Set­ting up an AV re­ceiver


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THE AV RE­CEIVER is the pow­er­house of the home cin­ema ex­pe­ri­ence. Bind­ing the sources, the speak­ers and what you see on screen to­gether, it brings that big-screen cin­ema magic right into your home, co­coon­ing you in a sound­scape of hu­mour, drama, crashes, bangs and wal­lops from the com­fort of your sofa.

But AV re­ceivers are im­pos­ing ma­chines and, for the new­bie, it can be dif­fi­cult to know where to start. So we’re here to guide you through the process, with tips on what to con­sider when choos­ing an AV re­ceiver and on how to get the best per­for­mance out of your new home cin­ema am­pli­fier. You’ll be a pro in no time.


AV re­ceivers may look com­pli­cated, but they gen­er­ally all tend to look pretty sim­i­lar – a sturdy, black or sil­ver box – so at least you don’t have to make aes­thetic choices. You will need three things on your check­list: how many speak­ers do you have, how many HDMI in­puts will you need, and what’s your bud­get?


Once you’ve made the de­ci­sion to have a sur­round sound sys­tem in your home, you prob­a­bly al­ready know how many speak­ers you can fit in – from a ba­sic 5.1 to an all-out Dolby Atmos ex­trav­a­ganza. Your amp re­quire­ments will largely be dic­tated by this.

If you have room for only five speak­ers and a sub­woofer (the min­i­mum for a proper sur­round sys­tem), then look no fur­ther than a fivechan­nel AV re­ceiver. If you’re toy­ing with the idea of adding some ex­tra height chan­nels, or want an Atmos sys­tem at some point, it’s worth in­vest­ing in a nine or 11-chan­nel am­pli­fier so you’re fu­ture-proofed.

Think­ing about in­stalling an Atmos sys­tem from the start? We’d dou­ble-check your AV amp sup­ports Atmos sound­tracks - most amps at $1000 and above should do as stan­dard. We’d also rec­om­mend look­ing for an amp that lets you ac­com­mo­date four Atmos speak­ers (a 5.1.4 or 7.1.4 con­fig­u­ra­tion), rather than two (5.1.2 or 7.1.2, for in­stance).

That means you’ll be look­ing at am­pli­fiers in the $4000 re­gion – but two Atmos speak­ers aren’t enough for a gen­uine Atmos ef­fect. So if you’re se­ri­ous about get­ting im­mer­sive, over­head, 3D sound, go for four.


If you have mul­ti­ple sources – Blu-ray player, con­sole, set-top box – make sure you have enough HDMI in­puts and that they sup­port the lat­est 4K and HDR spec­i­fi­ca­tions (HDCP2.2).

Most amps will come with some legacy ana­logue con­nec­tions, too, if you’ve got kit that pre-dates HDMI, such as a VHS player.


Price is ob­vi­ously a big fac­tor, too. You can buy only what your bud­get dic­tates, af­ter all. As a gen­eral rule of thumb: if the amp is around $500 and be­low, you’ll get ba­sic 5.1, a hand­ful of HDMI in­puts, and no in­ter­net.

Move up to a higher price bracket and you get cut­ting-edge AV fea­tures – wi-fi, Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, 4K HDR passthrough, mul­ti­ple HDMI in­puts, mu­sic stream­ing – thrown in.

Start drop­ping thou­sands and you all the above, with ex­tra power, big­ger scale of sound, more speaker ter­mi­nals, more fine-tuned au­dio cal­i­bra­tions and more fea­tures.

So how much should you spend? As a rough guide, if you have a $2000 speaker pack­age at home, you should aim for a $1000 AV re­ceiver. Sim­i­larly, if you have your sights on a $5000 amp, your speaker pack­age should be in the $10k-plus range – es­sen­tially, dou­ble the am­pli­fier’s worth (and a bit more).

Fea­tures such as wi-fi, Blue­tooth, Spo­tify Con­nect, Tidal, SACD play­back, AM/FM tuners, hi-res mu­sic stream­ing and multi-room are all up to per­sonal pref­er­ence (although most am­pli­fiers come loaded with these fea­tures any­way), so cast an eye over the amp’s specs sheet to make sure it has ev­ery­thing you want.


You’ve bought your amp – con­grat­u­la­tions! Now it’s time to plug ev­ery­thing in. The num­ber of con­nec­tions can be daunt­ing, but take your time to set it all up prop­erly in one go and you’ll never have to do it again.

We would rec­om­mend keep­ing the amp pow­ered off when you’re plug­ging in your speak­ers, sub­woofer and sources. That will stop any pops, short­ing of cir­cuits or any pos­si­ble dam­age to your sys­tem.

Most – if not all – amps have ev­ery­thing clearly la­belled. Some, like Denon’s amps, help­fully colour-code the speaker ter­mi­nals to make plug­ging in five (or more) pairs of speak­ers eas­ier. Sur­round backs, height or front width speaker ter­mi­nals can dou­ble up as those for Dolby Atmos speak­ers, too: these might be la­belled as “as­sign­a­ble”, “5.1.2ch” or “Ex­tra SP”.

If you’ll be play­ing 4K HDR con­tent, look out for the “HDCP2.2” la­bel above the HDMI in­puts. In some cases, only a cou­ple will be HDCP2.2 cer­ti­fied – plug your 4K Blu-ray player into these. You’ll also no­tice that each HDMI in­put has a source as­signed to it: Blu-ray, DVD, CD, Game, CBL/SAT, me­dia player and so on. This means the man­u­fac­turer has taken care to op­ti­mise these in­puts for those par­tic­u­lar sources. The Blu-ray in­put, for ex­am­ple, might of­fer the short­est sig­nal path to the pro­ces­sor and so de­liv­ers the best per­for­mance.

We’d rec­om­mend us­ing the wired eth­er­net con­nec­tion if you can, as it’s more sta­ble and re­li­able than wi-fi. And the USB port in front will play me­dia files from a USB stick.


Most AV re­ceivers come with a set-up mi­cro­phone. Plug the mic in and run the auto-cal­i­bra­tion when prompted – it will mea­sure your speak­ers and your room, set the speak­ers’ dis­tances and lev­els and, in the case of fancier am­pli­fiers’ cal­i­bra­tion sys­tems, op­ti­mise the per­for­mance to match its sur­round­ings.

We’d rec­om­mend run­ning the au­to­cal­i­bra­tion right af­ter plug­ging ev­ery­thing in – get that out of way and you can start lis­ten­ing to your new home cin­ema.

The sys­tem won’t sound right un­til the cal­i­bra­tion is done. Once the mic is plugged in, fol­low the on-screen in­struc­tions and let the cal­i­bra­tion run its course. Some take only a hand­ful of sec­onds, while oth­ers can take more than five min­utes.

If you have Dolby Atmos speak­ers in­stalled, you need to tell the amp be­fore cal­i­brat­ing. Head into the man­ual speaker set­tings to tell the amp if they’re up­ward-fir­ing Atmos-en­abled speak­ers (such as the KEF R50s) or in­stalled in the ceil­ing and it will cal­i­brate ac­cord­ingly. The amp will ask for your room’s ceil­ing height, so keep a tape mea­sure handy.

You’ll also need to tell the amp if you’re us­ing one or two sub­woofers. Set the sub­woofer vol­ume about half­way, run the cal­i­bra­tion and then ad­just ac­cord­ingly. If the cal­i­bra­tion flags up a fault with one of the speak­ers dur­ing mea­sure­ment, dou­ble-check it’s plugged into the right ter­mi­nals – some­times it flags up when a speaker is out of phase.

Most cal­i­bra­tion sys­tems are pretty ac­cu­rate, but it’s al­ways worth delv­ing into the man­ual speaker set­tings to dou­ble-check the dis­tances and lev­els, and tweak the re­sults where needed. Trust your ears – if it sounds wrong, it prob­a­bly is. You can even ad­just the speaker lev­els us­ing a sound pres­sure me­ter level (or equiv­a­lent smart­phone app – they gen­uinely work).

If you change your speaker pack­age, change its po­si­tion or move fur­ni­ture around in the room, you’ll need to run the whole cal­i­bra­tion again. So don’t lose that set-up mic.


You’re not quite ready to hit play on your 4K Blu-ray of The Ma­trix yet. There are an­other cou­ple of op­tions: sur­round sound modes and DSP (dig­i­tal sound pro­cess­ing). This varies from Dolby or DTS pro­cess­ing modes to spe­cific modes that boost cer­tain as­pects of the sound. You may even en­joy more fan­ci­ful ef­fects that sim­u­late the acous­tics of a cathe­dral, a con­cert hall, a NYC jazz club or LA’s The Roxy Theatre.

They can be fun to play around with, but since we pre­fer not to colour the sound sig­nal too much, we’re go­ing to fo­cus on just a hand­ful of sound modes that put sound qual­ity to the fore. Look out for the ‘straight’, ‘di­rect’ or ‘pure di­rect’ modes on your am­pli­fier – these tend to of­fer the purest sig­nal from source to out­put.

Mode names vary with the man­u­fac­turer, but they gen­er­ally switch off parts of the cir­cuitry that aren’t needed, re­duc­ing dis­tor­tion and get­ting rid of any in­ter­fer­ence.

On the other hand, you might find you need a spe­cific mode to play Dolby Atmos or DTS:X sound­tracks (which are em­bed­ded into the stan­dard 5.1 or 7.1 sound­track on Blu-ray discs). The Sony STR-DN1080 needs to be on A.F.D. (Auto For­mat De­cod­ing) mode, for ex­am­ple, to play Atmos or DTS:X.

If you’re watch­ing a va­ri­ety of con­tent – films, sports, video games, stereo mu­sic – through your amp, it’s worth set­ting up short­cuts with be­spoke set­tings for each type of con­tent. A par­tic­u­lar movie mode for films, two-chan­nel stereo mode for mu­sic only, an­other DSP for games – it will save you from hav­ing to change the sound set­tings all the time.


When we test an AV re­ceiver, we let it ‘run in’ for a day or two to get it sound­ing its best be­fore any crit­i­cal lis­ten­ing. So, be­fore you sit down to en­joy film night, turn on the AV re­ceiver about half an hour ear­lier to let it warm up – it will sound bet­ter than if you start play­ing from cold.

So what are you wait­ing for? Pop in your favourite film, grab some snacks, and en­joy your new, per­fectly set up home cin­ema sys­tem.

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