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.
I discussed in the guide to hooking up surround sound, that you can improve the sound in any home theater system by adding a separate amplifier and speakers.
But, 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 multichannel audio.
In this article, I will discuss using stereo amplifiers and receivers.
If you are more interested in surround sound, take a look at my guide to the best AV receivers for home theater.
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.
Most music and TV sound are produced using stereo audio.
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.
What Is a Stereo Receiver?
So what’s the difference between a stereo amplifier and a stereo receiver?
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?
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 or Surround Sound?
So why might you want a stereo receiver rather than a multichannel AV receiver?
There are a few reasons.
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 multichannel 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.
Plenty of TV sound is still transmitted in stereo – and all DVDs/Blu-rays will have a good quality stereo mix included.
So, you can still benefit from a vastly improved experience when watching TV, DVD and Blu-ray.
Stereo Receivers and Subwoofers
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.
There aren’t so many stereo amplifiers with a subwoofer output – and if you find one, they are usually the more expensive models.
There are a few about – like the Cambridge Audio CXA61 pictured here – but as a rule, most stereo amplifiers won’t have a subwoofer output.
However, that still doesn’t mean you can’t use a subwoofer.
Many subwoofers will have what is known as a high-level input.
A high-level subwoofer input is different from the more common low-level input. It takes a full-range speaker signal – taken from the same outputs that power your stereo speakers.
You can then use a built-in filter and volume control on the sub to balance the amount of bass with that from your front speakers.
Just make sure that the subwoofer you buy has a high-level input.
You can also use a stereo pre-out connection if this is supported by your amplifier and subwoofer.
For more on this, learn how to wire a subwoofer in my guide to hooking up a sub.
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 if you wish)
- Get a 2.1 all-in-one home theater system
- Buy a stereo or 2.1 soundbar system
Who Makes the Best Stereo Receiver?
So where do you start when looking for 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:
- Harman Kardon
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 specifications suitable for your room and your speakers?
The use of stereo receivers and amplifiers in a home theater setup is 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 excellent sound.
About Home Cinema Guide
Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has worked as a sound, lighting and audio-visual engineer for around 20 years. At home, he has spent more time than is probably healthy installing, configuring, testing, de-rigging, fixing, tweaking, re-installing again (and sometimes using) various pieces of hi-fi and home cinema equipment.