Stereo Receivers and Amplifiers in Your Home Theater System

Stereo receivers and amplifiers can be ideal to use in your home theater system, but it is an option that is often overlooked by many people.

As we discussed in the introduction to surround sound systems, you can improve the sound in any home cinema system by adding a separate amplifier and speakers.

You have two main choices when looking at amplifiers to improve your TV sound - you can have a stereo amplifier/receiver for stereo audio - or an AV amplifier/receiver for multi-channel audio.

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In this article we will discuss home stereo amplifiers and receivers. For further information on AV receivers, go to the article on the surround sound receiver - and here for the article on surround sound speakers.

What Are Stereo Amplifiers?

The easiest way to improve the sound in your room is to use a simple stereo amplifier.

You may have one of these as part of your home stereo system already.

Stereo amplifiers take the 2-channel stereo audio output signal of a device, and then send this audio to the connected speakers. This type of amplifier has two speakers connected to it - audio left and right.

Diagram of audio connections for stereo receivers in a home stereo system
Audio Connections For Stereo Receivers

Most music and TV sound is produced with stereo sound.

Therefore, you can take the 2-channel output of your CD player, DVD player, cable box, PS3 - whatever - plug it into an input on the amplifier, and you've improved the sound in the room straight away.

Diagram Of home stereo amplifier rear connections
Stereo Amplifier Rear Connections

Any amplifier and speaker combination of reasonable quality will sound better than the built-in speakers on your TV - so those of you who already have home stereo systems for listening to music in your room - you can use these for your DVD/TV sound too.

You've already got better sound and it hasn't cost you anything!

The main drawback of doing this is that you will only get 2-channel stereo sound with this type of amplifier. If you want multi-channel surround sound - or if you want the device to handle the video inputs as well as the audio - then you will need an AV receiver.

If you are wondering about analog or digital audio connections, then many stereo receivers appear to still have analog connections - so you will probably be using the red and white RCA connectors to send the audio between the devices.

However, there are a few stereo receivers with digital connections (usually coaxial or optical digital audio), and in these cases you could just use one digital cable to send the audio.

What Are Stereo Receivers?

So what's the difference between a stereo amplifier and a stereo receiver?

Not much.

When you see the term receiver used with hi-fi or home cinema equipment - it just means it is a 2-channel amplifier that powers your speakers.

Why the word receiver then?

Recommended Stereo Receiver
Sony STR-DH100
Stereo Receiver
Sony STR-DH100 Stereo Receiver

It just means the amplifier also has a built-in radio tuner - and that is the only reason it is called a receiver rather than an amplifier.

The receiver will probably need connecting to an appropriate aerial/antenna to receive the radio signal - but you can pick up radio channels on the receiver and send this to the speakers.

You will also have all the other 2-channel inputs just like an amplifier to plug in your CD, DVD player, PS3 etc.

Some of you may have a separate radio tuner unit as part of your hi-fi setup. Well the stereo receiver just has one of these built-in.

Apart from that, there is no difference between an amplifier and a receiver. You may well use the receiver purely as an amplifier - and may not even use the built-in tuner.

Stereo Receiver or AV Receiver?

So why might you want a stereo receiver rather than an AV receiver?

There are a few reasons.

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Firstly, and probably the main reason, is that a quality 2-channel receiver will probably give you more bang for your buck - a better quality sound at a cheaper cost.

A stereo receiver/amplifier only has one purpose - to amplify the sound. They will be designed to give you a great sound for music - and will probably be able to do a good job for TV and DVD audio too.

An AV receiver is designed to handle multi-channel audio and video signals - and you will probably have to spend a great deal more money on an AV receiver in order to get a comparable sound quality to a stereo amplifier.

It's not that an AV receiver will sound terrible - but if you're used to the sound of a good stereo amplifier and speakers - you may find the audio quality of an AV receiver isn't quite up to the same standard.

You may find the audio of TV and movies sounds fine - but the playback of music is where you may notice the difference.

Another reason is that you may already own a high end stereo amplifier - and have it connected to an excellent pair of speakers.

For no extra cost you can connect your AV equipment to your existing setup - and benefit from the excellent sound quality that your hi-fi amplifier provides.

Most TV sound is still transmitted in stereo - and all DVDs/Blu-rays will have a good quality stereo mix included - and so you can still benefit from a vastly improved experience when watching TV, DVD and Blu-ray.

Recommended Stereo Receiver
Yamaha A-S500
Stereo Amplifier
Yamaha A-S500 Stereo Receiver

However, if you are hoping to use a stereo amplifier/receiver for a 2.1 sound system (front left and right speakers with a subwoofer), then you should be careful.

For some reason there aren't so many stereo amplifiers with a subwoofer output.

There are a few about - like the Harman Kardon HK 3490 pictured here - but as a rule most stereo amplifiers won't have a subwoofer output.

This Harman Kardon receiver is also quite rare in that it is a stereo receiver with digital audio inputs - as mentioned previously, many stereo amps are often limited to analog audio only.

Other options for a 2.1 setup are either to buy an AV receiver (and just connect it as 2.1 rather than 5.1 - you can upgrade later), or look into a 2.1 home theater in a box system.

Who Makes the Best Stereo Receivers?

So where do you start when looking a stereo amplifier/receiver?

There are quite a few manufacturers building very high quality receivers/amplifiers - and there are a range of options depending on your budget.

There are more manufacturers to choose from than for AV receivers (although most AV receiver manufacturers will also make 2-channel receivers), mainly because the market for stereo amplifiers/receivers has been around for far longer.

The main manufacturers of stereo amplifiers and receivers to look out for are:

  • Denon
  • Marantz
  • Onkyo
  • Rotel
  • Yamaha
  • Harman Kardon
  • NAD
  • Pioneer
  • Sony

Buying Guide: What To Look For

The main things to look out for when looking for a 2-channel amplifier are:

  • Are there enough inputs to connect all your devices? e.g. analog audio, digital audio etc.
  • What is the sound quality like for music and movies?
  • Does it support the impedance of your speakers?
  • Are the power specs suitable for your room and your speakers?

Stereo Receivers Summary

The use of stereo receivers and amplifiers in a home theater setup are often dismissed.

Many people are either happy with the sound from their TV speakers (or don't know any better), or they automatically go straight for a surround sound AV receiver when they decide to improve their home theater experience.

However, while I think surround sound is fantastic, I appreciate there are people who are quite happy with stereo sound - and have become used to a great sound with a high quality stereo amplifier and speakers.

So don't dismiss the option of a 2-channel amplifier/receiver in your home cinema system at home - it can give you an excellent sound.

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