Face Off: Budget Receivers

Three bargain-basement receivers go head to head to see who's on top of the cheap heap.

Believe it or not, I wasn't always as tall and dashingly handsome as I am now (don't worry, guys, that comment was directed toward our female readers). I remember back in fifth grade when I was an awkward runt who got picked last in kickball. All the bigger guys would laugh at me. I'm not jaded, though—I now have the coolest job in the world, I'm a minor celebrity, and I've got the names and addresses of all my adolescent torturers (yeah, even you, Billy, in Colorado Springs).

I imagine that, if the receivers in this Face Off could actually speak, they might tell a similar story of ridicule and torture. I almost thought I could hear my expensive, high-end gear laughing at the Kenwood, Technics, and Yamaha receivers when I put them all together in the same room. Our society believes that, if something is inexpensive, it must not be any good, so some less-costly products don't get taken seriously as quality pieces of gear. Sure, you might be happy with a cheaper product at first, but you're always going to have that nagging desire to upgrade to something more expensive. Or are you? Is it possible that you can shell out a relatively small amount of money for a receiver and be happy with it for years to come? After this Face Off, I believe the answer to that question is yes.

To help in the evaluation of these three receivers I enlisted the help of one of our regular contributors, Mike Trei. Mike has been doing reviews for us for a while now, and everyone on the staff has really come to value his opinion a great deal. I was also able to procure the services of ex-managing editor, Monica James. Monica participated recently in the Voodoo Accessories Face Off where she proved to have a very good ear for hearing subtle differences (she's also a lot cuter than Mike). I, of course, acted as the switcher monkey.

The requirements for this Face Off were that each receiver had to have at least Dolby Digital processing and have an MSRP of less than $400. It's still strange for me to think that you can now purchase a Dolby Digital receiver for less than $800. This was impossible just a few years ago.

As our readers well know by now, we usually conduct our Face Offs blind—that is, the panelists have no idea what receiver is playing at any given moment. Unfortunately, time and space didn't allow me to conduct this Face Off blind, but I believed Monica when she told me she had no preconceived notions about any of the brands represented in this Face Off (because I know her to be an honest person but mostly because women are typically more objective than men). As for the integrity of Mike, I had to take him on his word, and seeing as how he relies on us to give him steady assignments, he had no reason to be dishonest (that wasn't a threat Mike I swear).

Before the Face Off began I was careful to match the levels of each receiver using a test disc that contained -20dB pink noise. I first balanced the channel levels using each receiver's internal test tones, then ran the pink noise through the left channel and raised the volume of the receiver until it reached 85 decibels on my SPL meter. For my speaker system I used the truly amazing Monitor Audio Silver Series I reviewed in the June '99 issue of HT. Most people would probably not mate such expensive speakers with any of these receivers, but what better way to bring out the true sonic characteristics of a receiver than by using a great speaker system? I also did quite another unorthodox thing while conducting this Face Off—I set up each receiver to run all of the speakers "large" with no subwoofer. This way I could extract every bit of juice the receiver's amps had to offer, plus, without the aide of a powered subwoofer, I could crank up the volume and more easily ascertain the receivers clipping point.

As always, each panelist brought a musical cut that they were familiar with. Monica chose Mobile Fidelity's remastered version of the Counting Crow's first album, August and Everything After. Mike went with Keith Richards' Main Offender CD, while I chose Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley, which Mike also happened to be familiar with. For DVDs we used a shoot-em-up scene from Grosse Pointe Blank, and the iceberg scene from Titanic (which, by the way, is a terrible DVD—wait for the collector's edition).

So were the little guys finally able to stand up to the big boys and prove that they can be just as good and don't deserve to be picked last? Well I guess you're gonna have to read on and find out. Unless you were one of those little guys in high school who struck it rich playing the IPO game—if you are, you probably already know the answer to that question.