Cost Control

Designers of surround sound receivers have a tough job. In a multikilobuck flagship model they can use the best parts, the most advanced signal processing, and the most elaborate construction to deliver the features and performance specs users want. But with an entry-level model, like those reviewed here, costs must be reduced everywhere, and yet buyers still demand a certain minimum of features and performance specs.

One of those specs is a power rating close to 100 watts per channel, and all three receivers I tested - the Marantz SR4500 ($430), the Pioneer VSX-815 ($365), and Sony's STR-DE698 ($300) - proudly proclaim this capability. But their designers must have reacted in horror when told to include seven channels of amplification - whether or not the user wants a 7.1-channel speaker setup. Something had to give.

The most obvious omission in these receivers is an onscreen display, which normally gives visual feedback on a receiver's operating status. More important, it eases the speaker setup - a procedure you have to get right to obtain all the performance you're paying for. Ease of setup is especially key for the surround sound newbies most interested in these "starter" models.

So, along with sound quality, remote-control usability, and surround sound features, I paid particular attention to how each manufacturer handled "no-screen" speaker setup. As you'll see, that turned out to be a decisive factor in this high-power, low-cost shootout.