Setup really isn't as complicated as many owners' manuals make it seem. All receivers guide you through the operation in their on-screen setup menus (some more successfully than others) by breaking it down into manageable chunks. The process is basically the same from receiver to receiver: source setup and identification, speaker configuration, delays, and speaker levels. And, in a growing number of AVRs, you can add automated setup and room equalization to this list.
Source Setup and Identification
In some receivers, this is a simple operation. You connect your DVD player to the DVD input, your TV audio to the TV input, your satellite input to the SAT input, and so on. There are separate inputs for analog and digital sources and, in most receivers, a way to switch between these analog and digital inputs. If you switch between active inputs and get no sound, the first thing to check is if you are trying to listen to a digital input with an analog input selected, or vice versa!
Some receivers may not label their inputs as DVD, SAT, TV, AUX, etc, but rather Analog 1, Analog 2, . . .Digital 1, Digital 2,. . .Component Video 1, Component Video 2,. . .HDMI. . .etc. These receivers let you assign each of these inputs to a specific setting on the input control and, often, then name the input in a way that makes it more intuitive to use.
Suppose, for example, you have two disc players: an HD DVD player and a Blu-ray player. Connect the HD DVD player to the DVD input and the Blu-ray player to the AUX input. Then as long as you remember what is connected where, you're good to go. But with other receivers, you can connect the HD DVD player to Digital 1 and the Blu-ray player to Digital 2, and then rename those inputs HD DVD and Blu-ray. In the latter situation everyone in the house knows exactly what's connected to each input.
There are also video inputs, of course. Generally, in a receiver that allows the more flexible input setup described above, you'll want to assign the audio and video connections of a given source to the same position on input selection control.
The first thing you'll need to tell the receiver is what your speaker setup is and how you want it to handle the bass for each speaker in the system. In most cases, the options will be Large, Small or None. Often, these choices are limited in some way. For example, you can't select Small for the left front speaker and Large for the right front. You'll also be asked to specify if you have a subwoofer, and if so, the frequency below which you want the subwoofer to operate. Most (though not all) receivers offer a range of such frequencies; when in doubt, 80Hz—the frequency recommended by THX—is always a good place to start. It works well with most speakers.
Selecting Large for a speaker allows them to operate full range. Small re-directs that speaker's bass below the specified crossover. If you have a subwoofer, the bass for the speakers designated as Small is redirected to the subwoofer; if not, it's redirected to the speakers that you've designated as Large. Some receivers complicate this by offering the option to redirect bass to both the subwoofer and the Large speakers—an option we do not recommend as it leads to overblown bass.
In fact, just because some of your speakers are full range, with very good bass response, doesn't necessarily mean that you must designate them as Large, or even that this will be the best choice, if you have a subwoofer. You can select Small for them also, and let the subwoofer handle all the deep bass—a setup I generally prefer. Even speakers offering more than sufficient bass for music can be overloaded with the bass from action soundtracks played back at high levels.
This part of the setup operation simply tells the receiver how far away from each speaker the main seating position is. Measure the distance from your favorite seat to each speaker and enter this value into the menu. Generally you will be offered the option to use meters or feet. Some early receivers specified the delay in milliseconds, but this is now rare. You might also find receivers that ask you to input the difference in distance between the main L/R speakers and each of the others. Thankfully, these are also uncommon.
All receivers provide a manual test signal that moves from channel to channel, along with the means to match the levels of each channel. Automatic level operation moves the calibration signal from one channel to the next in sequence, pausing at each step for a few seconds. With Manual operation you choose when to move on to the next channel. Manual is far easier to work with.
You can either level match by ear or by means of a sound pressure level (SPL) meter. Setup by ear is a quick and dirty alternative that can work satisfactorily, but an SPL meter is far more accurate. Radio Shack's analog SPL meter ($45) is a fixture in most home theater enthusiasts' tool kits. There's also a more expensive digital version; it offers more features, but the analog version is easier to use and is all you really need.
A surprising number of receivers now offer some form of automated, onboard equalization performed using a microphone that's included with the receiver. The effectiveness of this feature will vary from receiver to receiver, particularly in the low frequencies where room compensation is most needed. While manual settings are often provided too, the automatic setup is far more preferable.
Unless you know what you are doing and have the right test tools, setting equalization by ear is a recipe for failure. These auto systems are a step in the right direction. There's no guarantee that you'll like the results, but if the receiver you buy has this feature, you'll want to at least try it out. The actual setup will vary from receiver to receiver, but the procedure is (usually) clearly described in the owner's manual and easily defeatable if you don't like the result.
The discussion of auto-equalization brings us directly to a feature that is now almost universal in receivers with any pretensions to high-end performance: auto setup. Using a microphone (included) positioned at the main listening seat, you merely engage the auto setup feature and go make yourself a sandwich while the receiver generates a set of test tones that determine all of the important speaker calibration settings: configuration, delays, levels, and equalization (when included). When you're done, you're ready to fire up the system.
Well, nearly. Often these automatic systems will make odd choices for the size of the individual speakers in the system. It might classify a L/R speaker pair capable of response down to 40Hz as Large, but has no way of knowing that these speakers overload easily with a high level, 30Hz signal. It might do the same with the center channel, or the surrounds. While that auto setup function can be a blessing, it's no miracle. A little intelligent oversight is your best bet. If you want to drive all of your main speakers as Small, just go into the menus after the auto calibration is finished and change the settings you see fit. The same applies if, for example, you want the surrounds levels a little higher, or the subwoofer level a little lower.
There are a wide variety of additional features available on some receivers. Just a few of the features becoming common on AVRs are the ability to choose different crossovers for each channel, cross-converting all video sources to a single HDMI or component output, built-in video scaling, different setups for multichannel and two-channel operation, different ways of treating the LFE channel (the ".1" channel in a 5.1- or 7.1-channel system), and multiple zones of operation.
These features vary significantly from one design to another, but are rarely crucial to the basic setup described above. They sometimes clutter up the setup menus, but you can usually ignore them until you become familiar with you're receiver's basic operation. When you're ready, feel free to experiment with one or more of these advanced features, knowing that you can always go back to your simpler, trusty first setup at any time.