A decent receiver is a necessary part of any home theater system. They unfortunately also tend to get expensive fast. A high three or even four figure price tag might be justified for a higher end system, but the goal for most people should be to invest as much money as they can into the actual speakers.
The good news is that there are now some solid low-priced options, which wasn’t necessarily true as recently as a few years ago. That’s what this article will cover.
But first: You might not actually need a receiver.
If all you need to do is power some passive speakers you can do that with just a plain amplifier. You won’t have the control options of a receiver, but you can get a decent two channel amplifier for around 50 bucks or less. Plain amplifiers are also a lot smaller than full fledged receivers and make set-up that much easier. There are a ton of great options, and the Amazon best sellers list is a good place to start looking.
Alternatively, powered speakers are also an option and might make more sense for smaller desktop settings anyhow. Powered speakers have amplifiers built into them so you only need to plug them into a standard socket (use a surge protector!). You could also use them with a TV and use a laptop or even a phone that you already have as the source. Our best-of roundup for budget bookshelf speakers here is a good place to start looking. Keep in mind that options are limited if you go that route, whereas with a receiver you’ll be able to continually replace and upgrade any part of your system.
And now, without further ado…
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The Best Budget Stereo Receiver – The Pioneer SX-10AE
Pioneer is a trusted brand that makes a variety of high quality budget equipment. The SX-10AE offers the best quality, specs, and features that we’ve seen in the sub-$200 price-point. It has a dedicated subwoofer input, Bluetooth compatibility, and two 165W channels each with two pairs of 5-way binding posts, which is enough to power pretty much any pair of speakers and gives you some set-up options. The back panel is also simple and easy to understand for the newly initiated.
The Best Budget AV Receiver – The Sony STRDH590
Sony is also a long trusted brand and the STRDH590 has gone for the lowest price we’ve seen among full featured 5.X av receivers. It will be sufficient for pretty much any entry-level home theater system. Most of the comparable competition costs hundreds more. The only slight criticism we have is that the surround speaker inputs are spring clips instead of binding posts – it doesn’t ultimately affect sound quality, but spring clips are just generally more annoying to deal with.
Honorable Mention – The Yamaha RX-V385
Yamaha is yet another long trusted brand, and their RX-V385 is also available for under $300 and really close to the STRD590. All of the RXV385 speaker terminals are binding posts and the interface panel is a little better. It also has some nice extras, like a usb slot, that the STRD590 doesn’t have. The only reason this isn’t the number one pick is that there’s only support for one subwoofer while the STRD590 can support two, and that’s worth more than a few minor extras in our opinion. That being said, using two subwoofers isn’t common, and a single well placed subwoofer can almost always do the job just fine by itself. If you don’t care about adding a second subwoofer, then the RX-V385 is slightly better than the STRD590.
Honorable Mention – The Pioneer VSX-534
Also available for under $300 and close to the competition. Supports two subwoofers but also has spring clips for the surround speakers. This unit also supports Dolby Atmos and has power/accuracy specs that squeak slightly ahead, but whether either will yield a perceptible improvement to 5.2 sound is unlikely we’d say.
An Important Concluding Note
The truth is that audio equipment prices can fluctuate a lot and suddenly, especially with older generation products. So, the “best” choice will often simply be the best available deal at the time. The Amazon best sellers list is a good way to find these deals because they tend to move up to the top of the list pretty quickly.