Congratulations! If you're reading this, you're seriously considering completing your home theater, which you started by buying a widescreen HDTV, by looking into buying an AV receiver (AVR).
I'm assuming, BTW, that you know what an AVR does. If not, check out yesterday's post.
What took you so long? I know - you think AVRs are really complicated and choosing and using one requires an advanced degree in engineering.
They aren't and it doesn't. AVRs have become so sophisticated that they've become easier to buy and easier to use. There's no need to consider the less satisfactory improved TV sound options of a soundbar or home theater in a box.
As a result, I can boil the whole AVR purchase process down to
- three purchase steps,
- three new features you should look for,
- three things to ignore, and
- three universal truths.
In reverse order...
AVR Universal Truths
1. You don't need to spend a lot of money. You can buy a $300 receiver and get everything you need to introduce yourself to the wonderful world of 5.1-channel surround sound home theater. Really.
If you feel you need more from your AV receiver in a few years, you can always move your introductory AVR to the bedroom or give it to a college-bound child or grandchild.
2. You'll get least 5.1 channel surround sound speaker connectivity. By definition, an AVR enables you to connect at least five speakers - front left, front center, front right, rear left and rear right - to create surround sound. Most AVRs also include a way to connect a subwoofer for added bass.
If you want to add speakers to create a more extensive 7.1, 9.1 or even 11.1 theater system, you'll have to step-up to a more expensive model. But start with 5.1.
3. You'll get at least three HDMI inputs, which means you'll be able to connect a cable or satellite box, a Blu-ray player and a third device - a video game console or a media streamer, for instance, each with a single cable.
What to ignore
Feel free to ignore every alphanumeric specification thrown at you by AVR makers and salespeople, but especially...
1. Watts per channel. Unless your living room is warehouse-sized, even the least expensive AVR will provide plenty of power - volume - to fill your room with enveloping surround sound.
You also can ignore "ohms" and impedance. Don't even worry about what this means. Unless you buy really huge, expensive speakers, your AVR will be able to handle whatever speakers you plug into them.
2. Sound quality claims. AVR makers tout the letter-designated classification of its speaker amplification )Class A, Class D, etc.) and other digital technologies that prove how good they'll sound.
I know I'm committing home audio heresy here, but you can ignore all of this. All AVRs are packed with technology designed to improve audio quality, which you'll likely never hear unless you do lab tests and you can hear angels dancing on the heads of pins. I've never heard a bad-sounding AVR, at least from an established brand.
If a sales person tries to sell you a higher-priced AVR because "it'll sound better," feel free to laugh and ignore him or her. (Same goes for an extended warranty, BTW.)
3. DSP. DSP means "digital sound processing" - these are digitally-enhanced settings that make your music or video sound as if you're sitting in an arena, a stadium, a jazz club, etc., and also adjust the sound in case you decide not to connect the rear speakers and only have three speakers in front, or want to listen to simple stereo.
I'm not saying ignore DSP because it isn't important - it kinda of is - but because all AVRs include DSP settings. Makers give their particular DSP technologies fancy names, but they're pretty much all the same.
You can also ignore mentions of Dolby and dts, the two companies to create the surround sound used on most movies. Again, not because Dolby and dts aren't important - they kinda are - but all AVRs include Dolby and dts settings, which you can futz with at your leisure.
Three handy new AVR features
1. iPhone/iPod connectivity, AirPlay compatibility. Obviously ignore this if you own an Android smart phone or tablet. If you're an iPhone/iPod/iPad owner, you'll be able to connect them directly to an AVR via the standard Apple 30-pin-to-USB cable - and the AVR will display what's playing - or via Apple's wireless AirPlay connectivity standard without needing the usually necessary Apple TV box.
2. Networked/DLNA. For Windows PC users, an AVR equipped with Wi-Fi or a wired Internet conenction to access Internet radio or streaming services such as Pandora, and DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) connectivity will allow you to access media stored on your home PC.
3. Bluetooth. Many of us store our music on our smart phones. In increasing number of AVRs let you stream this music via Bluetooth through your AVR to your speakers, especially handy for parties.
Three AVR purchase steps
1. Buy speakers first. And here I'm referring to a surround sound speaker system you buy as a package such as those I mentioned in yesterday's post.
In most cases, any AVR can handle almost any modern speakers to connect to it. But it's probably helpful to know how much power your speakers need to operate efficiently with the AVR of your choice and especially if you'll need an AVR that can handle a subwoofer, in case you buy a surround sound speaker system that includes a subwoofer (the smaller the speakers, the more they'll need a subwoofer).
What you should be most concerned with mostly is how speakers sound at LOW volume. Don't let the speaker sales person turn up the volume to demonstrate how great speakers sound loud. Ask them to turn down the volume and determine if you can still hear dialog clearly.
2. Get one more HDMI input than you need. Don't buy an AVR with just the right amount of HDMI devices you have now. Buy one with at least one extra - you never know what gear you'll buy in the future. For instance, you may want to replace your DVD player with a Blu-ray player. Better to spend a little more now than not be able to connect some new gizmo down the road.
Most AVRs will include so-called component video jacks to connect a DVD player, red/white/yellow RCA jacks to connect a VCR and even red/white stereo RCA jacks to connect a turntable. Just double check to make sure you have the jacks you need to connect the gear you own.
3. Remote control. To avoid requiring a collection of remote controls just to watch everything, look for an AVR that includes a universal remote, and especially one that gives you individual buttons to switch to whatever is connected to it.
And that's really it. Now go find the least expensive AVR that provides all of these connectivity and convenience features and really enjoy those surround sound movies and TV shows.