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Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Best Home Theater A/V Receivers for Under $500

A/V Receiver
Brostock/Shutterstock.com

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 AVR-S750H
Denon

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.

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