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What's the Difference Between Receivers and "Separates"?

Buying a new home theater or stereo: the challenges

Buying a new home theater system or stereo can be a daunting task.  If you go into a Best Buy or Tweeter stereo store, you'll see a big range of solutions available.  There are the all-in-one systems, with all the speakers and other necessary gear in one package.  Then there are the separate receivers, DVD player, and speakers, where you get to build your own system.  People who don't want to take the time to learn about how home theater and stereos work often go for the all-in-one systems, in the hope that buying a system from a respected brand at a mainstream retail store means that they're getting their money's worth.  Unfortunately, while all-in-one systems are certainly a safe buy and all the components are compatible with each other, they seldom represent a good value. 

If you go to a stereo store rather than Walmart, Best Buy, or a department store, the salesman may offer to help you "custom build" a stereo out of separate components.  There is the opportunity to get a good value by buying your stereo this way.  And you can pick and choose where to invest your money.  Another bonus: when it's time to upgrade to better speakers, or a new Blu-Ray player, you can easily switch out the old component, rather than scrapping your whole all-in-one system.  The big drawback with "custom" systems is the chance you might get hoodwinked.  Especially if you don't have a relationship with the person selling you the gear, which you probably don't. 

So, if you don't want to swallow an all-in-one system whole, you'll need to educate yourself about the different parts of a stereo or home theater.

This Hub is here to teach you about one part of the home theater or stereo system: the "receiver", and the hi-end option to the receiver: separate pre-amplification, surround sound decoding, power amplification, and radio tuning.

What is a Receiver?

A receiver is the control and power center of your home theater or stereo system ("Stereo"). It's where you plug in you CD, DVD, TV audio, tape deck, and any other sound sources. It also contains the surround sound processor (if any), and amplification for two or more speakers. Most receivers new on the market today are 5.1 surround sound receivers, meaning they can decode a Dolby 5.1 surround sound signal from a CD, DVD, or Blu-Ray. 5.1 Surround Receivers also have amplification for front, center, and rear speakers, and an output for a powered subwoofer.

When you buy a receiver, all you'll need to get your system up and running be:

  • speakers
  • CD/DVD/Blu-Ray player
  • TV

But you may not want to buy a new receiver!  Why?  Because there's an alternative: separates.  As described above, a receiver is actually several functional components in one box:

  • Tuner: picks up AM and FM radio signals
  • Decoder/Processor: splits audio signal into stereo, 5.1, or 7.1 surround sound, or THX
  • Pre-amplifier:  amplifies the signal from the decoder before the power amp stage
  • Power Amplifier: drives the speakers

Ask yourself this: do you want a radio tuner in your home theater?  No?  Well, if you buy a receiver you're paying for a tuner whether you want one or not.

Ask yourself another question: can you afford the stereo you really want?  Do you want to upgrade to better gear in the future?  if you can't get what you really want, or see yourself upgrading in the future, you owe yourself a look at separates.

Buying Separate Pre-Amp, Processors, and Power Amps

Separates allow you to split up the receiver into its component parts, just like buying a "custom" setup breaks the all-in-one system into its components parts.  Most high-end, audiophile-quality gear is separates, for sound quality reasons, and because audiophiles spend a LOT of money on stereo gear, and want maximum flexibility and maximum audio fidelity.

Separates are more costly than receivers of equivalent functionality and power rating, yet they very often deliver superior sound that is easy to hear.  If you already can't afford the stereo you really want, buying separates won't get you any closer!  Unless, of course, you do what audiophiles do: buy your home theater in the used market. 

Properly cared for, used pre-amps, tuners, processors, and power amps work just as well as brand-new gear; this type of electronics lasts essentially forever.  And the technology behind the best gear hasn't changed in decades.  Go on Ebay and Cragslist in your local community, search for "vintage" "speakers" "pre-amp" power-amp" "surround sound processor", and for brands like Adcom, Rotel, Carver, McIntosh, and NAD.  Once you find a piece of gear in your price range, you can plug it into www.audioreview.com and www.audiokarma.com to get a sense of its value and what audiophiles have to say about the product. 

If you educate yourself, buying vintage separates will get you the most bang for your buck, by a wide margin.  Plus your stereo will have a uniqueness and coolness that a big-box store system can't touch.   Read all of the entries here, at Vintage Stereo and Home Theater University, and you'll have all the tools you need to buy with confidence, and get yourself a truly high-end setup that will be the envy of your friends. 

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