Equipping your front room with the best AV receiver can quickly transform your humble TV set-up into your own personal home theater system.
This is because bagging yourself the best TV on the market might be able to bring that huge cinema screen feel to your home, but it will rarely be able to deliver the audio to match.
The answer? In order to get the high-end sound to make the most of your 4K TV, you'll need to buy an AV receiver as well.
But... what is an AV receiver, you ask? It may sound like complex audio equipment, but it's really just a way of better controlling your AV setup. AV receivers will take the audio track from whatever TV show, movie, CD or video game you're watching or listening to, then process the audio and send it through to any connected speakers you have.
AV receivers (also known as AVRs) are the only way to power 5.1 and 7.1 speaker setups outside of a soundbar, and they also host a range of ports that allow you to keep all your devices connected all the time. This is important because you should think of the best AV receivers as essentially the central base that all of your entertainment equipment will need to connect to and communicate with.
Even if you have lots of other devices, this means that the transition between them will be seamless, regardless of what you’re trying to play, watch or listen to, you’ll always get an amazing entertainment experience to rival your nearest cinema screen.
We're now seeing 8K AV receivers enter the market too – so if you own or are thinking of upgrading to an 8K TV, you may want to check out the 8K-capable models coming from Denon or Yamaha, especially for use alongside next-gen gaming platforms like the PS5 or Xbox Series X. We'll be sure to update this guide once some of these 8K models have been through our tests, too.
On a budget
Best AV receivers on a budget
It’s not often we see something radically different in the world of AV receivers, but this HEOS model definitely qualifies. For starters, it looks fundamentally different to the herd. There’s no front panel display. Rear connectivity has also been stripped back. Standing just 90mm tall, it’s refreshing compact.
Build quality is superb. Only a volume knob on the extruded aluminium fascia gives the AVR game away.
There are four HDMI inputs, and a single output, all with HDCP 2.2 support. There's just two digital audio inputs (coaxial and optical), plus analogue stereo, 3.5mm minijack, lone USB and Ethernet LAN. Wireless connectivity covers Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
Perhaps surprisingly, this is a 5.1 channel design and doesn’t support Dolby Atmos. Key to the receiver’s appeal is HEOS wireless speaker integration. While there is provision for wired rear speakers, the system is designed to work with wireless HEOS rears. In most systems, only the front L/C/R will be tethered. It can also partner with a dedicated wireless HEOS subwoofer.
While a remote is supplied, it’s a basic zapper. There’s no onscreen display either. Setup and control is done through a HEOS app.
For our audition, we partnered the AVR with a pair of HEOS 1s at the rear, and the wireless HEOS subwoofer. With speakers grouped, the package becomes a working 5.1 system. There’s no further calibration required.
The HEOS AVR may not be a powerhouse, but it’s a bright, lively listen. The receiver delivers multichannel movie soundtracks with gusto. It’s crisp and exciting, particularly when there’s plenty going on around the soundstage (try it with Edge of Tomorrow Blu-ray, then duck as the DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack unloads chaos in every corner).
This isn’t a particularly musical AVR though. Pop and rock are entertaining enough, but throw a throw it something classical or jazzy and its spatial delineation turns a bit mushy.
Using wireless rears can invite some problems. While latency isn’t an issue, we were aware of occasional low-level pops and fizzes.
As an ambitious reworking of the classic home theater receiver, we rate this first HEOS AVR as an qualified success. The cosmetics are admirable, and for dedicated HEOS multiroom users the wireless interactivity is a boon. Employing an app for control seems to make perfect sense, the only snag comes if your streaming audio sources are also app controlled and need to be juggled outside of the HEOS app. This may not be the future of AV receivers, but it’s a refreshing rethink nonetheless.
It might be late to the party, but Sony’s debut Dolby Atmos AV receiver entertains with some cool functionality. While it’s ostensibly a seven channel design (which means it can run in a 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos configuration) there are also two phantom rears which create a pseudo seven channel surround soundstage. The receiver can even virtually relocate the physical position of your speakers, to create a better sonic balance.
Build quality is commensurate with its price tag. This is no heavyweight, and the fascia looks overly fussy, but the hairline finish is a premium touch. Connectivity is good. We get six HDMI inputs, all HDCP 2.2 enabled. There are also two HDMI outputs, for combi TV and projector use. There are also two analogue AV inputs, plus a pair of stereo phonos and two digital audio inputs.
The AVR connects via Ethernet or Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth with NFC for quick pairing, plus Airplay. The AVR also boasts Chromecast Built-in. That’s all the main wireless boxes ticked.
Setup is helped along by the latest iteration of Sony’s Auto Calibration software, which now features a 31-band graphic EQ and a stereo calibration microphone that adjusts phase, distance and level.
Usability is average. The receiver relies heavily on its UI, which is pretty but sometimes a little frustrating.
Performance is excellent for the price. Tonally the STR-DN1080 may not be particularly warm, but it is exciting. Movies benefit from seamless panning and pronounced dynamics. Power output is quoted at 7 x 165W into 6 ohms. The biggest surprise is the effectiveness of the phantom rears, which really do help fill out the rear surround stage. This sonic trickery positions the STR-DN1080 somewhere above a standard 5.1.2 design, but below a true nine channel amp.
Overall, this is an innovative, exciting AV Dolby Atmos receiver. Consider it a brilliant value home cinema offering.
Gone are the days when buying a surround-sound-supporting receiver with multiple HDMI ports meant spending an arm and a leg. These days, you can get a great receiver with support for a surround sound setup at well under $500/£600. Like, for example, the Onkyo TX-NR676.
It's not the only receiver in its price range with a great set of features features or a plethora of inputs, but there are few comprehensive packages that are as easy to assemble, set up and use as Onkyo's.
In terms of expected sound performance, Onkyo has long offered a great sound-quality, and this receiver is no different. The receiver supports DTS:X and Dolby Atmos, which helps give sound a much more immersive feel to it.
We found that the receiver was generally great-sounding at all volumes. At low volumes, there was still plenty of clarity and detail, while higher volumes produced little distortion, which was nice to hear. Extremely tuned ears might miss a little detail in the high end at louder volumes, though the receiver still shoots well above its price range when it comes to sound quality.
If you’re looking for a great AV receiver and have a maximum budget of $400/£600, the Onkyo TX-NR676 is the way to go.
Read the full review: Onkyo TX-NR676
When money's no object
While the Arcam AVR850 is unlikely to win any Best Value accolades – it’s unashamedly expensive for a 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos design – its overarching musicality is hard to beat. This is arguably the UK audio specialist’s best sounding AV receiver to date.
The AVR850 uses Class G power amps, conservatively rated at 100W-per-channel.
The design is understated, with a nice matte cabinet finish and big central volume knob. It tips the scales at a reassuringly heavy 16kg.
Connectivity is good. There are seven HDMI inputs, all with HDCP 2.2 support, plus three HDMI outputs. Audio options include six analogue inputs, and six digital audio inputs.
The really significant difference here, compared to previous Arcam home theater boxes, is the provision of Dirac Live room calibration.
Arguably the most sophisticated auto calibration technology available, it does a extraordinary job fine tuning the receiver to the listening room. Dirac tuning is not carried out by the receiver with a microphone, but via a laptop. Sounds complicated? Don’t fret. Buyers will have room calibration done by the dealer that supplies the receiver.
While Dirac is the height of sophistication, the user interface is pretty basic, just a plain text box. Arcam isn’t even trying to impress here.
Still, the receiver sounds sensational, with precise imaging that really makes the most of Dolby Atmos encoding. It’s tight and forceful with action sequences, and delicious melodious with two channel music. That feature count may look frugal for the price, but when it comes to performance, your investment will be repaid in spades.
The Arcam AV850 may be ruinously expensive for a seven channel amplifier, but tuned with Dirac, it’s clearly a premium performer. We’re prepared to forgive it any foibles.
Choosing your AV reciever
How to choose the best AV receiver for you
There are lots of speaker styles to choose from – that's why we've put together lots of guides on the best speakers you can buy in 2020.
If you need a speaker you can take everywhere, make sure you look at the best waterproof speakers.
If you have a 4K set-up at home, then you need to be on the lookout for a receiver that has a wealth of HDCP 2.2 compatible HDMI ports. If you want to get really high-tech with your set-up, and invest in multi-room streaming, you need to think about which wireless speaker system is best for you – Chromecast, Heos, or even Yamaha MusicCast. Even if that's not something you're interested in right now, it makes sense to future-proof your set-up.
For many people, Dolby Atmos will be the killer app. This 3D audio system is now the gold standard in immersive audio. It may be available on soundbars, but only an AV receiver offers true overhead Dolby Atmos audio.
All you'll need to do is decide if you want a seven or a nine-channel system. (However, that said, you may not need Dolby Atmos at all, in which case a standard 5.1 sound system will fill your surround sound needs nicely.)
Have we convinced you that you need an AV receiver yet? The next step is figuring out which is the right one for you and luckily we've got a big list of all the best AV receivers you can get your hands on today.
Original reporting in this article was by Steve May.
- Want a cheaper audio solution? Try one of our best soundbars