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How to Buy a Receiver 

AC-3? dts? Pro-Logic? Or just plain Stereo?

by Les Enser

You’ve 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 you’ll never see the display light again!

Damn, what is one to do?

It’s time to retire the old beast that saw you through your life’s trials and tribulations, and time for one of those new receivers you’ve been hearing about. Yes, the kind with "soundsaround" and a wireless remote control. It’s time to leap into the new millennium!

There's probably 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 you’ve made that first painful step, deciding to dump your relationship with your old receiver, you’re 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."

Pioneervsxd607sReceivers 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 there’s Dolby Pro-Logic, THX, Dolby Digital and DTS to contend with.

Decision Making...

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 you’ve taken that first important step

Power Up:

You’ve probably heard that amplifier power makes all the difference in the world in terms of pure loudness, but now that you’ve mellowed a bit, loudness may not necessarily what you’re after. Chance are you're more interested in reasonable quality at an affordable price, without having to take out a second mortgage.

Still, it's nice to have sufficient power, but remember: a 100 watts per channel receiver won’t 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!

The typical 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 you’ll 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 Outs:

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, it’s best over the years to have lots of inputs or hookups – better too many now than not enough later.

For example, 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 don’t forget: if you still have a turntable, make sure your new receiver has Phono input.

The number of inputs isn’t 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:

The digital world is upon us and shows no signs of going away. You’re 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 can’t have too many inputs and outputs!


S-video separates 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 doesn’t have S-Video, you should plan on making sure your next one does. Remember, it doesn’t hurt to have S-Video input and output on your receiver.

Remote Possibilities:

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 don’t have to pass a pilot’s 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 you’ve hit the stop button instead of the pause button on your laser disc player!

Just remember these few points about a remote control:

Look for a "learning type" remote, since it will give you the most flexibility.

Check for a layout that is neat and organized; also make sure the remote is comfortable to hold and isn’t designed for the jolly green giant’s hands. 

Have a look at the remote in the store – and try it out before you buy the receiver.

Build on Your Foundation:

If you’re the type who likes to make sure your receiver’s 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 FM Dial:

The radio tuner is probably the last thing on anyone’s 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) Display:

If you don’t relish the thought of squinting across the room at your receiver’s fluorescent display to see what mode you’ve 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 receiver’s features! 

Decisions, Decisions:

Now for the hard part: saying "I’ll take it." This shouldn’t be too difficult, if all your questions have been answered. Here’s a quick checklist of important points to remember:

Make certain 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.

Think about the features you really need, since this will affect the budget you have set.

Don’t forget: quality and quantity come with a price tag.

Stick with a brand you’re familiar with and check to see if a decent warranty comes along with the item.

Ensure that the receiver can be returned within a reasonable amount of time if you aren’t satisfied. And don’t forget to keep all of your packing materials and accessories, in case you return the receiver.

Don’t fret too much about the item being obsolete as soon as you buy it. You’ll never have peace of mind and enjoy the product if you worry about that too much!

Have fun, and enjoy the receiver to its fullest, knowing you have purchased a product that will give you years of listening pleasure.

Good Luck!


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January 31, 2006