By Rebecca Day
You wouldn’t buy a case of LED bulbs if you only needed two, or seven Rockports for two feet, so why would you buy a 7-channel AV receiver just to listen to two-channel music? You don’t have to. Most of the buzz may be around surround sound, but you can still get high-quality sound and cutting-edge features, to boot, with a new stereo receiver or integrated amplifier.
If you’re just moving into the true hi-fi world with a home stereo system from a listening life of earbuds and Bluetooth speakers, here are a few things to looks for in a stereo receiver:
Phono Input. Vinyl lovers need a receiver with a phono input to bump up the signal to the level of other audio sources. Most receivers today don’t come with a phono input as a cost-saving move so check the feature list before you buy. Also, if you have a digital audio component with an optical or coaxial output as part of your home stereo system’s source list, be sure your receiver has an input to match. Most come with a headphone jack on the front.
Music Streaming. Maybe you get radio via the Internet route. If so, look for a receiver that’s Internet-capable via Ethernet, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. iPhone users can stream Internet radio, Spotify and any of their music sources to a receiver equipped with AirPlay. Don’t need AM/FM? You can get an integrated amplifier instead, which gives you the amplifiers and source switching of a receiver – without the radio tuner. Some receivers come with satellite radio tuners, too.
Power. Receivers and integrated amplifiers are rated for power by watts per channel, but ratings can be deceiving because audio manufacturers use different specs. If you see 50 watts x 2 at @ 20Hz-20kHz, you’re getting a full 50 watts over the entire audio range versus one rated at just one frequency, such as 1 kHz. Distortion is another indicator of sound quality, if it’s given. Distortion of 0.08 is better than 0.1 or 1 percent. If you plan to drive your speaker hard with demanding full-range music at high volume, go for a higher power receiver. Also be sure that the ohm ratings correspond. If your speakers are 4-ohm models, be sure your receiver is rated to handle 4 ohm loads.
Here are a few receivers that meet several needs and budgets.
This basic Onkyo receiver is good bang for the buck with 50 watts per channel at low distortion, a phono input for a turntable and subwoofer pre-out if you want to supplement your speakers with more bass. It has five RCA analog inputs for sources such as CD, TV and DVD player and a front-panel headphone jack. There’s even a set of record/play connectors for a tape deck. ($199, $179 street)
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A receiver for streamers, the Yamaha R-N301 has a back panel Ethernet port and built-in support for Spotify Connect, Pandora and vTuner Internet radio, along with AirPlay to play back content from connected Apple devices or a computer running iTunes. It plays high-res digital music files up to 24-bit/192 kHz resolution. The R-N301 comes with a remote control, but you can also manage it via a free Yamaha app for iTunes or Android. On the analog side, it has an AM/FM radio tuner with 40 presets and four stereo RCA inputs, and it packs optical and coaxial digital inputs. ($299)
What would be a mid-tier product for other stereo receiver lines, the C316BEE is NAD’s starter model. NAD has long been known for high-quality sound with minimalist design and the C316BEE toes the company line. It’s rated at a conservative 40 watts per channel at low distortion and can drive 4 ohm speakers. Note that there’s no phono input or AM/FM radio; there are six analog inputs, including a tape record and play loop. ($379)
Designed for those who want the best sound from their digital files, the Nova 65SE offers high output power and a 24-bit/192 asynchronous USB input, along with coaxial and optical inputs for digital music sources. It has an analog RCA input, too. With the Nova, you lose the AM/FM tuner and gain a high-quality digital-to-analog converter and headphone amplifier. It’s rated to deliver 65 watts per channel into 8 ohms and 95 watts into 4 ohms. The unit’s tube buffer can be switched on via a button on the remote control to add analog warmth that takes the edge off compressed MP3s. Available in black and in rosewood or cherry for a $100 premium. ($999-$1,099)
You can match any of these home stereo receivers or integrated amplifiers with these affordable audiophile speakers. Or, if you prefer home stereo systems to be a bit more, out there, check out these over-the-top speakers designs.