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Audio/Video Receiver: The Brains and the Engine

The audio/video receiver is the centerpiece of your home theater system. It's both the brains (in terms of controlling all your components) and the muscle (providing power to your speakers). The better the A/V receiver, the happier you'll be with your system; scrimp on this component, and you'll feel the pain.

As you might expect, a wide variety of A/V receivers are available. Just checking with Crutchfield, one of my favorite electronics e-tailers, shows A/V receivers ranging in price from $179–4,499. So it's fairly obvious—not all receivers are created equal.

When shopping for an A/V receiver, you need to consider performance (power and distortion), decoding (which surround sound formats the unit decodes), connectivity (how many and what kinds of components you can connect), and control (how it switches between all those components). Here's a more detailed list of features to consider:

  • Performance. All A/V receivers offer at least five channels of amplification. (In a 5.1 system, the subwoofer is powered separately, and thus only routed through the receiver—not amplified there.) Some higher-end receivers with Dolby Digital EX decoding have six or seven channels of amplification. Some receivers even have an extra few channels of amplification to run speakers in a second room. Naturally, the higher the power per channel, the better—to a point. Most good receivers will deliver at least 100 watts per channel, but make sure that the power is delivered over the full 20–20,000 Hz bandwidth, and that the total harmonic distortion (THD) rating is comparably low—the cleanest receivers have THD levels below 0.1%. By the way, if all this is a little confusing, just go by weight. Better-constructed amplifiers weigh more than cheaper units, so if the watts are the same, go with the unit that's heavier to pick up.

  • Decoding. Even the lowest-priced A/V receivers available today should include surround sound decoders for the Dolby Digital, DTS, and Dolby Pro Logic II formats. Some higher-end units will have Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES decoders, powering additional rear speakers behind the standard surround speakers. Unless you plan on installing a lot of speakers in your home theater room, you're okay with the standard 5.1-channel decoders.

  • Connectivity. This is where we separate the men from the boys. Lower-end receivers have enough inputs and outputs for only a few components; higher-end receivers have more connectors than you'll ever imagine using. But here's the thing—the more components you add to your system, the more likely you are to use all those jacks in the back of your receiver. You want at least four (preferably more) A/V inputs on the back of the unit, and ideally another set or two on the front to connect a camcorder or videogame. You want a choice of video inputs, including component video, S-video, and composite video. On the audio front, you want some combination of line audio (R/L), optical digital, and coaxial digital, and at least two full sets of A/V outputs—again, the more the merrier. Really high-end receivers will up-convert composite video and S-video inputs to component video output, so you can run a single set of component video cables from your receiver to your television monitor.

  • Control. To switch from one component to another, your receiver will utilize some type of handheld remote control. Look for a remote unit that's easy to figure out and feels good in your hand. Higher-end remotes should be programmable, so that they can also control the other components in your system. And the very best receivers come with two-way touchscreen remotes that function similarly to the best third-party universal remotes.

As I said, you can spend as little as $200 or as much as $4,000 or more for a good A/V receiver, depending on the combination of performance and features. Some of the more popular A/V receiver manufacturers include Denon, JVC, Kenwood, Onkyo, Sony, and Yamaha.

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