Getting a home theater system means acquainting yourself with the different components and learning how to set everything up, which can be overwhelming. The AV receiver is one part of the system that most people struggle to understand its function, which leaves many with the question: do you even need an AV receiver?

Getting an AV receiver isn't required for improving sound quality but it helps tremendously. You may need an AV receiver for traditional speakers, 5.1 or similar surround sound, 7.1 or similar surround sound, and passive soundbars. However, active soundbars with satellite or wireless speakers do not need a receiver.

In this detailed guide, we'll cover:

  • The function of an AV receiver
  • How an AV receiver affects the sound quality
  • The reasons why you may and may not need an AV receiver

Are AV Receivers Obsolete?

Not at all. People still use them all of the time. You can connect most devices to the wall without needing an AV receiver so this, unfortunately, leads many people to believe that they don’t need one and wonder why people buy these behemoths.

You used to find one of these in nearly everyone's house, especially in the late 90s. Now, not so much, but they’re not going away any time soon.

What Is an AV Receiver?

An AV receiver or Audio/Video Receiver is a combination of audio/video and an audio amplifier switching device for a home theater. It's one component that powers the entire home theater system. This receiver's primary purpose is to get the TV audio signal, interpret it, and process it through a cable/dish box before transmitting it to the TV and speakers.

The AV receiver consists of inputs for all the users' video and audio sources like Blu-ray, cable TV box, or a digital media hub. That means the receiver's video output goes to the TV through the HDMI, while the other audio output connects to a subwoofer and speakers using wires.

Another thing to note is that an AV receiver has five or more amplifiers to drive five speakers. A regular home theater will have five speakers, which together create the surround sound. Each home theater speaker needs a separate audio signal from the AV receiver.

AV receivers have inbuilt audio effects that enhance movies and music. They also support different soundtrack formats like DTS, Dolby Digital, and Atmos. In total, an AV receiver has different functions like:

  • Amplifying the sound/audio signals so that it's fed to the speakers
  • Allowing you to connect and switch between video sources
  • Connecting and switching between audio sources
  • Radio tuning
  • Decoding surround sound format
  • User interface for a home theater setup

You Can Amplify Audio Signals

An audio/video receiver not only receives audio signals from various devices but also processes the audio signal and amplifies it to give you that crisp and clear sound on your external speakers. The receiver also ensures the amplified signal gets to the right speaker. Some AV receivers support 9.1 and 7.1 channel configurations.

You Can Connect and Switch Between Many Video Sources

Video signals are directly connected to the AV receiver, transmitted to your display devices like the TV. Whether you want DVD or Blu-ray movies, you can trust the setup to simplify your selection of video sources. You can choose what you want to watch by clicking on the AV receiver's remote. That reduces the time spent connecting or adjusting cables between the connected display and the different sources.

With the touch of a single button, you can use it to switch from free-to-air TV to a DVD. AV receivers were designed to add a cinema-like and authentic experience while watching TV. You can use an AV receiver for both music and TV to get that surround sound experience.

Some AV receivers and TVs offer automatic switching based on signal detection, but this isn't always reliable.

You Can Connect and Switch Between Many Audio Sources

Your home theater has different audio sources like turntables, CD players, and digital audio players related to the AV receiver. You can quickly switch between the connected audio sources, thanks to the preamplifier section of the AV receiver. There's no need to connect/disconnect wires manually as you can change the audio sources with the press of a button.

You Can Listen to the Radio

An AV receiver comes with a radio tuner. You'll find that most AV receivers have satellite radio receivers for XM or Sirius radio. Also, AV receivers have an inbuilt capacity to play local FM stations. Note that you may have to pay for the satellite radio subscription.

You Can Decode Improved Surround Sound Formats

You can find modern games and movies in different surround-sound formats like THX, Atmos, and Dolby DTS. An AV receiver can decode digital and analog surround-sound formats. It's these surround-sound technologies that provide that cinema-like experience and make the audio immersive.

The AV receiver is the only device that can decode surround-sound formats, making it different from the conventional stereo amplifiers.

Pros of AV Receivers

A typical home theater setup has speakers and other components. Unfortunately, most of these components do not work easily together, which brings the need for an AV receiver. The AV receiver acts as a connection hub through which all your video, audio, and streaming sources send signals between one another.

Some of the advantages of AV receivers include:

  • Centralize space: An AV receiver centralizes all of your connects, allowing neater cable management when you have limited space after mounting your TV.
  • Versatile unit: A receiver is an all-in-one unit that gives you everything you need for a home theater audio setup. You get different inputs for video and audio, volume/input controls, and extra functionalities like a tuner, amplifier, and preamp. Moreover, AV receivers can customize output of sound in different ways to produce that awesome sound quality your ears crave.
  • Affordable: AV receivers are relatively cheap compared to features offered and makeup of your home theater budget. You'll find most receivers that cost $300-$1500 range with essential features and functionality. Some have more multiple inputs and switching options than others to handle both audio and video inputs.

Cons of AV Receivers

An AV receiver handles different inputs and amplifies sounds like a home theater. While AV receivers are versatile and convenient, they also have their drawbacks. Here are some disadvantages of AV receivers:

You Don't Get True Amplification

Although the quality of receiver amplification increases, you don't get a dedicated amplifier with a receiver. That's because the device has to share the space with other components, limiting the amp's functionality. If you have a large set of speakers, you may not fully experience enough power to make them work. Extra care is required in research before purchasing.

Replacement Is Usually All or Nothing

If you're planning on upgrading your AV receiver, you usually must replace the entire unit when upgrading. There have been occasional offerings that include replaceable, external wireless chips and sound decoders, but that usually isn't the norm.

Setup Can Get Complicated

Some AV receivers, especially older models can be complex to set up. Pair that with a basic display screen with minimal context to settings, you have a recipe for a long day. Newer models have improved interfaces, but there is still a learning curve to learning the technology and setup.

User Interface for Home Theater Setup

An AV receiver can help you connect, set up, and optimize your home theater system through a user interface. The interface options include the on-screen display on the TV, the show on the receiver's front panel, and the receiver's remote control.

All these are some functions of the AV receiver. Modern receivers also have various features like internet connectivity through Wi-Fi or Ethernet ports. You can also stream wireless music through Bluetooth or enjoy screen mirroring through Airplay and DLNA. These features depend on the AV receiver model, make, and price.

How Does an AV Receiver Affect Sound Quality?

An AV receiver makes it simple to manage the audio across speakers and can also amplify that sound. The device also performs a single room correction to improve sound quality, but how does a receiver affect sound quality?

The AV receiver acts as the path that the sound signals travel through to get to the speaker. Having dedicated speakers improves the sound, which would have been dull when using the speakers built into your screen. However, the process is complex and involves a lot more than amplifying the sound signal.

Decodes the Sound Format

An AV receiver does more than act as the routing path for the sound to get to the speakers. The component decodes the sound format from its original form and remaps it to a signal that the speakers can give out.

A good example is Dolby Digital, a format you'll find in most DVDs, video games, and cable TV. The structure comes with the file and provides 5.1 channels of sound from the surround left/right, front left/right, center, and a subwoofer.

To get the physical HDMI cord's signal into the five-speaker channels, you'll need the receiver to decode this signal and route it to the other speaker channels. One thing to note is that different formats need various receivers.

Amplifies the Signal

The other step after decoding is signal amplification. Remember that these signals can only be transmitted to the speakers once they have enough power. The receiver works to amplify the signals.

You need a receiver with a high wattage if you plan on using massive speakers at high volumes. Most AV receivers have 70-100 watts per channel. A low-quality receiver may not have enough watts per channel to power a surround system.

That means if you turn the volume up, the receiver's amplifier won't support that amount of power to the speakers. That could damage the receiver or cause the speakers to start clipping. The receiver amplified the signal, which in turn affects the sound quality.

How Much Power Do I Need?

Power ratings are not standardized, which means checking the wattage specs won't tell you anything. What that means is if you get a 100 watts per channel receiver, it won't sound louder than a 50 watts per channel receiver. The best thing is that AV receivers provide plenty of power for home theater speakers and rooms.

A receiver that is powerful to drive your home theater speaker should also have its power rating up. Find a receiver with a full-bandwidth power rating, which is 20Hz-20 kHz. Stay away from limited bandwidth or single-frequency rating.

While some receivers provide good peak power ratings, what that means is they can deliver a lot of power within a short period. That makes them unreliable during long audio passages. It's essential to find an AV receiver with a high continuous power rating to experience the real surround sound. Find a receiver with a power rating indicated as watts continuous or watts RMS.

Is an AV Receiver Similar to an Amplifier?

Although an AV receiver can offer amplification features, the two are different. An amplifier's primary function is to amplify audio to get a strong output.

However, apart from boosting the audio source volume and adding audio effects, it also takes in video signals and outputs them to a video display. The main difference between an AV receiver and an amplifier is that the receiver can handle video, while an amplifier cannot.

An AV receiver needs to be connected to multimedia devices and process the sound output that the device sends. While amplifiers only work for more complicated audio setups, AV receivers are more versatile.

When Do You Need an AV Receiver?

Think of the receiver's function as the brain of the home theater system. With this theme in mind, here are some cases where you may need an AV receiver:

When Your Priority Is Video and Audio With 4K Video Switching and Dolby

An AV receiver may come in handy when you're looking for audio and video with Dolby Atmos and 4K video switching. Also, if you're looking for the best sound quality for your music than movies, a 2-channel stereo receiver may be an excellent option.

When Looking for a Range of Sound Formats

You may need to get an AV receiver if you're looking for a range of sound formats. Most AV receivers provide Dolby Digital and DTS decoding. You'll find that most DVDs have Dolby Digital as the de facto surround sound. This format has a rich audio soundstage that brings soundtracks with deep bass and realistic-sounding special effects.

Some manufacturers also use DTS format to encode their DVDs in the 5.1 channel. The format uses higher data rates than Dolby Digital, which makes people think of it as accurate. An AV receiver can decode both formats.

An AV receiver may also be a good idea if you need to calibrate your system using software to adjust the sound for the speaker positioning and room acoustics. Another reason is when you want to avoid unsightly cables, especially with wall-mounted TVs with multiple peripheral devices.

Modern AV receivers are compact and can be mounted behind the television or tucked inside a drawer and be controlled wirelessly. That allows you to have a 5.1 system without other electronics interfering. You may want an AV receiver if you have more video inputs than your TV can handle.

When You May Not Need an AV Receiver

Feature redundancy, added complexity, and cost are some of the reasons you would not want an AV receiver.

  • Feature redundancy: You'll realize that most AV receivers have features that you don't need. Some receivers have inbuilt apps like Netflix and Pandora, which you may already have in another component. You won't need a Blu-ray player, Netflix on your TV, or Apple TV all at the same time, which leads to feature redundancy.
  • Additional cost: Additional cost is another reason why you may choose to skip on the AV receiver. You'll have to part with $200-$500 for a decent receiver. Higher-end models could cost $1,000-$2,000 and beyond. Cost is usually factored in, but added cost for features you don't use could be wasteful.
  • Added complexity: Another reason why an AV receiver may not be a good idea is the complexity you have to endure. Setup is one thing, but if you don't use your receiver's remote or a good universal remote, you will have a little procedure to follow in order to watch TV:
    • You'll need to turn on the TV, turn on the receiver, and set the TV to video input and the receiver to CAB/SAT. Moreover, you'll need to ensure the cable box is on and avoid using the TV remote when you need to control the volume.
    • Speaking of univeral remotes, if you don't have a good one, you can get out of sync with your TV and have to limit the number of devices you can control.

What Are the Alternatives to AV Receivers?

Modern TV sets have a multimedia interface that allows audio from any source device connected to the TV to be passed on to an active audio system connected to it. That means you may not need an AV receiver to have a similar cinema surround-sound-like experience.

Here are some alternatives to AV receivers if you're looking for a better sound for your TV:

Soundbars

A soundbar is an excellent way to improve TV sound. The bar is a single-speaker solution to connect to the TV through an HDMI cable and enjoy the crisp sound and realistic effects. You'll find that most soundbars offer that high-impact bass that significantly enhances the sound quality.

Some features you'll find in a soundbar include stereo and Bluetooth modes for music playback and virtual surround sound technology. Soundbars are excellent if you're planning on mounting your TV, as you can place them on a low board or hung beneath a TV.

You can also find soundbars with wireless surround speakers, which means you don't need to run the cables across the room. Manufacturers have introduced a soundbar that works like the two front speakers and a discrete center. The set also comes with a wireless subwoofer and two wireless rear speakers. When combined, all these give you that fantastic surround sound without the need to have an AV receiver.

Each speaker on the soundbar gets its power from inbuilt amplifiers to help deliver quality sound without a receiver's need. Most soundbars in the market are active which means that each speaker is powered by an amplifier. Nevertheless, there are passive soundbars that do not have an amplifier on each speaker. In this case, you'll need an amplifier or receiver to experience the quality sound.

Connecting the Soundbar

All you need is to connect the soundbar to the TV through the HDMI and experience these sound effects. You can also plug all components into your TV's inputs and use your TV's digital audio out port to send the audio from your TV to the soundbar. That means every time you change the inputs on your TV, the soundbar keeps up automatically.

Some models allow you to program your satellite box or cable remote to adjust the soundbar's volume rather than the TV's, which means you won't need a universal remote.

You may also encounter a situation where you hear sound from both the soundbar and the TV speakers. The problem can be sorted by turning off the internal speakers. You can also send a fixed audio signal to the soundbar, which means the soundbar gets the signals, it requires no matter where the TV volume is set.

Blu-ray Player With HDMI Inputs

Although Blu-ray players with HDMI inputs are rare, they are available. Using this option helps you streamline the components in your home theater. This option is also fantastic if your HDTV doesn't have discrete inputs.

Discrete inputs mean that every input on the TV has its separate remote code to switch to, which works well for universal remotes. A good example is when your Blu-ray is input five, and your cable box is input 1.

When you have discrete inputs, the universal remote will need to send a command from Blu-ray to Cable and vice versa. However, if your TV doesn't have discrete input, that means you can't switch from input 1 to 5 without going through inputs 2, 3, and 4.

The universal remote will need to send many presses to change the input. The process is prone to mistakes.

You might also consider finding a Blu-ray player with HDMI inputs if your HDTV is already mounted to the wall. If you don't want extra wires in front of the wall or don't have access to the TV's input, the player option works correctly.

All you need is to plug the Blu-ray player into the TV using the HDMI cable, then plug the DirectTV box into the BD player. The player has an HDMI pass-through signal, which means that each time the player is switched off, the DirectTV signal passes through the player to the TV.

Switching between components would involve turning the Blu-ray player on and off, which is out when you need DirectTV and on when you need Blu-ray.

What to Look For When Buying AV Receivers

Most AV receivers sound and look similar. One thing you can be sure of is superior sound quality. Understanding the complexities of how the AV receiver works can be overwhelming. You will need to learn which AV receiver features are worth it for your use case. A little due diligence, in the beginning, will help ease confusion.

What Differentiates Entry Level AV Receivers From High-End Receivers?

An entry-level AV receiver is affordable and comes with basic 5.1 channel surround decoding, while some have 6.1 channel formats. These receivers also have power ratings of 50-100 watts, but there are some with full bandwidth power ratings. Entry-level receivers also provide component video switching, digital audio inputs, and S-video inputs.

On the other hand, high-end receivers have basic video inputs as well as HDMI inputs, A/B speaker switching, pure sound quality, and automatic room tuning and setup.

What Type of AV Receiver Should I Get for My Home Theater?

AV receivers function as the brains behind your home theater system. The receiver decodes media's surround sound, drives the loudspeakers, and switches between audio/video components. That means you should get a quality AV receiver if you want high-quality surround sound. You need to check the features and read about them in-depth as you don't want an AV receiver that doesn't meet your needs.

A feature-packed AV receiver may cost more than $2,000. You'll get multi-room functionality that allows you to listen to different audio sources simultaneously and power various speakers at once. High-end receivers also come with superior bass management options, automatic room tuning and set up, and accurate power ratings.

Final Thoughts

AV receivers continue to provide unparalleled audio quality. If you love high-quality sound and you don’t want to blow out your speakers, then you should get an AV receiver. An AV receiver has five channels of audio amplification, which is enough to power a center speaker, two rear speakers, and two front speakers. You may also get an AV receiver if you'd like a channel that amplifies all your audio and video components.

Furthermore, you may need an AV receiver if you have more video components than your TV has inputs, and you like listening to the radio.

However, you don't need an AV receiver if you have an active soundbar with satellite or wireless speakers. While some may argue that AV receivers enhance the full surround sound, you still get the difference in clarity and tone with a soundbar. The choice comes down to your budget and preferences.