Choosing the right receiver (also sometimes called a home theater amplifier) is critical to creating your audio system, whether you're in the market for a home theater/surround sound receiver or a stereo receiver. Following are a few factors you'll want to consider while shopping for your home theater receiver.
Type of Receiver: With its power and sophistication, the receiver is sort of like the brain and the brawn behind your entire sound system. First you'll want to decide how you plan to use your receiver; will you only use it to listen to music, or will you also want it to work with your entire home theater system? Are you only interested in creating a single listening zone for your living room, or are you planning to create a more elaborate multi-zone system for your entire home?
Even if you don't plan to create the multi-zone system now, knowing that you are planning to in the future can keep you from having to replace or purchase an additional receiver later. And, fortunately, many home theater or surround sound receivers also work really well for listening to music, so you don't lose anything by going with a surround sound receiver if you are a big music fan.
Power: There are at least three different considerations relative to power that you'll want to think about when deciding which receiver is the right one for you. First, wattage: How many watts you need in your receiver depends on how large your listening area is, how many total speakers you have (most surround sound systems consist of between five and nine speakers plus a dedicated sub-woofer), and how sensitive your speakers are. In general, the less sensitive your speakers are, and the larger your room, the more power you'll need from your receiver.
Second, how clean is the power the receiver provides? Total harmonic distortion (THD) is a way of measuring how accurately the receiver amplifies sound from music and movies. To keep it simple, just remember that the lower the THD rating the better, and most receivers will have a rating that's less than 1%. So you'll want to look for a receiver with a THD rating that's as low as possible.
Third, if experiencing the full dynamic range of live music performances and movie soundtracks is important to you, you'll want a surround sound receiver that offers high-current power. This feature is best for delivering those movie special effects that make you feel like you're in the theater, and it does so without depleting your receiver's power stores.
Inputs/Outputs: Input and output connections are what make it possible for your receiver to act as the command center for your audio/video system. Ideally, you want a receiver that can handle your current needs but that also allows room for expansion later on. If you plan to use any type of recording device with your system, you will want to make sure your receiver has a digital output (most have a digital input only). And if you have a turntable or think you may want one at some point, you will also want your receiver to have a built-in phono input.
Most likely you will want to run all your video components through your receiver in order to optimize their performance and to make switching between components (such as a DVD player and a gaming console) as easy as possible. If you have an HDTV, or plan to get one, or if you're interested in a 3-D television, you'll need to make sure there's an HDMI connection. There are also 3-D capable receivers available.
Another option is to purchase a home theater receiver that offers video conversion. A receiver with video conversion can make switching between components even easier, resulting in a system that's user-friendly for everyone in your household.
Video conversion simply means that the receiver is equipped to convert all your various video sources into a signal your television can receive, while maintaining the highest possible quality of each signal. Some receivers also have the ability to improve the appearance of your non-HD video sources (such as older DVDs) using a method called upconversion or scaling, so that might be something to look for if you have an extensive DVD collection and don't want to replace them with HD versions.
More options: Some receivers come equipped with satellite radio capabilities, and most are MP3-player friendly. Many also have Ethernet ports, making it easy to use your computer as a source for music or movies.
Choosing the right receiver can make all the difference in the lifespan and performance of your system. Home theater amplifiers can appear to be pretty complicated at a glance, but if you know what you want it to do now and in the future, getting the right one the first time around should be no problem. And you can always ask an A/V professional for help.