Do you find yourself wishing you could get a more immersive, theater-like experience in the home? Is your soundbar just not enough anymore? One of these audio/visual (A/V) receivers can take your sound to the next level!
What to Look For in a Surround Sound Receiver
A/V receivers have been improving for decades. The feature list feels endless with high-end models that can reach into the several thousands of dollars territory. While most of us can’t afford the ultra-premium units, those same features are trickling down into more reasonably-priced models. Here is a list of essential features that allow a mainstream-class receiver to produce great sound in most environments.
- Surround Channels: The most basic A/V receivers include five channels of main audio (left front, center, right front, left rear, and right rear) plus a single subwoofer for a 5.1 surround sound configuration. This works just fine for smaller theater rooms. For larger rooms, an additional two audio channels (surround left and surround right) round out a 7.1 surround sound configuration. The two other channels increase sound location fidelity for a more immersive experience. Some systems also have an additional subwoofer channel to provide a fuller, more balanced bass experience in the room for a 5.2 or 7.2 channel configuration. To this, some systems add support for two or four ceiling speakers or upward-firing speakers that reflect sound off the ceiling adding still more three dimensional sound depth. This is represented by a 5.1.2, 5.2.2, 7.1.2, or 7.2.2 channel configuration.
- Max Power / Channel Power: Every surround receiver includes an amplifier to drive the surround speakers. More surround channels require more total power to achieve desired volume levels. It is important to understand how much power per channel is provided so that speakers can be appropriately matched to the receiver to produce good sound from the system. Power per channel is directly related to speaker ohms. Higher ohms means more resistance so that the receiver can provide less power. Lower ohms means less resistance so that the receiver can provide more power. When looking at receiver power ratings, if the manufacturer is presenting wattage at lower ohms like four or six, then they might be gaming the system a bit to make numbers look better.
- Surround Sound Encoding Support: At a minimum, all modern receivers will likely support Dolby Digital and Digital Theater System (DTS) formats for 5.1 or 5.2 configurations. They may also support Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD for 7.1 or 7.2 configurations. Finally, if you are looking to add ceiling speakers in a 7.1.2, 7.2.2, 7.1.4, or 7.2.4, you will be looking for Dolby Atmos or DTS:X format support. There are several other similar formats you might encounter, but these are the most common encountered with streaming, gaming, and broadcast video sources.
- Automatic Calibration: It takes a lot of knowledge to properly configure the multiple sound settings in a surround sound receiver for a particular room. Many receivers can listen to the sound in the room and automatically calibrate themselves!
- Wireless Audio: Most receivers include support for Bluetooth audio, but several also support audio casting over Wi-Fi or even AirPlay/AirPlay 2. A few also support Chromecast Audio.
- Streaming Audio: With the ever-growing popularity of Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and others, some receivers are supporting these streaming services directly without depending on additional source devices.
- Video Support: When an A/V receiver is deployed, it becomes the hub for every audio and video device in the home theater. All HDMI video devices should be connected to the receiver so that you only need to select the receiver input source, causing both audio and video to switch together. This built-in HDMI switch should support HDCP 2.2/2.3, HDR, Dolby Vision, as well as full 4K/60p Ultra HD and Digital 3D video. It should also support ARC and HEC over HDMI to make it easier to control the receiver with your TV remote control.
The list could go on and on. But our roundup of surround sound receivers does a great job of implementing most of the features above to provide the best experience for most people.
Best Overall Receiver: Denon AVR-S750H
Denon has been making high-fidelity audio components since the early 1970s, and it has been engineering some of the best surround sound receivers for decades. It’s known for incredible audio quality and for supporting cutting-edge features. The AVR-S750H follows this tradition while also coming in at a very reasonable price point.
The AVR-S750H is a 7.2 or 5.2.2 channel receiver that drives an immersive, three-dimensional sound field with 75 watts per channel into 8-ohm speakers or 110-watts per channel into 6-ohm speakers across all seven channels. It can generate a clean sound with more volume than most theater rooms will ever need. Once you pick a channel configuration, the Denon Audyssey speaker calibration and optimization system can dial in the speaker configuration settings for you.
The Denon supports most of the typical encoding formats including Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization, and DTS Virtual:X. It also provides Dynamic Volume and Dynamic EQ to ensure that volume levels are evened out, ensuring that dialog is clear even at low volume levels.
Denon’s Home Entertainment Operating System (HEOS) technology provides integration between the receiver, HEOS enabled wireless speakers, and streaming content providers. It also lets you use your smartphone to seamless control the whole system. Streaming music providers such as Spotify, TuneIn, Pandora, Amazon Prime Music, iHeartRadio, SiriusXM, Soundcloud, Tidal and more can provide an audio source to the primary surround speakers or HEOS enabled wireless speakers deployed in any room. The AVR-S750H also supports Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay 2, and high-fidelity digital music files via local USB storage.
With so many audio sources and destination speaker options, you might think it is difficult to control the system, but that is not the case. The HEOS app (iOS, Android) on your mobile device makes it easy. The Denon also supports Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple Siri, and Josh.AI. Once configured, you can just tell your favorite virtual assistant what you want to hear and where you want to hear it, and the Denon will start your audio experience.
Connections are plentiful on the Denon with six HDMI inputs, including one on the front panel, which makes it easy to connect a laptop, video camera, or mobile device. It supports HDCP 2.3, 4K Ultra HD, HDR, and Dolby Vision as well as eARC and HEC over the HDMI connection. The AVR-S750H does not forsake vinyl lovers with a dedicated phono input for your turntable. It also includes both WiFi and Ethernet support for network connectivity.
Best Value Receiver: Yamaha RX-V485
If you are interested in the smart features of the Denon and your theater room will work well with a 5.1 channel configuration, then the Yamaha RX-V485 is for you. Yamaha advertises 80 watts into 8-ohm speakers when two speakers are driven from the RX-V485. You can expect somewhat less power when using all five channels so you will be losing some volume and fidelity when compared to the Denon. The RX-V485 does help you get your sound field dialed in with Yamaha Parametric Room Optimizer (YPAO) automatic calibration. Yamaha also includes the AV Setup Guide app (iOS, Android) that assists with receiver setup.
With the RX-V485, Yamaha pushes its Cinema DSP audio processing to present various surround sound configuration profiles. While it makes selecting a sound profile an easy task, Cinema DSP can sometimes result in over-processing of the source audio. The good news is that the RX-V485 supports Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS-HD Master Audio encoding formats. It also provides dialog level adjustment to improve clarity at lower volumes.
Smart features abound in the RX-V485 with streaming source support for Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay 2, Pandora, Spotify, SiriusXM, Tidal, and more. Bluetooth support operates as both a destination and a source. Imagine connecting the receiver to a set of wireless Bluetooth headphones for late-night movie watching without disturbing other humans in your domicile!
The RX-V485 includes support for Yamaha’s MusicCast 20 and MusicCast 50 wireless speakers. The RX-V485 allows you to mix and match wired and MusicCast wireless speakers for a true 5.1 surround sound experience. This is an attractive option for those looking for a clean and easy speaker setup or those with limited wiring options. It also enables easy-to-deploy, multi-room listing options.
Similar to Denon’s smart streaming management systems, Yamaha provides the MusicCast controller app for playing source audio on any speaker system in any room, wired or wireless. The RX-V485 also supports Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, and Google Assistant to make playing audio in any room even easier.
The RX-V485 has four HDMI inputs that support HDCP 2.2, 4K Ultra HD, 3D, HDR, HLG, and Dolby Vision and one HDMI output that supports ARC. It also includes an Ethernet port as well as WiFi for connecting to your home network.
Best No-Frills Receiver: Sony STR-DH790
If you are looking for a powerful 7.1 or 5.1.2 receiver at a great price and you don’t want to be bothered with an endless list of smart features, then the Sony STR-DH790 is the pick for you. Sony advertises 90 watts per channel into 6-ohm speakers when driving two speakers from the STR-DH790. Sony does not provide measurements on watts per channel into 8-ohm speakers for this receiver. Watts per channel Sony’s Digital Cinema Auto Calibration is available to help you get the sound field dialed in.
Sony supports all of the important encoding formats including Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital, DTS:X, DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS HD High-Resolution Audio, DTS, and more. As for streaming, you won’t have internet connectivity for built-in streaming sources. However, you do get Bluetooth support, making it easy to use a mobile device to push streaming audio.
Connections are clean and simple with four HDMI inputs that support HDCP 2.2, 4K Ultra HD, HDR, HLG, and Dolby Vision. While Sony does not advertise industry-standard ARC support, the output HDMI port does support BRAVIA sync for single remote compatibility with other Sony components. The STR-DH790 also includes a 1-amp, 5-volt USB power jack, providing convenient power for Roku Streaming Stick+, FireTV Stick 4K, or other USB powered devices.
Best Home-Theater-in-a-Box: Yamaha YHT-4950U
Once you’ve chosen a full A/V receiver over a soundbar, you have committed to the higher cost of buying speakers as well. The Yamaha YHT-4930U works to minimize those costs by bundling a 5.1 channel A/V receiver with a matched set of surround speakers at a reasonable price.
In this kit, Yamaha includes the RX-V385 receiver capable of pushing 70 watts into 8-ohm speakers when driving two channels. Also included are four identical speakers for front and rear as well as a 100-watt powered subwoofer. Similar to the Yamaha RX-V485, both the YPAO automatic configuration system and the setup guide mobile app are available for the RX-V385.
The RX-V385 receiver leverages Cinema DSP to enhance Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS-HD Master Audio, similar to the Yamaha RX-V485. Also, like the RX-V485, the RX-V385 Bluetooth can be both a destination and a source, allowing you to connect the receiver to a set of wireless headphones or a standard Bluetooth speaker. Audio streaming is sourced only through Bluetooth, similar to the Sony STR-DH790.
Connections on the RX-V385 receiver include four HDMI inputs supporting HDCP 2.2, 4K Ultra HD, 3D, HDR, HLG, and Dolby Vision as well as a single HDMI output that supports ARC and CEC.