How To Future Proof Your Home Audio Receiver Purchase
About three years ago, we wrote about the sometimes daunting task of choosing a home theater receiver. The bad news is – it may have become somewhat more complicated. The good news is that AV receivers have continued to evolve with a slew of great new features.
The AV Receiver is typically the “nerve center” of your audio setup. Most of you are likely to use it for music, TV, and movies. Depending on which of these is most important to you (perhaps all of them equally important), you may be looking for specific types of connectivity, surround formats, number of channels, and network connectivity.
We’d like to cover some of the important things to look for when choosing the best home audio receiver for your home. Whether you are looking to upgrade an existing rig or planning a whole new home theater setup, there are some new wrinkles and features to consider.
Let’s take a quick look at some of these.
AV receivers are all about connectivity.
If you want to have the latest in future proof connectivity, you may want to look at models that support HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2. Without getting into huge detail, HDMI 2.0 is what you need to support the greater bandwidth needed for true 4K resolution at high frame rates, and HDCP is about the required copy protection support mandated for content like the upcoming 4K Blu-Ray.
If you don’t care about these, virtually all receivers today support HDMI 1.4 which is fine for all HD content. Also on the video front, upscaling capability may be important. If you have a new 4K set, the receiver can upscale your lower quality video content to near 4K quality. 4K TVs do that too, but in higher end receivers the quality of the upscaling chipset may be better. You will see vendors touting upscaling from chipsets like HQV and Qdeo. In many cases these chips in a receiver may allow more fine grain control of your picture quality.
In the past few years, network and device connectivity has expanded to virtually the entire range of most AV receivers. Here are some things you may want to consider:
Bluetooth – many receivers are offering Bluetooth built-in or via an add on dongle. Bluetooth makes it easy to stream audio within a 30 to 40-foot range from most tablets, smartphones, and laptops.
WiFi – Many receivers, if not most, come with an Ethernet connection for networking. Built in WiFi is becoming increasingly standard and make it much easier to integrate into a setup if a wired connection is not available.
AirPlay – Apple’s wireless streaming format works over your WiFi network, and as such is not distance limited like Bluetooth. If you are deep into Apple products with iTunes, iPhones, iPads, etc., Airplay support is a great convenience for streaming any audio you can play on your device directly to your AV receiver.
DLNA – this standard works best for your own audio content, allowing you to stream audio from a PC or other DLNA server (like a NAS) to your receiver.
Spotify Connect – If you are a fan of Spotify’s popular music service, this feature is showing up on more models. It allow you to beam Spotify content to your receiver, using your phone or tablet as a remote control. It only works with Spotify’s premium paid service.
Pandora – This service usually does not require payment for its use, and is built-in to most current receivers.
USB – most receivers today have a USB connector for connecting an iPhone or iPod, and sometimes other music players. In addition, many support reading audio files from a flash drive or hard disk through this connector. Sometimes this USB connector has been used to provide support for WiFi dongles. Current higher-end models are now including USB DAC support, where you can hook up the audio from a PC or Mac directly into the receiver. For some audiophiles, being able to use their favorite software music players on a computer is the way to go, while taking advantage of the receiver’s superior digital to analog conversion.
Surround modes and High Definition Audio
All AV receivers are about delivering surround sound. Today you have choices from 5.1 to 11.2 receivers, which runs the gamut from good old 5.1 Dolby Digital to Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. If you are not going to have height speakers and multiple rear and side speakers, you may not need some of the newer formats.
Almost all current receivers are supporting Dolby TruHD and DTS MA HD, which are the standard high resolution formats for Blu-Ray movies. Most also have many other surround formats that either enhance Dolby Digital or regular 2-channel stereo music or movies. If you think you may want to take advantage of the latest formats like Atmos someday, you may want to consider getting that now.
The music and consumer electronics industries are also putting more emphasis on sound quality after years of focusing on convenience and portability with the MP3 and other digital audio formats. The current push with high resolution audio is about bringing better quality audio to 2-channel recordings. Many receivers are now supporting 24bit/192khz lossless audio in popular file formats like FLAC, which can bring more depth and richness to music. While that content is not as easily available, if you consider yourself an audiophile you may want to look for that as it’s likely that the increasing prevalence of high resolution audio will enable more content via both download and streaming on coming years.
Built in Internet Services
Over the past several years. AV receivers have been building in support for popular music and audio services like Pandora, Spotify, Slacker, and Sirius/XM. The availability of these vary across models and manufacturers, but if you use one or more of these regularly having it built in can be very convenient.
For years, many higher end receiver models have had multiple capabilities for integration with home control systems. In many cases, IR input ports allowed them to be hidden away in cabinets and controlled through customized remote control systems. Some had specific ports for control via sophisticated home automation systems like Crestron and AMX. However, network connectivity has brought that kind of sophisticated control within reach of just about anyone. Most new networked receivers also have companion apps for iOS and Android, and allow for a wide range of control from a smartphone or tablet. You can change inputs and surround formats, control volume, start and control a service like Pandora, stream audio from a networked PC, and more. Some higher end models allow for control from a web browser, including making adjustments to the surround sound setup.
While it would take more space than we have here to cover all these features in more detail, suffice it to say that if you haven’t looked at AV receivers in the past five years, you might be surprised at some of the new features. The best part is that many of the features described above were only offered on high end models just a few short years ago, and are now coming in at affordable price points.