Unless you're buying an all-in-one home theater in a box (HTIB), you'll need to have a decent receiver to power your system. Most A/V receivers these days are 7.1 channel receivers (seven channels plus a subwoofer), although many people (like me) won't need the extra two channels and are content with 5.1 surround sound.
Some receivers allow you to assign the extra two channels to a second zone. This allows you to watch a DVD in one room while someone in another room is listening to FM or satellite radio. (Or even iPod tunes if the receiver supports it!)
I have Pioneer receivers powering all three of my home theater surround sound systems, including a Pioneer Elite receiver for my new system. I have been very happy with the performance of all of these receivers.
Here's why I like Pioneer home theater receivers:
- Ease of use: Some units are just too complicated to learn, I haven't had a problem figuring out the various features available in Pioneer receivers.
- Dialogue enhance mode: Both of my standard Pioneer receivers have this feature, and it's really great. With the press of a button, it increases the presence of the center channel speaker (where most dialogue is generated) which helps the dialogue stand out over the sound effects, background music, etc.
- Digital Signal Processing (DSP) modes: Although some home theater 'purists' hate these, I happen to like them. They apply different acoustic effects such as 'stadium', 'concert hall', etc. to the soundtrack to allow you to tailor your surround sound experience. On my Pioneer VSX-815 receiver I especially like the Virtual 7.1 mode which creates the illusion of two back surround channels on a 5.1 system.
- Auto Calibration: Pioneer calls this MCACC, other brands have different names. Both my 815 and my Pioneer Elite VSX-92TXH receivers have it, and it is a definite MUST HAVE in any decent receiver. You simply hook up the supplied microphone and place it in your primary seating position. The calibration sets speaker size, distances, and EQ levels. The Pioneer VSX-815 calibrates each speaker with a 7-band equalizer. Elite receiver has an advanced MCACC system that give you flexibility to calibrate to multiple seating positions (among other things). The levels can also be tweaked and saved as custom settings.
When you're making your 'short list' of AV receivers to check out, be sure to also check out Onkyo, Yamaha, and Sony home theater receivers.
Home theater receiver shopping tips:
- After determining your price range, find a store that sells the brands that you're considering. See if you can listen to each receiver through the same set of speakers (preferably ones within your price range).
- Make sure the receiver has enough inputs for all of your components, plus room for future growth. HDMI switching allows you to connect all your components to the receiver, and run just a single HDMI cable to your display. This is especially helpful if your TV has only one HDMI input. It's great- if you can get it within your price range.
- Unless you're an expert or enjoy manually setting up everything, try to get a receiver with auto-calibration.
- Listen to each receiver's DSP modes. If nothing else, it will help you determine whether or not they're important to you.
- Find reliable online and/or print resources for reviews. The people that do it for a living can spend more time testing/comparing than you'd be willing to do. Do not think of the reviewer as the definitive answer (remember it's still just one person's opinion), but factor the reviews into your final determination.