Everyone who considers a home theater system is new to set up and components at some point. For me, my first tentative steps into the home theater world were overwhelming, to say the least. With so many components, knowing which pieces are required for what setups can leave you more confused than when you started. One of the most commonly confusing components, if you ask me, is the receiver.
So do you need a receiver for surround sound? For traditional speakers, a receiver is highly recommended, almost always required. For active Soundbars with wireless or satellite speakers, a receiver is not needed. Passive Soundbars will require the use of a receiver.
From what it does to whether it is required, the receiver you choose needs to work with your setup. Below, I take a look at why you need a receiver for certain home theaters as well as why.
Traditional Surround Sound Setup with a Receiver
If you are looking to establish a home theater that utilizes the traditional surround sound set up – a receiver is essential. This is true regardless of the number of speakers you intend to include in your home theater.
What is the Purpose of the Receiver?
A traditional home theater setup includes various components, including speakers, devices, and more. Not all of these components work seamlessly with one and other.
This is where your receiver comes in. A home theater receiver, also referred to as an AV (audio/video) receiver, is the connection hub through which all of your audio, video and streaming sources relay various signals between each other.
A receiver does just that: it receives audio signals from different devices. But it does more than just that. Your receiver then processes the audio signal, cleaning it up as it does so, then amplifies it to provide your external speakers with clear, crisp sound.
Most modern receivers also help to enhance video signals as well. As with the audio signals, the video inputs are received, processed and converted if needed through our AV receiver.
There are tons of different receiver models out there. So make sure you select one that will work with all of your home theater components.
If you’re having trouble choosing a receiver that fits your needs, then take a look at our recommended A/V receivers page where we include the best receivers out there that are very reasonably priced.
Understanding the Home Theater Setup with a Receiver
Every home theater set up is different. However, there are some general similarities that can help you understand the basics of any home theater setup with a receiver.
- Determine the type of system you want. How many speakers or channels do you want to have?
If your ideal home theater system is just playing high-quality stereo music, a simple 2-channel receiver will do. However, if you are looking for the full home theater experience – you will want a 5-channel receiver in the very least.
(Keep in mind that each channel connects to a separate speaker! This means you need 1 channel per speaker used in your home theater system.)
If you want to know more about surround sound channels, check out our Surround Sound Channels Explained (with visuals) article. We explain and demonstrate many different surround sound channel setups and explain their pros and cons!
- Determine where you will setup each piece of equipment.
Most home theaters make use of between 5 and 7 speakers, as well as a subwoofer. This is commonly referred to as a 5.1 or 7.1 channel speaker setup.
(Need help finding the perfect speakers for you? Check out which surround sound speakers I highly recommend for home theater use!)
Knowing where you will place each speaker and component will help you decide how much cabling you will need to successfully attach each speaker to the receiver. Keep in mind that your receiver should be placed in a well-ventilated area to prevent overheating during continual use.
- Connect your speakers to the receiver.
This is actually the most tedious part of setting up your home theater system and will likely require a few additional items: wire strippers and banana plugs. Strip the wire back roughly 1/4 – to ½-inch and insert into a banana plug to make connecting and disconnecting easier.
Make sure your connections correspond correctly: positive to positive, negative to negative. Remember, there is one speaker per channel! Your subwoofer will likely connect directly to your receiver via a single RCA cable; make sure you use the appropriate “Sub Out” or “Sub Preout” port.
- Connect your source components to the receiver.
Unless you want to swap cables around between devices, you need to make sure each component can connect to your receiver via the necessary wires. For example, if your DVD Player, Roku, and PS4 all need HDMI connections, you will need at least 3 ports that allow you to do so.
After all of your components have been connected to your receiver, you should test your configuration with all devices, like iPhones, as well (our tutorial). Many receivers now come with an “Auto Setup” function that can help you quickly get started.
However, you may have to tweak the settings for your television, satellite/cable box, Blu-ray/DVD player, and gaming platforms as well.
Soundbar Surround Sound Setup
For the most part, you will not need a receiver if you decide to go with a Soundbar. But why is this? Let’s take a look.
What is a Soundbar?
The first step is understanding what a Soundbar is. We have all seen the sleek, modern Soundbars featured in countless ads and videos. However, these components are more than just a pretty speaker.
Soundbars typically include everything you need for enhanced sound. This includes two or more speakers that are strategically placed to enhance audio.
Check out our in-depth overview of the difference between 2.1 and 5.1 soundbars (this will help you understand the major differences between multi-channel soundbars.
Each speaker is powered through built-in amplifiers, which help to deliver quality sound without having to use a receiver to do so, although, receivers are great for improving sound quality too as we explained in our other guide. In fact, some buyers forgo a full home theater system because their Soundbar provides the audio they desire.
There is one caveat to the “no receiver required” rule with Soundbars. The majority of Soundbars on the market today are “active”. As stated above, this means that each speaker has an amplifier.
However, a “passive” Soundbar does not include this, therefore, an external receiver or amplifier should be used. You should note that you would likely have to specifically look for a passive Soundbar if you want to use a receiver as they are not as common as their active counterparts.
Understanding the Home Theater Setup with a Soundbar
With a Soundbar, you can connect components in one of two ways. You can opt for the easiest way: connect your components to the television, then connect the television to your Soundbar. Or you can opt for connecting your components directly to the Soundbar instead.
This second option will take a bit longer, however, it provides you the best sound quality possible. (This is because most televisions currently on the market are not capable of relaying a digital surround sound output.)
After connecting your components, you may opt for connecting your Soundbar with a subwoofer or other speakers. Many Soundbars come with or will work with, wireless subwoofers and speakers.
If you want an outstanding soundbar surround sound system, I highly suggest the Nakamichi Pro 7.1 (on Amazon)! This unit is by far one of the best surround sound capable soundbars on the market, and at an outstanding price, which, if you’ve read our guide before, you’d know is a big deal considering most soundbars can’t have surround sound added to them. It comes with a 45″ soundbar, 2 wireless rear surround speakers, and an 8″ wireless subwoofer. This specific model is Dolby Atmos compatible, as well.
If you aren’t interested in the Nakamichi Pro 7.1, then check out our recommended soundbars page for the best soundbars for the money. We only recommend options that are well priced and completely worth the money!
You should also note that certain brands of Soundbars, like SONOS and Bose, will require you to stick with their products. In other words, your SONOS Playbar will only work with other Sonos Speakers, like the Play:1 or Play:5. Follow your manufacturer’s instructions for how to connect each device to your Soundbar for the best results.