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The All-in-One A/V Receiver vs. Separate Components

If you're deciding between an all-in-one A/V receiver or separate components, consider this: A high-end, all-in-one A/V receiver is probably suitable for most home theaters, but those with larger budgets may want to look into using separate components that perform the functions of an A/V receiver.

Separates break down the functions of the receiver into three (you guessed it) separate components:

  • A/V controller: Performs the switching and preamplification tasks (basically adjusting the levels of audio signals to control your volume) and includes the DSPs and DACs that do surround-sound decoding and conversion of digital audio into analog audio.

    You might hear these devices referred to as surround-sound processors, home theater preamps, or something else entirely. If it decodes the surround-sound signals and switches between audio and video sources, it’s an A/V controller.

  • Power amplifier(s): These devices boost the power of analog audio signals coming out of the controller to drive the speakers and create sound. Basically, a power amplifier is a big box with an on/off switch, speaker terminals, and one or more RCA jack audio inputs on the back for connecting to the A/V controller.

  • Radio tuner: The majority of A/V controllers don’t have a built-in tuner, so if you want to listen to the radio, you need to buy a separate tuner. If you have digital cable or a DSS satellite dish, you might get around this requirement if you can receive radio stations through these systems (and if you like the channel lineups they offer).

You might decide to go with separate components (rather than an all-in-one A/V receiver) for a couple of reasons:

  • More flexibility: A separates system lets you choose exactly which components you want. Like the amplifiers from Brand X but the controller functions from Brand Y? Mix and match! Separates give you a more flexible upgrade path, too. If you buy a Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 decoder but someday want to move up to Dolby Digital Plus (or some future surround-sound format), you need to upgrade only the decoder, not the whole system. Keep in mind that you might have to buy extra amplifiers for extra surround-sound channels, but that’s easy to do.

  • Better performance: A/V receivers can offer excellent sound quality, but for that last bit of sonic realism, separates can offer the ultimate in sound. Putting all the electronics for your A/V components in separate chassis can reduce the possibility of these electronic gizmos interfering with each other and causing distortions in your sound.

    For example, many folks going the separates route buy fancy mono power amplifiers — a separate amplifier (with its own power supply and other internal components) for each channel. Most people don’t have the space, budget, or (to be realistic) the need for such a setup. But it’s a nice possibility to consider.

If you can afford the additional expense, you might want to consider using separates. However, if you don’t want to spend any more money than you have to, and prefer the simplicity (and space savings) of an all-in-one solution, stick with an A/V receiver.

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