The Bottom Line
I can't stress enough the importance of setting up your receiver correctly - it's the only way to get all the performance you've paid for. As long as you don't ask it to play too loud, a properly set up budget-price receiver can deliver better sound with good speakers than an expensive receiver that hasn't been correctly matched to those speakers.
In this test, the Sony STR-DE698 was both the least expensive and the weakest entry, partly for its setup routine but primarily for less-than-robust power output. The Marantz SR4500 provided excellent performance and an impressive mix of surround mode options, but you'll also need to do a manual speaker setup to get the most from it.
I'm amazed at what Pioneer managed to pack into the VSX-815 receiver. With its great mix of surround features, LCD-equipped remote, auto-setup routine, and strong sonic performance, it's my hands-down favorite here. If you're in the market for a budget receiver - and especially if you're recommending one for that home theater neophyte in your life - this is definitely the one that you should check out first.
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