A quality receiver can be one of the best investments you make when developing your own home theater system. When I first started planning my home theater system years ago – I did not fully understand how AV and stereo receivers differ and whether this can affect my intended system. After all, I wanted my home theater to do it all and act as the hub of all my social gatherings. This meant developing a system that supports both home theater and stereo capabilities. After looking into understanding the differences, I came up with one essential question:
Are AV receivers good for music? Most AV receiver manufacturers are primarily focused on delivering phenomenal home theater sound. Audiophiles typically find the amplifiers in AV receivers to be lacking when it comes to musical performances.
However, brands like Marantz, have a great musical reputation based on years spent developing products specifically for audio support.
Prioritizing your needs will become more important as you evaluate which receiver you want. Below, I explain the differences between AV and stereo receivers. I hope that this can help you evaluate which type of receiver, or at least which features, will be essential to building the home theater system of your dreams. After all, a true home theater is a serious investment and you should get the most bang for your buck at the end of the day.
What Are AV Receivers?
Audio/Video, or AV, receivers are optimized control hubs that act as the central connection between all of your home theater audio and video needs. (Some sellers may also list them as surround sound receivers.) This differs from the standard stereo receiver, which only controls the audio portion of your devices.
If you looking for a solid audio/video receiver, then check out our recommended receivers page.
Features That Make an AV Receiver Stand Out
There are certain features that are considered common between AV and stereo receivers. However, there are indeed differences that help make the AV receiver better for home theater.
AV receivers have at least one built-in amplifier, as well as a subwoofer preamplifier. A 5.1-channel AV receiver allows you to send audio signals to five different speakers, typically including a front left, front right, center, back left and back right speaker, in addition to a powered subwoofer.
Some AV receivers, however, go beyond that and can support many more channels. Some of these include 7.1, 9.1, 11.1, or 13.1-channel home theater set-ups. A secondary subwoofer preamplifier may also be included to support larger rooms in need of multiple bass configurations.
Some stereo receivers claim they can support multi-speaker set-ups as well. This can occasionally be misleading. Unlike AV receivers, which include one amplifier per each speaker, a “4-channel” stereo receiver has two sets of mirrored amplifiers. This means you have a set of amplifiers that send a left and right signal. The second set of amplifiers, however, mirror those exact signals to relay them to another set of speakers. If you are looking to send two separate audio signals to your two sets of speakers, the stereo receiver cannot do so. For true audiophiles, however, the amplifiers included with AV receivers are not ideal for musical performances. In fact, they are often underpowered to deliver true concert-quality musical performance audio signals. (Keep in mind that speakers do play a role here, as well. Make sure you do your homework when it comes to selecting speakers that suit your intended purposes. A great receiver cannot make poor quality speakers sound impressive.)
Surround Sound Decoding
Sound requires decoding. In fact, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, certain television shows, and other sources typically require the use of Dolby Digital and DTS signal decoders. Finding an AV receiver that can provide the right decoders for your media is important. (Stereo receivers, for example, do not decode Dolby Digital or DTS signals! This is one the main reasons why stereo receivers cannot support home theater usage, even if just playing the sound portion.)
Necessary Input & Output Ports
Inputs and outputs are important on all of your consumer electronics. After all, if the devices cannot connect to each other, they will not provide you AV or stereo sound at all. The majority of all receivers, AV or stereo, include one or more analog, digital optical and/or coaxial inputs. However, many AV receivers will also now include HDMI ports as well, although, it isn’t always necessary to use HDMI cables, like when connecting a TV to a receiver (our guide), for instance.
These cables allow for both audio and video signals to pass between devices, leading to the use of fewer cable and a more advanced signal relay. Ethernet ports may also be included, allowing you to directly stream signal from your internet streaming sources as well. Certain models also support Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. While not required for most home theaters, these features certainly do expand on what your AV receiver is capable of supporting.
Certain AV receivers go beyond just providing superb sound within your designated home theater room.
Multi-zone audio is a novel idea that attempts to give an AV receiver the power to run audio and video signals in your designated home theater room while sending a separate audio signal to another area. Reviews on this capability are often mixed, although advances continue to be made.
For those looking to include Zone 2 audio, which refers to the area where your second audio signal is being sent, a 7.1-channel AV receiver is going to be your ideal device. While the standard 5.1-channel AV receiver may be plenty for your home theater, those extra two channels allow you to connect to separate speakers in a different room. Keep in mind – you will also need to run any necessary wires to the AV receiver from your Zone 2 speakers.
While some multi-zone AV receivers allow you to integrate control with a smartphone app, not all do. You should note this limitation, as you will likely be unable to control sound levels in Zone 2 if you are using your remote in your home theater.
The Bottom Line
Manufacturers like to over-state their product’s capabilities. It is an unfortunate part of a practiced sales pitch that can lead you to believe their product is the perfect solution for you. The fact is, however, most AV receivers are indeed developed to best support home theater sound vice musical performances. Nevertheless, branding may actually matter here. Marantz, for example, has a highly regarded foundation in the audio world. To keep up with the ever-changing world of audio needs, however, they eventually branched into the realm of the AV receiver as well. Because of this, Marantz continues to keep audio support at the forefront of their product specifications. NAD is also a fan favorite for those looking for dual purpose AV receivers capable of delivering quality stereo sound.
Personal tastes are often the driving factor when it comes to selecting the right receiver for your needs. At the end of the day, however, most experts recommend you invest in two separate receivers, each addressing your home theater and stereo needs. This will provide you with optimal sound quality that meets all of your needs. In fact, even with multi-zone AV receivers, it is still recommended that you opt for a secondary stereo receiver instead of relying on your additional channels.