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Home theater receivers don't need to cost a fortune to sound great

A home theater receiver is at the heart of any home theater setup, processing and directing the audio and often video signals flowing between its components, including the TV; programming sources such as Blu-ray Disc players and cable boxes; and the speakers. In the past, features such as Internet connectivity, earth-shaking volume, automatic speaker setup and decoders for the lossless high-definition audio formats used on Blu-ray Discs could only be found in high-end receivers. Now, those features can be found in most mainstream home theater receivers. While cheap home theater receivers are somewhat less capable, they do offer more features and better performance than ever before.

Among mainstream audio video receivers, networking features have become popular. Many can connect directly to the Internet to stream content from providers such as Pandora and Slacker or the thousands of radio stations that are now online. Most streaming-capable receivers offer built-in Wi-Fi, which lets you connect to your home network without needing a nearby Ethernet connection. Bluetooth for streaming music from mobile devices is also becoming commonplace. For streaming music from Apple products, such as the iPhone or iPad, or from iTunes, consider a receiver with AirPlay support, which also delivers better audio quality than Bluetooth.

Mainstream receivers generally sound excellent overall, especially for movies, though the pickiest of audiophiles might want to consider more expensive receivers for enjoying finely nuanced music. For those watching the bottom line, basic and budget receivers sound nearly as good, though most don't pack in as many features and skimp a little when it comes to connections.

It's possible to spend more than $5,000 -- in fact, lots more -- for a home theater receiver. However, that's simply overkill for the majority of home theater setups. Instead, reviews say you can spend considerably less and still wind up with a home theater system that will impress all but the fussiest of listeners. That's why the focus of this report is on mainstream receivers priced at $800 and less. With analysis pooled from expert and user reviews, we break down models by performance, features, design, ease of use and value. The best mainstream home theater receivers are identified, as are ones that offer the best bang for the buck or are good performers at a rock-bottom price.

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