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Whether you’re building a system capable of delivering full-on home theater thrills, or one that’s intended exclusively for listening to music, you’ll find that your receiver is a crucial component.

The receiver handles a wide variety of tasks. It powers your speakers, tunes in FM and AM radio stations, provides convenient switching between audio/video components, and lets you tailor the sound of your system to suit your room and preferences. Home theater receivers also provide the decoding that lets you enjoy movies, TV shows, music, and even video games in enveloping surround sound.

Many of today’s receivers make it easy to add optional entertainment sources to your system, such as satellite radio, portable MP3 players, and music files stored on your computer. Some models even let you use your PC for system setup and control — a very handy feature for custom installations.

Simply put, the receiver supplies both the brains and the muscle for your system. That’s why it’s especially important to select a model that meets all of your needs.

Should I get a home theater or stereo receiver?

When shopping for a receiver, the first decision you’ll need to make is whether to buy a home theater or stereo model. If, like most people, you want to enjoy surround sound in your main TV-viewing room, you’ll need a home theater receiver. But for other rooms where you don’t need surround sound (or don’t have space for all those speakers), a stereo receiver can be a great choice, especially for listening to music.

But what if your primary interest is music, not movies, even in the room where you’re putting together your main system? There are still some compelling reasons to consider a home theater receiver. These models offer digital processing modes that let you transform stereo music into convincing multichannel surround sound. Plus, home theater models offer the convenience of digital inputs and outputs.

Most home theater receivers also give you automatic speaker calibration. This helpful feature allows the receiver to analyze and automatically adjust the sound of your loudspeakers, for a more accurate response in your listening room. The audible benefits of this technology can apply to both two-channel stereo and surround sound.

A quick look at surround sound

If you’re new to home theater, the wide array of surround sound options can seem a bit overwhelming. Don’t worry, though — all of today’s home theater receivers will let you enjoy your music, movies, TV programs and video games in enveloping surround sound. Along with decoding Dolby® Digital and DTS® soundtracks found on DVDs, HDTV broadcasts, and other programming, all current home theater receivers offer — at minimum — the five channels of amplification necessary to reproduce 5.1 surround sound. (The “.1” in 5.1 refers to the dedicated subwoofer channel; subwoofers are almost always self-powered and therefore do not require amplification by your receiver.)

Most new home theater receivers are capable of delivering additional surround choices with up to seven channels of power and the processing needed for even more three-dimensional sound. A growing number of models also include built-in decoding for advanced surround formats including Dolby® TrueHD and DTS-HD® Master Audio — two new high-resolution surround options available on select Blu-ray high-def video discs and players.

Receiver power: Not all watts are created equal

Whether you go for a home theater or a stereo receiver, a couple of basic rules apply. Make sure that the receiver has enough power for the speakers you’ll be using it with and the room you’ll be using it in. The sensitivity of your speakers will help you determine whether a receiver is a good match — lower sensitivity ratings indicate power-hungry speakers that will require more “juice” from your receiver to produce the same volume as speakers with higher sensitivity ratings. Also, in general, the larger your listening room, the more power your receiver will need to deliver satisfying sound.

Evaluating power ratings

The benefits of increased amplification hardly end with sheer volume, though. All other things being equal, a receiver with more wattage will deliver more dynamic, detailed sound than a receiver with less wattage, even at low to medium volumes. But when you’re comparing the power ratings of one receiver to another, bear in mind that not all watts are created equal. Some receivers employ more stringent guidelines in their power ratings than others. A full-bandwidth power rating is performed over the entire range of frequencies audible to human ears — 20 to 20,000 Hz — and is a more reliable indicator of quality amplification than ratings performed over a smaller frequency range (or those rated at just a single frequency, such as 1 kHz).

How “clean” is the power?

Another piece of the power rating puzzle worthy of note is total harmonic distortion (THD), which indicates how accurately a receiver can amplify music and movie sound. THD measurements for receivers almost always fall below 1%, so on first glance these ratings may seem to be almost indistinguishable from one another. But even small differences can be meaningful. The receivers with the cleanest amplification will typically have THD levels below 0.1%.

Want more sonic punch? Look for high-current power

The dynamic peaks that help make movie soundtracks and music so exciting can impose intense short-term demands on a receiver. High-volume special effects such as explosions or loud orchestral passages can quickly deplete a receiver’s power reserves, resulting in sound that’s flat and uninvolving. Models with high-current power are particularly well-equipped to handle these challenges, reproducing dramatic surges of sound with more punch and greater fluidity than other receivers with similar wattage ratings.

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