Sometimes, it's hard to tell audio-video receivers apart.
No wonder. Pioneer's VSX-1018AH-K ($599) and Elite VSX-01TXH ($750) are otherwise identical receivers, except for some obscure THX processing modes, a 12-volt trigger, S-Video inputs, an amber display and the slightest dimple when the more expensive model smiles.
To some buyers, the differences are worth it. The VSX-01TXH model, after all, is the least expensive entry into Pioneer's upscale Elite series. After spending several weeks with the Elite VSX-01TXH, I know these are superb receivers. But when every dollar counts, the VSX-1018AH-K is the better buy.
It pays to know what you're looking for when shopping for an audio-video receiver, the brains of a home theater. Here are a few things:
1. An informal poll, mine, shows that people find the economic stimulus plan less confusing than setting up the average audio-video receiver. So keep it simple. Many receivers have an automatic setup program that adjusts volume in each speaker and makes adjustments for room acoustics.
2. Get the latest surround-sound technology. You might never use it, but why buy a receiver that's already obsolete? Look for HDMI 1.3a technology, with on-board decoding for the latest surround-sound formats, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master.
3. Don't pay for expensive video upscaling if you're not going to use it. The Elite VSX-01TXH has Faroudja video processing, which does a nice job of converting incoming analog video from a VCR or DVD player and to a seemingly higher resolution that's sent to an HDTV via an HDMI cable.
These receivers do nothing for digital video. If you use HDMI to link a DVD player to the receiver, then the receiver to the HDTV, the receiver merely passes along the signal, untreated.
Why bother? For many users, it becomes a convenience when components - the VCR, DVD player, gaming console and cable box - are connected to the audio-video receiver and controlled by a single remote.
Note, though, that reproducing a Blu-ray movie's Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master soundtrack digitally requires an HDMI connection. In that case, the receiver would handle both audio and video.
Otherwise, there's no need for a lot of HDMI connections or an audio-video receiver with fancy video processing. Let the TV, the DVD player or the cable box handle the processing.
4. Do you want to play audio in more than one room? Most receivers over $200 now include 7.1-channel amplification - seven speakers and a subwoofer. If most movies someday have 7.1 soundtracks instead of today's 5.1, you'll want all of the speakers in one room. Until then, you can use those extra two channels to power speakers elsewhere in the house.
5. If you're a satellite-radio subscriber - and confident that the teetering business will survive - make sure you get an audio-video receiver that's ready for it. Just plug in your satellite mini-tuner.
6. How much do you love your iPod? Your digital music player will work with any receiver using a basic Y-adapter cable - a pair of RCA plugs at one end (to the receiver) and a miniplug (to the iPod) at the other. Some receivers come with optional iPod docks, but the newest ones mainline your iPod with a direct USB connection.
7. Don't get power-hungry. You don't need 100 watts per channel with efficient speakers in a standard-size room. Many manufacturers mislead consumers, anyway, with less-than-honest appraisals of their receiver's power. Look for measurements spanning the full range of human hearing (20 hertz to 20,000 hertz) with all channels in action. Pioneer is among the honest manufacturers.
Look for distortion levels, measured as total harmonic distortion (THD), below 1 percent.
8. Make sure your receiver has enough digital audio inputs to accommodate your cable box, DVD player, gaming console and any other equipment.
9. Don't expect color options. Audio-video receivers are black or, occasionally, silver. That's it.
10. Here's what matters most: finding the receiver that sounds best to your ears. It's hard to tell in a noisy retail store, but all of the brands mentioned above offer either good or best-for-the-money sound.