Why you should trust me
I’ve been writing reviews of AV equipment for more than a decade for various publications and have listened to countless receivers, processors, preamps, and amplifiers in that time. Over the past few years while writing and updating this guide for Wirecutter, I’ve tested more than 50 receivers for hundreds of hours to determine which models are the best.
Who this is for
An AV receiver is the core of a home theater system—the box you plug all your other components into. Its amplifiers power your speakers, and its processing directs all the signals to the right places in the right formats. It’s for the person whose audio/video needs extend beyond a TV and a soundbar—someone who wants to create a true surround-sound experience with the speakers of their choosing, to connect a variety of AV sources, and generally to have more flexibility and upgradability than an all-in-one solution like a soundbar can provide.
An AV receiver can also serve as a central music hub for your home, since many of them can connect to your home network and stream audio around the house via platforms like AirPlay 2 or Chromecast. Many include built-in music streaming services like Pandora, Spotify Connect, Tidal, and Sirius XM, along with the ability to directly connect to Internet radio stations and local DLNA media servers. And for those who don’t have the means or desire to stream wirelessly, some receivers also allow you to distribute audio sources (and sometimes video, too) to a second zone via wired connections.
If your current AV receiver works with all your AV components and has all the features you desire, then you don’t really need to upgrade, as you likely won’t hear improved sound quality with a newer model (unless you upgrade to one with better room correction). But if you’ve recently purchased a new 4K HDR TV and 4K HDR source devices, an older AV receiver may lack the ability to pass through these higher-quality signals (a really old receiver may lack HDMI connections altogether). All of our current recommendations support at least HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 copy protection, which means they’ll work with 4K HDR displays and sources. A few even support newer HDMI 2.1 features.
Many new AV receivers also support Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks, which add overhead effects to sound even more immersive. To enjoy Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, you’ll need to add height speakers or buy special Atmos-enabled speakers (you can read more about this in our guide to the best surround-sound speaker system), and you need an AV receiver that can decode these formats and provide power to more speakers.
How we picked
AV receivers run the price gamut from a couple hundred dollars to well into the four-figure neighborhood. Our focus here is on recommending products that strike a good balance between performance, features, and affordability for most shoppers, so all of our picks are priced below $1,500. The serious audio or home theater enthusiast may choose to spend more money to get more power (which may be important if your speakers are tough to drive), more amp channels to add more speakers, more setup and customization options, and better build quality.
Because our goal was to recommend different receivers for different user needs, we didn’t set a lot of minimum spec requirements to limit what products we considered. But there are certain key specs that you should consider when you begin your receiver search:
- How many channels of amplification do you need? A basic home theater configuration requires a 5.1-channel receiver to power two front speakers, a center-channel speaker, and two surround speakers (the “.1” stands for the subwoofer, which usually has its own amplifier). Most receivers priced under $300 are 5.1-channel designs. Moving up to a 7.1-channel receiver gives you the option to add an extra pair of surround speakers, to send stereo audio to a second zone, or to build a basic Dolby Atmos/DTS:X system—provided the receiver has Atmos and DTS:X decoding (most newer 7.1-channel models do). Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks include overhead or “height” effects to make the audio experience sound even more immersive. The more height speakers you add, the more convincing the effect—but that requires more amp channels, which leads to a more expensive AV receiver.
- How many sources do you plan to connect? Your receiver needs to be able to connect all the HDMI source devices you have, which could include a cable box/DVR, a Blu-ray player, a gaming console, and a media streamer. We think going with five HDMI inputs is a safe bet to handle your current sources, with the option to add one or two more. You should also consider how many non-HDMI sources you want to connect and make sure the receiver has enough digital and/or analog inputs to accept them. If you have a turntable that lacks a phono preamp, you may want a receiver with a phono input.
- What type of streaming audio support do you want? Even those of us with extensive physical music collections likely stream much of our music from the Internet, so a receiver needs to have built-in support for streaming audio. With a budget receiver, you’ll probably only get Bluetooth support. As you move up in price, you should expect the ability to connect to a home network (check for a wired or wireless network connection, if you have a preference) and the inclusion of services like Pandora and Spotify, as well as streaming protocols like Apple AirPlay 2 and Google Chromecast. If you already own Wi-Fi speakers that use a certain platform (like AirPlay), you may want to look for a receiver that features the same streaming technology so that all the devices will work well together.
- What level of room correction do you need? Room correction makes the biggest impact in how a receiver sounds for most listeners. We rarely have perfect listening rooms, and speakers are often placed where they are convenient instead of where they sound the best. Room correction helps to improve the overall sound quality by using microphones and built-in software to correct for room acoustic flaws and speaker placement issues. Lots of receivers offer basic room correction, but when you invest in more advanced room-correction technologies like Audyssey XT32, Dirac, or Anthem Room Correction, you get the ability to customize the type of corrections and account for multiple subwoofers, and these systems do a better job of removing room issues while still maintaining good clarity and detail.
In the price ranges we tested, we were unable to tell most receivers apart in blind testing when their room correction was not enabled. We found that the type of room correction being used had the biggest impact on sound quality—it provided big benefits for some receivers and only smaller improvements for others.
How we tested
When testing each receiver, we considered its sonic performance and its ease of setup and everyday use. We performed blind A/B testing between receivers using an ABX test box from Audio by Van Alstine, which let us instantly switch between two different receivers, to determine which sounded the best, with and without room correction enabled.
For the majority of our testing, we used KEF Reference In-Wall THX speakers and a subwoofer from Power Sound Audio. Every receiver was connected to a Sony OLED TV, an Xbox One X, an Apple TV, an Amazon Fire TV, a Sony UHD Blu-ray player, and an Nvidia Shield TV to see how easy it was to set up the system, including the Audio Return Channel (ARC) function, and switch between sources.
A great all-purpose receiver: Denon AVR-S750H
Who it’s for: If you need a great all-purpose 7.1-channel receiver that can accommodate everything from a Blu-ray player to a turntable to your favorite streaming-music services, yet is also very easy to set up and use, the Denon AVR-S750H is our recommendation. You might only want a 5.1-channel configuration now, but it’s good to have the option to set up a basic Dolby Atmos/DTS:X system in the future. If you want something that’s as future-proof as it can be today, but you don’t want to pay extra for features you don’t need, get the AVR-S750H.
Why it’s great: The Denon AVR-S750H ticks all the necessary boxes: It has plenty of inputs, including a phono input to connect a turntable; it has seven channels of amplification, with Dolby Atmos and DTS:X decoding to add overhead effects; it’s loaded with all the desirable streaming platforms and services; and the guided setup makes it very easy to get your system up and running. Plus, this receiver sounds great, thanks to its use of Audyssey MultEQ room correction.
During our blind listening tests, we found that we were unable to tell most of these receivers apart when their room correction was disabled. The quality of the room correction had the biggest impact on the sound, and the AVR-S750H’s Audyssey MultEQ was one of the better-sounding systems, with improved bass clarity and a wider soundstage than the competition. It’s not quite as advanced (and therefore sounds a bit more muddled and less detailed with music) as the Audyssey XT32 built into the more expensive Denon AVR-X3600H, and it can’t calibrate two subwoofers individually, but serious audio fans can buy the optional Audyssey app to customize the room correction options and further improve sound quality.
Dolby Atmos and DTS:X support, along with seven channels of amplification, let you enjoy a more immersive audio experience than you can get from a basic 5.1 system. If you aren’t able to run surround speakers in your room, the AVR-S750H lets you place Dolby Atmos modules (which use up-firing speakers to reflect sound off your ceiling to offer a sense of height) on the front speakers to create virtual surround sound. And if you’re only doing a 5.1-channel setup, you can use the two extra amp channels to power stereo speakers in a second audio zone.
What truly distinguishes Denon’s receivers from the pack is how easy they are to get up and running. With an on-screen setup system that walks you through the entire process—from connecting speakers to setting up inputs to getting on Wi-Fi to running the room correction—almost anyone should be able to set up the AVR-S750H correctly. When creating inputs, the receiver automatically grabs the name of the devices connected over HDMI, so you don’t have to remember that you hooked up the Xbox to the Cable/Sat input—it will be renamed “Xbox” for you. And the inputs you don’t use are hidden in the menu. These simple little touches make the Denon one of the easiest receivers to use that we’ve ever seen.
With support for Bluetooth, AirPlay 2, Heos, Spotify Connect, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn, and more, the AVR-S750H lets you stream almost anything you want without needing any extra hardware. Through the free Heos app for iOS and Android, you can launch streaming services to play directly through the receiver, so you don’t need to keep your phone in range of Bluetooth or on Wi-Fi for AirPlay.
Six HDMI 2.0 inputs, including a front-panel HDMI input, makes it easy to run all of your devices through the Denon AVR-X750H. These inputs support all the current HDMI formats, with HDCP 2.3 copy protection, so you’re as ready for the future as possible. While it can’t pass the full 48 Gigabits per second that’s possible with HDMI 2.1, no receivers that we know of can do so at this point—and it does support HDMI 2.1 features like automatic low latency mode for video gaming and eARC for improved audio quality from TVs.
The Denon AVR-X750H contains other nice features, like an MM phono input to connect a turntable, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant compatibility, the ability to route audio through Bluetooth headphones for nighttime listening, and a secondary audio zone that supports stereo playback of the receiver’s internal digital sources like Spotify, AirPlay 2, and Bluetooth.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Denon has a line of Heos whole-home audio speakers, including new models that we saw at CES 2020, but you can’t use them as wireless surrounds like you can with Yamaha’s MusicCast platform.
The best sound quality under $1,500: Denon AVR-X3600H
Who it’s for: We recommend the Denon AVR-X3600H for someone who is willing to pay more to get better room correction, and thus a clear sonic upgrade. It’s also a great choice for someone who wants to add more speakers for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, since it has nine channels of amplification and lets you set up an 11.2-channel system (with the addition of a separate stereo amp).
Why it’s great: The Denon AVR-X3600H takes everything that we like about our main pick and improves upon it. The Audyssey XT32 room correction is better, with more filters for improved performance and the ability to calibrate two subwoofers independently. More amp channels allow for more speakers and improved Dolby Atmos and DTS:X immersion. The on-screen interface offers improved graphics and easier-to-read text. You get more HDMI inputs (eight) and outputs (two), along with the ability to convert any old analog video sources to 4K. Plus you can stream multichannel audio and not just stereo audio to a second zone, so you can keep listening to a game or movie as you walk around the house.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Denon has a line of Heos Wi-Fi whole-home audio speakers, including new models that we saw at CES 2020, but you can’t use them as wireless surrounds like you can with Yamaha’s MusicCast platform.
If you want wireless surround speakers: Yamaha RX-V685 and RX-V485
Who it’s for: For people who want to enjoy real surround sound but either can’t or don’t want to run wires to the back or sides of their room, the 7.1-channel RX-V685 and 5.1-channel RX-V485 are great because they allow you to add wireless surround speakers using Yamaha’s MusicCast technology.
Why it’s great: The Yamaha RX-V685 has many of the same features as the Denon AVR-S750H, and it sounds very good. In addition, since this receiver was first released Yamaha has added support for eARC (the upgrade to ARC in HDMI 2.1 that lets you send lossless audio formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA over the HDMI ARC connection) and AirPlay 2. It isn’t as easy to set up and use as the AVR-S750H, it costs a bit more, and we think Denon’s room correction yields slightly better sound—but if you really want the convenience of using Yamaha’s MusicCast 20 or MusicCast 50 as wireless surround speakers, the RX-V685 is the one to get.
I paired two of the MusicCast 20 speakers with the RX-V685 to use as surrounds, and they worked perfectly. The setup is a bit more complex than I would like, but once that was done, I never had to think about it again. If you can run wires, the Yamaha supports standard wired surround speakers as well.
The RX-V685 has very good sound quality. Compared with the Denon AVR-S750H, it offers more detail in the midrange and treble frequencies but doesn’t offer the same level of control over the subwoofer. It produced a wider soundstage than the Denon, making the music sound a bit more open as opposed to being located between my front speakers.
The YPAO room correction on the RX-V685 works well, despite only measuring a single point in the room. The calibration process is straightforward, and you can make adjustments after it finishes. You are able to preview the adjustments made to the speakers, but you can’t adjust which frequencies are corrected (like you can on the Denon with the optional Audyssey app).
The RX-V685 has seven amplifier channels and support for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. As with the Denon AVR-S750H, you can even do Atmos and DTS:X without any surround wires by using a pair of Atmos modules on the front speakers. You can also use the extra two amp channels for a wired second zone of stereo audio, or for the “presence speakers” that Yamaha supports through its DSP modes.
Setting up the Yamaha RX-V685 is a fairly straightforward process, made easier if you use the optional app that Yamaha offers. When you initially power on the RX-V685, the on-screen interface will ask you to set up Wi-Fi (which is very easy to do if you have an iOS or Android device), but it doesn’t walk you through anything else. If you’re new to home theater systems, we recommend you download the Yamaha app because it will guide you through everything from setting up your speakers to connecting your devices, even down to what cables you need. The app then sends that information to the receiver. It isn’t as easy as an on-screen guide, but it accomplishes the job just as well.
The RX-V685 has built-in streaming support for Spotify Connect, Bluetooth, AirPlay 2, Internet radio, and Yamaha’s own MusicCast system. If you use the Yamaha MusicCast app on your smartphone, you get direct support for Pandora, Tidal, Deezer, Napster, and SiriusXM. We had no issues playing back anything we wanted to listen to on the Yamaha.
The RX-V685 offers five HDMI inputs that are all full-bandwidth HDMI 2.0, plus two HDMI outputs to send video to two displays at the same time. Renaming inputs on the Yamaha is easy; like the Denon models, the V685 reads the EDID information over HDMI to change the input name automatically.
An MM-compatible phono input lets you connect a turntable to the RX-V685 without needing extra hardware, and the Zone 2 output lets you play back both external analog sources and internal digital sources, like Spotify or Bluetooth audio.
We also reviewed the Yamaha RX-V485, which trims some of the features from the RX-V685 but still includes the option to use wireless surrounds. The V485 is a good basic 5.1-channel AV receiver. You only get four HDMI inputs instead of five, and the YPAO room correction isn’t as good as the version on the V685, so the sound quality suffers slightly—although it still sounds good. It has built-in Wi-Fi and support for AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Bluetooth, and MusicCast.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The Yamaha RX-V685 isn’t as easy to set up as the Denon models, requiring you to use an external app as opposed to the easier on-screen directions. The integrated room correction doesn’t help with the subwoofer as much as other room correction options, and bass is the area that often needs room correction the most. While the RX-V685 does support eARC, it doesn’t support automatic low latency mode or any other HDMI 2.1 features, and there is no front-panel HDMI input for connecting a device without reaching around back. You also have to use Yamaha’s MusicCast speakers if you want wireless surrounds and can’t use other wireless speakers you might already own.
An easy-to-use budget receiver: Denon AVR-S540BT
Who it’s for: If you want to assemble a basic 5.1-channel surround-sound system and you don’t have much (or any) experience setting one up, we recommend the Denon AVR-S540BT. It’s also an affordable choice for someone who already has a simple 5.1 system in place but needs to upgrade their receiver because it can’t do 4K or HDR.
Why it’s great: Because the Denon AVR-S540BT doesn’t have a lot of features, it’s very easy to set up, even if you don’t have much experience. On-screen prompts and a well-labeled back panel make it easy to get everything running correctly even if you’re a rookie.
This 5.1-channel AV receiver supports high-quality Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks (but not Dolby Atmos and DTS:X), and it offers five HDMI 2.0 inputs that support 4K HDR pass-through, which is more than you’ll see on some comparably priced models. You also get a front-panel USB port, plus three digital inputs and a pair of analog inputs around back. The receiver has Bluetooth for streaming audio and basic room correction to make everything sound good.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: This receiver lacks Wi-Fi and integrated music streaming options; you have to use Bluetooth to stream music, so your phone or other source device needs to stay close to the receiver—or you can add an inexpensive Wi-Fi streaming device like an Amazon Echo Input. The S540BT doesn’t have the Audyssey room correction that the higher-end Denon models offer, there’s no front-panel HDMI input, and the speaker connections only accept pins and smaller-gauge bare wire, not banana plugs or thicker speaker wires.
What is HDMI 2.1?
HDMI 2.1 is the newest version of HDMI (the digital connection used by all current video-based components) and was announced in early 2017. The connector remains the same, but it adds many new features, including support for an 8K resolution by increasing the maximum bandwidth from 18 Gbps to 48 Gbps, automatic low latency mode (which allows devices to automatically detect and switch into the best mode for gaming), eARC (which allows for higher-quality lossless audio over the HDMI Audio Return Channel instead of only lossy Dolby Digital), adaptive frame rate, quick media switching, and dynamic metadata.
Right now, no receivers support all the features of HDMI 2.1, and none support the increased 48 Gbps bandwidth, yet many are advertised as HDMI 2.1. The HDMI organization allows companies that include an HDMI 2.1 feature to call their product an HDMI 2.1 device, even if it only supports a single feature.
Some new AV receivers and TVs support eARC, some support automatic low latency mode, and some support adaptive refresh rate. But the supported features can vary from company to company, and even between different models from the same company. So right now, if you see that a device supports HDMI 2.1, you need to read the fine print and find out which specific features it supports, or which features the company says it will add in the future. But don’t buy something based on a promised update, since it can take more than a year for those to happen, if they ever happen at all.
Later in 2020 we expect to see receivers that can do HDMI 2.1 with almost every feature, including full-bandwidth ports, but that’s just a guess. For now, you’ll have to look closely at any device that claims HDMI 2.1 compatibility to see what features it actually supports.
In terms of price, the Denon AVR-S650H falls between the AVR-S750H and the AVR-S540BT. It is only a 5.1-channel model so you don’t have Dolby Atmos or DTS:X support and can’t do a second zone of audio, and you also give up the front HDMI port. But it has all the networking features of the AVR-S750H so you don’t need to rely on Bluetooth for streaming audio, and it has the Audyssey MultEQ room correction. If you are certain you’ll never need more than five channels of audio and don’t need a front-panel HDMI input, it offers very similar performance to the S750H.
Yamaha has not introduced new AV receivers since our last update, so all the models we previously tested are still current. The Yamaha RX-A1080 supports the addition of wireless speakers, but the quality of the room correction was behind that of the comparably priced Denon AVR-X3600H. The Yamaha RX-V585 falls between the V685 and V485 in price, and there’s not much reason to pick it over one of those two. The Yamaha RX-V385 is the company’s entry-level Bluetooth-only model; we think the comparably priced Denon AVR-S540BT is easier to set up and use.
Sony has not introduced new receivers since 2017. We previously tested the STR-DN1080, which is nearly three years old at this point so it’s missing key features like AirPlay 2 support and any HDMI 2.1 features. We were not impressed with its room correction; the automatic speaker setup wasn’t terribly accurate, and the bass in music was lacking impact and detail. We also tested the Sony STR-DH790 and STR-DH590. As with the DN1080, the room correction in these receivers wasn’t as accurate in detecting our speakers, and we think Denon’s comparable models are easier to set up.
Anthem’s MRX-520 was a prior pick for sound quality, but the company has not updated the MRX lineup in a long time, so it doesn’t have features like HDMI 2.1 or AirPlay 2 and costs much more than the competition.
Dirac is one of the best room-correction systems that we’ve tested, but receivers that use it cost $3,000 and up, so we didn’t test any for this guide.
Onkyo has moved away from supporting Audyssey to using the room correction that comes free with the chipsets that the company uses. That system doesn’t work nearly as well as the versions from Denon and Yamaha, and since most receivers sound the same without room correction at this price range, we’d recommend getting one with better room correction. The Onkyo models also aren’t as easy to set up as ones from Denon or Yamaha, but some models do integrate Chromecast Audio support if that’s the primary way you listen to streaming audio.
Pioneer models now are almost exactly like Onkyo models, since Onkyo acquired them a few years ago. The main difference is that they use Pioneer’s MCACC room correction. In high-end Pioneer receivers, MCACC works well, but in the more affordable models we find that Denon and Yamaha offer better audio quality.
Also, the Onkyo and Pioneer AV brands are facing an uncertain future at the moment. Last year these brands were supposed to be sold to Denon’s parent company, Sound United, but the sale did not go through. It remains to be seen how this will affect both brands.