A guide to receivers for surround sound and stereo
A receiver makes the home theater happen.
It amplifies all your audio and organizes all your video sources, like a CD player, Blu Ray player, or cable/satellite box. You connect your A/V equipment to the receiver in order to give your speakers sound and your TV a picture.
What types of receivers are there?
People differentiate receivers by whether they play stereo or surround sound. A stereo receiver for the most part solely plays audio sources, like a CD player, tuner, tape deck, iPod, streaming music player (like Sonos), or DAC (digital-to-analog converter) although many people also use a stereo receiver as part of a home theater system.
A surround receiver may be used to produce surround sound for movies and TV shows as well as music in surround sound. Of course, you can also use a surround receiver for stereo sound, but many people prefer to separate their stereo systems from their home theater systems.
A surround sound system may be commonly configured with as few as five speakers and one subwoofer (5.1) or seven speakers and two subwoofers (7.2). Other surround formats exist, however 97% of the time people mean 5.1, 7.1, or 7.2 when building a surround system.
So what makes a receiver different from an integrated amp or a regular amplifier?
An amplifier simply makes the sound loud enough for you to hear. It cannot switch between audio/video sources like an integrated amplifier or a receiver nor can an amp change the volume. To do that, you need a pre-amplifier for a stereo system or a pre-processor for a surround system.
An integrated amp makes the sound loud enough and includes the ability to switch between sources and change the volume. But isn’t that what a receiver does, too?
Yes, but in addition a receiver amplifies the sound, switches between A/V sources, and includes a tuner built-in.
People may prefer an integrated amplifier if they already own an AM/FM tuner, listen to their favorite radio stations static-free with an internet-connected device, or simply don’t listen to radio stations. Also, integrated amps are virtually 100% guaranteed to be stereo and not surround sound.
How does audio and video switching work on a receiver?
Receivers function very similarly to each other depending on their features. All receivers can switch between audio sources, for instance. A lot of receivers can switch between video sources, however for some people that functionality is unnecessary.
- Someone who primarily listens to music may only need a stereo receiver that only switches between audio.
- Someone who primarily watches movies will need a surround receiver that switches both the audio and video in high definition.
- Someone who uses their sound system for both music and watching TV may be fine with either a stereo receiver or even a surround receiver. Perhaps to save on the overall system cost, someone just wants two speakers and a receiver instead of five speakers (or more) and a subwoofer. Either way, that person will get significantly superior sound to their TV speakers alone.
Many stereo receivers can do basic video switching using the old standard definition yellow composite cable. A composite connection is very low quality and not recommended for a modern high definition TV. Use the TV’s HDMI cable connections to do the video switching and the receiver for audio switching for the best quality when someone has a stereo receiver (not surround sound) they want to connect to their TV.
What can I connect to a receiver?
Again, all receivers accept audio connections and some receivers can accept video connections as well.
For audio, any receiver will have the standard red and white analog audio connections. Virtually anything you want to connect to your receiver will have those red and white connections.
If someone wants to listen to a turntable, they need to make sure the receiver has a “phono” input. It has the same red and white inputs on it plus a ground input. Not every receiver can support a turntable, so if someone wanted to hook up their record player they would need a turntable pre-amp to amplify the turntable’s signal high enough for your receiver.
Numerous digital audio connections exist as well. You can use optical, coax, and HDMI cables for a completely digital connection to your receiver. This works well if the receiver’s built-in Digital-to-Analog Converter performs better than, say, the CD or Blu Ray player’s DACs. Not every receiver has digital connections. Any surround receiver will accept digital audio inputs; only some stereo receivers accept digital.
For video, the best way to connect anything to a surround receiver will be with HDMI. HDMI supports 1080p high definition which looks great with Blu Ray movies. To get the very best picture from your Blu Ray player, cable/satellite box, Playstation 4/Xbox One/WiiU, and so on, use HDMI. HDMI also carries high resolution audio, so this is the best way to get digital audio to your receiver.
Some receivers allows people to connect a module to listen to Sirius XM satellite radio. If someone subscribes to satellite radio in their car, they can simply add their receiver to their subsciption.
Newer receivers allow everyone to connect to the internet with an Ethernet cable or even wirelessly. This greatly expands the sources of music someone can listen to, like Pandora, Rhapsody, Spotify, and iHeartRadio. Also, manufacturers will update firmware on a receiver so being connected to the internet makes firmware updates a breeze compared to downloading the update onto a USB drive and manually configuring it.
If someone wants to listen to music on their computer, a network connected receiver can detect that and play it as long as the computer is configured to “share” music with other devices.