Face Off: Budget Receivers

Budget receivers can make anyone a home theater meister.

I'm a simple man. As I travel this great land of ours, for both business and pleasure, most of my conversations with others sooner or later lead to two topics: movies and their inevitable offshoot, home theater. I rarely discuss the specifics of what I'm packing at Rancho Chiarella; rather, I listen to the wide-eyed yearnings of the hard-working Everyman who dreams of experiencing all that a respectable A/V system can deliver. For so many of the folks I've talked with, an affordable home theater receiver is the key to their wish fulfillment.

Having covered the consumer electronics beat for several years, I've seen prices drop and value rise, and the dawn of the well-featured budget home theater receiver (about two years ago) was particularly fascinating. It represented a liberation, as three to five Benjamins can now net an audio/video control center capable of decoding and amplifying five channels of digital surround sound, as well as sorting out the various inputs and outputs at the touch of a button. In essence, this single audio-processing component gives the best of home theater to an entire class of people who could not afford it in the past. Combine that with the ubiquitous bargain DVD player, and you have a grass-roots revolution that lets everyone join the party. Blue-collar slob that I am, I just love that.

Appropriately enough, Maureen Jenson, Mike Wood, and the rest of the gang at HT gave me a transcontinental call inviting me to write this Face Off, working from a selection of gear they had prepared. The main criteria: All these receivers offer Dolby Digital and DTS processing, and all are priced below $500. Now, no one expects these things to go mano a mano with high-end separates—which cost far more, require more homework for potential buyers, and take up more rack space, if that's a concern. But these units do it all without slaughtering the piggy bank, so where's the real downside?

The Next Generation
As this analysis would take place on the East Coast and plane tickets for Face Off regulars Mike Wood and Chris Lewis would have exceeded the retail price of even the costliest budget component, we decided to open our doors to some local talent. Contributor Michael Trei offered vast knowledge and experience, a barometer against which other opinions could be measured. He also has a big apartment with hardwood floors, quiet neighbors, and no wife fluttering about asking what we were doing and could we please turn it down—a particular boon, since our Monday-night listening session competed with Ally McBeal. God bless rent control, and long live the happy bachelor, through whom I can draw vicarious thrills.

To lend an even broader perspective (and to drive home even harder the fact that I was the old man of the group), I placed a call two floors down to the offices of FHM (For Him Magazine), HT's sister publication and uber-hip men's magazine, to search for fresh meat. (Thank you, parent company Emap, for amassing a stable of over 160 titles for us to choose from. Teen magazine next time, I promise!) They sent me 20-something editor Adam Winer, an affable jack-of-all-trades with more than a passing interest in the home theater realm. As yet unbroken by the monthly travails of consumer electronics reviewing, his bright-eyed enthusiasm would give Mike and I something to make fun of in between demo clips.

The Arena
Adam also knew the subway system better than I—a great asset as the shoulder-to-shoulder rush-hour train took us to the northern tip of Manhattan Island, near the historic Cloisters. When we arrived, Mike had almost finished prepping the four receivers for his reference audio/video system, which includes the Panasonic DVD-A110 DVD player, Snell AIII left and right speakers, Snell A2 center-channel speaker, and Audes 75-AC105 surrounds. No subwoofer was used for the audition process: The front left and right were run large; the other channels were run small. Speaker cables were Roksan/Isoda hybrid with digital cable by Monster. All receiver levels were monitored for consistency with a RadioShack analog SPL meter. All delays were adjusted as accurately as the receivers allowed.

Our host alone knew the identities of the four receivers, all parked neatly on a table behind the sofa. We sat in the living room while he worked the controls, and he auditioned them for us in no particular order, dutifully disconnecting and reconnecting the cables every few minutes.

To make the kids happy, I selected that ubiquitous-but-deservedly-so DVD The Matrix, particularly the lobby-shootout and helicopter-crash scenes. To show the world he has a sensitive side, Mike suggested the somewhat-less-bullet-riddled Contact, for Jodie Foster's impressive "OK to go" sequence and the wormhole trip across the galaxy. From his vast music collection, Mike also pulled the Doors' "Love Me Two Times" from the DCC Gold audiophile reissue of Strange Days and Keith Richards' "Wicked as It Seems" from the Main Offender album.