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Consumer Reports – Receivers
The receiver is the brain of the audio/video system. Provides AM and FM tuners, amplifiers, surround sound and switching capabilities. It’s also the heart of the setup—connecting to most of the devices in your home entertainment system, including audio components like speakers, CD player, cassette deck, and record player, as well as video sources like TV, DVD player, VCR, and cable and satellite boxes. Although receivers are taking on a larger role in home entertainment, they are losing some of the audio-related features that were common years ago, such as tape monitors and phono inputs. Manufacturers say they have to remove these less-used features to make room for others.
WHAT IS AVAILABLE
Sony is by far the best selling brand. Other top-selling brands include Denon, JVC, Kenwood, Onkyo, Panasonic, Pioneer, RCA and Yamaha. Most models are now digital, designed for the six-channel surround sound formats encoded on most DVDs and some television tariffs, such as high-definition (HD) programming. Here are the types you’ll see, from cheapest to most expensive:
Stereo. Basic receivers receive analog stereo signals from a tape recorder, CD player, or record player. They provide two channels that feed a pair of stereo speakers. For an easy music setup, add a DVD or CD player for CD playback or a cassette deck for tapes. For a basic home theater, add a TV and DVD player or VCR. Power typically runs 50 to 100 watts per channel.
Price range: $125 to $250.
Dolby Pro Logic. Dolby Pro Logic, Pro Logic II and Pro Logic IIx are analog home theater surround sound standards. Receivers that support it can take a two-channel Dolby-encoded stereo source from your TV, DVD player or hi-fi VCR and output it to four to six speakers – three in the front and one to three in the back. Power for Dolby Pro Logic models is typically 60 to 150 watts per channel.
Price range: $150 to $300 or more.
Dolby digital. Currently the prevailing digital surround sound standard, the Dolby Digital 5.1 receiver has a built-in decoder for six-channel sound – front left and right, front center, two rear with discrete wideband signals and a powerful subwoofer for low-frequency or bass effects (that’s where the “.1” comes in) ). Dolby Digital is the audio format for most DVDs, HDTVs, digital cable TV, and some satellite TV broadcast systems. The newer versions of Dolby Digital, 6.1 and 7.1, add one or two surround back channels for a total of seven and eight channels respectively. To take advantage of true surround sound, you’ll need speakers that reproduce sound well across the spectrum. Receivers with digital decoding capability can also receive a signal that has been digitized or sampled at a given rate per second and converted into digital form. Dolby Digital is backwards compatible and supports earlier versions of Dolby such as Pro Logic. Power for Dolby Digital receivers is typically 75 to 150 watts per channel.
Price range: $200 to $500 or more.
DTS. Dolby Digital 5.1 competitor Digital Theater Systems also offers six channels. It is a less common form of digital surround sound used in some film tracks. Both DTS and Dolby Digital are often found on the same receivers. Power for DTS models is typically 75 to 150 watts per channel.
Price range: $200 to $500 or more.
THX certified. High-end receivers that meet this quality standard include full support for Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital and DTS. THX Select is the standard for components intended for small and medium-sized rooms; THX Ultra is for larger rooms. Power for THX models is typically 100 to 170 watts per channel.
Price Range: $500 to $2,500 and up.
Controls should be easy to use. Look for a front panel with displays and controls clearly labeled and grouped by function. The on-screen display lets you control the receiver via your TV screen, a squint-free alternative to using the receiver’s small LED or LCD display. Switched AC outlets (expect one or two) let you plug in other components and turn the entire system on and off with one button.
Remote controls are most useful when they have clear labels and buttons that light up for use in dark rooms. It’s best if the buttons have different shapes and are color-coded and grouped by function—a goal rarely achieved with remote control receivers. A learning remote control can receive program data for other devices via the infrared signal of their remote controls; some remote controls have the necessary codes built into them for third-party devices.
Input/output connectors are more important on a receiver than on any other component in your home theater. Clear labeling, color coding and logical grouping of the many connectors on the rear panel can help prevent set-up errors such as reversed speaker polarity and mixed inputs and outputs. Input connectors located on the front panel allow easy connection to camcorders, video games, MP3 players, digital cameras, minidisc players and PDAs.
A stereo receiver gives you a few audio inputs and no video jacks. Digital receivers with Dolby Pro Logic will have several types of video inputs, including composite and S-video and sometimes component video. S-video and component video connectors allow signals from DVD players and other high-quality video sources to be routed through the receiver to the TV. Digital receivers also have analog 5.1 audio inputs. These accept input from a DVD player with its own built-in Dolby Digital decoder, an external decoder, or other components with multi-channel analog signals, such as a DVD-Audio or SACD player. This allows the receiver to transmit up to six channels of audio or music to your speakers. Dolby Digital and DTS receivers have the most complete range of audio and video inputs, often with several types given to accommodate multiple components.
The tone controls adjust the bass and treble, allowing you to adjust the acoustics of the room to suit your personal preferences. The graphic equalizer divides the audio spectrum into three or more sections, giving you a bit more control over the entire audio spectrum. Instead of tone controls, some receivers come with tone presets such as Jazz, Classical or Rock, each emphasizing a different frequency pattern; you can often create your own style.
DSP (Digital Signal Processor) modes use a computer chip to duplicate the sound characteristics of a concert hall and other listening environments. A bass boost switch boosts the deepest sounds, and a midnight mode reduces loud sounds and boosts lows in music or soundtracks.
Settings memory, sometimes called “one touch”, allows settings to be saved for each source to minimize differences in volume, tone and other settings when switching between sources. A similar function, volume memory, is limited to volume settings only.
The tape recorder allows you to either listen to one source while recording another onto the tape recorder, or listen to the recording as it is being made. Automatic radio tuning includes functions such as search (automatically searching for the next station in range) and 20 to 40 presets for recalling your favorite stations.
To pick up stations too weak for seek mode, most receivers also have a manual step knob or buttons, preferably in single-channel steps. But most models creep in half or quarter steps, which means unnecessary button tapping to find the desired frequency. Direct frequency tuning allows you to tune into a radio station by entering its frequency on the keyboard.
HOW TO CHOOSE
First, don’t assume that expensive brands will outperform less expensive ones. We’ve found great artists at all price points. Points to consider:
How many devices do you want to connect? Even lower-end receivers generally have enough video and audio inputs for a CD or DVD player, a VCR, and a cable or satellite receiver. Mid- and higher-priced models usually have more inputs, so you can connect additional devices such as a video camera, personal video recorder, or gaming system.
The number of inputs is not the only problem; it also depends on the type. Composite video inputs, the most basic type, can be used with everything from an older VCR to a new DVD player. S-video and component video inputs are mostly used by digital devices such as DVD players and satellite receivers. If you have or can add such digital devices, get a receiver with multiple S-video and/or component video inputs. Both can provide better video quality than composite video.
All of these video inputs require an accompanying audio input. The basic left/right audio input can be used with almost any device to provide stereo sound. The turntable requires a phono input, which is available on fewer models than in years past.
To get multi-channel audio from DVD players, digital cable boxes, and satellite receivers, you typically use a digital audio input. With this input, encoded multi-channel audio is transmitted over a single cable to the receiver, which decodes it into separate channels. The input on the receiver must be the same type – either optical, more common type or coaxial – as the output on the other device. To connect digital audio, S-video, and component video, you usually need to buy cables, around $10 and up.
What kind of sound do you want from movies? All new digital receivers support Dolby Digital and DTS, the surround sound formats used in most movies. Both provide 5.1 channels. Most receivers also support Dolby Pro Logic, Pro Logic II, and sometimes Pro Logic IIx. If you want the latest type of surround sound, look for a receiver that supports Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES. These offer 6.1 or 7.1 channels that subtly enhance surround back sound. There are relatively few films available using these formats, but the supply should increase.
What kind of music do you like? Each receiver can reproduce stereo from regular CDs. Most models have digital signal processing (DSP) modes that process two CD channels to simulate a sound environment such as a concert hall. DSP modes feed a stereo signal to all speakers to simulate surround sound. For multi-channel music from SACD or DVD-Audio discs, get a receiver with 5.1 analog inputs.
how big is your room Make sure the receiver has enough volume to provide adequate volume: at least 50 watts per channel in a typical 12-by-20-foot living room, or 85 watts for a 15-by-25-foot space. A huge room, luxurious furniture or a noisy environment all require more power.
Is the receiver compatible with your speakers? If you like to hum for hours, get a receiver that can handle the impedance of the front speakers. Most receivers are designed for 6 ohm and 8 ohm speakers. When used with 4 ohm speakers, such a receiver could overheat and shut down.
It’s easy? Most receivers have easy-to-read displays and well-marked function buttons. Some add an on-screen menu that displays the settings on the TV screen. The auto-calibration function adjusts sound levels and balance to improve the surround effect. Models with a test tone function to adjust the speaker levels help you balance the sound yourself.
Two tips: When deciding where to place the receiver, leave about 4 inches of room behind it for cables and at least 2 inches at the top for ventilation to prevent overheating. If setting up your home theater is more than you want to deal with, consider calling a professional installer. Dealers often offer or can refer you to an installation service.
Copyright © 2002-2006 Consumers Union of US, Inc.
For the latest information on this and many other products and services, visit http://www.ConsumerReports.org
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