Getting the most out of your home theater setup requires choosing the right hardware. If you are serious about your entertainment’s sound quality, you may have looked into getting an AV receiver – only to be in for sticker shock. Some receivers can cost well above some of the best TVs on the market – but why is this the case?
Receivers are so expensive because the more ports there are, the better the amplifiers, and the better the video processing, the pricier the hardware will be overall. Higher-end models can also include features not found in cheaper models.
We will be going over what makes some receivers expensive and suggest cheaper options, so you don’t have to break the bank! Read further if you’d like to learn more.
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What Does an AV Receiver Do? And Do You Need One?
Video and sound quality are an essential part of any home theater setup. Sound immerses you into the action, while a better image will get the most out of your TV. You can go about many ways of doing a home theater setup, and you don’t even have to spend a lot of money. A $400 4K TV with a $150 soundbar can be considered a home theater – it’s just up to how far you want to go with it.
The deeper you go into the world of audio and video equipment, the more types of hardware you will see. One of these is known as an AV receiver, and if you’ve ever tried to browse for them, you likely have seen prices in the thousands of dollars – but why? And are expensive receivers even worth it?
What Is an AV Receiver?
The sound that comes out of your TV isn’t the best, to put it mildly. It’s hard to blame it though, the main purpose of a TV is to give you a nice picture, and thus bezels have shrunk so much that fitting decent speakers and amplifiers is very hard if not impossible. This is why many people will recommend at the very least to buy a soundbar for your TV because even a cheap one will make a world of difference.
But if you want more than just the bare minimum and want a true surround sound experience, for example, you will need to set your sights higher. You’ll need to buy the speakers needed for a surround sound setup, which is a good start, but if you’d like to take things to an even higher level, using an AV receiver to boost sound quality is something to consider.
Normally you’d either use your TV or your speaker’s amplifier to output sound; the problem with this is that built-in amps are generally not as good as a dedicated one or, in this case, an AV receiver.
These are more than just a dedicated amplifier; they intercept both audio and video signals and drive said audio through whatever speakers you have connected, and process the video signal. In theory, the result is better audio quality if you are going for a surround sound setup since each dedicated amplifier in the receiver is driving its speaker. As for video processing, a receiver can improve image quality by upscaling a lower-quality picture.
The best way to use a receiver is to take advantage of either 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound; this is the main draw for these machines since your TV alone isn’t capable of providing a high-quality surround sound experience.
In short: if you are serious about the quality of surround sound, an AV receiver is a good thing to have.
Why Receivers Are Expensive
AV receivers and their pricing are something many people get shocked when they see it for the first time. High-end receivers cost thousands of dollars, and you can probably imagine the other things you’d rather spend that kind of money on the TV of your dreams, a powerful PC, maybe even a used car.
But we’d just like to say that the vast majority of people don’t need these types of receivers. Unless you have high-end audiophile-grade speakers to match a high-end receiver, you can breathe easy knowing that you don’t need to spend that much to get a good experience.
Expensive AV receivers are built to take advantage of the high-end equipment that it is connected to. The better the speakers, the more sophisticated the amplifier needs to be, the better the TV, the better the video processing needs to be. High-end receivers have better amplifiers, more ports, and added features such as more in/out ports, advanced Audyssey. And more control of what each amplifier does.
Pairing a $5,000 AV receiver with a $300 speaker setup isn’t going to do much for you if anything at all. The target audience for audiophile-grade receivers isn’t the people who are buying relatively affordable home theater setups.
An AV receiver should be built around the setup you already have or plan to have. A good rule of thumb is to get the receiver last so you can choose what works best for your specific overall setup and budget.
It’s worth noting that the higher you go in price, the more diminishing returns there are. There becomes a point where you might be paying 1 or 2 grand more for a slightly better experience, but as we said earlier, this equipment is for those who demand the best of the best and are willing to pay for it.
You will generally get the most bang for your buck once you approach the mid-tier range of receivers. They will be decent all around, and you likely will be satisfied with the sound quality it delivers.
If you are still curious about the real differences vs. budget and mid-range receivers vs. expensive ones, this video explains the topic in detail:
Can You Use a Receiver With a Soundbar?
A lot of people use a soundbar rather than a discrete stereo setup. Soundbars are convenient, can be affordable, and look sleek in an entertainment center. But can you hook up a receiver to them?
Yes, you can connect a receiver to a soundbar. If your soundbar has RCA or AUX ports, simply connect the appropriate cables to the receiver. If your soundbar doesn’t have these ports built-in, you can use a line output converter.
But doing this doesn’t make too much sense. Soundbars are either meant to operate as one speaker or work with proprietary wireless surround sound speakers. Expandability isn’t the priority for these speakers since they are meant to be an all-in-one home theater sound solution.
This is for active soundbars, but for passive soundbars, the story is different. A passive soundbar doesn’t come with an amplifier built-in, meaning that it won’t work without a discrete amplifier or a receiver. Passive soundbars also encourage expandability by adding your preferred speakers to create a true surround-sound setup.
Do note that the average passive soundbar is much more expensive than the average active soundbar since they target audiophiles rather than people who just need something better than their TV speakers.
In short, using a receiver with an active soundbar isn’t a great idea because it is a singular speaker that doesn’t offer true surround sound unless you pair it with proprietary speakers. If you are looking for a soundbar that offers true expandability, you will want a passive soundbar that needs an amplifier to work. You will support the connectivity required to use speakers of your choosing.
How to Choose an AV Receiver
There are plenty of receivers to choose from with varying capabilities and price points, and thus choosing the right one for your needs is going to be an important decision. Here are some things to ask yourself before deciding on a model:
What Are You Using a Receiver For?
This is perhaps the most important thing to consider since there are two types of receivers. We discussed AV receivers above since that is generally what people think of when receivers are brought up. If you are looking at a receiver for a home theater surround sound setup, you will want to choose an AV receiver.
On the other hand, if you want a receiver, only the music will want to look at a stereo receiver that is focused on audio. This is an important distinction and something to make double sure that you know what you are buying.
How Many Channels Do You Need?
Do you want to hook up two speakers? 4? 5? Most receivers have five channels at a minimum, so your needs are likely going to be met. But if you plan on using more than five speakers, you will have to ensure that the receiver can support the number of speakers you want.
Make Sure it Supports 4K, HDR, and 4K Video Switching
With 4K TVs becoming the norm (if they aren’t the norm already), we think it is important to ensure that whatever equipment you are buying related to picture quality supports 4K even if you don’t have a 4K TV just yet. Buying a receiver is an investment, and you are likely going to hang on to it for a while. With 4K TVs dropping in price like rocks each year, there is a good chance you’ll end up with one in the near future.
Additionally, look for HDR support. Many people say the biggest difference they see when upgrading to a 4K TV is HDR because the colors pop so well with blacks that look black. HDR support is something to look for in an AV receiver and a TV.
If you plan on hooking up multiple devices such as more than one game console, 4K video switching will be important unless you want to spend time fiddling with cords every time you want to change devices.
Dolby Atmos and/or DTS:X Is Recommended (but Not Required)
To get the most out of a receiver, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X are recommended additions. Without diving too deep into this topic: they are sound technologies that take surround sound to the next level, and many receivers support both.
Additional Things to Consider
Newer receivers come with bells and whistles such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplay, etc. Not all of them do, but if you want to play music from your smartphone, for example, ensure that the receiver supports these.
Also, consider if you’d like to utilize your receiver in multiple rooms. Some receivers can multitask, acting as a conventional receiver in your home theater setup while streaming music in another room. This is handy for households with multiple people so that everyone can utilize the receiver all at once.
Budget AV Receivers
An AV receiver can be pretty affordable if you know what to look for. There might be some sacrifices here and there, but generally, you can pick one up for a good price that will do its job in amplifying audio and video.
Stereo: Sony STRDH190
The Sony STRDH190 stereo receiver gets right to the point. It doesn’t have many bells and whistles such as Wi-Fi and HDMI, but what it does do is offer killer sound for the price. This is for people who just need the basics and just want their receiver to do its main job well at a good price. But it does, at the very least, have Bluetooth so you can stream your phone’s music to it.
For under $150, this is a no-brainer budget stereo speaker, and you may be able to trick a lot of people into believing it is a lot more expensive than it is due to its minimalistic, classy design.
There are cheaper options for sure, just searching for stereo receivers on Amazon brings up many that are $100 or below, but remember that cheap doesn’t necessarily mean value. A good rule of thumb to follow is to buy what you will be truly satisfied with for a while, rather than save a few dollars and miss out on something you truly want.
This is a budget receiver that will certainly satisfy your sound needs for quite some time!
AV: Denon AVR-S540BT
If you are looking for an AV receiver that checks off many boxes and offers almost a completely modern experience at a relatively low price, then you don’t need to look much further than the Denon AVR-S540BT.
For under $300, you are getting a lot for your money; 4K audio and video, HDR and HLG, 5.2 channel surround sound, 5 HDMI inputs, and HEOS and Bluetooth for streaming music for your phone.
Some things are missing that we’d like to see; however, for starters, Dolby Atmos support isn’t found here, which is a shame because that would have sealed it. The sound quality it outputs is good, and this is a receiver worth buying if you are shopping at this price point, but if you were looking for a further enhanced surround sound, the experience you may want to look elsewhere.
We will be fair here and say that for under $300, it will be hard to get much better than this. It comes to blows with its competitors around the same price-point and represents what you can get for this low of a price.
AV: Sony STRDH590
Sony knows what they are doing when it comes to both audio and video equipment, and their receivers are a good example of this, and at such a reasonable price, the Sony STRDH590 won’t leave you emptying your savings to give them a whirl.
This is pretty much a direct competitor with the above Denon receiver. They both come in at a similar price point and offer many of the same features. You can’t go wrong with either, and it is just splitting hairs at this point.
However, one notable difference is that this receiver caters to people who are using a 2-speaker setup by offering virtual front surround sound via S Force PRO. What this does is stimulate the effect of having speakers planted around you. Is it perfect? No, but it does the job if you are only working with two speakers.
This is a 5.2-ch surround sound receiver, so you can add more speakers to it as you wish, but it is nice to see Sony catering to people who may not have additional speakers yet or simply aren’t planning to expand anytime soon. For under $300, this is another easy recommendation, just like the Denon.
Receivers don’t have to be expensive. Think of it as buying a smartphone. The top of the line smartphones have the features and power for people who demand the best, but that doesn’t necessarily mean smartphones, on the whole, are expensive. The same applies to receivers. If you want the best receivers, you’ll get better amplifiers, more features, and superior video processing.
But note that the vast majority of people don’t need to spend $5,000 on a receiver. You can find great ones for under $300 that will noticeably enhance your home theater.