The Ultimate AV Receiver/Amplifier Buyer’s Guide 2021


So you’re wondering which AV receiver or amplifier you should buy, rent or otherwise try out. In this comprehensive buyer’s guide, we’ll go through everything worth considering before you make any decisions about an AV receiver or amplifier.

If you’ve found yourself asking, “which AV receiver/amplifier should I buy?” this extensive resource is for you.

Please feel free to jump around this article and read all additional resources I have provided links to.

Also, please note that new audio and video technology formats are regularly being added to the market. To make this guide as simple and evergreen as possible, I’ve refrained from digging too deeply into specific audio and video formats that may become obsolete in the future. I discuss this further in the section on Futureproofing The AV Receiver/Amplifier.

With that, let’s get into this comprehensive PA speaker buyer’s guide to help you in your next AV receiver or amplifier purchase!

Related article:
Top 11 Best AV Receiver Brands In The World


Table Of Contents


What Is Your AV Receiver/Amplifier Budget?

The first thing to consider when making any purchase is your budget. Money can be a touchy subject for some, and so I’ll keep this section brief.

I would never advise anyone to overspend on any audio equipment. Know what you can realistically afford, and do your best to stay within those limitations, whatever they may be.

AV receiver/amplifiers, like many audio devices, range significantly in price. The market is rather large, and so there should be a good selection for any budget.

Note that some retailers offer payment plans, which could be an option.

Consider the cost to benefit ratio of the purchase of the AV receiver/amplifier. For example, if the receiver/amp is needed for business, perhaps stretching the budget is more appropriate. If, on the other hand, you don’t plan on making money with the receiver/amp, perhaps a more conservative budget is appropriate.

Also, consider any additional accessories or upkeep that may be required for your AV receiver/amplifier.

Only you can determine your budget. All I’m here to say is that you should consider it.

Related My New Microphone article:
How Much Do Audio Amplifiers Cost? (With Pricing Examples)

Back to the Table Of Contents.


AV Receiver/Amplifier Number Of Audio Channels

As the central piece of your home theatre or entertainment system, it’s important that your AV receiver will be able to connect to all your devices. Additionally, it should offer as many, if not more, channels as your current speaker setup.

When selecting an AVR to suit our needs, the number of audio channels is critical to understanding how the unit will fit into the larger system.

Let’s begin with the number of audio channels and quickly discuss the difference between a stereo receiver and an AV receiver.

A stereo receiver will contain a stereo amplifier or two monoblock amplifiers to drive a stereo pair of speakers (left and right channels). The receivers are different from stereo integrated or power amplifiers by the fact that they offer radio tuners.

So stereo receivers have 2 channels.

On the other hand, AV receivers processed both audio and video (hence the name “AV” receiver). In addition to video capabilities, these receivers generally have more than two audio channels to accommodate for subwoofers and surround sound speaker setups.

AV receivers will have varying numbers of channels, often given as “X.Y” specifications. For example, an AV receiver could have 5.2 channels or 7.1 channels. What does this mean?

The first number, “X,” tells us how many full-range speaker channels the receiver offers. The second number, “Y,” tells us how many independent subwoofer channels there are.

In our examples above, the 5.2 receiver will have five full-range speaker outputs and two subwoofer channels. The 7.1 receiver will have seven full-range speaker outputs and one subwoofer channel.

By that logic, an AV receiver with stereo plus subwoofer outputs would be considered 2.1.

Nowadays, there are plenty of different standards with varying numbers of channels. As an example, NHK Science & Technical Research Laboratories has developed Ultra High Definition Television, which requires a surround sound component of 22.2.

When set up properly, more channels will offer greater immersive results. However, these extra channels (and the speakers they drive) require larger investments and space. Going big is fine if you have the money and a dedicated theatre room, but it may be overkill for a basement room with limited space and no acoustic treatment.

Related article: The Ultimate Power Amplifier Buyer’s Guide


AV Receiver I/O

Let’s move beyond the number of channels (speaker outputs) into our discussion on the general input/output specifications of audio-video receivers.

Keeping to audio-only I/O, we should be aware of the following potential inputs and outputs:

  • Pre outputs: pre outputs generally mimic the speaker outputs in number but bypass the internal power amplifiers of the AV receiver, thereby outputting lower level signals. Using pre outputs, we can send the audio outputs to their own dedicated external power amplifiers rather than using the AVR’s amps.
  • Phono inputs: phono inputs are designed to accept low-level phono signals from turntables and bring them up to line level for use within the receiver and beyond.
  • Headphone outputs: headphone outputs output analog audio to drive headphones effectively.
  • Radio tuner inputs: whether AM of FM, these radio receivers will pickup radio signals and decode them into audio for the AVR to use.
  • Analog audio inputs: these inputs generally come in stereo coaxial pairs. Each pair is generally assigned to its own source, which can be chosen within the AVR.
  • Digital audio inputs: these inputs generally come in stereo coaxial or optical pairs. Each pair is generally assigned to its own source, which can be chosen within the AVR.
  • Setup mic input: some AVRs come with sound calibration technology that effectively measures the acoustics of a room and adjusts outputs accordingly. These systems feature a microphone, which will have its own audio input.

Now let’s discuss the I/O that covers both audio and video:

  • Composite video I/O: this is relatively outdated format for analog connections featuring one yellow coaxial/RCA connector for video, and red and white coaxial/RCA connectors for audio.
  • Component (YPbPr) video I/O: this is another outdated analog format. The red and white coaxial/RCA connectors carry audio, but the video is divided into three components: one for luma (brightness) and two for color information.
  • USB: USB can carry both compressed and uncompressed video and audio, digitally.
  • HDMI: HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) is perhaps the most popular AV I/O on AV receivers. It transmits high-definition uncompressed video data and compressed or uncompressed digital audio data between HDMI-compliant devices.

Finally, we’ll wrap up this section with the extra non-AV I/O possibilities:

  • Trigger out: these outputs will effectively trigger other devices in the AV system to turn on/off as the AVR is turned on/off.
  • Remote control I/O: remote controls work wirelessly via infrared wireless technology. The remote control I/O will allow different remotes to communicate the with AVR.
  • RS-232: this I/O allows for serial communication transmission of data between the AVR and a computer.
  • Network: this I/O relays data from the AVR to a larger network mainframe, and can effectively connect the AVR to the internet and the streming services on the internet.
  • Antenna inputs: antennae inputs help with the transmission of wireless information, whether it’s for radio, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi.
  • Power I/O: all AVRs need power to work and will have a power connection. Some AVRs will also have power outputs for USB devices and the like.

Back to the Table Of Contents.


Wired & Wireless Connectivity

Continuing on from the I/O section, we should understand the wired and wireless connectivity options of our perspective AVRs.

As the centre of an entertainment system, the AVR will connect to plenty of different devices. For stationary devices such as the television and speakers, wired connections may be optimal. They’re generally more stable than wireless connectivity and offer a truer signal transfer with the encoding and decoding necessary for wireless signal transmission.

Built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and AM/FM radio are typical wireless connections worth looking into with your next AVR purchase. The remote control is also worth considering, though this technology, like AM/FM radio, is commonplace with AV receivers today.

With Wi-Fi, we can access many proprietary wireless communication protocols, including Apple’s AirPlay, Denon’s HEOS, DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance), Google’s Chromecast, and Spotify’s Connect3.

Bluetooth connectivity allows us to pair the AVR with any devices that also offer Bluetooth connectivity, with specifications defaulting to the lowest version of Bluetooth between the paired devices (backward compatibility).

Back to the Table Of Contents.


AV Receiver/Amplifier Power Specification

As discussed previously, AV receivers also act as power amplifiers that effectively drive the speakers they connect to. So, when choosing an AVR, we must ask ourselves how much power (how many watts) we need per channel and in total.

Unfortunately, power/wattage specifications are often deceiving, especially when we’re trying to figure out how much power is available per channel.

Do your research to determine how much power is available per channel when all channels connect to speakers. Pay attention to the rated nominal impedance of the speakers in question and the frequency response at which the specification holds true (ideally 20-20,000 Hz). Also, look for total harmonic distortion ratings at max peak power.

Many specifications sheets will list the maximum peak power if only one or two channels are driven. As more channels are connected, less power will be available per channel.

Though most manufacturers won’t give you the information you need regarding all channels driven, you may be able to find third-party tests that record the actual power ratings of higher-end AVRs. Check out soundandvision.com as a resource for such test results.

Having speakers with similar power handling ratings to the AVR’s power output ratings will mean improved compatibility. Take note of the rated impedance of the AVR’s power output and compare it to the speakers’ rating input impedances. Amplifiers will deliver more power into lower impedance loads.

To learn more about speaker and amplifier impedance and how to match the two, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
Why Do Speakers Need Amplifiers? (And How To Match Them)
What Is Amplifier Impedance? (Actual Vs. Rated Impedance)
The Complete Guide To Speaker Impedance (2Ω, 4Ω, 8Ω & More)
Complete Guide To Speaker Power Handling & Wattage Ratings

When it comes to measuring how much power you’ll need. Consider the size of the room. Smaller rooms need less power, and the fewer people in the room, the less power is needed. Though far from standardized, I recommend the following loose power requirements for small rooms:

  • Under 500 square feet: 200 Watts RMS or less
  • Under 1,000 square feet: 800 Watts RMS or less
  • Under 2,000 square feet: 2,000 Watts RMS or less
  • Under 4,000 square feet: 4,000 Watts RMS or less

Calculating exactly how much power you need is rather complicated. Once we have our speakers and AVR matched, we can determine how loud the system will be at a certain listening environment by calculating the speakers’ sensitivity, the power being sent to the speakers, and our distance from the speakers.

For example, let’s consider the following illustration to understand the relationship between amplifier power, speaker sensitivity, distance and sound pressure level.

In the illustration below, we’ll use the examples of Speaker A (sensitivity rating of 84 dB SPL @ 1W/1m) and Speaker C (sensitivity rating of 90 dB SPL @ 1W/1m):

Amplifier Power Vs. Speaker Sensitivity Vs. Distance

Take this information for a single speaker and understand that every speaker added (assuming equal build, distance from the listener, and output) will double the sound intensity, causing an increase of 3 dB SPL at the listener’s position.

Furthermore, consider the following table of safe listening time limits at various decibel SPL levels (A-weighted) as defined by the NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) and the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

NIOSH Standard (dBA)Equivalent Sound Pressure Level (at 1 kHz)Maximum Exposure Time LimitOSHA Standard (dBA)Equivalent Sound Pressure Level (at 1 kHz)
127 dBA127 dB SPL
44.8 Pa
1 second160 dBA160 dB SPL
2.00 kPa
124 dBA124 dB SPL
31.7 Pa
3 seconds155 dBA155 dB SPL
1.12 kPa
121 dBA121 dB SPL
22.4 Pa
7 seconds150 dBA150 dB SPL
632 Pa
118 dBA118 dB SPL
12.6 Pa
14 seconds145 dBA145 dB SPL
356 Pa
115 dBA115 dB SPL
11.2 Pa
28 seconds140 dBA140 dB SPL
200 Pa
112 dBA112 dB SPL
7.96 Pa
56 seconds135 dBA135 dB SPL
112 Pa
109 dBA109 dB SPL
5.64 Pa
1 minute 52 seconds130 dBA130 dB SPL
63.2 Pa
106 dBA106 dB SPL
3.99 Pa
3 minutes 45 seconds125 dBA125 dB SPL
35.6 Pa
103 dBA103 dB SPL
2.83 Pa
7 minutes 30 seconds120 dBA120 dB SPL
20.0 Pa
100 dBA100 dB SPL
2.00 Pa
15 minutes115 dBA115 dB SPL
11.2 Pa
97 dBA97 dB SPL
1.42 Pa
30 minutes110 dBA110 dB SPL
6.32 Pa
94 dBA94 dB SPL
1.00 Pa
1 hour105 dBA105 dB SPL
3.56 Pa
91 dBA91 dB SPL
0.71 Pa
2 hours100 dBA100 dB SPL
2.00 Pa
88 dBA88 dB SPL
0.50 Pa
4 hours95 dBA95 dB SPL
1.12 Pa
85 dBA85 dB SPL
0.36 Pa
8 hours90 dBA90 dB SPL
0.63 Pa
82 dBA82 dB SPL
0.25 Pa
16 hours85 dBA85 dB SPL
0.36 Pa

For an in-depth discussion on amplifiers, speakers, and loudness, check out my article The Full Guide To Loudspeaker Sensitivity & Efficiency Ratings.

Beyond the specs of the AVR and its speakers, consider the method by which the AVR speaker outputs will connect to the speakers.

The AVR outputs may very well take bare speaker wire, while the speakers may have pin, spade or banana connectors. It’s also worth looking into the proper speaker wire gauge for your specific situation. This has more to do with the speakers, but it’s definitely a consideration to make when choosing your AV receiver.

Back to the Table Of Contents.


Audio Format Compatibility

Be aware of the audio formats on the market at the time of your purchase and ensure the AVR is compatible with those you plan on using.

DTS and Dolby are at the forefront of new multichannel audio technologies, so look out for AVRs that have these formats.

Find out which formats you’re interested in using and find a compatible AVR. Conversely, read through the AVR specs to see which audio formats you may be interested in incorporating into your system once you buy that AVR.

Back to the Table Of Contents.


Tuner Section

With so many options for entertainment with modern technology, it can be easy to overlook the old-school radio. That being said, looking into the radio tuner section is worth the extra time to ensure it’s a good fit.

Since radio technology has been around for so long, it’s pretty much been perfected. Therefore, the vast majority of AVRs will have more than adequate tuner sections.

Back to the Table Of Contents.


Video Specifications

Like audio formats, video formats and resolutions are continuously being improved upon.

From 1080p to 4k to 8k and beyond, choose an AVR with the resolution you need now and in the future.

You may also be interested in opting for an AVR with upscaling technology to effectively upscale standard-definition video signals to HD and beyond.

Back to the Table Of Contents.


Futureproofing The AV Receiver/Amplifier

With technological developments happening faster and faster, it can be difficult to keep up in the AV world.

While audio developments are largely to do with new and improved surround sound formats, the realm of digital video is rapidly changing.

So, when choosing an AV receiver, it’s important to consider the idea of futureproofing to ensure the AVR we choose today is not obsolete a year or even a few months from now.

Here are some tips to futureproof your next AV receiver:

  • Get an AVR with enough channels for now and in the future. You may be acquiring more speakers.
  • Opt for more inputs and output than you need (especially HDMI). You may be acquiring more equipment in the future.
  • Look for an AVR with all the most up-to-date video formats and resolutions. These are consistently improving, so choosing an AVR with up-to-date formats will keep it relevant for longer.

I made a point here to offer “evergreen” advice. Do your due diligence to find out what the most up-to-date AV technologies are today before choosing your AV receiver!

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This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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