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The Best Home Theater AV Receiver

By Chris Heinonen, The Wirecutter

I’ve been reviewing receivers for a number of years now, working with entry-level models and $4,000 reference pieces. To narrow things down, I researched all the receivers below $600 on the marketplace. In the end, I brought in five models for testing. After 20 hours of tests, our pick is the Yamaha RX-V375.

I’ve been reviewing receivers for a number of years now, working with entry-level models and $4,000 reference pieces. To narrow things down, I researched all the receivers below $600 on the marketplace. In the end, I brought in five models for testing. After 20 hours of tests, our pick is the Yamaha RX-V375. It includes almost all the features I feel are important for most people, skips costly extra features that aren’t that important, and has very good overall sound quality. And it costs about $250.

It’s a 5.1-channel receiver that has four HDMI inputs (enough for most people), dynamic range control for keeping quiet dialogue and loud explosions balanced at lower volumes, component video inputs for hooking up older sources like a Nintendo Wii, and high-quality internal components. This is what most people will require from a receiver. It also has some features you’ll need for basic futureproofing: 3D, lossless audio codecs and 4K passthrough. (More on those later.)

It also does all this at a much better price than the others as of the time this article was written.

For those that want more, including built-in streaming from online sources or direct streaming from your tablet or smartphone, our step-up pick is the Sony STR-DN840. It adds all the streaming features we are after, two more channels of amplification for 7.1 surround, two more HDMI inputs, and it also sounded good in testing.

Who Should Buy This?

You should look at buying a receiver rather than a soundbar or powered media speakers if you’re looking for the highest quality audio you can get in your living room (without going super high-end) and don’t mind the extra cables, cost or clutter associated with a full-on surround system.

A receiver leaves you free to add up to seven separate speakers and a subwoofer to your setup.

A receiver leaves you free to add up to seven separate speakers and a subwoofer to your setup (or a separate preamp and amp, if you want to step it up)—which you can’t do with a soundbar. Running all of your audio and video sources through a receiver results in a more complex setup, but a good universal remote control can help to make it simple. HDMI has also made receivers easier to set up and use than they used to be, with one cable connection carrying both video and audio signals.

If you have an older receiver and it doesn’t have HDMI, or you don’t have support for high-quality, lossless audio codecs like Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio that are found on many Blu-ray discs, you might want to look to upgrade. If you already have those features and are looking to upgrade for features like 7.1 audio or wireless streaming, scroll down to our step-up choice.

Otherwise, you might just be okay with the sound coming out of your TV’s speakers. Which, by the way, are almost never good enough for someone who watches more than a movie or two on your TV a week.

What Is, And Isn’t, Important In A Receiver

Spending more money gets you three main things: More inputs and outputs, more features and higher-quality components. Most people after a basic receiver don’t need that many inputs now thanks to HDMI and streaming boxes which pack many services into one device, and many extra features are often gimmicks and not worth the extra money. Higher-quality components are good only if the rest of the system is up to the task. What is important is getting the basics right, and that starts with sound quality.

What is important is getting the basics right, and that starts with sound quality.

After that, you need to overlook power output ratings (watts). There is no longer a mandated standard for measuring amplifier power, so every company picks a method that benefits them most. Numbers from one company are rarely comparable to another. You also need to double the wattage to get a change in volume that you can easily hear (3 dB). Going from a true 90 watts to 110 watts produces a 0.9 dB difference (every 3 dB doubles volume) that you will be hard-pressed to hear. Even a receiver with 50 watts will typically be just right for all but the largest rooms.

If you want to power more exotic speakers, like Magnepan or Martin Logan models, amplifier power will become important. No receiver will be able to properly drive those speakers without you buying a very expensive model or buying a model with pre-outs that can drive an external amplifier. We will look into pre-outs later on in this guide, but if you need them, you probably already know that.

You also should place less importance on having 7.1 channels instead of 5.1. Almost all films are still encoded in 5.1 channels only. You also need to have a large room with the proper space to install an additional pair of speakers on the back wall to go with the speakers on the side walls for 7.1 to be effective. You’re better off spending more for 5 higher-quality speakers than spreading your budget thin and getting 7 speakers. The difference in higher-quality sound from fewer speakers is more apparent than the only-slightly-better surround effects that the two extra speakers provide. So the 5.1 channels offered by our recommendation should be just fine for most people.

Put no stock in the automatic speaker setup routines that these receivers offer you. Using an included microphone, these automated routines try to determine the size of your speakers, their crossover (the frequency at which they start passing content to the subwoofer), and their distance from the TV to automatically determine the ideal output levels for a good surround sound effect. Many also have an equalizer to try to correct for audio issues introduced by room shape and speaker placement.

Yamaha includes their YPAO setup routine and a microphone with the RX-V375. Pioneer has MCACC, Sony has their own Digital Cinema Auto Calibration, and Onkyo and others use Audyssey. In my testing, the Onkyo set the level of the subwoofer to be twice as loud as every other speaker, so bass was overwhelming the room. The Sony set all the speakers to be large and not use the subwoofer, leading to a thin sound overall. The Yamaha set the crossover way too high (80 Hz when my speakers play down to 30 Hz easily) and the subwoofer to -10 dB, resulting in virtually no bass at all.

Setting this up manually takes only a tape measure and a free or cheap app like UE SPL (iOS) or Sound Meter (Android). In 15 minutes you can have it set up more accurately than these automatic routines and get better performance from anything you buy.

If you step way up in price and get to models that use Anthem Room Correction or Audyssey’s MultEQ XT32, then you see automatic routines that tend to work correctly. Some of these also include custom, calibrated microphones to ensure accuracy instead of a generic microphone that has a certain margin of error. But models with those features start at $1,000 and go up quickly, so they are beyond the scope of this piece. For a $250-$500 receiver, you should set these settings manually to get them right.

The one dynamic volume/EQ feature that I do find useful is a dynamic compression mode. It reduces the difference in levels between the loudest and softest sounds, which often makes dialogue more intelligible at lower volume levels and keeps loud sound effects from disturbing others. If you are listening at louder volume levels, you probably won’t utilize this, but at night it’s wonderful. I engage it when people are asleep and I’m trying to watch a movie.

I also put less importance in the internal streaming apps available on a receiver. Having Spotify, MOG or TuneIn built into your receiver may seem like a good idea, but in reality you find that using those features requires having your TV on to listen to music (and thus having to search and do other features from the remote control) which is less than ideal. Much more effective is streaming that content from your smartphone, tablet or computer with Bluetooth or AirPlay; apps are better designed for browsing and searching, and you can leave your TV off.

Why The Yamaha RX-V375?

Unfortunately there are no reviews out there of the Yamaha RX-V375. Very few sites cover receivers below the $400 price point, leaving us to rely on manufacturer specifications and related models from the same vendors in addition to our own testing. There are reviews of other Yamaha products in the RX-Vx75 line, including the RX-V475. Matthew Moskovciak and Steve Guttenberg from CNET reviewed the V475 and found it offers “the best sound quality in our subjective AV receiver listening tests.” At the $400 level they thought that competing models offered better inputs and ergonomics, but that isn’t true at the $250 level.

To verify this I went out and purchased the RX-V375 and ran it through some personal testing. I was pleasantly surprised with the on-screen display (OSD) that it offers. Not only does it have a bit of color and not just look like a 1980s DOS PC, it overlays the OSD on top of your content. Speaker parameters, including distance, crossover and level, are more adjustable than the competition. It offers distance settings down to two inches, where many competitors are only as precise as six inches or an entire foot.

In content playback tests from a variety of sources, I was very happy overall with the RX-V375’s performance. Listening to a Blu-ray Pure Audio disc of the recent Rolling Stones collection Grrr!, the sound was a bit thinner than what I get from my $3,000 amplifier but was still quite nice for a $250 receiver. Blu-ray films played back well, and I didn’t run into any issues with any of the discs I tried. And once I adjusted the levels manually, the speaker/subwoofer integration was great. After personally testing it, any hesitation I might have had to recommend a $250 receiver for most people went away.

Unique at this price range, it offers a surprisingly well-integrated on-screen display over HDMI for setup and adjustments, while some competitors still rely on composite video for that. (Almost all of the other on-screen displays we tested at this price are ancient-looking text-based interfaces, with the exception of a Sony model reviewed in the step-up section.) It also has scene modes that make it easy to program presets for TV, film and music listening.

Other Things You're Missing in a Lower-End Receiver (AirPlay and Phono)

The lack of AirPlay and Bluetooth is one area where the Yamaha falls short.

No other receiver in the $250 range offers these features either, but we have a step-up model that does include them. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to add Bluetooth and AirPlay to the Yamaha. A $40 Bluetooth adapter from Logitech will plug into one of the stereo inputs on the Yamaha, letting it become a Bluetooth input. If Bluetooth is all you need, that is much cheaper than spending $400 on a receiver that has it built-in. If you want AirPlay, the easiest way is to add an Apple TV to one of the HDMI inputs. With that, you have your streaming services, AirPlay audio and AirPlay video covered for $100, and you’re still spending less than you would buying a receiver with AirPlay.

The lack of AirPlay and Bluetooth is one area where the Yamaha falls short.

One more feature that is virtually absent from all entry level receivers is a phono stage. With the exception of the Onkyo TX-NR626, none of the models we looked at contained one. If you need a phono stage for your turntable, our guide to the Best Turntable contains recommendations and links to many different phono preamps that will accomplish this for you.

One feature missing on the RX-V375 and all cheaper receivers is the ability to convert composite or component video signals to HDMI. Because of this you’ll need to run composite or component cables from your receiver to your TV if you plan to use those video inputs for the increasingly rare sources that don’t have HDMI (with an HDMI converter, you only need to run a single HDMI cable from your receiver to your TV for everything to work, as opposed to a separate cable for composite/component sources). The only source most people will run into this issue with is the Nintendo Wii, and you can purchase a $20 adapter that will let it output HDMI to simplify your cabling. If you’re still using a DVD player that has component video output, it might be wise to look into a new Blu-ray player that will offer better upconversion of your DVD titles and streaming content for only $100 and change.

Another concession is our pick’s use of cheaper spring-clips for the center and rear channels instead of binding posts.

None of this should discourage you from this model as our pick. Beyond missing streaming and video conversion, the Yamaha offers everything we are looking for.

The Competition

Filtering down the choices for our $250 pick began by researching every model currently available at this price level and evaluating their specifications and user manuals. Most models lacked reviews, but often step-up models from the same manufacturer were available to provide some insight into the design and performance of the line. Reviews of similar models from last year were also evaluated, as there has not been a radical change in receivers over the past year, especially at the $250 price point. In the end, the Yamaha clearly stood apart. But I did vet many receivers and ended up testing 5. Here are those models I tested.

Pioneer has the VSX-523-K ($250) that is similar to the Yamaha on paper, but offers fewer inputs for the same price. None of the other features are better than the Yamaha, so the Yamaha offers a better value (and a longer warranty).

The $250 Denon AVR-E200 also has fewer inputs than the Yamaha, though it does offer a front HDMI input. It lacks component video and has no dynamic compression mode for audio, which is one of the only add-on features we think is worth having.

Onkyo was our pick last year with the TX-NR414, but it’s now discontinued with nothing to directly replace it. The step-up TX-NR525 is the closest currently available model, but it costs $400 and it appears that Onkyo isn’t allowing sellers like Amazon to sell items below MSRP. Onkyo’s PR people wouldn’t verify that as fact for me when I asked, but internet forums have noticed this phenomenon too. As a result, the value on their models is reduced this year.

The $238 Sony STR-DH740 offers 7.2 channels for the same price as the Yamaha, but offers fewer legacy inputs. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t better than our pick and it has a worse on-screen display.

Beyond these models, there wasn’t a $250-$300 priced receiver that offers more than the Yamaha RX-V375. I talked to many AV reviewers about picking a receiver in this price range and they mostly felt the same. Four HDMI inputs will be plenty for most people, and 5 channels of audio should also be sufficient. They would set up their speakers manually instead of using the included microphone, and wouldn’t worry much about Bluetooth or AirPlay at this price point.

A Step Up

More competitive than the $250 price range in receivers this year are the models for $400-$500. Moving up to this range, you start to see a new feature set that includes internet connectivity, Bluetooth and AirPlay streaming, more HDMI inputs and 7.1 channel amplifiers rather than 5.

Last year we had to break out two winners based on whether you wanted more inputs or AirPlay, but this year it is a single model: The Sony STR-DN840 receiver for around $400.

For about $170 more than the Yamaha, you step up to 7 channels of audio from 5 and 6 HDMI inputs instead of 4. What sets it apart is the inclusion of Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and AirPlay for this price. As more and more people get their content from streaming providers, the Sony STR-DN840 makes it easy to get that content from your computer, smartphone or tablet to your receiver without using a Bluetooth adapter or an Apple TV.

The Sony’s selection of integrated streaming services is limited when compared to Onkyo, with only Pandora, vTunes, Slacker and Sony’s Music Unlimited services available. But the inclusion of Bluetooth, AirPlay and DLNA support makes it easier to get other streaming services from a device with a better interface without needing to use your TV. In my own testing, the audio quality of the Sony is very good for the price. The automatic speaker setup routine detected my speakers incorrectly, but you can set it up manually or override what it selects. It does not have component video inputs, but that is the only feature it lacks.

There are no US reviews beyond my own experience with it yet, but there is one from Germany at AreaDVD.de. Running it through Google Translate, they found “The Sony STR-DN840 shines acoustically virtually without restriction. Dynamic, cultured, powerful, rich in details – here the AV receiver does not need to fear the comparison with the strongest competition.” CNET has also not formally reviewed it yet, but in reviews of other products they have stated the Sony to be their favorite and to offer the best overall value.

What Other Steps-Up Did We Consider?

The $400 Onkyo TX-NR525 was a leading step-up candidate when this roundup started, but it only sells for $18 less than the Sony and offers no integrated Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or AirPlay. It also only offers 5 channels of audio instead of 7. You can add Bluetooth and Wi-Fi with very affordable ($30) adapters, but you can only use one at a time and there’s still no way to add AirPlay aside from an Apple TV. It does offer component video inputs, which the Sony does not, but those are less important than the wireless features of the Sony. The integrated Audyssey setup routine also sets the subwoofer volume way too high despite having you manually adjust it before it starts. In their review, Matthew Moskovciak and Steve Guttenberg at CNET found the Onkyo TX-NR525 to be “a solid AV receiver value, especially considering its affordable accessories, but competitors offer integrated wireless features for not much more.”

The $500 Onkyo TX-NR626 includes 7 channels of audio and integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, but still lacks support for AirPlay. It includes 4K scaling (which no one really needs since 4K TVs will have their own built-in scaler) and support for MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link), for which there are very few available devices. It does offer dual HDMI outputs if you have a setup that requires them and a phono input if you have a turntable. The $400 Marantz NR1403 offers a very nice form factor and a front HDMI port, but has no network streaming at all for this price. The step-up Marantz NR1603 offers 7 channels of audio, component inputs and AirPlay in a reduced form factor, but it costs $500 while lacking Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. If a traditional receiver is too large for your space, the Marantz models might be worth looking at, as CNET finds the NR1403 to be “a slim, handsome AV receiver with excellent sound and plenty of HDMI connectivity, although it lacks built-in networking.” If space isn’t a concern, though, they fall short in value.

Pioneer offers the $400 VSX-823-K with 6 HDMI inputs and AirPlay, but only 5 channels of amplification and no Bluetooth or Wi-Fi included. It does offer MHL support and HTC Connect for certain Android phones, but the $18 savings compared to the Sony are not worth it. The $450 Denon AVR-X1000 offers the best room correction technology of any product with Audyssey MultEQ XT and it includes AirPlay, but it has only 5 channels of audio and no Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. The front-panel HDMI input is a nice touch.

Moving up to $600 gets you the Sony STR-DN1040. The main benefits to most people will be extra HDMI inputs and a better interface, and I can’t say that’s worth 50% more than the STR-DN840. But it is objectively better, if money is no object. Compared to the 840 it offers a front-panel HDMI input and an additional rear input for a total of 8 HDMI inputs; it has more power, component video inputs and dual HDMI outputs. It also offers the best on-screen interface I’ve seen in a receiver by far. The 840 still offers better value overall, but the 1040 is the most usable receiver I’ve seen. Here CNET agrees with me, concluding “The Sony STR-DN1040 is a truly first-class AV receiver, boasting tons of wireless technology and a pretty user interface, at a premium price.”

Stepping up another level from our pick, What HiFi reviews the Yamaha RX-V675 model and awards it their best rating, writing “there’s no denying that the RX-V675 is a powerful and thrilling amplifier for the money.” Unfortunately it sells for $600 and adding on the optional Bluetooth and WiFi adapters adds another $150 to the price. Additionally they reviewed the predecessor of the V375, the V373, last year and awarded it their “Best home cinema amplifier up to £350” award for 2012, stating “if you’re looking to take a first step on the home cinema ladder and need to keep to a strict budget, then the RX-V373 will reward you in spades.” Their only issues were the lack of 7.1 channels of audio and a lack of streaming features, but as we’ve already mentioned, we don’t think a solid receiver needs either of those features.

Need to Connect to An External Amp?

The final feature to look for that I mentioned earlier was pre-outs. The amplifier sections of receivers are designed to drive common speaker loads, like our favorite Andrew Jones designed Pioneer bookshelf speakers or the Energy Take Classic 5.1 System, to sane volume levels. For more exotic speakers that present a more demanding load, you want to upgrade to an external amplifier. To utilize an external amplifier, you need a set of pre-outs on your receiver. These were common before, when even $300 models had them, but they are rare now. The cheapest Onkyo with them now is the $1,100 TX-NR828. Yamaha offers them in the RX-V775WA for $850 but nothing below that.

One of the cheapest options with pre-outs, if you want to upgrade with an amplifier later, is the $750 Marantz SR5007. It is a holdover from 2012 but none of the core receiver technologies have changed in the past 12 months. It offers AirPlay and Ethernet but no Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. It has 6 HDMI inputs and 7 amplifier channels as well.

Closeout Models

The crazy thing about receivers is that last year’s models were better in terms of feature per dollar.

The crazy thing about receivers is that last year’s models were better in terms of feature per dollar. Receivers are a category of electronics where the models are getting more costly without improving in some ways. So if you can find one, consider the Pioneer VSX-822-K. Our pick for AirPlay last year, it has 6 HDMI inputs, a component video input, AirPlay and Ethernet, and 5 channels of audio for only $228 now!

Bluetooth and Wi-Fi require optional accessories (You’ll offer get a much better value buying the Logitech Bluetooth adapter and a universal Wi-Fi Bridge instead of the proprietary Pioneer ones), but otherwise it offers a lot for the money. Pioneer only offers one year of warranty support instead of the two that other vendors offer but at this price, I’d say it’s worth the risk.

Pioneer isn’t to be singled out, either. As I mentioned earlier, Onkyo has radically shifted their prices and what they offer for that price this year. The clearest example might be with their TX-NR818 model. Last year this offered Audyssey XT32 technology and full pre-outs for only $800. This year you need to spend $1,100 from Onkyo to get pre-outs and $1,300 to get Audyssey XT32. Most of the models from Onkyo last year, including the TX-NR414, are a great value now while vendors still have them in stock, but they are disappearing fast.

The main issue with Onkyo is that many people report HDMI issues. Connections become unreliable or stop working altogether. This seems to happen most often with the TX-NR414, based on Amazon and AVS Forum feedback. Other companies seem to have fewer issues, but Onkyo might just have sold more receivers and had more comments left. Most Onkyo models are getting harder to find at this point, but for pure value the 2012 ones are hard to beat.

Wrapping It Up

For a basic, solid receiver in 2013, the Yamaha RX-V375 is our pick. It has only the essential features and great audio quality. With Onkyo changing their pricing structure, the value equation at the $250 level has shifted a bit; that said, Yamaha has come in to claim the crown this year. If you want streaming and more features, you can step up to the $418 Sony STR-DN840 (or consider a close-out from from year’s stock if you can find one).

This story originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 7/21/2013 and is reprinted here with permission.