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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, and the feature sets, connectivity options and performance levels in a home cinema are impressively high in this middling price range. From Dolby Atmos to Wi-Fi music streaming to voice control — and high-quality audio — these AV receiver models have everything a home-theater enthusiast needs. 

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Which receiver comes out on top?

Of the receiver models I’ve reviewed in the past two years, the 2019 Onkyo TX-NR696 is still my favorite pick for best AV receiver for a home theater system. The receiver offers easy setup, excellent usability, great surround sound with plenty of headroom, easy speaker setup, solid looks and a suite of useful features. The Onkyo AV receiver retails for more than $500, but this great surround sound receiver is regularly on sale for under that. Even at $580 the TX-NR696 is a great deal. Onkyo will refresh its range with new models in June 2021.

In recent times, many receiver manufacturers have gotten off the “yearly refresh merry-go-round,” with only Denon and Yamaha making new models in 2020. Meanwhile, Sony hasn’t updated its line since 2017 (and it’s still good). Though older models won’t bring you the latest features — 8KVRR (Variable Refresh Rate) and so on — all of the receivers below will offer you the best sound.

The Yamaha RX-V6A is one of the few receiver models that has debuted since 2019 and, despite a couple of minor dings, offers excellent sound and up-to-date features. The Sony STR-DN1080 also puts in a good showing despite being from 2017, as does the 2019 Denon AVR-S750, which offers even more refined performance than the Sony, Yamaha and Onkyo. I have rated all four as “excellent,” with just a little daylight separating their overall CNET ratings. They’re all great performers and, as prices fluctuate regularly, if you can find one that’s significantly less expensive than the others, go for it — your speaker system will be well served in any case.

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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 by way of 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 (80W to 100W) 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. The only thing we didn’t like was the remote control (it was just a bit too much, even with all those connectivity options). If you can find the TX-NR696 under $500, that’s great, but it’s still worth the extra coin. Read our Onkyo TX-NR696 review.

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The Yamaha RX-V6A may offer a fresh look at AV receiver design with futuristic edges, but it also doesn’t skimp on sound quality. The RX-V6A could make you forget about ever visiting a cinema ever again, and it’s no slouch with music, either. It offers Wi-Fi connectivity, Airplay 2, Spotify Connect, Bluetooth and Yamaha’s MusicCast system for streaming from your devices. It’s the most future-proof option of this roundup so far, with 8K pass-through and VRR for compatibility with the Xbox Series X and PS5. Read our YAMAHA RX-V6A review.

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Denon’s AVR-S750H offers excellent sound quality that blends well with forward-sounding speakers, and replays music beautifully. The excellent AVR-S750H has almost everything you need, including voice control via both Amazon Alexa and Google speakers, Dolby Atmos and Apple AirPlay 2. Like the other models here it has an onscreen setup assistant that helps you connect your TV and optimize your home theater for an immersive audio experience. While the AVR-S960 is now available, 2019’s AVR-S750H was never replaced and is still on sale at many retailers. Read the Denon AVR-S750H review.

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The Sony STR-DN1080 was our 2017 Editors’ Choice, and it’s still an excellent AV receiver package, albeit getting slightly long in the tooth. 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 AV receiver 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 (What’s ‘ultra HD’? How will that affect the sound quality? Why is setting up surround sound so complicated?). 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, eventually, but most recorded content is still going to be in 1080p or even worse for many, many years. If future-proofing is a concern for you, the Yamaha RX-V6A offers 8K compatibility. 

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

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At least four HDMI inputs

With most televisions and set-top boxes supporting HDMI, you should buy a receiver that has as many of these inputs and outputs as possible. Front-mounted HDMI ports are kind of like an appendix — unneeded, because most users don’t do hot-plugging of 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 Yamaha has the least at four, while the Sony and Onkyo have the most, at six. The Sony also offers a second HDMI-out for Zone 2. You should also be sure you have an extra HDMI cable or two on-hand — you don’t want an HDMI input to go to waste!

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

Most receivers in the $500 price range include support for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, but the effects 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 new formats if you don’t install an extra height speaker or two. Mounting the 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 & 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 models lack wireless streaming via Chromecast but ups the ante to AirPlay 2.

For more on what you should be looking for, check out my full AV receiver buying guide.

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