Before You Buy a Home Theater Receiver - The Basics

Onkyo TX-RZ620 Home Theater Receiver
Onkyo TX-RZ620 Home Theater Receiver. Image provided by Onkyo USA

The Home Theater receiver also referred to as an AV receiver or Surround Sound Receiver, is the heart of a home theater system. It provides most, if not all, the inputs and outputs that you connect everything, including your TV, into. A Home Theater Receiver provides an easy and cost-effective way of centralizing your home theater system.

The Home Theater Receiver Defined

A Home Theater Receiver combines the functions of three components.

  • A tuner for AM/FM, and, in some cases, built-in, or the ability to add, access to HD Radio, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, and/or internet radio and music streaming services.
  • A Preamp that controls which audio/video source is selected ( Blu-ray Disc Player, DVD player, VCR, CD player, iPod, etc...), processes the incoming stereo/surround sound signals and distributes audio to the channels and subwoofer output. Video from designated components is routed to a TV.
  • A built-in Multi-channel amplifier (5, 6, 7, 9, or 11 channels) that sends the surround sound signals and power to the speakers. Also, one or two preamp outputs for connection of a powered subwoofer is also provided.

Now that you know what a home theater receiver is, it is time to learn about what to consider when purchasing one.

First, there are the core features.

  • Power Output
  • Surround Sound Formats
  • Connectivity

In addition to core features, depending on brand/model, you may have one, or more of the following advanced options available to you:

  • Automatic Speaker Setup
  • Multi-Zone Audio
  • Wireless Multi-Room/Whole House Audio
  • iPod/iPhone Connectivity/Control and Bluetooth
  • Networking and Internet Audio/Video Streaming
  • Hi-Res Audio
  • Additional Control Options

Ready to dig into the details? Here we go...

Power Output

The power output capabilities of home theater receivers vary depending on the price you are will to pay and depending on what size room and the power requirements of your loudspeakers should be taken into consideration with regards which brand/model home theater receiver you might purchase.

However, confronted by sales hype and reading specifications can be confusing and misleading.

For a full, understandable, rundown on the details you really need to know about amplifier power and its relation to real world listening conditions, read our article: How Much Amplifier Power Do You Really Need? - Understanding Amplifier Power Specifications

Surround Sound Formats

The main feature attraction of home theater receivers for most consumers is the ability to provide a surround sound listening experience.

These days, even the most basic home theater receivers offer several options, including not just standard Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround decoding, but more advanced Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding (which are the primary formats used on Blu-ray Discs), as well as (depending on the manufacturer) additional surround processing formats.

Also, as you move into mid-range and higher home theater receiver models, surround sound formats such as Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, or even Auro3D audio may be included or offered as options. However, DTS:X and Auro3D Audio often require a firmware update.

In addition, be aware that inclusion of the various surround sound formats also dictate how many channels a home theater receiver may be equipped with - which a can range from a minimum of 5 to as many as 11.

Automatic Speaker Setup

Although not always included in the more inexpensive home theater receivers, almost all mid-range and high-end home theater receivers provide a built-in automatic speaker setup system utilizing a built-in test tone generator and special plug-in microphone.

Using these tools, a home theater can balance the speaker levels in accordance to speaker size, distance, and room acoustics. Depending on the brand, these programs have different names such as AccuEQ (Onkyo), Anthem Room Correction (Anthem AV), Audyssey (Denon/Marantz), MCACC (Pioneer), and YPAO (Yamaha).

Connectivity

All home theater receivers provide speaker connections, as well as special output for connection of one, or more subwoofers, and several audio connection options that include analog stereo, digital coaxial, and digital optical, and video connection options that may include composite and component video.

However, composite/component options are becoming less available on receivers of each successive model year due to the increasing use of HDMI, which is discussed in further detail next.

HDMI

In addition to the connection options discussed above, HDMI connectivity is provided on all current home theater receivers. HDMI can pass both audio and video signals through a single cable. However, depending on how HDMI is incorporated, access to HDMI's capabilities may be limited.

Many lower priced receivers incorporate pass-through HDMI switching. This allows the connection of HDMI cables into the receiver and provides an HDMI output connection for a TV. However, the receiver can't access the video or audio portions of the HDMI signal for further processing.

Some receivers access both the audio and video portions of the HDMI signals for further processing.

Also, if you are planning to use a 3D TV and 3D Blu-ray Disc player with your home theater receiver, keep in mind that your receiver should be equipped with HDMI ver 1.4a connections. If you have a home theater that does not have that ability, there is a workaround that may work for you.

It must also be noted that HDMI 1.4 and 1.4a connections also have the ability to pass 4K resolution video signals (30fps), provided that feature has been activated by the receiver manufacturer.

However, since 2015, home theater receivers have been implemented HDMI connectivity that adheres to both the HDMI 1.4/4a standards as well as HDMI 2.0/2.0a and HDCP 2.2 standards.

This is to accommodate 4K signals at 60fps, as well as the ability to accept copy-protected 4K signals from streaming sources and the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc format, as well as sources that include HDR-encoded video content.

Another HDMI connection option that is available on some home theater receivers is HDMI-MHL. This updated HDMI connection can do everything that a "normal" HDMI connection can, but has the added capability to accommodate the connection of MHL-enabled smartphones and tablets. This enables the receiver to access content that is either stored on or streamed to,  portable devices, for viewing or listening through your home theater system. If your home theater receiver has an MHL-HDMI input, it will be clearly labeled.

Multi-Zone Audio

Multi-Zone is a function in which the receiver can send a second source signal to speakers or a separate audio system in another location. This is not the same as connecting additional speakers and placing them in another room.

The Multi-Zone function allows a Home Theater Receiver to control either the same or a separate, source than the one being listened to in the main room, in another location. For example, the user can be watching a Blu-ray Disc or DVD in the main room, while someone else can listen to a CD in another, at the same time. Both the Blu-ray or DVD or CD player are controlled by the same Receiver.

Note: Some higher-end home theater receivers also include two or three HDMI outputs. Depending on the receiver, the multiple HDMI outputs may provide either a parallel audio/video signal to additional zones or may be configured independently so that one HDMI source can be accessed in the main room and a second HDMI source can be sent to a second or third Zone.

Wireless Multi-Room/Whole House Audio

In addition to traditional wired multi-zone options, some home theater receivers also offer the ability to wirelessly stream audio to compatible wireless speakers connected via a home network. However, each brand has their own closed system that requires the use of specific brand-compatible products.

Some examples include: Yamaha's MusicCast, FireConnect from Onkyo/Integra/Pioneer, Denon's HEOS, and DTS Play-Fi (Anthem)

iPod/iPhone Connectivity/Control and Bluetooth

With the popularity of the iPod and iPhone, some receivers are equipped with iPod/iPod compatible connections, either via USB, an adapter cable, or a "docking station". What you should look for is, not only the ability for the iPod or iPhone to connect to the receiver but for the receiver to actually control all iPod playback functions via the receiver's remote control and menu functions.

Also, many home theater receivers incorporate built-in Apple Airplay capability, which eliminates the need to physically connect an iPhone to the receiver, you can just sit back and send your iTunes to your home theater receiver wirelessly.

Also, keep in mind that if you connect a Video iPod, you may only have access to audio playback functions. If you desire to access iPod video playback functions, check the receiver's user manual before you purchase to see if this is possible.

Another addition now found on most home theater receivers is Bluetooth. This allows users to stream audio files directly from a compatible Bluetooth-enabled portable device.

Networking and Internet Audio/Video Streaming

Networking is a feature that more home theater receivers are incorporating, especially in the mid-to-high price point. Networking is executed via Ethernet connection or WiFi.

This can allow several capabilities that you should check for. Not all networking receivers have the same capabilities, but some features commonly included are: Streaming audio (and sometimes video) from a PC or the internet, internet radio, and firmware updating directly from the internet. To find out the networking and/or streaming features included in a specific receiver, check the user manual, feature sheet, or a review ahead of time.

Hi-Res Audio

Another option available on an increasing number of home theater receivers is the ability to access and play two-channel Hi-res audio files.

Since the introduction of the iPod and other portable listening devices, although making access to music a lot more convenient, they have actually taken us backward in terms what we settle for as a good music listening experience - the quality is degraded from that of the traditional CD.

The term, Hi-Res audio is applied to any music file has a higher bitrate than the physical CD (16 bit linear PCM at a 44.1khz sampling rate).

In other words, anything below "CD quality", such as MP3 and other highly-compressed formats are considered "low res" audio, and anything above "CD quality" is considered "hi-res" audio.

Some of the files formats that are considered hi-res are; ALAC, FLAC, AIFF, WAV, DSD (DSF and DFF).

Hi-Res audio files can be accessed via USB, home network, or downloaded from the internet. Generally speaking they cannot be live streamed directly from the internet - However, there is movement from services, such as Qobuz (not available in the U.S.) to provide this capability via Android phones. If a specific home theater receiver has this capability, it will either be labeled on the receiver's exterior or outlined in the user manual.

Video Switching and Processing

In addition to audio, another important feature in home theater receivers is the incorporation of video switching and processing. When buying a receiver for your home theater system, will you be connecting all of your video sources to the TV directly, or would you like to use the receiver as your central video hub for switching, and, or video processing?

If you plan to use your receiver for video, there are two options, some receivers merely pass-through all video signals untouched to your TV or video projector and some provide extra layers of video processing that you can take advantage of. It is not a requirement that you pass video through your home theater receiver.

Video Conversion

In addition to using a home theater receiver as a central location for connecting both audio and video components, many receivers also feature video processing, just as they offer audio processing.

For those receivers, a basic video processing feature available is the ability of many receivers to convert Composite video inputs to Component video outputs or composite or component video connections to HDMI outputs. This type of conversion may only improve the signals very slightly, but does simplifies connections to HDTVs, in that only one type of video connection is needed from the receiver to the TV, instead of two or three.

Deinterlacing

When considering a receiver, a second level of video processing to check for is deinterlacing. This is a process whereby video signals coming in from the composite or S-video inputs are converted from interlaced scan to progressive scan (480i to 480p) and then output via Component or HDMI outputs to the TV. This improves the quality of the image, making it smoother and more acceptable for display on an HDTV However, keep in mind that not all receivers can perform this function well.

Video Upscaling

In addition to deinterlacing, another level of video processing is very common in mid-range and high-end home theater receivers upscaling. Upscaling is a function that, after the deinterlacing process is done, mathematically attempts to match an incoming video signal to a specific screen resolution, such as 720p, 1080i, 1080p, and in a growing number of cases, up to 4K.

However, keep in mind that this process does not actually convert standard definition to high definition or 4K, but improves the image so that it looks better on an HDTV or 4K Ultra HD TV. For more details on video upscaling, check out: DVD Video Upscaling, which is the same process, just substitute Upscaling receiver for upscaling DVD player.

Remote Control Via Mobile Phone App

One feature that is really taking off for home theater receivers is the ability to be controlled by either an Android or iPhone via a free downloadable app. Some of these apps are more comprehensive that others, but if you lose or misplace the remote that comes with your home theater receiver, have a control app on your phone may be a convenient alternative.

The Bottom Line

Keep in mind that when you buy a home theater receiver, that you may not initially use all of its features, especially if it is a mid-range or high-end model, that provides several surround sound decoding and processing formats, speaker configuration options, multi-zone, and network options.

You may think that you have paid for a lot of stuff that you may never use. However, keep in mind that a home theater receiver is designed to be the centerpiece of your home theater system, so future expandability as your preferences and content sources change should be taken into consideration. Things change fast, and you have a home theater receiver that offers a little more than you need right now, you may have a cushion against rapid obsolescence.

If you have the budget, buy as much as you can afford, with the strategy of leaving enough money to purchase any other needed times, such as loudspeakers and a subwoofer - you will be making a better investment.

Check out our suggestions:

Of course, buying the home theater receiver of your choice is just the first step. After you get it home, you need to get it to get it set up and running - To find out, check out our companion article: How To Install And Set Up A Home Theater Receiver.