In Defense of the AVR
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.