Home Theater Receiver vs Stereo Receiver - Which Type Is Best For You?

Onkyo TX-8140 Stereo Receiver vs Yamaha RX-V681 Home Theater Receiver
Onkyo TX-8140 Stereo Receiver vs Yamaha RX-V681 Home Theater Receiver. Images provided by Onkyo and Yamaha

The Home Entertainment Hub

There are two types of components that can provide the hub of a home entertainment system, the Home Theater Receiver, and the Stereo Receiver. However, although they may outwardly look very similar, they are, in fact, different. Depending on your home entertainment needs is what determines whether a home theater receiver or stereo receiver is the best option for you.

A Home Theater Receiver (which is also referred to as an AV Receiver or Surround Sound Receiver) is optimized to be the central connection and control hub for both the audio and video needs of a home theater system.

On the other hand, a Stereo Receiver is optimized to function as the control and connection hub for an audio-only listening experience.

Although both have some core features in common (after all, the home theater receiver was born out of the stereo receiver form factor), there are features on a home theater receiver that you will not find on a stereo receiver, and some features on a stereo receiver that you may not find on a home theater receiver. Let's take a general look at the similarities and differences between the two.

What Home Theater Receivers Offer

The core features of a typical home theater receiver include the following:

  • A minimum of 5 built-in audio amplifiers and a subwoofer preamp output. This enables the setup of a 5.1 channel configuration that includes a front left, center, front right, surround left, and surround right channel loudspeakers, as well as a powered subwoofer.
  • Built-in surround sound decoding for the Dolby Digital and DTS families of surround sound formats that may be included on DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, internet streaming sources, as well as some TV programs.
  • A built-in radio tuner (either AM/FM or FM-only).
  • Inclusion of both analog and digital audio input options. This consists of RCA analog audio inputs, as well as digital optical and digital coaxial audio input options.
  • HDMI connectivity - All home theater receivers now include HDMI connectivity that provide both audio and video signal pass-through for resolutions up to 1080p, and an increasing number that provide 4K and HDR video pass-through as well. HDMI connections can also pass through all available surround sound formats, as well as supporting Audio Return Channel.

Optional Home Theater Receiver Features

Examples of optional features that may be included on many home theater receivers (at the discretion of the manufacturer), include:

  • The incorporation of additional amplifiers to accommodate 7.1, 9.1, 11.1, 13.1 channel configurations.
  • The addition of a second subwoofer preamp output.
  • Built-in Audio decoding for one, or more, immersive surround sound formats, such as Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro 3D Audio.
  • Home Theater Receivers provide Automatic speaker setup systems, such as AccuEQ (Onkyo), Anthem Room Correction (Anthem AV), Audyssey (Denon/Marantz), MCACC (Pioneer), YPAO (Yamaha). These systems work by plugging in a provided microphone placed at the listening position and plugged into a home theater receiver. The receiver then sends out test tones to each speaker which are picked up by the microphone. The speaker setup program in the receiver the calculates the size of speakers and distance they are located from the listening position, then calculates the necessary crossover (the point where the lower frequencies are sent to the subwoofer and the mid and high frequencies are sent the rest of the speakers) and channel level adjustments.
  • Multi-zone connection and control. This capability allows the receiver to operate two or more audio or audio/video systems in other rooms via direct amplification or the use of external amplifiers.
  • Built-in Ethernet and Wifi connectivity. This allows connection to a home network router that can facilitate connection to the internet and/or access compatible content on PCs, and other compatible devices.
  • Internet streaming - This could include access to internet radio, and/or additional internet-based music streaming services.
  • Wireless Multi-room Audio - Some home theater receivers have the ability to send select audio sources to wireless speakers placed in other rooms. Examples of multi-room audio platforms include MusicCast (Yamaha), PlayFi (Anthem, Integra, Pioneer), and HEOS (Denon/Marantz).
  • Some home theater receivers may provide for direct streaming from Bluetooth and AirPlay-enabled devices.
  • A USB port (or sometimes 2) is sometimes included. Home theater receivers with this connection option provide the ability to access music content from USB connectable devices, such as flash drives.
  • While all home theater receivers via various types of video connections (HDMI, composite, component) can pass-through video signals from a connected source to a TV or video projector, many home theater receivers also provide additional video processing and upscaling capability, including video setting adjustments or calibration modes.

As you can see, a home theater receiver can offer a lot of options that serve as the hub for complete audio and video entertainment experience.

Examples of Home Theater Receivers

Onkyo TX-SR353 5.1 Channel Home Receiver - Buy From Amazon.

Marantz SR5011 7.2 Channel Network Home Theater Receiver - Buy From Amazon

For more suggestions, check out my periodically updated listing of Best Home Theater Receivers priced at $399 or less, $400 to $1,299, and $1,300 and Up.

The Stereo Receiver Alternative

There are many cases where you might not need the capabilities of a home theater receiver, especially if you just want to listen to music. In that case, a stereo receiver may be the best option for you (and, in fact, is favored by many serious music listeners).

The core features of a Stereo Receiver differ from those of a Home Theater Receiver in the following ways:

  • A Stereo receiver incorporates only two built-in amplifiers, which provide a two-channel speaker configuration (left and right). In other words, no surround sound decoding or processing is provided.
  • A Stereo receiver is only required to provide analog audio connections. However, Stereo receivers do include a built-in AM/FM or FM radio tuner.
  • A Stereo receiver does not provide HDMI connectivity.
  • A Stereo receiver does not provide any video processing or upscaling capability.

NOTE: As of 2017, there is one exception to the above "rules" for stereo receivers - the Pioneer Elite SX-S30. This stereo receiver does include HDMI input and output connectivity. However, for video, these connections are strictly pass-through (no video processing) and although Audio Return Channel and 2-Channel PCM audio is supported, Dolby/DTS and 5.1/7.1 PCM surround audio format signals are downmixed to two channels and processed in a "virtual surround" mode that produces a wider front soundfield using the two available speakers. There are no provisions to connect additional speakers to the SX-S30, although a subwoofer preamp output is provided. This receiver includes some of the optional features discussed in the next section of this article.

Optional Stereo Receiver Features

Just as with home theater receivers, there are additional options that a stereo receiver may have, once again, at the manufacturer's discretion. Some of these added features are the same as those available for home theater receivers.

  • Although stereo receivers only incorporate two amplifiers, many stereo receivers do provide what is referred to as A/B speaker connections. This allows you to connect up to 4 speakers total, but does not result in a surround sound listening experience - All the "B" speakers do is mirror the main speakers and draws power from the same two amplifiers - which means that half the power is going to each speaker. However, using the A/B speaker option is useful if you want to listen to the same audio source in a second room, or provide more coverage in a large room.
  • Zone 2 operation via preamp outputs (requires connection of external amplifiers). Unlike the A/B speaker configuration, if a Zone 2 option is also included, different audio sources be sent to the main and a remote stereo system setup.
  • An increasing number of Stereo Receivers provide a subwoofer preamp output. This allows the use of compact main speakers, combined with a subwoofer to reproduce the extreme low frequencies. When this type of configuration is used, it is referred to as a 2.1 channel setup.
  • Most Stereo receivers provide a Headphone connection for private listening, but it is not a requirement.
  • Although removed on many stereo receivers after CDs became the dominant physical music format, the inclusion of a dedicated Phono/Turntable input connection is making a comeback on many stereo receivers, due to the revival of vinyl record playback popularity.
  • To provide more audio connection flexibility with CD players, DVD players, Blu-ray Disc players, media streamers, and cable/satellite boxes, an increasing number of stereo receivers include both digital optical and digital coaxial audio inputs. However, unlike a home theater receiver, these connections cannot access or pass Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound format signals. When included on a Stereo receiver, they can only pass 2-channel PCM audio signals.
  • Also, just as Wireless Multiroom audio is an added feature that is available on some home theater theater receivers, there are a limited number of stereo receivers that also provide this option. One example is the MusicCast platform available on some Yamaha Stereo Receivers.
  • There are also some Stereo Receivers that include both Ethernet and Wifi connectivity for access to music streaming services, and/or local network device, as well as providing Bluetooth for direct music streaming from compatible smartphones and tablets. In addition, USB connectivity for flash drive based music content may be included.
  • Although Stereo Receivers are designed exclusively for music listening, there are some that do provide Analog (composite) video connectivity for convenience. However, keep in mind that if this option is provided, the video signal pass-through is limited to standard definition, and does not include any video processing or video upscaling capability.

Stereo Receiver Examples

Onkyo TX-8160 Network Stereo Receiver - Buy From Amazon

For more suggestions, check out my periodically updated listing of Best Two-Channel Stereo Receivers.

Final Take

As you can see, home theater and stereo receivers have some similarities, but are optimized for different roles in a home entertainment setup. However, that doesn't mean that you have to buy both a home theater receiver and a stereo receiver to fulfill your needs.

Even though a home theater receiver is optimized for the surround sound and video experience, they can also operate in a two-channel stereo mode as well, which allows for traditional music-only listening. When a home theater receiver operates in a two-channel stereo mode, only the front left and right speakers (and perhaps the subwoofer) are active.

However, if you are looking for an audio-only system setup option for serious music listening (especially in a second room), and have no need for all the video extras a home theater receiver might offer, a stereo receiver and good pair of loudspeakers may be just the ticket.

As a final note, as outlined in the is article, not all home theater or stereo receivers have the same combination of features. Depending on the brand and model, there may be a different feature mix, so when shopping, definitely check the feature listing of either the home theater or stereo receiver, and try to get an actual listening demo, if possible, before making a final purchase decision.