Ten Features For Your Next Audio/Video Receiver
New features for improved performance, funtion and enjoyment
You already know that your next home theater receiver needs sufficient wattage and speaker channels to fill your room with awesome surround sound. You know that it needs to decode the latest Dolby Digital and DTS for your movies. You also know you need a whole bunch of HDMI inputs and maybe a few legacy analog inputs for that Wii game console or something else you refuse to throw away. But beyond that, what’s important, new and so cool your new media room can’t live without? Here’s a rundown on some of the must-haves for your next AVR (audio/video receiver).
1. 4K Scaling
While there are only a few 4K Ultra HD displays currently on the market, there are many more coming later this year, and you can bet that next year there will be multitudes more. As TVs and projectors add resolution, your AV receiver will need to take on the role of upscaling all incoming content to look good with the extra pixels. Just as with 1080p scaling on current TVs, not all 4K scaling will be created equal.
2. Ethernet Switch
We’ve only seen this feature so far in the new Sony ES line of receivers, but we love it and want to see it in more products. Today so many of our home theater sources are dependent on a broadband network, but hardwired connections can be limited. Integrating an Ethernet hub into the receiver allows you to plug in one wire to the receiver, then spider out to all your other Internet-dependent components (Blu-ray player, game console, Roku, Apple TV…). A wired connection will be more reliable and robust than Wi-Fi.
OK, I just told you above to use wired, but I’m also realistic. We can’t always get what we want, and in those cases, Wi-Fi will do. Built-in Wi-Fi is easy to use and for most music streaming it’s good enough. Most AVRs these days include an assortment of music services like Pandora or TuneIn Radio, and for those Wi-Fi works just fine, assuming your network is sound and your kids aren’t hogging up the bandwidth Skyping their friends.
Bluetooth is becoming the less-expensive and more ubiquitous (and in some cases more practical) answer to AirPlay (see the number 5) in many receivers (as well as soundbars and other home audio components). It allows you to easily and wirelessly connect any smart phone (Android users aren’t left out) to your receiver for playing stored or streamed music. It’s simple and works. It doesn’t sound as good as AirPlay, but the new apt-X version of Bluetooth is quite good and commonly available. Many receiver manufacturers implement this, rather than AirPlay, because AirPlay costs more.
The Onkyo TX-NR727 includes Bluetooth, 4K scaling, Wi-Fi and more.
Yes, I said Bluetooth apt-X is good, frequently good enough, and cheaper, but since when do you settle for that. If you use an iPhone, iPad or iPod for your portable music and want to play that music over your home theater sound system, then get a receiver with AirPlay. Docks are so 2009.
MHL (mobile high-definition link) is a relatively new connection port that allows an HDMI-quality connection between a receiver and a compatible smart phone. The standard supports video of 1080p/60 and audio in 7.1 format. It’s available on a small number of TVs and receivers now, and we expect that number to grow. Not only is it useful for connecting your phone (to watch streamed or recorded video) but it also is the connection for the Roku Stick—the thumb drive-sized device that turns anything you connect it to into a full-fledged Roku media player.
7. Room Correction/Speaker Calibration
Audio set up used to be an arduous task involving sound pressure meters, measuring tapes and a calculator. That’s why many people skipped it altogether. Thanks to built-in software, now all you need is the included microphone and five-to-ten minutes of quiet time to make your room and speakers sound much better. Don’t buy a receiver that doesn’t include some kind of auto calibration. Read more about that here.
8. High Resolution USB DAC
Audiophiles know the importance of higher sampling rates in digital music. That’s why they pay a lot of money for external DACs from companies like Wadia or Peachtree. Now AVRs are coming with better-quality DACs built in so you can play high-resolution WAV and FLAC files off portable hard drives. Look for DACs capable of playing 96kHz at the minimum, but sampling rates up to 32bit/192kHz are even better.
The Marantz SR7007 includes AirPlay, 4K scaling and MultEQ XT.
9. Second Video Zone
Most mid-to high-end receivers include multi-zone and multi-source functionality for audio, but a few even offer a second zone video. This means that one receiver can be the hub for your main home theater plus a second HDTV in another part of the house (usually with only 2-channel audio). You can use an RF remote, control system or phone/tablet app to control the receiver remotely.
10. App Control
While your primary method to operate you next receiver will probably be either the receiver’s own remote or a universal remote, a smartphone or tablet app can be very useful as a backup or secondary control interface. Apps have two main benefits: First, they’re connected via Wi-Fi so you don’t have to rely on an IR line of sight. I find AVR apps useful for turning down the volume from another room when my kids are watching Dance Moms too loudly. Second, they may offer an easier to see and easier to navigate view. Most receiver remotes are wastelands of tiny buttons. I like the larger, multi-page view of an app for many features, especially for selecting Internet radio stations. It’s like getting a second remote for free.
Bonus: Phono Input
Here’s your 11th “bonus” feature. While many audiophiles would tell you to set up a separate 2-channel system with its own amplifier to listen to vinyl, for most people who simply want to spin the occasional record left over from their college days, a built-in photo-stage input on a receiver is a good option. You may have to explain to your kids what those extra-large discs are.
Check out some great home theater receivers here.
See Also: Is the Home Theater Receiver Dead?
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