Choosing the Right Home Theater
Denon's AVR-2313CI receiver includes a bevy of input/output options, including six HDMI inputs and two subwoofers.
A home theater can look like an octopus attached to your TV, with wires coming and going from who-knows-where to who-knows-what. At the center of it all, your home theater receiver is tasked with making sense of all the inputs and outputs. The receiver pulls all your media together and, hopefully, produces a symphony of sight and sound.
The key is getting a receiver with the right number of inputs and speaker connections for how you watch and listen.
What inputs are important?
Inputs bring signals from your cable box, Blu-ray player, video streamer, game console and other sources into the receiver, which routes them to your TV and speakers. [See also: Best Home-Theater TV: Panasonic Viera 60-inch Plasma]
Most current equipment uses HDMI connections to send digital audio and video signals to the receiver, so you should look for a receiver with at least three HDMI inputs. You'll see receivers with three, four and up to eight HDMI inputs. The more HDMI ports the receiver has, the more expensive it tends to be. As a rule of thumb, allow at least one extra HDMI input over the number of devices you currently own. You'll probably discover another new, must-have video device in the future.
What do I need for older gear?
You'll need additional inputs for older sources. For DVD players, you may need a component (three-cable) input for the video signal and a digital optical-audio input, or even analog stereo inputs, for the sound. More-vintage equipment, like a cassette tape player or turntable, will also need analog audio inputs, sometimes also called RCA inputs, typically consisting of a white and red jack.
Some newer receivers have dropped these older inputs, so check the specs if you have old equipment you still want to use.
How many speaker connections should the receiver have?
Most people enjoy the standard 5.1 speaker surround sound arrangement: center, front right and left, surround right and left, plus a subwoofer for the lower frequencies (the "boom" in explosions, for example).
But there are more options: A 7.1 system usually adds two rear speakers, although some current receivers let you use those as front height speakers, which give the illusion of up and down in sound. A 9.1 system includes both rear and height speakers. Some receivers also accommodate two or more subwoofers, which help create a more encompassing bass effect. More speakers will raise the overall price, however, from under $500 to well over $1000.
You can often determine the right number of speakers by looking at the amount of space you have. Unless you have a dedicated home theater room, it can be hard to fit in more than five speakers and one subwoofer. For an affordable 5.1 system, we recommend the NHT Super Surround 5.1.
Should I just go for a home theater in a box?
If all this talk about inputs and speaker causes too much grief, consider a home theater in a box (HTiB). Many HTiBs come with Blu-ray players and video streamers integrated into the receiver. It's one box to rule them all, with only a few additional inputs, for, say, a TV and game console. HTiBs also come with speakers. Most frequently, you'll find 5.1 sets, but there are some 7.1 systems.
With most HTiBs, you trade quality for convenience. For $500, you can get a decent HTiB, while for just $100 or so more, you can purchase a much better-sounding separate receiver and 5.1 speaker set. If you already have good speakers, a separate receiver almost always makes the most sense. But if you're starting from scratch, an HTiB offers an easy entry into home theater sound and video.