In Defense of the AVR

Perhaps no product category is more misunderstood or maligned than the audio/video receiver. Within the home theater community, some deem it a deal breaker or bottleneck, despite its true status as the heart of a home theater system. Outside the home theater community, two-channel puritans regard the AVR as a morally flawed cluster of features that is inherently hostile to good sound. Won't anyone (aside from AVR manufacturers) speak up for a product that tries so hard to give the consumer so much?

Before getting into the fine points of a home theater debate, let's define home theater. It is the union of big-screen television and surround sound. The goal of a home theater system is to present a big picture to the audience, a picture big enough to suspend disbelief and pull us into the story. Sound has to be equally immersive which is why home theater systems rely on surround sound to work their magic. The AVR's primary role in all this is to provide surround processing and multichannel amplification (not merely two-channel audio). It is also a switcher and adds a host of other features that expand the functionality of the system. By routing and sometimes even enhancing video signals, it also serves the other side of the home theater equation.

A two-channel system may be a fine musical companion (and I say this as the owner of a Jeff Rowland amp, preamp, and three turntables). It may the best choice for someone who loves music and cares nothing for movies. But without surround processing and multichannel amplification, it is not a home theater system. And if you really must choose one or the other, a home theater system is more versatile. A multichannel system can support two-channel listening, and I might add that 2.1 channels can be even better. But a stereo system can't support surround sound and therefore cannot support home theater.

Why invest in an AVR-based system when you could pay less for an HTIB or soundbar product? Hey, we review those, and they're great ways to improve over the terrible speakers built into TVs. But the best speakers you can buy (in any price range) are not those built into HTIBs. If you want great speakers, you need to buy them in a separate purchase, and then you need an AVR to power them. As for soundbars, they can be miraculous space savers, but their soundstage width is limited by the physical width of their enclosures, even with DSP magic. So these are bedroom a/v solutions, not the best ways to approach a primary home theater system.

Isn't an AVR just a bear? And not just a cute little honey bear, but a giant grizzly that wants to rip your throat out? I won't deny that first-time buyers have to ascend a learning curve. But most people are equal to the task whether they realize it or not. The learning curve for an AVR is much less steep than that of, say, a computer. It takes only a few minutes to step through all options in an AVR menu. See how long it takes you to plumb the depths of a computer control panel—or even just Microsoft Word.

"Too much stuff" is arguably a universal disadvantage of AVRs. No one could possibly use all those features. But then again, no one has to. Again, the computer analogy holds. Computers and tablets have hundreds of uses but most people content themselves with web browsing, email, media playback, and a handful of others. Inside every AVR, there is a tiny subset of relevant functions—think of it as the AVR-within-the-AVR—that you actually use. And if a feature you want isn't present, "too much stuff" becomes "not enough stuff."

While AVR designers haven't obliterated the complex nature of the beast, they've found many ways to ameliorate it. Pretty much every AVR has an auto setup routine that handles speaker types, speaker distances, and other setup parameters. While auto setups are rarely perfect, they usually make enough of the right decisions to get your system started. So you can begin using your system right away and worry about incremental performance tweaks later, if you worry about them at all.

Some AVRs strive to be user-friendlier in unique ways. For instance, Pioneer provides context-sensitive help in its graphic user interface, so as you navigate menus, the system explains things along the way. That's way easier than thumbing through a manual. Yamaha offers "scene" presets that group parameters for different uses, so you can choose one scene for movies and another for music. This saves a lot of button punching. Yamaha receivers ship with four default scenes which can be used immediately. And the user is free to add others.

Another knock on AVRs is that their room correction systems and other enhancers do more harm than good. In my experience, they vary. In any event you can avoid their shortcomings by not using them. I once told my doctor that I got agonizing abdomenal pain from eating bell peppers. "Don't eat bell peppers," he advised. If you think your receiver's room correction screws up the midrange, switch it off and leave it off.

Outside the home theater community, some people just don't get it. They claim an AVR can't deliver high performance because it prioritizes features over performance. This overgeneralization is so broad as to be obtuse. Some manufacturers offer higher performance toward the top end of their lines. They ladle on the features and build quality and make you pay for both (and it's often a great buy). Others make their high end aspirations known even in an entry-level product. Cambridge Audio, NAD, Rotel, and other high-end AVR brands must bristle at any suggestion that their products are anything less than great-sounding.

So much for the features/performance ratio. What about the price/performance ratio? The best AVRs compare well in this area. What I would call the best-performing receiver out there goes for $4995. What would $4995 buy in the loftier echelons of the two-channel sphere? A pair of wrist-thick cables? A wooden phono cartridge? Lest I be accused of making an apples-and-oranges comparison, please note that the comparison above compares the best to to the best, the bleeding edge to the bleeding edge. I could easily put together a dozen good-sounding two-channel or 5.1-channel systems for less than $1000 each. But only the 5.1 systems would qualify as home theater systems.

For music playback, nothing offers a bigger cornucopia of possibilities than an AVR. As the most eager-to-please component in the system, the AVR promotes a long list of ways—including some fairly new ones —to listen to music. Visualize, if you will, what it would take to add even a basic AVR feature roster to a stereo preamp. For wireless access you'd need an Apple AirPort Express and/or Bluetooth receiver kit. For iOS and Android devices, an outboard dock or a clumsy mini-jack-to-RCA adapter. For FM radio, an outboard tuner. For satellite radio, a Sirius/XM tuner. For a computer, a USB DAC (an up-and-coming AVR feature). How would you even go about adding DLNA, Pandora, or internet radio? Possibly through a Blu-ray player (another home theater product). Sure, an AVR makes you plug a bunch of stuff into its back panel, but one back panel may be simpler than several.

Perhaps the cruelest irony is that while a stereo audiophile struggles with his two-channel Frankensystem, the surround audiophile next door might be controlling his AVR with a smartphone or tablet. A tap here, a tap there, and then he's in home theater heaven.

I might easily advance different arguments for a music system based on the direct contemplation and perfection of music in two channels, and in a different lifetime, I probably would. But as great as that can be, it is not a home theater system. And let me be brutally frank when I say that 90-plus percent of the high-end two-channel exhibits I annually encounter at the Consumer Electronics Show don't sound as good as my 5.1-channel system at home, with an $1100 receiver and speakers costing $400/each.

So I would advise anyone interested in home theater not to be intimidated by the AVR's fearsome reputation and the often specious arguments advanced against it. Movies are fun, music is fun, and a home theater system lets you have the best of both. Buy an AVR and take the trouble to make friends with it. Like most of our readers, you won't regret it.

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COMMENTS
michaelalanlittrell@yahoo.com's picture

I used have a two channel purist system consisting of B&W Matrix 805 speakers, VTL and Classe preamps, and a Proceed amp. High end wires like Kimber, Nordost, etc. Excellent sound and tube rolling was fun. I bought the B&W speakers and Proceed amp new. The VTL and Classe preamps were bought used. Cables were bought new and used.

Then I got into home theater and started looking at the dollars needed to go to a 2.0 system to a 5.1 system. From a practical standpoint, the cost was prohibitive. So, I sold my purust system and started a 5.1 system from scratch. Onkyo receiver, Polk LSi speakers, and Sony Bluray player. Guess what? The sound is actually pretty good. Not purust good, but pretty darn good considering the system is powered by an Onkyo TXNR805 receiver. Music actually sounds pretty good and home theater is fantastic.

I ditched the high end cables except for Kimber 12TC for my center channel and Shunyata and Synergistic power cords. C'mon Nordost, you want $5,xxx.xx for a pair of 3 meter biwire cables? With that being said, I really wanted Shunyata Black Mamaba speaker cables for my front main three speakers. The Black Mamba imaged and sound staged like crazy, but were just too expensive. Kimnber 12TC was actually pretty close to the Shunyata in bass power and impact, so I went with the 12TC for my center channel only. That was actually a splurge. Now that I look back, the money could have been better spent towards a better display. I can say the same for the Synergistic power cord for my bluray player, but I can notice a discernible difference with the Synergitic cord. The Shunyata power cords was an absolute gluttonous splurge, but it was on sale at 50% off and really does add to the bass impact and power the receiver can put out. The way I look at it, I could live without the Kimber and Synergistic Research, but not the Shunyata. Nuff said for a former audiophile.

Notwithstanding the audio expense, one has to consider the video expense as well. I got the new Samsung F8500 plasma. Holy smokes what a display! In my opinion having lived on both sides of the fence, I would rather have a top notch video display (as I mainly watch movies instead of listen to music) than a purist 5.1 audio system. If I did not have any budget restraints, 5 high power mono tube amps. But I live in the real world for the average working class family and a receiver works pretty darn well for me and the price is much more reasonable than purist gear.

JCA's picture

Good article.

At this moment I am considering replacing the trusty 5.1. Yamaha A/V Receiver (which is about 12 years old, and lacking some of the current digital technologies) that I use for powering a stereo speaker (bookshelves) set up that I have in my bedroom. I am looking formward to perhaps getting a stereo receiver from NAD, Emotiva or Cambridge Audio. Basically, what I am looking for in the new receiver is good sound over features, and to be able to play the music files from MP3 players or an IPad.
The thing is that I use more my 5.1 system, powered by a mid level Denon receiver with Def Tech speakers and it sounds terrific.

Before reading the article I was wondering if instead of going with a stereo receiver for the bedroom system, would not it be better for me to buy another A/V receiver which I could use for HT too.

I think the article support this idea.

BTW can you please detail your HT set up, receiver and speakers?

Thanks

Mark Fleischmann's picture
I use a Pioneer Elite VSX-53 receiver, Paradigm Reference Studio v4 speakers, an Oppo BDP-83 universal disc player, and a Sharp 32-inch LED/LCD set. My projection system is dismantled but I plan to replace it with a larger flat panel set. None of these are current products but they have current equivalents.
AVtheaterguy's picture

GREAT ARTICLE MARK!!!!

I'm so happy that someone in the AV news world is talking about Surround Sound vs. Stereo listening, especially just days after "T.H.E. Show" that took place in Newport Beach, CA last weekend.

The big thing to me is that surround sound/home theater is not being conveyed enough as HIGH PERFORMANCE. As an A/V systems designer I'm always making sure my client understands the benefits of Blu-Ray audio vs. CDs, or MP3s., or god forbid their Tv's speakers.

Years ago before the advent of lossless audio in movies, I could understand how Stereo buffs completely rebuked the idea that Movies and TV could sound good compared to their heavy weight pressed Vinyl, or their original Denon pressed CDs. Fast forward to today, and its 100% apparent that lossless sound in Movies, and Lossy surround for TV is here to stay and completely brings a different sense of emotion than the old CRT and DVD days.

In my opinion I find it true that Audiophiles believe a well balanced stereo system playing a high quality recording on Vinyl or SACD will "Sound better" than a surround system playing the same thing, but I rarely find these stereo setups to be able to handle the performance level that is required by DTS/Dolby lossless audio signals with multi-channel audio sound. While they may convey a sense of the effect, when the RPG gets shot at the helicopter in Black hawk Down, and the rocket "wizzes" by from the front speakers to the surrounds, all the while being dynamically boosted from a high power subwoofer, you'll never get the same "WOW" response when listened to on a stereo system. Without the gear its not going to happen.

High Performance home theater requires a different type of setup than stereo listening, in the same way that a live Rock Concert will use a vastly different type of product than a hi-end stereo setup would. Different audio experiences require different equipment, and while each one will to some effect do the job of another, the proper gear can never be replaced to get the same effects.

Movies, especially new releases on Blu-Ray, have extreme dynamics that the sound engineers and directors have purposely put in to get a certain response from the viewer. The instantaneous volume changes from soft to extreme can happen so quickly, and the placement of that sound is crucial to the intended experience the creators have envisioned. The proper associated gear does nothing to make this happen in the exact way it was intended.

Audio Video Receivers are built so that the masses can appreciate these cinematic wonders, and are not turned off by a complicated set of gear that most of us have forgotten how to use. A $500 receiver powering a $1000 5.1 setup connected to a $100 blu-ray player spinning the latest Big-Screen action flick is going to be for most people, the most amazing in home entertainment experience that they will ever have. Once this happens, the end user starts to realize the awesomeness of surround sound and will start to watch movies with amazing sound tracks more often, and will also begin to integrate their other audio devices such as their smart phone or tablets.

Most of the population today is not "Into Hi-Fi", but we love movies and music. The ability to experience surround sound was a dream for most people 15-20 years ago, and to have it as affordable as it is today, especially with the advances in user experience with the upgrades to the interfaces, makes a surround sound system almost a necessary staple for todays digital world. I love stereo sound, and have a very nice stereo setup in which I have complete control of how I wish it to sound, but its a process turning the knobs and making my settings for different music.

A surround receiver has essentially made the movie experience something that can be experienced to near Commercial Theater levels in the comfort of my own living room, and that is the joy of the surround sound concept.

I say Long Live to the Receiver! And long live to hi-fi as well... It's just going to be a lot easier and attainable to do surround sound right as new technologies come out to improve the usability, vs. the extreme lengths that most audiophiles go through to get that extra little ounce out of CD/vinyl that has probably aged over the years to the point where that little ounce might not even be there anymore.

As those audiophiles try to squeeze a little extra out of their tracks, in the same way that the wine connoisseurs search for that little extra taste in their overly aged bottles, I will sit back with my $10 bottles of Wine and enjoy the non-finicky extreme awesomeness that my Denon AVR brings to EVERY MOVIE I own.

David Vaughn's picture
You hit the nail on the head. It's amazing at the quality audio you can get for under $2000.
MrSatyre's picture

Thanks. You made this mid to high-end AVR manufacturer (and manufacturer of stupidly high-end nosebleed two-channel gear) shed a tear of gratitude.

Deus02's picture

I think most would agree that the technology that exists today in all forms of A/V equipment is pretty mature in stature, hence, once one gets in to the purchase of especially, one of the higher end AVR models of any manufacturer, the difference between it and considerably more costly separates is negligible, especially when one uses outboard amps for some or all of the amplification.

I have one of the more recent Yamaha "Aventage" models working in conjunction with Outlaw multi-channel out board amps and an Oppo BDP105 BR player. I have heard several systems at many price levels and none are better than mine and some don't even sound as good. In my opinion, if you feel like you need an upgrade(and it is not always necessary), the only purchases that "might" make a meaningful audible difference to your existing set-up are speakers.

AVtheaterguy's picture

Deus02 just nailed it on the head!

"In my opinion, if you feel like you need an upgrade(and it is not always necessary), the only purchases that "might" make a meaningful audible difference to your existing set-up are speakers." - Deus02

Talk about the truth!!! Go ahead and spend all the money you want on a new state of the art processor/receiver. Go ahead and ad that outboard DAC to your SONOS. Go ahead and upgrade from the 100 watt/ch. better than basic receveiver to external amps rated at 150 @4ohms. Go ahead and do all of that and tell me about the big difference it all made on your in-ceiling speaker setup from Brand X.

My guess is that if you had 75% perfect home theater sound, you now have a 79% system. However if you had saved all the Time and Money researching and figuring out how to integrate all the new gear, you could have just replaced the original speakers with ones able to handle more power at a better sensitivity and all the old gear would have allowed for those to SING!

I feel that the main need for a device upgrade is to get a new feature that's a game changer (like HD audio decoding, or something else significant). Otherwise save your time and go find a better speaker!

notabadname's picture

Well said. I think if someone were setting up all new equipment, they would be better served by a $2,000 AVR with $10,000 in speakers than they would $7,000 in their audio rack with $5,000 in speakers. The performance per dollar is much better invested in speakers.

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