If you’ve ever spent any time browsing the forums, the odds are good you’ve run into a discussion regarding the benefits of AV receivers versus separates. This rivalry has proponents and valid arguments on both sides of the table. Long story short: we can see valid arguments on both ends of the table. But what works best for you?
Before we get too deep, first let’s understand the difference between receivers and separates.
- An AV receiver is a one box solution containing, a preamplifier/processor and an AM/FM tuner, and amplification.
- AV Separates divide these components out into two or more separate boxes, most commonly one box for preamplifier/processor and the tuner, and another for the amplification.
Advocates of separates wouldn’t be caught dead using a ‘lowly’ AV receiver. For them, separates are without a doubt the higher-end choice. But it’s fair to say that the majority of people buy AV receivers, and judging from feedback we receive, they are usually quite happy with them. For them, the extra challenge of separates puts the whole experience in the too-hard-basket.
We can briefly sum up the most overheard arguments in favor of separates:
1. The biggest argument in favor of separates is power. A true audiophile takes amplification seriously. While you’ll be stretched to find AV receivers delivering over 100W per channel into an 8 ohm speaker, separate amplifiers go well beyond that. If you have 4 ohm speakers, the situation tends to favor a separate amplifier even more, as many AV receivers (particularly budget models) tend to choke when driving low impedance speakers at high levels.
It’s a simple fact that ensuring that the speakers have a bountiful supply of power will bring audible benefits. The main one will be freedom from clipping during loud passages, which can drive a lesser amplifier into harsh distortion and may even damage the speakers. The system will be better able to navigate dynamic extremes from a whisper to an earthquake.
2. In terms of audio quality, separates tend to feature top quality internals that you’re not going to find so much on the more pedestrian AV receiver.
3. But on top of that, you’ll also find that separate components ensure higher performance because the power-sucking and heat generating components of the power amp are kept separate and therefore separates tend to suffer less from distortion.
While amplification and surround processor functions can exist in the same product, reconciled by smart circuit design and layout, the truth of the matter is that AV receiver designers have to live within limitations that are minimized when the amp and surround processor are divorced.
But there are also arguments in favor of an AV receiver:
1. With everything in one box and because the AV receiver market is a lot bigger than the more niche separates market, AV receivers tend to be cheaper. That is especially the case if you also factor in the elimination of cables between surround processor and amp.
2. Another pretty important factor is that AV receivers are considered less challenging in set-up, which for many people is a rather important consideration.
3. If space is at a premium, a lot can be said for the fact that AV receivers take up less rack space.
4. And finally for those looking for the latest and greatest features (You want the latest version of Audyssey room correction with the highest filter resolution? You want 3D-ready HDMI 2.0? You want an Atmos set-up? Would you like your system to serve multiple zones? Do you want to use your iPhone as a remote control? Streaming, anybody?), the annual release cycle for AV receivers ensures that you’ll have the most current technology, at least for a little while. With separates the focus tends to be more on quality than on the latest bells and whistles. The new release cycle is also nowhere near as frequent.
But with all that said, the above statements are definitely not gospel: some AV receivers have more rated power than some multichannel amps and some separates are more affordable than some high-end AV receivers.
It’s even not necessarily as clean cut as one-or-the-other as far as options are concerned. It can for instance be a clever strategy to invest in an excellent amplifier while you can change your surround processor as often as you change your underwear while you use the same magnificent-sounding amp year after year.
Or even take it further considering that the processor manufacturers that offer the timeliest and competitive feature sets are the ones who also make—tah dah—AV receivers.
A lot of midline and high end AV receivers offer preamplifier outputs, meaning there is a middle of the road option: you can add a separate amplifier, adding more juice and giving you the full benefits of big power combined with the regular release cycle of receivers. (It’s still important to ensure that your receiver’s preamplifier outputs can effectively drive the amplifier you’re looking at. An output of 2Vrms is usually adequate to drive the majority of amplifiers to full power, though some models may require more. You’ll find the voltage needed under the amplifier’s input sensitivity specification).
We would like to dedicate an additional word to the issue of power.
Realistically speaking, the majority of people don’t have much use for 1kW monoblock amplifiers; the amps built into a run of the mill AV receiver are considered enough in a small to medium home theatre.
The main downside of AV receivers—especially at lower price points—is that their modest power reserves limits your choice of speakers to those with average to high sensitivity ratings and nominal impedances of (ideally) 6 to 8 ohms. Moving up to a higher-priced AV receiver will expand your speaker-mating options (but the most demanding speakers will remain beyond reach).
Having one (or more) subwoofer(s) with its own internal amplifier typically handles its own bass frequencies below 80 to 120 hertz, depending on the size and bass extension of the speakers you have. Since low bass frequencies eat the most power, this makes the AV receiver’s job easier.
But rather than man the barricades, perhaps we’d be better off discussing which type of product is right for you, if you haven’t already decided.
If you ask us, both an AV receiver as separates can be a valid choice depending on what you’re looking for.
Inexpensive, easy to set up, and requiring relatively little space, AV receivers are the popular choice.
Conversely, if cost takes a back seat to power, build quality, and the best possible audio courtesy of balanced interconnects and fully differential circuitry, separates are for you. It is of course always an option to have a professional to do the installation for you, helping to overcome some of the ‘buts’ that seem to go with seperates.
And of course for those unwilling to commit to either paradigm, there is the choice of mating an AV receiver with preamplifier outputs to a high powered separate amplifier, getting some of the perks from both worlds.