How to Buy a Receiver
AC-3? dts? Pro-Logic? Or just plain Stereo?
by Les Enser
been faithful to your "aluminum brushed" receiver for over 20 years but
it now crackles whenever you turn up the volume, or the left or right
channel cuts out leaving you with "glorious mono." Worse still, you power
up one day only to find your old sweetheart emitting that wonderful "burnt
electronics" smell and know youll never see the display light again!
Damn, what is
one to do?
to retire the old beast that saw you through your lifes trials and
tribulations, and time for one of those new receivers youve been
hearing about. Yes, the kind with "soundsaround" and a wireless remote
control. Its time to leap into the new millennium!
nothing you can buy for your home theatre that gives you more flexibility
than an audio/video receiver. These are the all-in-one-box components
that can house your power amplifiers, preamplifier, radio tuner, "signal
switcher," surround sound processor, and more.
That's a lot
of stuff to cram into one box, and audio purists will tell you it's far
too much, that it compromises the quality of each part. And they're right,
but most people are perfectly happy with a receiver - and there's nothing
wrong with that at all.
So, once youve
made that first painful step, deciding to dump your relationship with
your old receiver, youre faced with the arduous job of dropping
into your superstore electronics chain and doing battle with the "hard
closers" and usually misinformed sales people. The best thing to do is
to prepare yourself with a little research so you can go in there armed
with a little knowledge.
Or, as the cliché
goes, "Do your homework."
have gone through quite an evolutionary process over the past decades,
now offering five or six channels as opposed to the conventional two channels
of stereo and the four channels of quadraphonics. Now theres Dolby
Pro-Logic, THX, Dolby Digital and DTS to contend with.
The first thing
to decide is whether or not you want surround sound in your home environment.
Ask yourself questions such as:
"Will my television
be integrated into my audio system?"
"How serious of a hi-fi or video-fi buff am I?"
"Do you want a simple
or a sophisticated system?"
"Would you be happy with separate components, an all-in-one
receiver, or mini stereo system?"
"Are you going to use your current speaker system or
will you have to upgrade them too?"
"Do want to run music to two or more rooms in your home?"
Once you determine
what your needs are youve taken that first important step
probably heard that amplifier power makes all the difference in the world
in terms of pure loudness, but now that youve mellowed a bit, loudness
may not necessarily what youre after. Chance are you're more interested
in reasonable quality at an affordable price, without having to take out
a second mortgage.
nice to have sufficient power, but remember: a 100 watts per channel receiver
wont necessarily sound twice as loud as a 50 watts per channel receiver.
In order to achieve "twice" the loudness of the 50 watt model you'd need
500 watts per channel!
power ratings for receivers these days is around 100 watts x 5 (channels)
or 100 watts x 3 for front and 50 watts x 2 for rear channels. The new
Dolby Digital format demands that, ideally, power is the same for all
channels - since the rear speakers now produce the full sound spectrum
in full stereo, just like the front speakers (Dolby Pro Logic sends a
mono signal to the rear channels, and only at a portion of the frequency
range of the front channels).
If you have
speakers with low impedance ratings (starting at around 4-ohms), make
sure the receiver has ample reserve power, or "headroom." Usually this
will be expressed in terms of the "current" ability the receiver has.
Speakers with lower impedance usually draw more current and power from
the receiver, so youll want to make sure it can handle it.
You may also
want to check the kind of amplification used in the receiver. Look for
"discrete" or separate amplifiers; some manufacturers combine surround
sound amplifiers and that may not always give you the best sound quality.
Ideally you want to see three to five discrete amplifiers in the receiver.
The Ins and
You also want
convenience from an A/V receiver. Think of your receiver as the workhorse,
not only producing sound but also switching between components. And because
A/V new products are always being introduced, its best over the
years to have lots of inputs or hookups better too many now than
not enough later.
some entry-level A/V receivers may only include three or four inputs.
That certainly would fit the bill if you have a VCR, CD, tape deck and
a DVD player but what about a digital satellite receiver or a even
a Web TV? Where would you connect these items?
Oh, and dont
forget: if you still have a turntable, make sure your new receiver has
The number of
inputs isnt the only thing to consider: recording outputs are just
as important. If you ever want to dub from one source to another, (i.e.
"tape to tape" or "camcorder to VCR") you may want to have two audio and
video "in and out" loops. This is certainly easier than patching two units
together every time you need to dub something!
Wired for Digital:
world is upon us and shows no signs of going away. Youre probably,
eventually, going to buy a DVD player - which will have either an "optical"
or "coaxial" output. This is no problem. A Dolby Digital receiver will
at least have one of these inputs.
Hey, but DTV
(digital television) is not far away and, for that matter, the Minidisc
format is making some headway these days. What do you do? Ensure that
the receiver can have more than two digital inputs. The A/V receiver can
offer either optical inputs or coaxial inputs but generally it offers
both. Later on, down the road, we'll see receivers that offer digital
outputs as well.
Again, you cant
have too many inputs and outputs!
the black and white information (chrominance) and brightness information
(luminance) of a video signal, which ensures the purity of the picture
you receive on your TV. Video signals look better when using this connection,
but remember that your TV needs to have the same connections as well.
DVD, satellite TV, Super VHS, Hi-8 and Digital camcorders already have
these connectors; if your TV doesnt have S-Video, you should plan
on making sure your next one does. Remember, it doesnt hurt to have
S-Video input and output on your receiver.
This could very
well be the item that gets the most workout in your system. You want to
make sure the remote is laid out reasonably well and that you dont
have to pass a pilots test to make it work. Preferably, find one
that has either a back lit display or at least glows in the dark (luminescent)
If you tend to turn the lights down while viewing you may appreciate this!
There's nothing worse than having to hunt and peck in the dark, only to
discover youve hit the stop button instead of the pause button on
your laser disc player!
these few points about a remote control:
Look for a
"learning type" remote, since it will give you the most flexibility.
a layout that is neat and organized; also make sure the remote is comfortable
to hold and isnt designed for the jolly green giants hands.
Have a look
at the remote in the store and try it out before you buy the
Build on Your
the type who likes to make sure your receivers capabilities can
grow in various stages, check out the expandability of your potential
investment. Look for preamp outputs on all five channels, if possible,
and preamp inputs as well especially if you wish to add Dolby Digital
processing later (in which case, look for a Dolby Digital "ready" receiver).
The preamp outputs are useful if you decide to add extra power amps to
any of the channels. There is nothing more frustrating than hitting a
roadblock on expansion; it means obsolescence looms over your investment.
Keep in mind that technology advances quickly and that it is impossible
to stay ahead of the game.
106.7 on Your
The radio tuner
is probably the last thing on anyones mind, but one item not to
forget if you like choice in your listening environment. You may even
say "Who cares?," since many manufacturers over the years have steadily
decreased the performance of their products' radio sections. If you're
concerned about your tuner's quality, remember to check out the "capture
ratio" specs. Anything below "2" is good. Also, look for the ability to
reject noise from adjacent stations on the dial. This is usually a problem
in metropolitan areas that have many radio stations.
On Screen (TV)
If you dont
relish the thought of squinting across the room at your receivers
fluorescent display to see what mode youve chosen, you may want
to look at this feature. Typically costly, the main drawback is that your
TV monitor has to be turned on for the display to work. However, it can
be convenient and is certainly easier to see!
The best receivers
can be controlled either via the remote control or the "manual" way: poking
the buttons with your fingers. The latter comes in handy if you lose your
remote: you can still access most of the receivers features!
Now for the hard part: saying
"Ill take it." This shouldnt be too difficult, if all your
questions have been answered. Heres a quick checklist of important
points to remember:
you know what your needs are before going shopping. Read magazine reviews
on various receivers to get a feel for what is out there right now.
the features you really need, since this will affect the budget you
forget: quality and quantity come with a price tag.
a brand youre familiar with and check to see if a decent warranty
comes along with the item.
the receiver can be returned within a reasonable amount of time if you
arent satisfied. And dont forget to keep all of your packing
materials and accessories, in case you return the receiver.
too much about the item being obsolete as soon as you buy it. Youll
never have peace of mind and enjoy the product if you worry about that
Have fun, and
enjoy the receiver to its fullest, knowing you have purchased a product
that will give you years of listening pleasure.
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think