If you're looking to buy an AV receiver this year, one of the major step-up features you'll be tempted to pay for is built-in networking. All the receivers we're looking at in the $500 price range have an Ethernet port on the back and support for a variety of streaming-music features, such as Pandora, Rhapsody, Napster, Slacker, and Internet radio. As much as we're fans of those streaming-music services, we'd hesitate to recommend paying extra for getting them built-into a receiver, since AV receivers are our least favorite way to access them. Here's why.
1. Mediocre graphical user interfaces
Just a few years ago, AV receiver user interfaces were terrible, if you even got one at all. Crude white text with a black background was the norm, even on high-end models.
Things have gotten better, but AV receivers' graphical user interfaces (GUIs) still look archaic compared with every other modern home theater device. With Blu-ray players, game consoles, and media streamers all featuring colorful high-def graphics, we've come to expect that from home theater components. Sure, to some extent it's just eye candy, but a well-laid-out interface makes it easier and more enjoyable to use a product.
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2. Sluggish navigation
Again, compared with other home theater devices, AV receivers feel sluggish when you're navigating menus. Even something as simple as bringing up the setup menu takes a few moments, compared with the instant response you get on something like the PS3. And if you're trying to navigate your Rhapsody library (or even worse, search for an artist), all those delays really add up and become frustrating. We're willing to overlook a mediocre GUI, but sluggishness really deters us from using a receiver as a streamer.
3. Expensive to replace
Streaming-media services are still evolving at a rapid pace. Any device you buy now is likely going to feel outdated in two to three years as more services becomes available and existing services improve.
If you're relying on an inexpensive streaming-media box like the Roku XDS or Apple TV, it's not too painful to buy a new $100 box in a few years to get new features. But that's not the case with an AV receiver that costs more than $500. Many buyers tend to hold on to receivers for more like five to 10 years, and the streaming-media features that seemed cutting-edge in 2011 are going to seem ancient in 2021.
4. Don't expect regular updates
Game consoles and media-streaming boxes are regularly updated to get new streaming-media features. (The PS3 didn't even have disc-free Netflix streaming until the end of 2010 and now it's responsible for 30 percent of all Netflix streaming.) I'd be surprised if the same kind of updates were available for this latest round of AV receivers. We expect a similar update cycle to Blu-ray players, where current models may get a few added services this year, but will be left behind once new models come out in 2012. That's not good news for a product you're likely to have for several years.
5. Receiver remotes are difficult to use
Even receiver remotes that we like (such as the Onkyo TX-NR609's clicker) are needlessly difficult to anyone who's not a home theater enthusiast. Compare that with the bare-bones simplicity of the remote included on the Apple TV or Roku XDS. If you're in a household where not everyone is a techie, an AV receiver remote is going to be an annoying hurdle when you just want to listen to Pandora.
6. No streaming video (yet)
Unlike all the other products we've mentioned, we haven't seen any AV receiver that supports streaming-video services. That means you're probably going to end up getting another device for at least Netflix streaming, not to mention Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, Vudu, MLB.TV, YouTube, and CinemaNow. And because of all the reasons listed above, you'll probably use that device to do all your media streaming, while the streaming capabilities of your AV receiver will go unused.
The real benefits of networking in AV receivers
AV receivers may not be great media streamers, but built-in networking has other upsides. The most basic advantage is that AV receivers are now supporting firmware updates over Ethernet, so manufacturers can continue to fix bugs after the product ships. And heck, maybe manufacturers will surprise us and add some streaming-music services via firmware updates, too.
The other excellent feature networking opens up is AirPlay, Apple's wireless streaming-audio platform. The neat trick with AirPlay is that it shifts the navigation of streaming-music services from the receiver to the iOS device (iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch) in your hand. So you get the speed, high-def graphics, and touch interface of your iOS device, instead of navigating the clunky, slow menus of an AV receiver with its incomprehensible remote. Plus, you're not limited to the streaming-music services supported by your receiver, because you can stream music from any app.
Manufacturers are also now creating remote apps, which allow you to control your receiver from a mobile device on your home network. In a lot of cases, the remote apps aren't that useful (especially since we'd rather use a universal remote in our home theater), but sometimes it's nice to control your receiver without needing line-of-sight like you do with a standard IR-based remote.
So what should I buy?
If you're looking to buy a new receiver in 2011, we think you should definitely include a networking entertainment option. That leaves you with three recommended choices:
For owners of iOS devices (iPad, iPod Touch, iPhone):
1. Consider an AirPlay-equipped AV receiver. It's a feature we love and it's nice that you don't even have to turn on your TV to control your streamed music. Our top-rated AirPlay receivers (so far) are the Denon AVR-1912 and the Pioneer VSX-1021-K, both of which can be had for between $530 and $550.
2. Add an Apple TV to any nonnetwork AV receiver to achieve the same basic result. That will give you the same basic features as the receivers with built-in AirPlay, but you'll be sure to get the latest bells and whistles (such as the AirPlay mirroring feature that's set to debut when iOS 5 rolls out). Such nonnetworked AV receivers as the Denon AVR-1712, Pioneer VSX-921-K, and Yamaha RX-V571 are options, although we haven't reviewed them. (The Onkyo TX-NR509 is worth a look, too. It has networking, but its street price is an incredible $300.) And even when you factor in the Apple TV's $100 price tag, you'll probably be near breaking even (versus purchasing the networked models) and ending up with a streaming-media solution that works a whole lot better.
If you don't own an iOS device:
3. Add any other network media streamer to a nonnetwork AV receiver. You've got a lot of options here, from game consoles (PS3 and Xbox 360) to Blu-ray players to a media streamer like the Roku XDS. You can even go for an Apple TV, although you won't get the benefit of AirPlay from a mobile device. The main idea is that all of these are better streamers than what you'll get built-in an AV receiver and in most cases it will be cheaper to upgrade if you need to in the future.