Home theatre receivers – HD sound central

The home theatre receiver is your gateway to high definition sound

We here at the HDTV Guide love TVs. The picture, the technology, the works. But we try to avoid listening to their loudspeakers, except, perhaps, for the evening news. That’s because all they deliver is adequate sound. By that we mean that they produce sound which more or less allows you to know what is going on. What they don’t do is deliver the high definition sound that thrills and excites us.

For that we use our high definition surround sound system. That includes loudspeakers and a subwoofer, but the centre point of it all is the home theatre receiver.

The home theatre receiver is, literally, the centre point. All your sources – your DVD player, Blu-ray player, games console, HDTV receiver and so on – plug into it. The receiver selects between those different sources. All your ‘output devices’ – your loudspeakers, your subwoofer, your TV screen – also plug into the home theatre receiver. It drives and controls them.

Home theatre receivers range in price from $300 to over $10,000, but what, exactly, is the difference between them? The answer can be found in three areas: performance, features and prestige.

Prestige is to do with how you feel about your purchase, and in particular how you feel about a brand. If two virtually identical cars were marketed by BMW and Ford, the former could ask for a price premium simply on the basis of its name – its prestige. That is something we won’t be getting into here, other than to note that prestige can have some practical value as well. Since a brand’s prestige derives largely from its reputation, it does gives you some information about performance and quality.

Feature fest

Over the next few pages we will be detailing matters relating to performance. This will include such things as how much power a home theatre receiver can produce (this partially determines how loud the sound system will go). But the biggest choice will be in the set of features. These fall into roughly three categories, which we will also detail more in the following pages. They are:

  • Connections
  • Formats
  • Extras

Under connections, you should consider the number of source devices you may want to plug into your system, and the types of connections on offer. We strongly recommend using the new digital connection – HDMI – as far as possible for both picture and sound. In general, the higher the price the more inputs you will get, the more HDMI inputs, and the greater the capabilities of those HDMI inputs.

Of vital importance are the digital audio formats supported by the home theatre receiver. Virtually all of them fully support the Dolby Digital and DTS audio formats that have been delivered by DVD over the past decade, and Dolby Digital is also used for HDTV.

But Blu-ray has introduced even higher standards. With multichannel uncompressed sound (called ‘PCM’) and the Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio formats, Blu-ray has so much potential built in that we do not believe that it will be superseded for decades, if ever. That’s how good they are: the highest of high definition sound.

To have access to that sound, you will need to decode it. With many equipment combinations, that means having the decoder built into your home theatre receiver.

Finally, there are the extras. Does the receiver support a second zone of sound, so you can have the built-in radio playing in a different room while you’re watching a movie in the main one? Does it have an iPod dock, or a USB socket to play MP3 files, or a network connection so it can play music from your computer or internet radio stations?

Read on to explore these features, possibilities and performance in your next home theatre receiver.