Setting up an AV receiver
BOUGHT A NEW AV RECEIVER? NEED A HAND GETTING TO GRIPS WITH CALIBRATION, SOUND MODES OR CONNECTIONS? WE’LL GUIDE YOU THROUGH THE PROCESSES – AND GET YOUR HOME CINEMA UP AND RUNNING IN NO TIME...
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.
CHOOSING YOUR AV RECEIVER
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?
5.1 OR DOLBY ATMOS?
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.
HOW MANY HDMI INPUTS?
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.
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
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.
PLUGGING EVERYTHING IN
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.