Denon AVR-591: Best Budget Home Theater Receiver
Dear Reader: For those tuning in for the first time, this is not a Very Special '80s Flashback edition of JTMWTG. Receivers were once a ubiquitous item in U.S. households. They were the centerpiece of home audio systems, the device that everything else plugs into, and acted like a switcher, an amplifier and in most cases a radio tuner. Once everyone started plugging video devices into them as well, they became A/V or home theater receivers, but still basically do the same thing: they are the middleman to your audio and video sources, the cockpit to your airplane, the CIC to your Battlestar, communicating with your speakers.
The fantastic news is that with A/V receivers these days, even the relatively low-end models, still offer incredible features and quality. That's not to say there aren't lemons out there -- oh, there are always lemons lurking -- but we've found a model we think you'll love, which will accommodate all your digital effects and should last you at least as long as your beloved Sony.
Meet the Denon AVR-591, in our opinion, a steal at $350. Nowadays, virtually all of your video sources -- game consoles, DVD and Blu-ray players, DVR and TV settop boxes, Internet video boxes like the Roku, Apple TV or Google TV -- connect via a simple HDMI cable, instead of separate, interconnected audio and video cables. So now you can connect up to four HDMI devices to the receiver, and then have just a single one going to your TV. We can't stress enough how convenient this is, or how it foolproofs setting up your receiver. Nicely, the 591 is HDMI 1.4a compliant, which means it supports some newer technologies (and is somewhat future-proof) like Blu-ray add-ons and 3-D video, if that ever becomes a mainstream option. Otherwise, it will pretty much work like a classic receiver would: pick your source and adjust volume and surround mode using the remote (or physical dials and buttons). Or for customization fans, use one of the three programmable presets, so that hitting one button might turn on the Blu-ray while another heads to your PS3. An additional handy feature lets you setup the amp's inputs and settings via your TV, instead of forcing you to squint at a display on the amp itself.
As far as audio options, the 591 is a legit powerhouse capable of going from simple two-speaker stereo up to 5.1 surround, with 120 watts per channel from five discrete internal amplifiers (for surround junkies, you can also hook up two more speakers for 7.1), and it decodes Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Pro Logic IIz, DTS decoder and DTS-HD Master Audio. For old-school analog devices, there are a few RCA inputs (though you'll have to relabel the input as such using the menu options) and in a nod to modern listening tastes, there's an iPod-specific input for use with a dock. We're especially impressed that audio setup can be adjusted automatically using the included Audyssey MultiEQ microphone; the gist is that you set-up everything, plug this mic into the receiver and place it where you'll sit and the receiver will automagically tweak audio settings to perfection. It's a feature usually found on much higher-end devices and so it's a welcome surprise and particularly useful if you're going the surround sound route.
Our one major complaint, and it's for the entire category of receivers really, is that while you can certainly plug-in everything and get it working easily enough, the Byzantine menu settings require a college minor in audio engineering to even parse them, and the included 70-page manual is of limited help. Still, using the Audyssey largely solves that issue, and we chose to forgo fiddling with the menu and just had a blast playing with our test unit. It sounds great and video output is crisp for cable and even upscaled DVDs. We're surprised and sorely disappointed that the included remote isn't programmable to take over the functions of all our other remotes... so, that means adding yet one more to our collection (although certain HDMI 1.4a devices can be turned on and off using the remote).
If you don't have need for the Audyssey hookup, a few analog ports, and are okay with "just" 75 watts per channel, Denon also offers a new lower priced entry for $249, the AVR-391, which we happily recommend as well. If only our old, tired and entangled Technics amp would give up and die already, we'd be joining you.