An AV receiver is the heart, soul and engine room for real home cinema entertainment
The audio-video receiver (AVR or AV receiver) is the brains and brawn of your home cinema system. The receiver moniker refers to having a built-in radio: a receiver is an amplifier with a built-in radio tuner. So, all receivers are amplifiers, but not all amplifiers are receivers. Today’s AVRs offer far more than access to a spot of BBC Radio 4, bringing at least five channels of amplification, advanced decoding, room calibration tech, and video switching.
First applied commercially in Disney’s 1940 animated movie Fantasia, surround sound encircles the listener in audio. A home surround sound system aims to replicate the full-body audio massage you get at the cinema, including those rear effects – it’s behind you! – and deep bass, ideal for Hollywood blockbusters.
Cinemagoers first experienced Dolby Atmos in 2012. Using height channels – think downward-firing ceiling speakers – an Atmos audio mix coaxes listeners to interpret sounds as 3D objects. The tech allows the sound mixer to place sounds in your ‘sound bubble’ rather than just assigning audio to the regular front, centre, and rear channels. Now available for home cinema systems, Dolby Atmos was not the first ‘object oriented’ audio tech in town; that honour goes to 2011-launched Auro-3D. The third big player is DTS:X. If your AVR supports one or all these codecs, it’ll likely sport the corresponding logo on its fascia.
Immersive is the AV world’s buzzword. Imagine being gently lowered, on a super-comfortable sofa, into a room packed to the brim with beautifully integrated movie sound, complete with cutting-edge visuals – this is the target of an immersive experience. You need the latest sound technologies, such as Auro-3D, Dolby Atmos, and DTS:X, on-point visuals, and a perfectly balanced sound system. And popcorn. Lots of it.
Several AVRs can send audio and video to a TV in another room or zone. Also, look for models that integrate support for Spotify Connect or TIDAL Connect – both services work over Wi-Fi to let subscribers listen to their music libraries through a compatible sound system. Simply open the relevant app on your phone or tablet and select your AVR from the app’s menu. Songs stream directly from the cloud to the AVR, leaving your phone free to use as a phone. TIDAL Connect casts hi-res audio at up to 9216 kbps – Spotify Connect doesn’t go beyond 320 kbps – including TIDAL Masters and Dolby Atmos audio recordings.
An integrated amplifier houses the preamp and power amp in a single cabinet. You can also create a system using an AV processor – this unit processes, decodes, and pre–amplifies the audio and sends it to one or more power amps. More demanding scenarios, such as professional installations, will favour a separate processor plus power amps mix.
Routing your source’s video through your AVR and then to your TV makes sense. It reduces clutter, and your AVR’s built-in processing and upscaling of lower resolution video may outperform your TV. But to pass the highest resolution video, including 4K and 8K content, you need an AVR that supports HDMI 2.1. And, of course, a compatible 8K source. Material remains scarce, but 4K content, also called Ultra HD, is available from 4K Blu-rays (you’ll need a 4K capable player) and from Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, and Netflix. You can also find 4K on Sky Q; Virgin has its own dedicated Ultra HD channel, while the BBC also continues to offer a select amount of TV in 4K as part of its ongoing trial.
Everyone’s room ‘sounds’ different. Different shapes, different furnishings, it all adds up. You can make physical changes to improve the sound, from moving your speakers to adding or taking away books, cushions, and rugs. Most AVRs includer room correction technology, from manual systems to third party software from brands including Audyssey and Dirac. For the best results, manually tweak your room before employing the tech.
Great sound is critical in movies and TVs. George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars franchise, said that ‘the sound and music are 50 per cent of the entertainment of a movie’. Academy Award nominee and creator of Twin Peaks David Lynch agrees, saying, ‘Films are 50 per cent visual and 50 per cent sound. Sometimes sound even overplays the visual.’ Imagine Reservoir Dogs with a muffled version of Little Green Bag, Jaws with a weedy production of that theme, or, gulp, Encanto without turning We Don’t Talk About Bruno up to 11! A capable sound system also delivers massively more realistic dialogue. It perfectly presents seminal sonic moments – a creaking door, the squeal of the tyres as Bond’s DB5 performs doughnuts around Matera’s town square – obliterating the performance of your TV’s speakers.
AVRs offer seamless access to music services. Expect support for the leading providers such as Apple AirPlay and Google Chromecast, with some integrating services such as Spotify and TIDAL feeding directly into the receiver’s user interface. Most AVRs also offer Bluetooth connectivity, letting you connect any similarly equipped audio source.