How to set up your AV receiver and get the best sound

Front of a Denon AVC-X3800H AV receiver
(Image credit: Future)

The AV receiver is the powerhouse of the home cinema experience. It binds together the sources, the speaker package and what you see on screen. It brings cinema magic into your home, cocooning you in a soundscape of humour, drama, crashes, bangs and wallops.

But AV receivers are imposing machines. If you’re an AV newbie, it can be daunting to know where to start when you’re confronted with a big metal box covered in all manner of connections, sockets and acronyms.

So, whether you have an amp ready to set up or you're looking to buy one, we’re here to guide you through all that intricacy.

We’ll give you tips on what to consider when choosing the best AV receiver for you, what to look out for with the connections, talk you through the auto-calibration process and give you even more tips on how to get the very best performance out of your new home cinema amplifier. You’ll be a pro in no time.

Choosing and buying your AV receiver

Close-up of the rear of a Denon AV receiver

Prioritise which connections you'll need the most

AV receivers may look complicated, but it can be easier to pin down requirements for buying your new amp than most other hi-fi or AV kit. They all look the same, after all – a sturdy rectangular box – so at least you don’t have to make many aesthetic choices beyond perhaps black or silver.

You mainly need three things on your checklist: how many speakers do you have, how many HDMI inputs will you need, and what’s your budget?

Since you’ve (presumably) already made the big decision of having a surround sound system in your home, you probably already know how many speakers you can fit in – from a basic 5.1 to an all-out Dolby Atmos extravaganza. So your choice of amplifier will largely be dictated by this.

If you’re only ever going to have room/space for five speakers and a subwoofer (the minimum for a proper surround system), then you don’t have to look further than a five-channel AV receiver. If, however, you’re toying with the idea of expanding – adding some surround back channels say, or maybe you want an Atmos system at some point – it’s worth investing in a nine or 11-channel amplifier so you’re future-proofed.

Thinking about installing an Atmos system from the start? Firstly, we envy you. Secondly, double-check your AV amp supports Atmos soundtracks – most amps at £500 and above should do as standard by now.

We’d also recommend looking for an amp that lets you accommodate four Atmos speakers (a 5.1.4 or 7.1.4 configuration), not two (5.1.2 or 7.1.2, for instance, which you’ll find in many £500-£1000 amps).

That does means you’ll be looking at amplifiers in the £2000 region – but it’ll be worth it. Why? We don’t find two Atmos speakers enough for a genuine Atmos effect, so if you’re serious about getting immersive, overhead, 3D sound: go for four. Just take a passing glance at Dolby's speaker set-up guides to ensure your room will work for it.

Next to consider is connections. You’ll want to make sure you have enough HDMI inputs if you’ve got multiple sources – Blu-ray player, games console, set-top box – and that they support the latest 8K and HDR specifications to allow a degree of future-proofing.

Most amps will come with some legacy analogue connections too – great if you’ve got kit that pre-dates HDMI, like a VHS player.

Front of a JBL Synthesis SDR-35 AV receiver

(Image credit: Future)

Price is obviously a big factor, too. You can only buy what your budget dictates, after all, and that does simplify matters somewhat.

As a general rule of thumb: if the amp is below £500, you’ll get basic 5.1, a handful of HDMI inputs, and probably no internet.

Move up to the sweet spot of around £700 (though amps around this price do often drop to nearer the £500 mark) and you get every single cutting-edge AV feature – wi-fi, Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, 4K HDR passthrough, multiple HDMI inputs, all music streaming features – thrown in.

If you've got £1000 to spend or more, then expect everything above, but more power, bigger scale of sound, more speaker terminals, more fine-tuned audio calibrations and more features.

How much should you spend in a given system? As a rough guide, if you have a £1000-£1500 speaker package at home, you should aim for a £500-750 AV receiver. Similarly, if you have your sights on a £2000 amp, your speaker package should be in the £4000-£5000 region – essentially, double the amplifier’s worth (and add a bit more).

How to connect your kit to an AV receiver

Rear picture of a Yamaha RX-A6A AV receiver

The many, many connections on the back of a top-range Yamaha AV receiver (Image credit: Future)

You’ve bought your amp, congratulations! Now it’s time to plug everything in.

The sheer number of connections on the back of any amp can be daunting, but take your time to get it all set up properly in one go and you’ll never have to do it again.

We’d recommend keeping the amp powered off when you’re plugging in your speakers, subwoofer and sources. That will stop any pops, shorting of circuits or any other possible damage to your system.

Most, if not all, amps have everything clearly labelled. Some, such as Denon’s amps, helpfully colour code the speaker terminals to make plugging in five (or more) pairs of speakers easier. Surround backs, height or front width speaker terminals can double up as those for Dolby Atmos speakers, too: these might be labelled as “assignable”, “5.1.2ch” or “Extra SP”.

Rear inputs of a Denon AVC-A1H AV receiver

The speaker terminals on Denon amps are helpfully colour-coded (Image credit: Denon)

If you’ll be playing 4K HDR content, look out for the “HDCP2.2” label above the HDMI inputs. In some cases, only a couple of HDMI inputs will be HDCP2.2 certified – make sure you plug your 4K Blu-ray player into these.

You’ll also notice that each HDMI input has a source assigned to it: Blu-ray, DVD, CD, Game, CBL/SAT, media player and so on. This isn’t just friendly guidance. This means the manufacturer has taken care to optimise these inputs for those particular sources. The Blu-ray input, for example, might offer the shortest signal path to the processor and so delivers the best performance.

Two more connections worth talking about: we’d recommend using the wired ethernet connection if you can, as it’s more stable and reliable than wi-fi.

And the USB port in front? It’ll play media files off a USB stick, but we find it useful for charging our smartphones too (if the amp allows it).

Calibrating your AV receiver

Speaker set-up menu of a Denon AV receiver

Always run the auto-calibration to set up your home cinema amplifier

Here comes the lengthiest, fiddliest part of setting up your AV receiver.

Most AV receivers come with a set-up mic. Plug that in and run the auto-calibration when prompted – it will measure your speakers and your room, set the speakers’ distances and levels and, in the case of fancier (read: pricier) amplifiers’ calibration systems, optimise the speaker package's performance to match its surroundings.

We recommend running the auto-calibration right after plugging everything in – get that fuss out of way in the very beginning, then the sooner you can start listening to your new home cinema.

Also, the system won’t sound right until the calibration is done. Once the mic is plugged in, simply follow the on-screen instructions to the letter and let the calibration run its course. Some take only a handful of seconds, while others can take more than five minutes because they take multiple measurements. We tend to go off and make a cup of tea for the longer ones.

If you have Dolby Atmos speakers installed, you need to tell the amp so before calibrating.

Head into the manual speaker settings (you may have to delve into subfolders in the menu) to tell the amp if they’re upward-firing Atmos-enabled speakers (such as the KEF R50s) or installed in the ceiling – then it can calibrate accordingly. The amp will ask for your room’s ceiling height, so keep a tape measure handy.

You’ll also need to tell the amp if you’re using one or two subwoofers. Set the subwoofer's built-in volume control about halfway, run the calibration and then adjust accordingly if it sounds too bassy (or not bassy enough) when playing a film clip.

If the calibration flags up a fault with one of the speakers during measurement (or doesn’t recognise it when it’s there), double-check it’s plugged into the right terminal – sometimes it flags up when a speaker is out of phase.

Audyssey set-up menu of a Denon AV receiver

It's worth manually checking the speaker settings in the menu

Most calibration systems these days are largely accurate, but it’s always worth delving into the manual speaker settings to double-check the distances and levels, and tweak the results where needed. Trust your ears: if it sounds wrong, it probably is, so adjust away.

The main thing you’ll need to change is when the amplifier hasn’t recognised whether your speakers are large or small (this happens a lot).

You can even get nerdy like us and adjust the speaker levels using a sound pressure meter level (or use the equivalent smartphone app – they genuinely work).

It’s worth noting if you ever change your speaker package, change its position or move furniture around in the room, you’ll need to run the whole calibration again. So don’t lose that set-up mic.

We'd also suggest going back into the menus and manually turning off any dynamic range compression (sometimes referred to as DRC) in the menus. This reduces the dynamic range of the amp and is really for late-night listening so any huge bangs and crashes don't annoy the neighbours. If you're going to be mainly watching movies at more sociable hours, then you'll want to hear the soundtrack in all its glory, right?

Surround sound modes and DSPs

Front picture of a Yamaha RX-V6A AV reciever

Most AV receivers will show the surround sound format being decoded on their display. (Image credit: Yamaha Music Australia)

Just as you’re coasting the post-calibration high and are ready to hit play on your 4K Blu-ray, you might notice another couple of options: surround sound modes and DSPs.

DSP (digital sound processing) can vary from Dolby or DTS processing modes to specific Drama/Sci-Fi/Adventure/Game modes that boost certain aspects of the sound. You may even enjoy more fanciful effects that simulate the acoustics of a cathedral, a concert hall, an NYC jazz club or LA’s Roxy Theatre.

This last group can be enormous fun to play around with. Yamaha has some of the best sound programs for invoking a specific environment and delivering a subtle yet convincing effect.

But since we prefer not to colour the sound signal too much (if at all), we’re going to focus on just a handful of sound modes that put sound quality at the fore. Look out for the ‘straight’, ‘direct’ or ‘pure direct’ modes on your amplifier – these tend to offer the purest signal from source to output.

The modes vary with each manufacturer, but they generally switch off any part of the circuitry that isn’t needed, thereby reducing distortion and getting rid of any interferences – all in the name of keeping the signal path as pure as possible.

On the other hand, you might find you need a specific mode or setting to play Dolby Atmos or DTS:X soundtracks (which are layered on top of the standard 5.1 or 7.1 soundtrack on Blu-ray discs). 

For example, when you select Movie Mode on the Denon AVR-X1800H, you also get a sub-menu to choose the surround mode you want the soundtrack to be played in – i this case Dolby Atmos/Surround.

One more thing: if you’ll be watching/listening to a variety of content – films, sports, video games, stereo music – through your amp, it’s worth setting up shortcuts with bespoke settings for each type of content you watch. A particular movie mode for films, two-channel stereo mode for music only, another DSP for games – it’ll save you from having to change the sound settings all the time.

When we test an AV receiver, we let it ‘run in’ (i.e. keep it playing for a day or two) to get it sounding its best before any critical listening. Since you’ll be living with your amp, you’ll find that it sounds better the more you use it.

So what are you waiting for? Pop in your favourite film, grab some snacks, and enjoy your new, perfectly set up home cinema system.

AV receiver tips and tricks

  • AV receivers are big and heavy objects, so give your amp enough space on your AV rack.
  • Make sure it has plenty of ventilation, too, as it can run hot during playback.
  • Keep the display turned off for a boost in sound quality.
  • Smartphone apps can be nice, but we prefer a trusty physical remote control. Bonus points if the remote is backlit.
  • Go look through every single folder and subfolder in the amp’s menu – you’ll find loads of useful settings tucked away.
  • Use quality speaker cables and HDMI cables to get the best out of your system.
  • Try to keep all the speaker cables from tangling with each other too much, to reduce any interference.
  • Check for software updates regularly, and switch on automatic updates if you can.
  • Ignore the power ratings stated by the manufacturer. Every manufacturer measures them in a different way, so the results can be misleading. It may be tempting to go for the largest number (e.g. 200W per channel), but the power ratings on an AV receiver don’t accurately represent the performance.
  • Top tip: before you sit down to enjoy film night, turn on the AV receiver about half an hour earlier to let it warm up – it’ll sound considerably better than if you start playing it when it's cold.


5.1 vs 7.2 surround sound: which is better?

The best Dolby Atmos movies of the decade (so far) to test your home cinema

13 of the best movie scores to test your system

Our pick of the best surround sound systems you can buy

Ketan Bharadia
Technical Editor

Ketan Bharadia is the Technical Editor of What Hi-Fi? He's been been reviewing hi-fi, TV and home cinema equipment for over two decades, and over that time has covered thousands of products. Ketan works across the What Hi-Fi? brand including the website and magazine. His background is based in electronic and mechanical engineering.

With contributions from
  • Arron
    Once you've done what the article suggests, get yourself a good soundstage. Put the following video on loop:

    Now toe (angle) your speakers in so they are pointing directly at your ears in your no.1 sweet spot. Sit and listen.
    Toe your speakers out a few degrees. Sit and listen.
    Keep doing this until you get a sharp focus on the audio soundstage. You might go past the best point so toe in/out as needed. Go with equal toe-in and only use different angles if you can't find the stage. -- If you cannot get the stage to focus, the speakers normally want equal toe in/out but room reflections could mean you have to play around with different angles. Sit, close your eyes and listen. If the "centre" sounds to the left, toe the left speaker out a tiny bit and vice versa.
    Re-run the amp calibration (because you will have changed the room reflections).

    For me, the focus is with a toe out of about 10 degrees. Your speakers might be different. My system was already a seriously good listen but this made a genuine leap forward in audio enjoyment and made me want to listen to a ton of music. Total time spent adjusting was less than 15mins.

    "We're here to gsfopjeyWrziDF2dVkT524e you through" -- phew! I needed a gsfopjeyWrziDF2dVkT524e :)
  • nick.knp
    Hi Arron,
    I bought yamaha yht 1840 AVR in india 2 years back. It comes without bluetooth and YPAO (Automatic audio calibration).
    There is another version which comes with these features missing in 1840.

    Is it possible to add these features(bluetooth, usb and automatic caliberation) in YHT-1840?
    I'm providing the links for both AVRs of

    Yamaha YHT 1840, Yamaha YHT 3072
    Please help.
  • Arron
    Hi Nick,
    I'm probably the wrong person to ask in some senses but...

    Bluetooth: think sideways. What do you want to connect? Is there a different way to connect it? E.g. if it's a phone, get an Aux cable to connect it to the amp.
    YPAO: don't worry, YPAO isn't much use on the cheaper Yamaha amps. It takes a bit longer but put on some audio with a high dynamic range that you know well (I often use Pink Floyd - Time) and use your ears. Don't bother trying to make it "right", concentrate on making it right for you.
    USB: again, it depends what you're trying to connect. Would a lot of what you want be fixed by getting a "smart" Blu-Ray player or a streaming device? E.g. if you want to watch movies off a USB stick, maybe you can stream them from your PC to the player or streaming device using Plex. (Plex is awesome and free.)

    Hope this helps,
  • Scaadoo
    Is there a Dolby Atmos av receiver with mostly HDMI inputs that isn't a big & heavy object? It'd surely be a big seller with those having soundbar systems
  • 12th Monkey
    Scaadoo said:
    Is there a Dolby Atmos av receiver with mostly HDMI inputs that isn't a big & heavy object? It'd surely be a big seller with those having soundbar systems
    Please start another thread in the relevant section - this is over a year old and the sub-forum is not much visited.
  • Scaadoo
    12th Monkey said:
    Please start another thread in the relevant section - this is over a year old and the sub-forum is not much visited.

    These comments are coming up under a WhatHiFi? piece posted today
  • 12th Monkey
    Scaadoo said:
    These comments are coming up under a WhatHiFi? piece posted today
    Clearly they've updated it, I see. But point 2 stands - you are unlikely to get a reply here. Up to you.
  • Arron
    Scaadoo said:
    Is there a Dolby Atmos av receiver with mostly HDMI inputs that isn't a big & heavy object? It'd surely be a big seller with those having soundbar systems
    What you're asking for is something that defies the laws of physics. Amps are big and heavy. At least, the good ones are. And you need eleven of them for an Atmos receiver. And a transformer big enough to power them. And the circuits to direct all that power. And a backplane big enough to hold all the connections. And a case strong enough to house it all.