AV receivers VS AV processors

Any home cinema is going to need an AV receiver or an AV processor. But how do you know which is right for your installation. Stuart Pritchard delves into the topic and finds even if one option looks right for your customer now, it’s important to also think about future needs.

Here at HiddenWires, we know that specifying the correct kit for each unique installation job can be a tricky task, with many factors to take into consideration. There’s what the client wants versus what the client’s budget is, there’s the physical practicalities of the space you have to play with, and of course whether said kit you’re specifying is fit for purpose or possibly – at the other end of that spectrum – utter overkill.

Which brings us to the business of AV receivers and AV processors; all home cinema spec lists are going to need one or the other, but which one does your latest brief require? While on the surface they may seem to do a similar thing, the difference between the two can often be massive in terms of both price and performance. So, what exactly do they do? And which option is right for you? Let’s start at the beginning…


AV receivers

The lower-cost option that can help you adhere to a tighter client budget, the AV receiver is a one-box solution with built-in amplification that marshals all the varying audio and video signals sent from your connected AV entertainment equipment, such as Blu-ray players, games consoles and CD-players, then decodes and routes the signals to their correct, corresponding output equipment, such as loudspeakers, TVs and projectors, letting owners switch between those components with ease.

Catering for all AV comers, around the back of the average AV receiver you’ll find an array of connection options, consisting of ample HDMI ports, optical and coaxial connections, analogue audio inputs, and speaker and subwoofer outputs, amongst many others.

Generally used in smaller space installations due to their limited built-in amplification on offer, many models do, however, feature the option of sending signals to a second zone (or more if it’s multiroom capable), meaning users can also send audio to loudspeakers in a different room. A nice selling point, certainly, but this function does reduce overall power to all speakers and is also limited to only playing the same source as that of the primary zone.

“The modest nature of the first installation would call for an AVR, which is more cost-effective, but possibly compromised in terms of performance,” advises Dave Pedigo, COO, Trinnov Audio USA. “Then, it all depends on your definition of multiroom. Playing the same source across multiple rooms is a lot easier than being able to play different sources in different rooms. The nature of the source also makes a huge difference. HDMI sources with bitstream audio, requiring decoding and object rendering, are not distributed as easily as a basic PCM stereo stream.

“But if we are talking about starting a one-room installation, and then adding another entertainment room that should be operated individually from the main room, I would say that AVR multi-zone capability is usually so compromised and limited that it would not be a viable option.

Moreover, by relying on a single product, you create a single point of failure across multiple rooms, which is also something quite important to consider.”


Economy or false-economy?

With much food for thought for the custom installer from Trinnov, we also asked the opinion of Roland Hoffmann, director of product marketing, Steinway Lyngdorf, on the pros and cons of the AVR.

“There’s not much difference on the decoding side, nor with the number of channels, so in this regard AV receivers can be just as well-equipped as AV processors.

Steinway Lyngdorf MP-40

“An integrated AV receiver seems convenient, space-saving, and budget-friendly, which may all be important for an entry-level surround, but for more ambitious home cinemas, we also need to look at other valuable aspects: more powerful amplifiers driving more demanding speakers, an audibly better sound performance, and higher reliability.

“If the system doesn’t deliver true performance and an outstanding experience for the owner, all the space-saving and budget-cutting isn’t worth much. Or at least not for long.”


AV processors

Thinking outside the one-box solution as we move into the realms of bigger, higher-end home cinema installations, akin to the AV receiver the AV processor allows for switching between signal sources and also decodes all the differing audio formats prior to passing the signals on, but the AV processor does not possess any amplification of its own. The reason for this is, if you think of the AV receiver as the heart of your home cinema, processing and pumping out the audio signals to the surround sound speakers, the AV processor is more like the brains of the operation, in that it collates all signals, functioning as a central hub, processes them and feeds them out to a power amplifier to tackle the job of driving the speakers.

It's designed this way to deliver a much-enhanced quality of audio, as separating the audio and video signal processing section from amplification reduces distortion, while also being optimised to eliminate noise too, the outcome is a much higher quality of sound.

Steinway Lyngdorf P300 rear view

The other advantage of an AV processor and power amplifier combo is that they deliver much more oomph than AV receivers can dream of. While the most powerful receivers can offer around 13 channels at up to around 150W in stereo, with an AV processor and power amp, you can not only up the channel ante but also increase that wattage by a considerable amount to drive all the loudspeakers and subwoofers in home cinema installs of even epic proportions.

As Pedigo states: “Many AVRs do not have the needed wattage to adequately drive speakers, without distortion. This is also true when driving multiple speakers at one time. So, when trying to decide whether to use an AVR, or an AV pre-amp and amp(s) combination, power is certainly a big consideration. For high-performance rooms, it is almost always a good idea to have hardware dedicated to a specific task, such as one device for processing and one for amplification. There is nothing wrong with using an AVR, which is analogous with using a Swiss army knife for AV, but at some point the performance becomes limited.”


Thinking ahead

Another essential factor to remember is that AV processors are also more likely to be upgradeable, ensuring the future-proofing of installations as the evolution of AV technology continues apace.

“If the manufacturer frequently offers upgrades and updates, the AV processor can be kept in the system for longer and will also hold its value for longer, points out Hoffmann: “For example, we have offered both HDMI 2.0 and lately HDMI 2.1 hardware upgrades for our existing processors in the market, as well as adding new bi-amping and sound equalising features on the software side.”

Storm Audio ISP EVO

And if you needed any more convincing, selling the additional properties and importance of the AV processor, Olivier Thumeral, CEO of StormAudio, sums up: “The audio processor is the heart of any home cinema and as such, it plays a vital role in the installations, offering a range of benefits. It enables immersive surround sound, manages audio sources, supports various audio formats, provides room correction capabilities, and integrates seamlessly with control systems. By enhancing the overall audio experience, the audio processor becomes an essential component, ensuring a captivating and cinematic atmosphere in your home theatre.”


Making the choice

So, now you know where the similarities sit and where they savagely end. In a nutshell, the AV receiver is better suited to smaller installations where signals need decoding and feeding out to displays and audio also needs amplifying before being fed to a limited number of loudspeakers. The AVR best serves a single zone, but (depending on the model) the option of adding a ‘zone 2’ and sometimes more may be available. But the trade-off there being that the greater number of loudspeakers that share the receiver, the less power there is to go around.

Great for switching signals between AV equipment, making operation simple for the user, the AV receiver may be the ‘budget’ option, but for the smaller home cinemas where convenience is king, it can be all that is required.

Trinnov Audio Altitude 32 4K

“The advantages (of an AV receiver) would be more in line with convenience,” says Pedigo. “An AVR has both the processing and amplification within some chassis. Therefore, there aren’t external cables to manage between the processor and amplifier(s). There is also less rack space, typically, required for an AVR compared to a separate processor and amps, particularly when multiple amplifiers are being used.

“There is also likely less power consumption when using an AVR compared to a combo processor and pre-amp. Because many dedicated amplifiers are built to really drive speakers, their energy efficiency is typically less than their AVR counterparts.

Trinnov Audio Altitude 32 from rear

“And last, an AVR is also easier to control, given it’s a single device as opposed to multiple.”

With a wealth of options out there, it’s advisable to stick to those names that rank chief with custom installers and users alike, and look to the likes of Denon, Onkyo, Yamaha, Arcam, Marantz or Sony for solid, well-spec’d receivers.


Going large… for the future

But for bigger installations where more power is required to drive a larger number of loudspeakers in many differing zones (multiroom), the combination of a pricier AV processor and power amp will be required to ensure the exacting amount of amplification is achieved for each. Also, separating the signal paths from the amplification assists in the optimisation of the signal-to-noise ratio, making for superior, distortion-free sound.

“For our engineers, separating processors from amplifiers simply allows greater performance for both components, says Hoffmann. “Putting both into one case always means compromises on the PCB (printed circuit board) and components inside; it affects the audio and video signal paths, raises the noise floor, requires more heat management, and compromises the power supply. Separating processors from amplifiers also means more flexibility when choosing the power amps.

“If the space is there or can be found, and the performance demands are already high, go for separates. Seek a future-proof processor, while the power amps should match both the chosen loudspeakers and the room size they have to fill. And don’t underestimate the customer – demands usually grow over time, and with many AVRs you are kind of stuck, not being able to add more channels nor increase the output power nor upgrade to better speakers.”

Options here also number in the plentiful, but when it comes to achieving peak performance for the most extensive of installs and equally most demanding of clients, good options are Trinnov and its range of Altitude and Amplitude products, StormAudio’s ISP sound processors, the undoubted quality of Steinway Lyngdorf, NAD has some strong options, or audio expert Focal’s Astral 16.


In conclusion

So, there you have it – when it comes down to similarities, it’s about the core purpose of organising, processing and sending AV signals to where they need to be. Therefore, for smaller home cinema installations, an AV receiver will generally be just right for the job. But for more prodigious installs, the AV processor is the answer.

Ultimately, then, when it comes down to AV Receivers vs AV Processors, the bottom line is that it’s all about scale, performance, upgradeability and, of course, that all-important, all-dependent, all-overriding age-old issue of client budget vs client expectation.

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