Multi channel surround sound and spatial audio was once something you had to go to a movie theater or other such professional venue to experience, but with more and more technology being developed and a/v products being released at tenable and competitive prices, it’s becoming more and more accessible to residential home theater enthusiasts.
There are now many 9 channel home theater AV receivers to choose from, and that wasn’t really true as recently as five or so years ago. Sometimes they can come with a seemingly dizzying amount of buttons, dials, inputs, and features – enough to look like the command center of a NASA space shuttle to the lay consumer, and often with a hefty price tag to go with it.
But what specs do you actually need? What’s worth paying for? And how much so? This comprehensive roundup article will help you figure that out, as well as which products are potentially great choices for you.
First, What is a 9.1/9.2 Channel Receiver Exactly?
The X.X format simply refers to the number of speakers and subwoofers a receiver can hook up to and power. So, a 9.2 receiver has inputs for nine speakers and two subwoofers. Most 9 channel sound systems use two main left/right front firing speakers, a center channel speaker, two surround speakers, and four additional “off plane” speakers that are angled upward or downward. There are a lot of different types of surround speakers and ways to place them, which is part of the fun!
The overall idea is theatrical sound that can come from all directions in all dimensions that feels totally immersive.
Who Actually Needs a 9+ Channel Receiver?
9+ channel sound systems are primarily designed for home theater use with movies or games, where the spot a sound is coming from, particularly above or below the horizontal plane, can noticeably affect the “feel” of the film or gameplay. Maybe you hear a plane explode up high and to the right, or hear a monster rumbling beneath the ground to the left, you get the idea.
Most audio formats that support 9+ channel surround sound are used with movies, and while spatial audio is starting to become a thing, and it’s possible a 9+ channel system could enhance musicality enough to be worth the extra cost, it’s much more likely you’ll get better musical fidelity – if that’s what you’re mainly after – by investing in a higher end pair of speakers and a single subwoofer.
What We Look for in 9 Channel Receivers
Higher end multi-channel receivers can get complicated looking and very expensive fast, but, here’s what we think is primarily important for them to have:
Dolby Atmos and DTS:X support
Audio companies love to boast their proprietary technology, but support for either or ideally both of these de facto standard audio codecs is what’s important for experiencing spatial surround sound, if that’s what you’re primarily looking for.
A receiver that’s powering up to 9 passive speakers (home theater subwoofers are generally powered so are not a factor here) is going to need a good amplifier with enough power to get the job done. We like to see at least 75-100 Watts per channel, which should be enough for like 99% of systems. If you’re using specialty speakers with lower impedance, lower sensitivity, higher power handling, etc., then you need to be extra sure that your receiver will be able to deliver enough power.
The next one is sort of a corollary to this one:
At least one dedicated RCA pre-out
This is in addition to the 1-2 pre-out subwoofer terminals. Reason being, a pre-out gives you the option of feeding a line-level signal to a separate additional amplifier if you need more power than the on-board receiver amplifier can deliver. With 9 passive speakers, a separate amplifier is more likely to be a good idea or necessary, and can actually be much cheaper than shelling out for a different receiver with more on-board power. You can use an RCA pre-out to hook up an amplifier to power the main left/right/center speakers for example, which frees up the on-board receiver amp to be entirely dedicated to the surround speakers.
Multiple HDMI inputs
9 channel home theater systems will almost certainly utilize multiple devices that use an HDMI connection, including the TV. You want to make sure you have enough of them, we’d say at least 4-5 if you’re not sure. Make sure at least one hdmi-out slot is 2.0 or higher, which supports up to 4k resolution. HDMI 2.1 currently supports up to 120p (frames per second roughly) and/or 8k resolution, but there’s not much media yet that utilizes either, nor do we think they’ll make a noticeable difference. Some people might want future-proofing, but, there’s also risk in investing in tech that is still pretty new. 4k/60p will be a solid standard for many years.
Good build quality
This becomes all the more important with higher end, higher output AV electronics because they produce a lot of heat. Overheating is the longevity killer, so you want a receiver that is big and ventilated enough for components to breathe and disperse heat efficiently. Beyond that, having a back input panel with a decent layout and high quality binding posts and other terminals makes a quality of life difference as well.
A good warranty
if you’re paying a premium for more modern equipment, you want to be covered from potential design and manufacturing flaws. 3+ years of warranty on higher audio electronics is reasonable.
That about covers the essentials, in our opinion, beyond that, there’s a ton of features/inputs you can possibly get, and you just need to make sure you have what you want/need.
A good app or software
More companies are starting to release proprietary software with their receivers that help the user get the most out of their system by doing things like automatic room EQ calibration, easy compatibility with popular streaming apps and such
What About 8k Compatibility? Do You Need That in 2023?
For those who don’t know, 8k is the newest, next step up in video resolution from 4k (which is still not that old). 8k TVs (technically only 7,680 pixels across) have about four times as many pixels as 4k TVs do. That sound like a lot, but does 8k actually make much of a difference?
Short answer: no, and we don’t think paying a premium for 8k compatibility is at all worth it. For now at least.
Why? two main reasons:
One, even in 2023, there’s still very little video media that actually has 8k resolution. None of the major streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video have 8k content. There is some on YouTube now, but there’s no way to filter for it, and most rentable movies still max out at 1080p, which is the predecessor of 4k.
Two, the actually detectable difference between 4k and 8k to the human eye is arguably negligible.
Chances are 8k will become the de facto standard for receivers sooner than later, and this discussion will become moot, or kicked down to the next iteration of resolution technology. But for now, 4k is absolutely fine for a top-end home theater system, especially if you can save money on an older model receiver.
What’s New With 9 Channel Receivers In 2023?
What we’ve seen is that prices are significantly more competitive now, especially because a number of older models in the 2020-2022 range (which are still perfectly great products) have been discounted. In 2022 there were maybe a couple or a few lower priced options while the rest were significantly more expensive, but now there are several competitively priced options and more choices for the budget minded customers.
What About Going Up to an 11 Channel Receiver? Is That Worth It?
Maybe. You don’t have to use every available channel of a receiver, so an 11 channel receiver could support 9 channel home theater audio all the same, and it’s always great to have the option to add more speakers if you ever want to go up to 11 channels.
That said, 11 (and higher) channel receivers are still fairly limited in selection and generally more expensive than 9 channel receivers. But, if you can find a deal on one and it’s not that much more expensive – and that’s becoming more and more frequent – it’s definitely worth considering.
The Important Truth About Buying Audio Equipment
We always say this in our roundup articles:
Product prices can fluctuate significantly in the audio market, and often times for no apparent reason.
Therefore, the “best” product choice often comes down to whatever the best available deal is at the time among the top/popular contenders. It’s definitely worthwhile to shop around. One tool that’s useful for doing this is Amazon best-sellers lists – they update hourly and these good deals often rise to the top. The table below is populated in real time with data from these best-sellers lists. You’ll usually see our picks among them.
Our Current Picks for The Best Value 9 Channel Receivers
Max Value Option #1 – the Pioneer Elite VSX-LX305
It has been significantly discounted since its release in 2021, and just as was the case with the older version for a while, the VSX-LX305 is pretty much the best deal available that checks all the important boxes discussed earlier.
Max Value Option #2 – the Onkyo TX-NR7100
For a while, Pioneer receivers seemed to be significantly less expensive than the rest of the competition, but that has apparently changed. The TX-NR7100 offers everything that the VSX-LX305 does, and overall is a very similar product, and we’ve seen it get discounted to a similarly competitive price.
Don’t think you actually need 9 channels? Check out our other receiver roundup articles: