Being an audiophile for over three decades I learned a thing or two about gear. One thing I get many questions about is how I use my stereo receiver to combine all the music sources in my house. I have all cables directed to a single set of speakers coming out of a single stereo receiver and with just one remote control I can simply choose whichever format I want to listen to. It is even got a Bluetooth adapter so I can stream Spotify on it.
Since many people asked me about it lately I decided to make this ultimate buying guide to help those who don´t have as much experience pick the best one for their homes.
We are going to go through the basics of the stereo receiver concept and then go through my favorite brands to reach the FAQs I got in these last years. I´ll try and pour all my knowledge in a few subtitles, so buckle up and let´s do it!
What is a stereo receiver?
Stereo receivers come in many shapes but they are usually seen as a big black (or gray) box with multiple inputs and a screen. They usually also feature a bigger-than-life volume control knob. This is all nice and beautiful for our apartment, but what does it really do? What this apparatus does is amplifying and distributing the audio signal we connect to it as well as the built-in AM/FM radio.
Although this is basically true, it is definitely not the reason why most of us, audiophiles, have one. The main reason why you should get a stereo receiver is that they sound terrific. Having all your music playing through a single amplifier and a pair of speakers (or more if you go PinkFloydesque on it) can make you appreciate that vinyl player increasingly day after day. Yes, the depth of the lower frequencies is truly something else.
Also for those of us in our thirties or forties, the fact that you hear that hissing noise on cassette tape has that element of nostalgia that will bring a smile upon your face. Finally, hearing the ultra-HD audio through Spotify or with a CD-player is also a great way to take a shortcut and bring audio quality straight to the present.
Having it all in one spot, hooked to a single remote control will not only make things much easier but will also allow you to have everything ready to go at all times and you´ll end up listening to more music. Hooking up cables, powering a different amplifier, and going to another room of the house is sometimes reason enough to play that record on Spotify instead of vinyl. With the stereo receiver, it is much more likely that you take the black gold out of the sleeve and enjoy it.
Inputs and Outputs explained
Regardless of how much time you´ve been an audiophile when you turn a stereo receiver around you are intimidated by all the inputs and outputs. In fact, the more you can do with it, the more inputs and outputs you have. Fear not, we are here to save the day. Let´s break it down very simple so you know what to plug where and be on with it in no time.
This is what you need to cover first: the inputs. Depending on the date of manufacture, these inputs can change to include some more modern ones as well.
Regular stereo audio inputs
You might be familiar with video cables that have three colors: yellow, white, and red. Well, two of those are audio sources (white and red). You will very likely have a row of labeled inputs (1, 2, 3, and so on) for each audio channel. Use an audio cable and match white and red from the source to white and red from the stereo receiver.
The turntable is usually labeled as “PHONO” and has a ground bolt right next to it to eliminate some of the hissing sounds in case you don´t enjoy it.
If your stereo receiver has a built-in stereo FM radio, you will very likely have an input for an antenna.
If your stereo receiver is modern, quite like the Sony STR-DH190, you will also get a Bluetooth receiver to stream Spotify, YouTube, Deezer, iTunes, or whatever another music-streaming platform of your choice.
This covers the basics in terms of inputs. Depending on how many regular stereo audio inputs you have, you can connect several devices like a tape player, a CD player, and such.
Most stereo receivers in the world have a built-in power amplifier after the preamplifier. What this means is that after selecting the input, the signal from the tape player or turntable goes through a preamplifier adding color and then to a power amplifier that makes it loud enough for the speakers to play it.
You´ll very likely find on the back:
Speaker amplified outs
These are usually black and red and can have many shapes. You might have two, four, or more depending on the model. These will be labeled with the impedance on top using the omega sign Ω.
If you connect your speakers to these outputs, make sure they match that impedance so you will not be sorry afterward.
Although your stereo receiver will very likely have a built-in amplifier you might want to go to a bigger one to feed massive speakers. This could be the case if you had powerful subwoofers or you had powered, active speakers. The non-amplified outputs bypass the power amp stage and go straight from the preamplifiers to the output.
In my experience, having amplified and non-amplified outputs is great to add my powered shelf speakers to the mix and have music playing from any source through all the speakers in the house. Yes, cleaning up on Sunday mornings can get really loud in my place!
Basic features of most stereo receivers
Stereo receivers haven´t drastically changed their set of basics through time. Further on we are going to compare a stereo receiver to an AV receiver which has some different specs. For now, let´s cover what you can expect in virtually every stereo receiver out there:
Several stereo audio inputs – This is one of the most important aspects of your receiver, you need to be able to plug in as many audio devices as you want.
Power amplifier – The power amplifier built in to your stereo receiver will dictate how loud you can play music before it distorts. Power can be through a transformer (bigger apparatus) or digital (smaller in size and lighter).
AM/FM radio –Stereo receivers by definition offer radio although it is a feature that is fading. Radio is starting to be more of an internet-based phenomenon and podcasts are taking over like a storm. For now, it is still a feature.
Bluetooth capability – As much as the radio feature is fading away, Bluetooth is becoming more frequent. Indeed, streaming straight from Spotify on your phone doesn´t sound near as well as vinyl, but it really comes handy. Even us, audiophiles, like to play records we don´t own (yet) from our phones.
Controls & remote – To me and many of us, this is the best feature: the remote control. Although most of them have access controls in case you lose it, there are few things like leaving everything prepared and sitting on the couch going back and forth from vinyl, tapes, and CDs. At least, that is what I call a fun time.
Matching a receiver with speakers
Speakers play a major role in terms of audio quality and we know that every chain is strong as its weakest link. You can invest a ton of money in the ultimate stereo receiver, but only 180 grams vinyl and have a state of the art deck but if it all goes through a set of cheap speakers, the result will be unimpressive. So, the speakers need to be up to the demand of the stereo receiver. Besides quality, you have to check on two more things:
Power handling – Can the speakers you are about to hook up to your stereo receiver handle its power? This is absolutely crucial because you can easily blow them up.
Impedance rating – Do your speakers match the impedance need of your stereo receiver? Bear in mind that the higher the impedance of a speaker (or set of headphones), the more into hi-fi territory you´ll go.
To me, the best choice is always buying everything in the same place and by the same brand. Sometimes, when you buy a stereo receiver´s dedicated set of speaker you achieve the ultimate tone that the manufacturer designed them for.
The battle of the lookalikes
Well, now that you know specifically what a stereo receiver actually is, it is time to tell you also what it is not. There are a lot of other products in the market that is very similar and can generate confusion in clients. Let´s take a look at the most common.
Stereo receiver vs integrated amplifier
These are twin brothers to say the minimum. Yes, a stereo receiver and an integrated amplifier look so much alike that many people confuse them.
The very big difference is that while the stereo receiver has a display and a built-in stereo radio, the integrated amplifier is just a passive box. What does this mean? That the stereo receiver can generate sound while the integrated amplifier needs an external source at all times.
Stereo receiver vs AV receiver
If the stereo receiver and the integrated amplifiers are twins, the AV receiver could be their elder brother. Why do I say this?
Well, because it expands the capabilities of the stereo receiver to also include video sources. This means that you can plug to it your Play Station, the Blu-Ray player, your smart TV, the turntable, the cassette player and handle the sound and video of everything from the same place.
Also, most AV receivers come equipped with 5.1 and 7.1 outputs to accommodate those speaker layouts that are so amazing to watch movies. If you are an audiophile who loves cinema and having the ultimate hi-fi experience with your movies, then you should think about an AV receiver.
Stereo receiver vs soundbar
Well, this is scaling it down again to siblings. Soundbars are a great all-in-one solution to the audio topic in your house. You can buy a relatively inexpensive one to fit your TV and enhance the sound you get from it.
That being said, they do not cover the possibilities of a stereo receiver. Moreover, they are two pieces of technology dedicated to different scenarios.
While soundbars are mostly hooked up to a TV, stereo receivers are mostly hooked up to music equipment. The sound of soundbar changes for the better as prices go up and some even include a woofer to give more low-end, but your vinyl records will not sound through a soundbar as well as with a set of purely hi-fi equipment.
So, if you are an audiophile I say stick to the stereo receiver with good speakers.
So, if you´ve been shopping around for one of these, you know that the options in the market are plenty. To help you narrow down your search, let me share with you the brands that you can´t go wrong with even at entry-level prices:
How much do stereo receiver cost?
Speaking of prices, stereo receivers handle a price range that goes from under $200 all the way to $1500 and it can keep on going up if you go into boutique ones.
The higher you go in price, the better the sound quality will be. This has to go hand in hand with other pieces of your chain and your budget. Unless you have good speakers and a good turntable, you won´t make the most out of your stereo receiver.
Voice control via stereo receiver
In most cases, you are going to have to use an adapter such as the Amazon Echo Dot or the Google Home Mini.
The catch here is that the software of the apparatus needs to get an upgrade from the manufacturer to accept Alexa telling them what to do.
Brands like Onkyo and Pioneer have already launched that upgrade into the market, but there is a lot of ways to go before it can fit all models and brands.
What’s the difference between old/vintage and new stereo receivers?
This is a question as old as time itself but it is time to address it. Just like with musical instruments, microphones, speakers, cars, bikes, wines, and many other categories, we have to make a difference between old and vintage.
Not everything ages well; somethings turn into vintage classics and some others into old pieces. It the receiver we are talking about was a piece of high-end musical equipment at its time, it will very likely sound great today too. If it was not, it is going to sound old.
What has changed during the course of time is how the preamplifiers are tweaked to color the sound. There is some new equipment capable of sounding just as good as the best vintage gear with a different color to the sound.
Bottom line is that high-end vintage and modern equipment sound equally well but for different in tone while cheap gear doesn´t get better with time.
Can I hook up a subwoofer to the stereo receiver?
Stereo receivers mostly come with some unamplified outputs that you can connect to an active subwoofer. Those that come with four outputs can accommodate stereo subwoofers and columns which is, to me, the best configuration possible.
How can I make my stereo receiver Bluetooth?
There are tons of Bluetooth adapters that plug into the AUX input of your stereo receiver. Some newer generations even come with built-in Bluetooth capability. The good news is that you can get some adapters in the market for less than $50.
Images by https://usa.yamaha.com/