What to expect from an A/V receiver under $500?
In contrast to speakers, where it is difficult to get really good quality under $500, A/V receivers in this price range can be surprisingly solid. The technology in A/V receivers has become cheap enough that most receivers below $500 support the most sought-after features for home theater systems, such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, numerous HDMI ports, and Bluetooth.
That said, there are still some important features that can be left off of cheaper A/V receivers, including the ability to output 4K video – which will become increasingly important as more and more videos and games are produced in 4K resolution. In addition, whereas more expensive receivers typically have all the features you could want in a single unit, receivers under $500 typically force you to choose between, for example, supporting multiple rooms and automatic recalibration based on your room acoustics. Notably, there are also few 9-channel receivers available for under $500 for those who wish to add a ton of speakers to a single receiver.
Another critical difference between receivers under $500 and their more expensive counterparts is the output power. Whereas less expensive receivers typically put out 100 watts or less of continuous power, higher-end receivers have much more powerful amplifiers that can in turn support more powerful speakers at their maximum gains.
Features to consider before buying an A/V receiver
A/V receivers are often described according to a set of technical specifications that give clues as to the sound quality and compatibility of the receiver with your devices. To make it easier to find the receiver that is right for you, we’ll explain these specifications and why they’re important.
Power, measured in watts, is one of the most important aspects of an A/V receiver but also the hardest to parse since there is no standard way of reporting power among manufacturers. The rated output power describes the wattage – essentially volume – that a receiver can consistently put out to the speakers. This is important because the power of your receiver must be equal to, or even slightly greater than, the output power of your speakers in order to take full advantage of them. Like your speakers, A/V receivers are also rated for a maximum power that can be sustained only briefly, and this too should match or exceed the maximum power of your speakers. An underpowered receiver will not only limit your speakers’ capabilities, but is actually more likely to blow out your speakers than overpowering them with a receiver with a higher wattage.
These days, nearly every device that you will want to connect to your receiver other than the speakers themselves – a television, a gaming console, a computer, and more – use HDMI ports to connect. Therefore, the number of HDMI ports on your receiver is important to consider. You need at least one input port for every device you are planning to connect right now, and it is also a good idea to have one or two extra ports for any devices you might want to add in the future. While most receivers only offer one HDMI output port, the Pioneer VSX-1131 offers a second port that could be used to connect a second television.
An increasing number of devices are now Bluetooth-compatible, which makes it extraordinarily easy to connect your device to your A/V receiver – if your receiver is itself Bluetooth compatible. While this is not an essential feature to the functioning of your receiver, all of the A/V receivers under $500 that we reviewed are Bluetooth compatible.
Nearly every A/V receiver takes a rectangular, boxy shape, but you’ll need to fit that box in an easily accessible spot in the front of your home theater system. For this reason, it is well worth having a spot in mind and measuring its dimensions before settling on a receiver unit.
There are numerous more ways in which A/V receivers distinguish themselves from one another. A common feature that is nice to have is multi-room audio, which allows you to use a single receiver to play different audio sources in different rooms around your house. If you have a large house and multiple people with different music preferences, consider choosing a receiver like the Pioneer VSX-1131 that has this capability.
In addition, some receivers like the Onkyo TX-SR383 offer AccuEQ room calibration that automatically senses and adapts to your room’s acoustics in order to produce the best sound for your theater. While this is not essential by any means, it can help with improving sound quality.
Finally, it is worth checking whether your A/V receiver is able to support 4K video output, since an increasing number of movies and video games are being produced at 4K resolution.
Even if you do not have a 4K television now, if you want to upgrade your television in the future having a 4K-compatible A/V receiver will mean that you do not need to replace this component of your home theater system at that time as well. The Onkyo TX-SR373 and TX-NR575, Pioneer VSX-532 and VSX-1131, and Denon AVR-S710W all support 4K as well as the updated BT.2020 color gamut that was designed in conjunction with 4K.
How to set up an A/V receiver
Once you have your new A/V receiver on hand, how do you set it up? The first step is finding a new home for your receiver, in a spot where it can get enough air flow to avoid overheating and that speaker wires and HDMI cables can be easily connected to it. Once you have this in place, you can use HDMI cables to connect your television via the HDMI out port – most A/V receivers will display an on-screen instruction guide to help you through the rest of the setup process. You can also connect HDMI cables for any cable boxes or gaming devices into the HDMI in ports at this time.
Setting up the speakers requires a long spool of speaker wire – each speaker will be plugged into one of the audio out ports on the back of your receiver, the number of which should correspond to the number of channels that your receiver supports. Also, connect the subwoofer at this time to the subwoofer out port. Once you have your speakers connected and placed around the room where they work best, you can calibrate the system either using the built-in room acoustics calibration software or by carefully moving the speakers around the room while you sit in the primary listening position.