If you’ve spent any length of time browsing this site and checking out our reviews and articles about entertainment tech – or if you’ve landed here from a search engine – chances are you love your TV shows and movies. After all, Australia is one of the most voracious consumers of video in the world, with high quality streaming services only adding to the feast of content available.
If that’s the case, you’re likely after a big-screen viewing (and listening) experience to rival that of the cinema. And yet, it’s easy to get frustrated by the tiny speakers that are built into most flat-screen TVs these days and long for something better. Or perhaps you’re starting to get fed up with having to mess around swapping inputs on your TV to watch something on your Foxtel box. Or your Apple TV. Or your Chromecast, your game console – basically any of the gadgets that battle for HDMI socket space behind the screen.
If that sounds like you, there’s an elegant solution for all of it. You need an AV Receiver.
What are we receiving, exactly?
The AV receiver is a name for a particular piece of home theatre kit which you’d probably know better as an “amplifier”. Why “receiver,” then? The name was coined back in the days when hi-fi fans would buy an amplifier to get the sound to their speakers. But that’s all it did – if you wanted to listen to the radio, you had to buy a separate box. A “receiver” was a box that combined the two features in one. These days, most wouldn’t give the radio features a second glance when buying an AVR, though – the core features are far more important. An AVR in your home audio/video setup can:
- Let you connect multiple video and audio devices and switch between them easily
- Send all video output to your TV while delivering high quality audio to the speakers of your choice
- Decode and play back multi-channel audio from DVD, Blu-ray, video streaming services and games, for surround sound at home
- Automatically switch to a device when you turn it on
- Stream music from services like Spotify, Pandora and Tidal direct to your speakers
- Stream video from your phone, tablet or PC via methods like AirPlay and Google Cast
- Stream thousands of radio stations from around the world – who needs the tuner?
Many devices, no hassles
Thanks to the convenience of HDMI – the cable interface almost all modern video and audio gear uses – a modern AV receiver is easy to set up and use. You simply plug a single HDMI cable from the receiver’s output to your TV, then connect all your devices to the receiver’s HDMI inputs. It’s a much simpler process today than it was back when video and audio used multiple cables! The biggest task remains the connection of whatever speakers you’re using. That can be quite daunting if you’re setting up a system with multi-channel surround, but it’s made much easier if you buy or make speaker cables with “banana plugs” at each end.
Once you’re all set up, your receiver will most likely walk you through getting everything set up the way you like it. Technology’s advanced to the point where there’s almost no need to read the manual to get started. Most of the setup will be done via on-screen prompts and much of it happens automatically.
Speaker setup made easy
An increasing number of quality brand-name AV receivers come with a small microphone on a very, very long lead. This little device serves a very important function when you’re setting everything up. It lets the receiver test all your speakers, after which it can work out how far away each is from where you listen, how loud each one is and so on. It automates almost everything, including tuning its sound quality to match your room. When you’re setting up multi-channel sound, a good auto-setup feature is a godsend.
One of the neat features of many HDMI-based devices is their ability to talk to and interact with each other. It’s known as HDMI CEC (though often branded with catchy names like “Bravia Sync”) and with the AV receiver acting as the hub for all your HDMI devices, this becomes a very useful feature.
For example, if you have a Chromecast, you don’t need to hunt around for the right input to get it onto the screen. Just connect a Chromecast-compatible app to it and it’ll tell your receiver to switch to the right input. The receiver in turn will tell the TV to turn on if it’s not already and make sure it’s on the right input too. It sounds simple, but it’s brilliant once you get used to it. Want to watch something on your Apple TV? Just press a button on the remote and the Apple TV, receiver and TV all turn on ready to go.
Tip: don’t buy more receiver than you need!
Technology’s gotten to the point where now, if you want to, you can have cinema-style 12-channel Dolby Atmos sound in your living room. And many newer AV Receivers make a big deal out of their support for Atmos and other new cinema-sourced formats. But at the bare minimum you need 8 speakers for Atmos to work – and that’s not for everyone. It’s expensive, and placing all those speakers around the living room can be impossible. If you’re not planning to spend big on speakers, choose a receiver that sticks to 5.1 surround sound. In many cases you’ll get all the features of the more expensive model; but you’ll save hundreds of dollars by not paying for extra tech that you’ll never use.
One example of this is in Pioneer’s 2016 range. The Dolby Atmos equipped VSX-1131 is functionally almost identical to the 5.1-only VSX-831 – but at a much lower price (and with lower power usage, too!) All the big brands – Sony, Yamaha, Onkyo etc – offer a range of receivers to suit your needs and your budget.
Better than a sound bar
If you’ve got multiple HDMI devices, an AV receiver will make your entertainment life easier. Plus, it’ll also deliver far better sound than even the most elaborate “sound bar”. You’ll need to factor in the cost of speakers if you don’t already have some. However, it’s more than worth it to have high quality picture and sound right there in your living room. So get the popcorn ready and plan a movie marathon. You’re good to go.