Best AV receiver for 2021 – CNET

Want to find the best AV receiver for the money? I’ve tested some of the most popular big-black-box options from the major brands in the $500 to $700 range, and the feature sets, connectivity and performance levels are impressively high. From Dolby Atmos to Wi-Fi music streaming to voice control — and high-quality audio — these modern home cinema receivers offer everything a home theater enthusiast needs. 

There’s one thing to take into consideration, though, especially if you’re a gamer. Until recently 8K-compatible receivers have had issues displaying video from certain types of PCs and gaming consoles. So, there’s one brand in particular you should be wary of in the short term. However, if you don’t care about using the Xbox Series X or simply can’t wait, these are the best models available right now.


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How to buy an affordable AV receiver

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Which receiver should I buy?

If you can live without the latest features — HDMI 2.18KVRR — then the 2019 Onkyo TX-NR696 is the receiver to get. The Onkyo is an excellent performer and offers easy setup, excellent usability, solid looks and useful features, including the best streaming suite. The TX-NR696 retails for more than $500, but it is regularly on sale for under that. Even at its regular price of $599 the TX-NR696 is a great deal. Be aware that it’s about to be replaced by a new model, but it will cost a whole $200 more.

Until the 4K/120Hz bug reared its head — more on that shortly — the Yamaha RX-V6A was my favorite receiver of the last 12 months. It offers striking looks and the performance chops to match. On the other hand, the Sony STR-DN1080 may be getting super old at this point but it still offers 4K HDR throughput, streaming capabilities and top-notch sound. (Note: It is currently marked as being discontinued on many shopping sites, but Sony has confirmed to CNET that it remains a current model.)

Why should I wait?

I would advise caution on buying a Yamaha receiver in particular right now, especially if future-proofing is something you’re interested in. You see, all of the newest, 8K-compatible receivers were susceptible to a bug preventing them from displaying variable refresh rate video, and from the Xbox Series X in particular. While Denon, Marantz and Yamaha announced fixes for existing models, if you buy a Yamaha RX-V6A right now it could mean sending your new receiver in to get a mainboard replaced. Yamaha says new compliant receivers won’t be available on shelves until fall.

Meanwhile Sound United, which produces Denon and Marantz receivers, says any models sold after April 2021 should be 4K/120Hz compliant. The spokesperson said that if customers are unsure whether their model is compliant or not they should contact their dealer or customer support. Older, noncompliant models are able to be rectified with a free adapter, but the company advises these dongles are now out of stock for the next five months. 

Competitor Onkyo released its $599 TX-NR5100 in mid-July 2021, and while I found it could pass 4K/120Hz I believe it’s not as recommendable as the older, more capable TX-NR696 for the same money.

But is 4K/120Hz support even a big deal? There are a small handful of games that you can put into this mode — Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and so on — but the advantages of 4K/120Hz over 60Hz are minimal as far as we’ve seen so far. Future games and even video sources may make the differences clearer, and that’s why you’d want a receiver that’s fully compatible.

If you do buy an older receiver, don’t care about the Xbox Series X, or don’t want to send your 8K model to the shop, you can always hook a fancy new console directly to the TV, then use eARC to get audio to the receiver. Despite the mess AV receiver manufacturers find themselves in right now, there is one thing the following models have in common: great performance.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Onkyo TX-NR696 is the best AV home theater receiver for those looking for a budget-ish option. This receiver was released in 2019 with a wealth of connectivity that supports multiple audio formats and gives a big, bold sound. It isn’t the direct replacement to my favorite receiver of 2018, the TX-NR585, but this step-up AV receiver model offers a number of improvements, including a bump in power (80 to 100 watts) and a front-mounted HDMI port, in addition to the six HDMI inputs on the back. This video and audio receiver offers streaming protocols, including built-in Chromecast, DTS Play-Fi, Spotify Connect, AirPlay and Bluetooth. If you can find the TX-NR696 under $500, that’s great, but if you can’t it’s still worth the extra coin.

Note the forthcoming $749 TX-NR6100 has the 4K/120Hz and 8K compatibility which the NR696 lacks.

Read our Onkyo TX-NR696 review.

 

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

This Yamaha AV receiver is the best 8K receiver we’ve tested, but it’s a pity about the lack of 4K/120Hz support right now. It’s worth waiting for the newer versions to come out in the fall with VRR and Xbox Series X and PS5 compatibility. Video compatibility aside, the Yamaha RX-V6A offers a fresh look at AV receiver design with futuristic edges while also maximizing sound quality. The RX-V6A could make you forget about ever visiting a cinema again, and it’s no slouch with music, either. This Yamaha receiver offers Wi-Fi connectivity, AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Bluetooth and Yamaha’s MusicCast system for streaming from your devices. Just wait a month or two till the updated models go on sale.

Read our YAMAHA RX-V6A review.

 

Sound United

One of only two mainstream designs released in 2020, Denon’s AVR-S960H may not be as glittering and shiny as the Yamaha RX-V6A, but it still offers excellent sound quality. The receiver is laid-back, blends well with forward-sounding speakers and replays music beautifully. It has almost everything you need, including 8K video, voice control via both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant speakers, Dolby Atmos, and Apple AirPlay 2. While 2019’s excellent AVR-S750H is still available, if the price for the ‘960 is around $600 you might as well pay a bit more for the bump in features and power the S960 offers.

Be aware that versions of the Denon AVR-S960H bought before April 2021 are affected by the 4K/120Hz bug and owners should sign up for one of the free dongles

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Sony STR-DN1080 earned our Editors’ Choice Award back in 2017, and despite being pretty long in the tooth it’s still an excellent AV receiver package. Sound quality isn’t quite as strong as those of the Denon and Onkyo, but they’re all very close. If you want a receiver that offers ease of use and integrates both AirPlay (but not AirPlay 2) and Google Chromecast built-in wireless streaming, this is a great option. It even uses virtual speaker relocation technology to optimize sound in the room where you set it up. Don’t pay full price, though — it has been on sale in the past for between $400 and $500.

Read our Sony STR-DN1080 review.

 

What to look for in a $500-ish receiver

AV receivers are notoriously complex, with reams of features and confusing technical specifications. (For example, what’s “ultra HD”?) But what are the things that really matter when buying a new model? I’m going to sum up the most important ones right here.

4K HDR compatibility

You want to make sure your new receiver can keep up with the latest TVs and video gear. Standards do change all the time, but the bare minimum right now is support for HDR and Dolby Vision, at least HDMI version 2.0 or better. All of these models support 4K and HDR video. 8K is coming, slowly, but most recorded content is still going to be in 1080p or even SD for many, many years. If future-proofing is a concern for you, the Yamaha RX-V6A and Denon AVR-S960H offer 8K and HDMI 2.1 compatibility as well. 

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The rear panel of the Onkyo TX-NR585 offers six HDMI inputs.


Sarah Tew/CNET

As many HDMI inputs as you can afford

With most TVs and set-top boxes supporting HDMI, you should buy a receiver that has as many of these HDMI input ports and outputs as possible. Front-mounted HDMI ports are kind of like an appendix — unneeded, because most users don’t hot-plug HDMI devices — making the number of rear inputs what’s most important. (How else are you going to connect your Blu-ray player, Nintendo Switch, soundbar and all your other devices?) The Sony and Onkyo in this roundup both have six rear-mounted HDMI ports while the Denon and Yamaha go one better with seven. If you want to connect two different displays — a TV and a projector for example — all but the Yamaha offer a second HDMI output. You should also be sure you have an extra HDMI cable or two on hand — these things are like the second sock of a pair in that you can never find them when you need them.

You don’t really need Dolby Atmos ‘height’ speakers

Most receivers in the $500-and-above price range include Dolby Atmos capability and DTS:X, but the effect they have on your home theater movie-watching can be subtle, or in most movies nonexistent. In other words, don’t worry about missing out on these formats if you don’t install an extra height speaker or two. Mounting your rear surround speakers high on the wall will get you halfway there in terms of quality, immersive sound.

Wi-Fi music streaming

Most midrange receivers have onboard Wi-Fi network connectivity for wireless music streaming through your speaker system. There are plenty of standards for wireless streaming services, but the most universal are Spotify Connect, Apple AirPlay 1 and 2, and Google Chromecast built in. If you’re looking to build a multiroom system with a variety of AV systems and speakers with wireless connectivity, these are the three flavors to aim for. The Onkyo and Sony are the only two devices that support all three. The Denon receiver model lacks wireless streaming via Chromecast, but ups the ante to AirPlay 2 and the proprietary HEOS system. Yamaha has its own MusicCast in the meantime.

For more general information on what you should be looking for, check out this AV receiver buying guide from 2016.

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