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What’s Actually the Difference Between a Cheap and Expensive Stereo Receiver?

A stereo receiver is a necessary audio component in any hi-fi system.


A stereo receiver is a simple but very necessary part of any audio system that includes a pair of passive speakers. Less complex than AV receivers (which require a TV in the loop and need to worry about supporting various home theater sound technologies), high quality stereo recievers can come pretty cheap. One of our favorites, the Yamaha R-S202BL, costs right around $150.

But that is just the baseline, and you can go a lot further if you want to splurge. The Cambridge Audio AXR100 is a two-channel stereo receiver that costs $500. And the extremely high-end includes things like the McIntosh MAC7200, which costs $7,500.

So what exactly is the difference between a stereo receiver that costs $150 and one that’s considerably more expensive? Let’s break it down.

A bigger investment means more (and better) amplification.

The speakers are the most important component in any hi-fi system, so you should pick them first. Once you know what kind of speakers you’re going to use, you need to choose an amplifier that is going to properly drive them. In this case, that’s your stereo receiver.

In general, the bigger and better the speakers you have, the more powerful the stereo receiver you’re going to need to drive them. But power isn’t everything. For example, the Yamaha R-S202BL and the more expensive Cambridge Audio AXR100 can both deliver 100-watts per channel, but what makes the Cambridge Audio AXR100 better is the build quality of the built-in amplifiers. Not only are the components higher-grade, but the AXR100 also has both right and left channels, which contributes to more accurate sound.

There’s also the matter of impedance (the amount of resistance in the receiver’s electronic circuits), frequency range (which high and low frequencies it is able to hit) and total harmonic distortion (which how much distortion is added or avoided). Higher-quality amplifiers are going to have a lower impedance, a wider frequency range and the lower the total harmonic distortion. The Cambridge Audio AXR100, for example, has a much wider frequency range with less distortion, which allows it to provide better sound to speakers with the ability to showcase it and ears that are able to appreciate it. The McIntosh MAC7200, meanwhile, offers the same general benefits, but up an additional tier.

We recommend asking an audio professional about a specific pairing between receiver/amplifier and speakers before buying. In general, however, the more expensive the speakers, the more expensive it’s going to be to drive them.


Want it to look nice? That’ll cost you.

You may not be surprised to learn that the price of a stereo receiver is going to vary depending on how well it is made and how well it looks. The nicer and more expensive stereo receivers are going to have better internal compartmentalization, meaning the different components inside it don’t interfere with one another and add unwanted distortion, as well as better circuitry. They’re going to be made with better materials and have more polished finishes, and have higher-quality displays, knobs and buttons.

There’s also a huge demand among audiophiles for vintage stereo receivers. Marantz, Sansui, Yamaha, Pioneer and Onkyo were some of the biggest names in stereo receivers during the ’60s and ’70s, and people still love them because they can still work well and, more importantly, they have a very appealingly retro vibe. The problem is that working vintage stereo receivers are difficult to come by and those that are can be fairly expensive. You can sometimes find non-working vintage stereo receivers online for relatively cheap, but refurbishing can be expensive because a lot of the busted parts aren’t made anymore.

More expensive receivers give you more options.

It’s pretty much a given that new stereo receivers are going to have built-in Bluetooth these days, allowing you to stream music to your system from your smartphone; and yes, both the Yamaha R-S202BL and the Cambridge Audio AXR100 have built-in Bluetooth. It’s common for more expensive stereo receivers to also have built-in Wi-Fi, which allows them to support more advanced streaming technologies like Apple Airplay 2 or Chromecast. Unfortunately, neither the Yamaha R-S202BL and the Cambridge Audio AXR100 have built-in Wi-Fi (which is one of the biggest flaws of the Cambridge Audio AXR100).

The more affordable the receiver, generally the less it’s able to do. The Yamaha R-S202BL lacks a subwoofer output, for example, so it’s not great if you want to build out a system. It also doesn’t have a built-in preamp and can’t connect directly to a turntable. The Cambridge Audio AXR100 has a subwoofer output and a built-in preamp. It also, like the Yamaha R-S202BL, has a preamp output that gives you the option of adding your own external preamplifier.

Buy Now: $150 (Yamaha R-S202BL)Buy Now: $500 (Cambridge Audio AXR100)

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