If you thought the video equipment part of your home theater was complicated, then buckle up! The world of AV Receivers and what they can do to your sound quality is at least as complicated as the video side, and can easily be worse! While video equipment typically moves the output of your system along a single scale of increased and decreased video quality, the audio side of things, as managed by a receiver, has a lot more going on.
Receivers allow you to manage the audio across more speakers, taking advantage of 5.1 and 7.2 channel audio options, while also amplifying that sound, and even performing single room correction on the signal, all of which improve sound quality.
The only problem is that, while all of those features improve sound quality, they can only function well if you know how to implement them properly. Most receivers make this simple, but for better quality, you’ll need to use more of these features, so the first step is to understand what receivers do and how they do it.
No one piece of equipment in your home theater or home entertainment system wears as many hats as the receiver. A Projector projects an image and maybe does a little keystone correction. A screen has one distinct job that it needs to be good at. Even the speakers are only doing one thing: projecting sound.
However, the receiver is the mastermind. It’s the brain that brings all this together and conducts the symphony of home theater equipment.
First, it connects everything to everything else. The video source, the audio source (which, are usually carried across one cable these days) are routed into the receiver as inputs, and their signals are routed to the right places as output.
The speakers connect to the receiver, too. Still, it’s the receiver that decodes the various sound formats into a signal that is then amplified (within the receiver) before being pumped out the speaker.
Lastly, if you have more than out input source, the receiver does the duty of switching between sources, making the transition as seamless as a button-press on the receiver’s controller. The receiver is also the user interface through which you interact with your home entertainment system.
All of this broadly fits into the category of signal logistics. Still, the receiver is also going to be doing something else: actual signal processing, which can affect the sound quality.
Logistically, we know that the receiver is the actual highway that the sound signal travels to get to its destination: the speaker. In this way, the sound quality is dramatically improved by just having dedicated speakers instead of using whatever is built into your screen.
It’s a significant step up in performance from built-in speakers to a full surround sound speaker system.
But past the actual routing of sound to the right places, the receiver is doing more: it’s decoding the sound format from the original signal to remap it to a signal the speakers can take.
For instance, consider Dolby Digital, a format that’s pretty standard on cable TV, video games, and pretty much all DVDs. This signal comes with the file whether you do anything with it or not, providing 5.1 channels of sound: front left/right, center, surround left/right, and a subwoofer.
But the cable coming out of the DVD player... that’s HDMI out, right? How do you get the signal from the physical HDMI cord split up into the 5 different speaker channels? Enter the receiver, which decodes this signal, and then routes it to all of the right places.
As you might imagine, the different formats, require different receivers because, even if you have a file with Dolby Atmos sound in it, you can only route those 5.1.2 (or, in the fanciest cases, 7.2.4) channels to the right places if your receiver has the connections to do so.
Decoding is one thing, but those signals can only be sent out to the speakers if they’re given some power, which is why the receiver also has the job of acting as an amp and amplifying the signals out. Receiver amperage is a function of power, which is why you see some discussion of “watts per channel.”
If you have a huge room, or massive speakers you plan on using at high volumes, then you need a receiver with higher wattage available per channel.
A typical range might be 70-100 watts per channel. For example, the Denon AVR-X1500H Receiver is a reliable model that sports 7.2 channel support with 80W per channel.
If you go with a cheap receiver, then the watts available per channel may not be enough to power a surround system correctly. Therefore, it’s possible that if you turn the volume all the way up, the receiver’s amplifier cannot support that amount of power to the speakers. This may cause the speakers to start clipping and could even damage them or the receiver itself.
So, the receiver amplifies the signal from the source; this is another thing the receiver does to affect sound quality, and another parameter to optimize based on your room and speaker setup.
It depends: are you going to be watching high-quality video files that have advanced audio formats like Dolby Atmos? And are you planning to use that Dolby Atmos to its full potential (i.e., have 2 ceiling speakers or upward-facing speakers that bounce sound off of the ceiling)? If this is something you’re going to do, then, yes, you need a receiver that can handle it - and also HDR compatibility if you want to be fully prepared for other configurations in the future (our guide), although this isn't as important.
On the other hand, are you going to be playing video games or casually watching the big game from a cable stream that might only have a 5.1 channel DTS stream or equivalent coming with it?
If that’s the case, you may want enough sound for the system to sound great and throw those 5.1 channels up. If there isn’t a need to replicate the immersion of a full 7.1.2 theater, then you can go with a cheaper unit that only has the connections for 5.1 channel surround sound.
Asked another way: are you paying to put in expensive video equipment like a 4k projector that will be projecting content with Dolby Atmos capabilities? Do you already have, or are you planning on getting fancy expensive speakers for your system?
If you’re spending a lot of money on quality in those areas, it would be a mistake to go for a cheaper receiver, which is the bridge that helps those other elements of your home theater system perform better overall.
So, by now, you know that the receiver does affect sound quality, and you know that more expensive will likely be better if you want more multi-channel options and a more immersive experience.
As you move towards a decision on which receiver to buy, consider the different features and specs that you will need for your current and maybe future setup. You’re not just buying a sound amplifier; you are buying the brain of your system, the chief audio-visual manager of all your other equipment.
That said, the good news here is that receivers are designed to take whatever you can throw at them at a given price point: you can likely route all the cables to one place and upgrade your receiver over time (although, it's important to take care of your cables as well using our guide). But be sure to have a plan before you make a purchase: the receiver can make or break a great home theater experience!