You want a serious home theater. One that will rattle the windows, and ensure movie night is always at your house. But you don't want to spend more than $600 on the thing that ties it together. Cuz you're smart.
You've got the big screen flat panel, you've thrown that cheap HTIB system in the garbage, and you've picked out an awesome speaker system. You just need one more component to tie it all together: a surround receiver with enough muscle for Aliens vs. Transformers, and enough ports to handle your Blu-ray player, Xbox and/or PS3, and all of the other black boxes in your living room.
Spending $500 to $600 will get you a receiver that will use a microphone to listen to itself, configuring and equalizing up to seven speakers and a subwoofer. It will switch between at least four HDMI sources and a lot more analog devices, and send everything off to the TV upconverted to HD resolution through a single HDMI cable. The feature sets of competing models are so similar that it can be tough to tell them apart, so I called in the four best in this price range—from Denon, Onkyo, Pioneer and Yamaha—to help you make your decision. As it turns out, the decision was easy.
A side note, before we continue: None of the tested receivers—and no receiver currently shipping—features the HDMI 1.4 required to pass 3D video signal to a 3D TV. If 3D is a must-have feature for you, you'll have to stay tuned, as all of the major electronics makers announce and eventually ship their 2010 models. But a new crop of models may actually mean better deals on the receivers reviewed here, and don't forget, even if you're a big enough spender to get a first-gen 3D TV, you can always route video directly from 3D Blu-ray player to 3D TV, using the receiver for audio alone.
I tested each model in my 7.1 channel theater—a $5300 Mirage OM Design system which has the resolving power to highlight minute differences in sound between amplifiers. This also gave me the chance to test each model's two-channel music and multi-channel film soundtrack performance against my reference Pioneer Elite 49TXi—Pioneer's $4500 flagship from 2005—a yardstick to hold up in order to see how far mid-priced receivers have come since then.
In addition to sonic prowess, I also judged each model in the areas of design and build quality, ease of use, and video conversion/scaling ability. Here are the full results of my tests:
The Onkyo, with superior sound quality and a multitude of HDMI inputs, put up a very tough fight against the Pioneer. But ultimately the Pioneer's class-leading user interface, superb auto calibration system and built-in USB and iPod/iPhone support gave it the win.
At first I wasn't sold. The Pioneer's music performance without EQ engaged was disappointingly dull and flat. Switching on EQ really kicked the amp into life, though, bringing detail and staging into proper focus. I found that the default curve was overemphasizing the upper midrange and treble, but fortunately the 9-band EQ is user configurable, and with a few adjustments I was able to dial in a nicely balanced sound that was fairly close to my reference, save for a persistent artificial coloration in the mids and highs. The Pioneer includes a technology called "Advanced Sound Retriever" which claims to restore compressed music files to near CD quality. (It may not surprise you that the others also feature similar abilities.) To test this, I loaded an iPod Touch with tracks encoded at moderate bitrates. ASR definitely did its job, as every track I tried sounded significantly more lifelike and enjoyable with ASR engaged. I connected the iPod to my more expensive reference system with a mini-jack cable and felt it still had the edge, but ASR made the difference between $4500 receiver and $500 receiver considerably smaller.
Movie audio performance with EQ was very good, with realistic portrayals of the cannons in Master and Commander and the drum sequence in House of Flying Daggers. Analog video scaling from my DVE test disc was decent, though the Pioneer struggled a bit in the jaggies test.
The VSX-1019AH-K is $100 less than the model that it replaced, and it appears that Pioneer was able to hit the $499 price point by chopping out 10 lbs. of power supply and much of the multi-channel analog connectivity. From bench tests that I've seen, being the shortest and lightest of the group has not affected the Pioneer's ability to compete in terms of horsepower. While it can no longer serve as a surround preamp—the Yamaha is the only one of this group that can—the Pioneer's user interface is simply in a different class than the competition at this level. Combine that with the forward thinking built-in USB and iPhone connectivity, and you've got a winner.
The Onkyo loses in the looks department with its blocky styling and ancient pale green display, but give it some music to play and things turn around rather quickly. Without EQ engaged, the Onkyo produced the best, most transparent sound of the group, with realistic soundstaging and natural timbre that was surprisingly close to my reference. Switching on EQ mostly made everything sound artificially forward and aggressive, so I left it off for the majority of my music listening. Onkyo's "Music Optimizer" with the iPod just about equaled my reference, which shows just how effective this technology is.
The Onkyo also did very well with movie sound, though without EQ the bottom end was not quite as strong and impactful as the Pioneer in the cannon and drum sequences. Only five bands are available in the EQ, but this was enough to improve the bass response for action sequences without throwing off the rest of the range. I tested several movies in both the Onkyo-exclusive Dolby Pro-Logic IIz "height speakers" mode and with my speakers in their regular back surround configuration. (The Onkyo is not a 9.1 receiver, so your choice is either one or the other.) I preferred the standard configuration, as I mostly couldn't tell whether the height speakers were even on. A few weather effects perhaps sounded slightly more realistic, but I certainly wouldn't go to the trouble of permanently mounting and wiring extra speakers high on the front wall for a bit of rain or wind.
The Onkyo firmly embraces digital audio and video with a total of six HDMI inputs, and completely ignores multi-channel analog connectivity. Analog video scaling was by far the weakest of the group, with poor results in DVE's resolution, jaggies, and 2:3 pull-down tests. The front panel HDMI input is great, but the Onkyo really needs a USB port and a full GUI to put it over the top.
The Denon's performance with music was solid, besting the Pioneer but not quite matching the Onkyo. Without EQ its sound was a bit leaner than the Onkyo's and slightly dry, with mids lacking a bit in body and warmth. As with the Onkyo, the default EQ curve just pumped everything up without any finesse. The Denon offers nine bands of EQ to play with, and by applying much more mild adjustments than the default curve, I was able to achieve a sound close to the Onkyo's un-EQed performance. As with the Pioneer and Onkyo, Denon's "Compressed Audio Restorer" significantly improved its performance with the iPod, though not enough to best the Onkyo or my reference.
Movie performance let the Denon down a bit. The cannons in Master and Commander had a distinct lack of impact compared with the Pioneer, even with EQ engaged, and the Flying Daggers drum sequence sounded a bit flat, particularly when I turned off the subwoofer and let the main channels run full range. Things picked up for the Denon with analog video scaling, where it aced all of my DVE tests.
The Denon was the most stylish of the group, but the plastic front panel and controls did not have the precision and quality feel of the others. The front panel display was also the smallest and hardest to read from across the room. The Denon's biggest problem though is that it just doesn't seem to have changed much compared to its predecessor, the AVR-1909. One more HDMI input and one less component video input seem to be the extent of the major changes. The user interface is functional, but still looks 15 years old. With the Pioneer now offering a full GUI at the $500 level, Denon needs to do the same.
Music from the Yamaha sounded much like Denon without EQ. It titled quite a bit towards the lean and dry side, with forward and slightly grainy highs that became tiring at higher volume levels. Two EQ curves are available, and the "natural" curve was able to tame some of the excessive brightness. I also tried adjusting the 7-band EQ, but I was never able to get the Yamaha to sound as good as the Onkyo or Denon.
Yamaha's "Compressed Music Enhancer" brought similar improvements from the iPod as the other receivers, but couldn't overcome the Yamaha's inherent weaknesses with music. It did perform one trick that the others can't: I was able to stream Last FM from my Nokia via the Bluetooth dock.
The Yamaha fared better with movies. It delivered a realistic amount of punch to the cannon and drum sequences, though I still preferred the Onkyo's more neutral tonal balance. Analog video scaling performance was average, with poor results in the jaggies and 2:3 pull-down tests.
The Yamaha shares nearly all of its chassis components with the $900 RX-V1065, and due to that its build quality is a considerable notch above the rest of the group. It looks and feels like a $900 receiver, which is why it's such a shame that the terrible UI completely lets it down. Setting up the Yamaha was aggravating; partly due to the un-assignable inputs, the badly designed remote and the cryptic way that Yamaha labels most functions, but mostly due to the UI. The four "Scene modes" are an attempt to replicate the Activities function of a Harmony remote, but they don't really work in practice. Unless all of your components are made by Yamaha and support the Scene control ability, pressing a Scene button can do little more than switch the receiver to an input and select a sound mode, which the others can do just as easily with their own source buttons. In the end you're going to end up using a universal remote anyway, making the Scene abilities completely unnecessary. The optional Bluetooth streaming support is great for many people who use their cellphone as an audio source, but the Yamaha is just too much of an incomplete product to recommend.
The Onkyo produces surprisingly decent stereo sound for a mid-priced receiver, but what if stereo is all you are interested in? What if you don't need HDMI switching, or Dolby Pro-Logic IIz, or Audyssey equalization, or any of the other stuff crammed in to a modern receiver? Can you do better for $500? Indeed you can, with something called an integrated amplifier.
Integrated amplifiers are a stereo preamp and amplifier combined into one component, and they offer maximum sound quality for the dollar as they basically only have one function. The NAD C-326BEE and Cambridge Azur 550A integrated amps both cost around $500, and both will outperform any of these receivers in stereo. Since there's no need to worry about having the latest sound mode or HDMI version number, you can stretch your dollar even further by looking on the secondhand market. A range of $500 to $700 can buy a Musical Fidelity, Primare or Arcam on audio trading sites like Audiogon that will be able to challenge $2500 AV receivers in stereo mode. Add a second hand pair of bookshelf speakers from PSB or Monitor Audio—or maybe even a pair of Magnepan 1.6s if you're feeling adventurous—and you've got truly high-end sound for around $1500.
David Kay is a veteran home-theater enthusiast, tech writer and all-around audio fanatic. He is currently Senior Editor of the audio news and feature blog Audio Junkies, and is on a never-ending quest to build the ultimate sound system, wallet be damned.