your home theater, the AV receiver you bought a few years or even months ago, keeping those future requirements in mind, may have become outdated or could have developed issues.

Having said that, if you want to experience a home theater setup to its true potential, you may want to consider a receiver with more than just four channels. In other words, a 5.1 or 7.1 setup would offer an even richer surround sound experience.

When a 2-Channel Stereo Receiver Is Ideal

To summarize, a 2-channel stereo receiver purchase works in the following scenarios:

  • You purely listen to stereo music, and the surround sound movie watching experience is not your jam.
  • You need detailed audio with high-power handling.
  • You are an audiophile and have always wanted to set up a stereo sound system based on vinyl.
  • You need the best possible audio with complete control for tweaking and modifying the sound’s tonal characteristics.
  • You like to be hands-on with your sound system and fancy choosing components individually.
  • You understand impedance, wiring, and similar audio-related topics.

When a 4-Channel AV Receiver Is a Better Option

A 4-channel AV receiver will be ideal if:

  • You need an all-encompassing, versatile audio-video setup.
  • You don’t possess the knowledge needed to discern and/or assess different sound system components.
  • You need the latest and greatest video and audio interfacing technologies.
  • You have limited space and cannot buy an amplifier, audio-only stereo receiver, etc., separately.
  • You like playing video games and/or watching movies in high definition with a surround sound system.

Other Factors to Look Into When Buying a Receiver

Besides the number of channels, a few other factors might also have to be considered when choosing the right receiver for your needs:

Upscaling and Conversion

If you need video upscaling and conversion, look for receivers that offer that provision. Some AV receivers cannot convert a particular type of video into another file type. This conversion is referred to as transcoding or upconversion. Very few AV receivers let you deinterlace video signals.

An AV receiver with upconversion, upscaling, and deinterlacing capabilities can take an interlaced signal at 480i and turn it into a component video. It does all of this while upscaling and deinterlacing it to 720p or an even higher resolution.

Radio and Other Features

Though mainly used for amplification, AV receivers may come with a built-in AM/FM radio tuner. Such receivers may also provide LAN connectivity for compatibility with multiple internet applications, multi-room audio requirements, etc.

If you need a radio tuner in your receiver, both 2-channel and 4-channel receivers could pack in one. However, the functionality is not a given, and you should conscientiously look for one while shopping.

The Sony STR DH 190 2-ch Home Stereo Receiver is a solid option. If you’re looking for a less expensive option, the Fosi Audio TDA7498 E 2 Channel Stereo Receiver and Pyle PFA600BU 2-Channel Receiver are worth consideration. Hopping on to the 4-channel side of things, the Pyle PT390AU and Pyle PTA42BT 4-Channel Receiver are great value for money.

Not all 2-channel and 4-channel receivers come with a radio tuner, proven by the Fosi Audio BT20A Stereo 2-Channel Receiver and the Fosi Audio TDA7498E 2-Channel Stereo Audio Amplifier Receiver.

Kindly note, not all models with FM/AM radio functions have a radio tuner. Some models come with just digital radio and/or internet radio.

Conclusion

Long story short, 2-channel stereo receivers are still in production and shall be so in the foreseeable future. But one cannot deny the fact that AV receivers offer lots more functions comparatively.

If you know what you need and/or believe you’ll benefit from the various functions a 4-channel AV receiver offers, go ahead and pick one. But if those multiple features of AV receivers seem “extraneous” to you, do not splurge on the latest and greatest model.