A/V receivers are the central hub of any home-cinema system. They provide the brains to process surround-sound signals, and the brawn to amplify them through the speakers. They allow you to retrieve sound and video from a variety of sources — and the better ones even allow for video upscaling.
Features are all important, and even today's low-cost models carry an assortment of functions that were once reserved for more expensive models. The latest trend is to eschew the physical iPhone/iPod docks in favour of built-in Airplay and even DLNA services to let Android users play along.
In this price range, you can expect to find receivers offering up to seven channels of amplification, and these extra channels can be used to support advanced speaker configurations, such as bi-wiring the front channels to improve stereo performance. There's also a growing use of Zone 2 functionality in this market — allowing you to have different areas of the house wired for different sound.
Installing your receiver is no longer a daunting prospect, with the widespread adoption of automatic set-up routines. These use a supplied microphone and a variety of test signals to accurately set up your system without any effort.
Connectivity is equally important, especially since the arrival of high definition. All of these receivers feature HDMI digital inputs and outputs, and allow video switching between compatible devices and your screen. This eases operation and cuts down cable clutter. Many models also offer video up-conversion, which will improve the picture performance of your standard analog sources, usually up to component video quality.
Networking has also become commonplace, with the receiver plugging in to both a home network and the internet, letting it stream files and access web-based music services, plus more.
High-definition audio is here, with Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio able to deliver uncompressed, "studio-quality" audio, and the receivers here can decode these formats.