This is an idea that’s been kicking around in the back of my noggin for a bit, but my recent review of Denon’s behemoth gazillion.bajillion-channel AVR-A1H receiver solidified a lot of my thoughts on the subject. It’s a simple question, really, and you’re already hip to it if you’ve read the headline: should you use an AVR instead of a stereo preamp/amp, integrated amp, or receiver in your two-channel system?
Let’s be clear about something from the giddy-up: I don’t mean a stereo A/V system with speakers flanking a TV or projection screen. I mean a dedicated two-channel (or 2.1-channel) music-listening system. Is there any harm in using an AVR for such? Furthermore, is there any benefit?
If I’d written this piece a year ago, my reasoning would be different than it is now. Like I said, the AVR-A1H firmed up some impressions for me. But more importantly, it challenged other assumptions. Enough with the ambiguity, though. Let’s try to answer this question—starting with the most obvious question of all.
Why would you want to use a surround-sound receiver in a stereo setup?
There are any number of reasons you might find yourself inclined to set up an AVR with only two speakers and maybe a sub, and then connect only audio sources like a turntable, music streamer, CD player, what have you. It might be a matter of convenience—somebody gave you an old AVR you don’t need for its intended purpose, but you’ve been itching to set up your own stereo system. Or maybe you’re replacing your old AVR because last year’s HDMI spec is old news (which it isn’t . . . yet. But it will be).
Or you might just be lured by the value proposition. You can get a pretty banging A/V receiver for like $500 (all prices USD) that delivers more power than most stereo systems need. Now, granted, surround-sound receiver specs are a joke in the enthusiast community, but that’s because more often than not their power is rated with two channels driven, and their power supplies can’t deliver nearly as much juice per channel once you start adding additional loads. But guess how many amplified channels you need for a stereo system? Exactly as many as they used when rating the power output (do be sure to note the impedance used in the measurements, though; Sony is notorious for gaming its specs by using low-impedance loads).
That $500 will likely get you two or so stereo inputs, along with a phono stage (that you probably shouldn’t use, but you do you, boo), network connectivity that at the very least enables AirPlay and maybe Chromecast streaming, and almost certainly Bluetooth. Add a couple of reasonably efficient speakers and a subwoofer, and you’ve got a great little stereo system whose performance will surprise you.
What don’t you get for that $500, though?
All that said, I’m going to argue that cheaping out cuts you off from one of the most compelling reasons you might want to use an A/V receiver as the heart of a proper stereo system: good room correction. That entry-level receiver, if it features room calibration at all, is likely going to support a lower-tier system that does more harm than good, dulling higher frequencies and not doing much at all to the lower frequencies that benefit most from DSP.
In my experience, if you really want to get serious about room correction in a stereo system, you need a receiver with at least Audyssey MultEQ XT32, which you don’t get until you step up to models in the range of Denon’s AVR-X3800H ($1699). MultEQ XT32—when combined with the MultEQ Editor app for iOS and Android—gives you the tools you need to dial in exceptional in-room performance. The 3800H also, by the way, supports Dirac Live room correction for an additional upcharge.
Here’s where my thinking is evolving recently, mostly as a result of the aforementioned AVR-A1H review. I’ve long been biased in favor of Dirac Live over any implementation of Audyssey. I adore the Dirac capabilities of NAD’s recent stereo integrated amps. When Denon announced that Dirac would be an optional add-on for its upper-tier AVRs, my first thought was that it would make them more viable in a stereo system.
But I’ve only ever compared Dirac to Audyssey in separate systems, across time, and usually by looking at my measurements and trying to recall my subjective impressions. The A1H, though, gave me the opportunity to directly compare them in the same setup, using the same hardware, the same speakers, at the same time.
And you know what? I think I actually prefer MultEQ XT32 to Dirac Live for music. Mostly because it does a better job with standing waves below the Schroeder frequency of the room.
I should emphasize, I’m talking about the basic version of Dirac Live, which doesn’t include the add-on Bass Control feature, itself a $349 or $499 upcharge. When the Denon receivers add support for such soon, I would suspect that Dirac will regain its edge in dealing with standing waves. But I haven’t tested that to be sure. And by that point, you’ll have spent more money on room correction than most people spend on the gear for their room.
So, trying to equivocate as little as possible here: if you want world-class room correction but don’t want to break the bank, yeah, a good upper-tier AVR will get you there, whereas a lot of stereo gear in a similar price range won’t, aside from a few exceptions such as NAD and JBL and a few others.
OK, what’s the catch?
For all that, there is still a very good case or two to be made for buying dedicated stereo gear instead of an AVR for your two-channel music-listening system. One that springs immediately to mind is inefficiency. And I don’t mean that in the sense that an A/V receiver typically has way more HDMI inputs (not to mention speaker-level outputs) than you’ll need in a stereo system.
What I mean is that, for whatever reason, most of the interesting applications of class-D amp topology are happening in the stereo world. Pioneer uses class D in its top-tier SC-class receivers. There may be a handful of others. But with most AVR manufacturers, even at the very high end, the amplification is wasteful class AB. As I mentioned in my review, the AVR-A1H ran me out of the room with its heat. For what Denon is charging, they could have loaded that thing up with Hypex class-D modules and lost absolutely nothing in terms of performance (you could argue it would be a gain) while drawing much less power from the wall and converting significantly less of it into heat instead of sound.
Another thing to consider is that A/V receivers tend to be the exact opposite of children, in that they’re designed to be heard and not seen (and you can also control them). Marantz and Yamaha are shaking things up a bit in this department, but by and large, even very high-end surround-sound receivers are unfortunate looking at best.
You might not care about that. Sound may be the only thing that matters to you. But for a lot of people, part of the joy of having a proper stereo system is the hands-on, tactile experience—touching the volume knob, pressing the input-selection buttons—or even just staring at a really nice-looking piece of kit, like the Marantz Model 40n or the NAD C 3050 LE.
Call me shallow, but when you get down to brass tacks, that is probably the thing that would keep me from truly loving an A/V receiver in my two-channel system. The look of a good stereo is such an important part of the experience for me that I don’t know if I could give it up. But if these AVR manufacturers would start embracing class D more fully and spend some money on legitimate industrial design, I might change my tune based on my experiences with the A1H.
. . . Dennis Burger