Multi channel and dimensional surround sound 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, with surely many more to come in the near future. 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.
Table of Contents Navigation
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, 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 it’s possible a 9+ channel system could enhance musicality enough to be worth the extra cost, and it might be a highly interesting experience, 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 of these de facto standard audio codecs are what’s important for experiencing the spatial surround sound you’re looking for.
A receiver that’s powering up to 9 passive speakers (home theater subwoofers are generally powered) 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.
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.
Is 8k Compatibility Worth Getting in 2022?
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, there’s still very little video media that actually has 8k resolution. None of the major streaming platforms like Netflix or 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.
Cnet did a pretty good full write up dated on this topic dated Mar 14, 2022 here if you’re interested.
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.
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
If we had to recommend one product overall that checks all our essential boxes, is the best value, and is thus probably the best choice for most people, the pretty clear winner right now is the Pioneer Elite VSX-LX304:
It’s the older 2019 version of of their current VSX-LX305, released circa 2021, but they look almost identical and have very similar specs. The kicker? The older VSX-LX304 goes for much cheaper currently – we’ve seen it drop to over 40% less. The only obvious difference between the newer VSX-LX305 are that the HDMI slots are upgraded to HDCP 2.3 from 2.2 and support 8k resolution, but as we said almost no one actually needs or will even be able to really use and/or benefit from 8k any time soon. The older VSX-LX304 also interestingly is rated at significantly more watts per channel of power, but with a little more total harmonic distortion. The power of the newer model is still probably enough for most people, but having extra is better than not having enough.
Audio products that are 3-5 years old are often by far the best deal because brands will significantly reduce their prices to make way for newer models, but the older stuff is often just as good (sometimes better even) than the new stuff. There’s a good chance the officially deprecated VSX-LX304 won’t be available for all that much longer, so if you can get it at a significant discount over the newer one, it’s definitely a solid and very high value buy.
A worthwhile honorable mention is the Onkyo TX-RZ840:
It’s a similarly dated 2019 model that also checks all our boxes, but it has one notable advantage over the Pioneer VSX-LX304: a much more extensive pre-out input options, up to seven, whereas the VSX-LX304 only has one. The TX-RZ840 is more expensive than the absurdly cheap VSX-LX304, and most people won’t actually ever need to use a pre-out, much less use multiple, but, it’s a solid option for those who do want to have that flexibility. And who knows, there’s a good chance the price will dip too, and if you can get it for a price at least close to the VSX-LX304, then it’s also going to be a very solid buy.
Don’t think you actually need 9 channels? Check out our other receiver roundup articles: