A good receiver is an important keystone in any decent system, but the sheer amount of choices now can quickly overwhelm a layperson – there’s a seemingly endless array of features, input plugs, buttons, acronyms, and specs among other things. Receivers also tend to get expensive pretty quickly and it’s often not clear why.
This article intends to help you sift through all that and pick something that’s going to maximize your system without blatantly overpaying.
Table of Contents Navigation
First, What Exactly is a 5.1/5.2 AV Receiver?
For those who don’t know, a receiver is simply the device that all the components of a system plug into and you use to control them together. A/V is an acronym for Audio/Video, whereas a simple “stereo” receiver denotes something that only uses speakers for music rather than a TV or any other ancillary devices.
The X.X decimal format denotes how many speakers and subwoofers any given unit supports, so a 5.1 and 5.2 receiver will support 5 speakers and one or two subwoofers respectively.
A standard 5 speaker system is usually used to generate surround sound with a home theater system – you have two main front-firing speakers, a center-channel speaker, and two “satellite” speakers that are intended to be to the side or behind the viewing point.
What About 7-9+ Channel Receivers?
These receivers are where things tend to quickly get expensive, and are intended for higher end home theater systems that usually utilize an advanced audio codec like Dolby Atmos to create immersive surround sound.
This is not really going to do anything to enhance musicality, and if you don’t care about highly intricate surround sound then a 7+ channel receiver is probably not necessary. Better to spend the money on nicer speakers.
Is Two Subwoofers Significantly Better Than One?
The basic answer is it could be, but probably not. One decent subwoofer is usually plenty to fill out the bass in a room that isn’t overly large, and there’s usually a singularly decent sweet spot in the room to put it. If you’re looking for immersive surround sound with things like explosions or rumbling cars while watching movies, you might be able to appreciate having two (or possibly more) subwoofers, but it probably won’t make an audible difference in musicality.
What We Look For in 5 Channel Receivers
Inputs/Features – you want to make sure the unit you choose can support the devices you want to use. There are also certain things we like to see any 5.X receiver have at a minimum:
- A least one HDMI slot for a TV
- A dedicated subwoofer input
- 5 way binding posts for each of the speaker inputs
- Bluetooth compatibility, or an included remote at a bare minimum
- Enough RCA slots to use whatever devices you want to connect to it
As long as you have those things you should be solid, and most decent brands usually will. Beyond that, here are some other inputs/features that are often wanted but probably not necessary:
- onboard headphone jack
- onboard volume/eq/tone/input/etc. controls
- ethernet jack
- USB slot
- Other random legacy inputs
Here’s the back panel of one of our long-running favorite a/v receivers, the Sony STRDH590, which checks off everything on the above list (with the one exception spring clips in lieu of binding posts for the surround speakers).
Power – you need to make sure the unit can sufficiently power the speakers connected to it. Too little power can also damage speakers like too much power can, or might not otherwise get the most out of the speakers. Most receivers are rated at 100+ Watts per channel (WPC), which is plenty to power just about any popular home speaker sets. You’ll need to be more mindful if you’re using lower impedance 6 or 4 ohm speakers and make sure the receiver is sufficiently rated for them.
Good Build Quality – this is important for long term health and functionality of any audio device. Though it may look dated, bigger and bulkier is generally better with receivers – electrical audio components like amplifiers generate heat, and overheating is the longevity killer. You want to see nice ventilation and enough space for components to breathe (quick PSA: don’t stack anything on top of a receiver!).
Reputable Receiver Brands
Different brands have their strengths and weaknesses, but here’s a quick list of popular brands that are generally hard to go wrong with. Exclusion from this list should not be construed as deprecation from us.
The Important Truth About Buying Audio Equipment
Prices fluctuate in the audio world, often significantly and seemingly arbitrarily so. The truth is that the “best” choice will often come down to whichever product happens to be the most discounted at any given time. Unlike most other electronics, audio gear can have a long lifespan of several years or much more. Older generation or otherwise used/refurbished products will most often be the best value by far. A useful tool we always recommend are Amazon best-seller lists:
These lists update every hour and things that are discounted will often rise up to the top. If you see any product from the aforementioned brands at the top of an Amazon best-seller category, odds are it’s a solid purchase.
Our Current Favorite 5.1 and 5.2 Receivers
If we were to recommend one choice overall, it would be the Yamaha RX-V385:
At the time of this writing/update this receiver has unmatched specs, features, and build quality for the price. Particularly noteworthy are the nice binding posts for all five speaker terminals. The only slight downside is that there’s only one subwoofer output, but as we said most people won’t need more than one subwoofer anyway.
If we were to recommend a choice that does allow for two subwoofers, it would be the Sony STRDH590:
We’ve seen this dip cheaper than the RX-V385 before, and we’d say get it if you can find it at a bargain. The only real downsides to this one are the fewer inputs (if you even need them) and the fact that the surround speaker terminals are spring clips rather than binding posts. A spring clip works just as well as a binding post can, but they’re annoying to have to feed wire into and secure properly. Also the option to use banana plugs with binding posts just makes life easier.
Honorable mention: the Pioneer VSX-534:
This is almost the same as the STRDH590 and a viable alternative if you can find it cheaper.