Face Off: Budget Receivers What Do You Think?

What Do You Think?

A receiver's a receiver, right? Well, sure, but they definitely don't all sound the same. Even if you don't consider yourself an audiophile, a side-by-side comparison like this Face Off should be all it takes for you to separate the wheat from the chaff. It was for us.

With the Yamaha, dialogue from Grosse Pointe Blank was tinny, and musical selections had too much bass. Due to its somewhat weak output on low-frequency effects, the Technics wasn't my favorite, either (although, as Mike pointed out, it'd definitely be the one your neighbors would want you to own). Despite the fact that I thought dialogue sounded a little cleaner with the Technics, the lack of wallop on special effects really prevented me from feeling the excitement I feel in a theater.

Then came the Kenwood. Up to this point, I wasn't a real fan of Mike's Keith Richards music selection. But the Kenwood brought out some nice subtleties, like Keith's gravelly voice underscored by a touch of smoothness—I actually found myself liking the CD for the first time. Plus, with the Kenwood, the special effects in Titanic finally had some serious slam. In the end, we all agreed that the Kenwood was the best of the bunch, followed by the Yamaha and then the Technics.

So, sure, a receiver's a receiver; however, if you're looking for that Goldilocks feeling, where you find the one that's "just right," the Kenwood is the one to buy.—Monica James

As an HT Face Off virgin, I was concerned that I would have a difficult time hearing differences through unfamiliar speakers. Luckily, these fears were unfounded, as Joe's speaker system allowed any differences to shine through clearly.

The Yamaha exhibited an overall sound quality that I typically look for in a receiver. It was generally at its best with movie soundtracks, while music tended to sound a bit claustrophobic and compressed. Ambient sounds like the engine-room noises on the Titanic DVD came across well, but loud, dynamic attacks like the shoot-out scene on the Grosse Pointe Blank DVD lacked the impact they normally have.

After the Yamaha, the Technics was a bit of a disappointment. It sounded good with music, but I found the bass on the Keith Richards track to be a bit boomy for my taste, and Mel Tormè's usually velvet-like voice was a bit threadbare. With movies, the Technics couldn't muster the same dynamic range as either the Kenwood or Yamaha. After listening to the Yamaha, I asked Joe if he got complaints from his neighbors; with the Technics, this shouldn't really be a concern.

I was most impressed with the Kenwood receiver and thought it won this Face Off hands-down. Music was open and dynamic—Keith Richards' guitar had real attitude. Although it's perhaps a tad less punchy than the Yamaha, it sounded so much more musically correct that it would certainly be my first choice.—Michael Trei.

I know our readers love our Face Offs. You just can't get enough of those wacky Face Offs, can ya? Well this one was particularly cumbersome! Not only did two manufacturers back out on me at the last minute, but I had to go buy speaker wire because I didn't have enough bare wire to shove inside the spring clips on these budget receivers. All moaning aside, it is, of course, a labor of love—in the end, I was surprised and delighted by the results.

It used to be that you had to spend a small fortune to get good sound from a receiver, but now there are receivers out there for those of us who haven't made the big time yet and can't afford the more-expensive models. The Yamaha is a good-sounding receiver, and the Technics receiver wasn't half bad when I ran the speakers small with a subwoofer. However, if I were accosted on the street by someone asking for advice on a good receiver for under 400 bucks, I'd have to recommend the Kenwood VR-309. Heck, I'd suggest it for anyone with a receiver budget of up to $800. Plain and simple, the VR-309 is an easy-to-use, great-sounding product that almost anyone can afford.—Joe Hageman