How Do I Choose a Stereo Receiver?
If you’re a hi-fi enthusiast on a quest to build your perfect audio setup from carefully selected separates, one of your biggest decisions is going to involve the choice of stereo receiver. It works together with your speakers to do the serious heavy lifting when it comes to creating a truly awesome sound experience. Even though all-in-one wireless speakers have become dominant over traditional stereos, they simply can’t match the sound quality of a good stereo receiver and speakers.
With the revival of the popularity of vinyl, the turntable has become an essential component of any system. However, phono pre-amps tend not to feature in the high-quality turntables built today, so a good stereo receiver that incorporates one is an ideal solution.
Amplifiers vs Receivers
Let’s clear up any confusion. An amplifier takes the low-voltage output from your turntable, CD player or other source equipment and transforms them into signals that can power the most substantial speakers. Amplifiers come as integrated or standalone pieces.
A receiver is essentially an amplifier with extra capability. It performs the same task but has the added functionality of a built-in radio as an alternative input source. Radio isn’t the must-have it used to be, but it still plays a big part in carrying music into your home.
Stereo or AV?
First, you need to decide what you want from your receiver. A stereo receiver uses two channels and is ideal for listening to music, while an AV receiver can deliver surround sound and is the ideal sound accessory for television and home cinema. The AV’s multi-channel capacity can certainly do the job of delivering great sound to your speakers and even act as a source for a separate room, but it’s far from essential in the context of hi-fi. If what you’re after is the best and simplest way to deliver sound signals to your speakers, a stereo receiver is the answer. Make sure it has all the input options you want or might need in the future, such as a phono pre-amp for a turntable and Bluetooth for streaming.
Pre- and power-amplification: together or separate?
Pre-amp handles the input selection and volume control, while the power-amp, as you’d expect, provides the power. A receiver that combines both pre- and power-amp functions is a convenient space-saving option that saves you from having to match separate machines, but there are advantages to separation. Keeping the two separate avoids the risk of the electrically noisy high current of the power amp interfering with the more delicate circuitry and signals in the pre-amp. It can also give you a much better sound. The easiest way to ensure that they work well together is to choose from within the same brand, where compatibility is a given.
The receiver/speaker partnership
It’s important to make sure you get a good match between your receiver and speakers. This is a question of both the receiver’s power output in wattage per channel and the impedance and sensitivity of the speakers. Speaker impedance (in ohms) measures the effort involved in driving the speaker, and sensitivity (in dB) indicates the volume level the speaker can achieve from any given input.
You can measure the receiver’s output and distortion levels by using an 8-ohm resistor, but why go to that trouble when a hi-fi expert can answer the question for you? In any case, power is not the key consideration, since even a modest receiver paired with average speakers can easily yield volume levels of over 100 decibels. The essential lesson is not necessarily to choose the most powerful receiver but instead to opt for a more sensitive speaker so the receiver doesn’t need to work so hard. Ultimately, the best way to judge is to pick out some likely contenders, put the equipment together and try it out.
Stereo receivers have undoubtedly become niche items for most manufacturers, and you may struggle to find what you’re looking for in ordinary main street stores. While it may pay in the long run to pursue the AV option, which means you can easily upgrade to a total home entertainment system, that isn’t the only way forward. Fortunately, there are dedicated specialist suppliers like the staff at HiFi Centre, who can advise you on the best buys, like the Marantz NR1200 all the way up to this beauty from Chord.
As with all technology, you get what you pay for, but a stereo receiver doesn't have to break the bank. The best test of all is how it sounds to you.