The Amplifier: B&K Reference 200.7
Now we turn to the audio portion of the system. I originally considered a high-end A/V receiver because it's the most popular amplification/control option today. On my short list were the Denon AVR-5805, the Sunfire Ultimate Receiver II, and the B&K AVR507. The Denon especially caught my eye, with its 10 channels of amplification and built-in HDMI and DVI switching. However, at a cool six grand, this receiver cost as much (if not more) than many high-quality separates. And when you want the best sound, you always go with separates—which is what I ultimately did.
The advantage of audio separates is simple. By separating the amplifier from the rest of the electronic circuitry, you reduce the amount of noise and interference between the circuits. Theoretically, the manufacturer can also use higher-quality components because the dual boxes provide more room to work with inside the cases. (This isn't always true, of course; one certainly can't claim that the three receivers I just mentioned use inferior-quality components!)
I evaluated separates from a number of different companies, and eventually narrowed my choice down to B&K and Sunfire. My final choice was based primarily on availability; I had a B&K dealer locally (Ovation Audio/Video in Indianapolis), whereas Sunfire dealers are few and far between. With both brands receiving equally glowing reviews and having similar features, I was comfortable with the choice.
When you purchase audio components, you take an audio/video receiver and cut it in half. One component is the amplifier, and the other is the preamplifier/processor (often called the "pre/pro"). The amplifier I chose was the B&K Reference 200.7 S2, which cost approximately $2,700. As the name implies, the 200.7 offers 200 watts/channel across seven channels. This is not only a lot of power (the typical A/V receiver only has around 100 watts/channel) but it's also very clean power. The signal-to-noise ratio is an impressive 95dB, and total harmonic distortion is a miniscule 0.09%; this puppy is capable of producing everything from the quietest whisper to the loudest, most driving bass with no overt coloration.
With seven channels of amplification, the 200.7 is obviously designed to drive a 7.1-channel system. My system is 6.1 (only one rear speaker), so I have one unused channel of amplification. Better too many channels than not enough.
Connection to the preamp can be via either line-level RCA connections or XLR balanced connectors. The latter are the types of connectors you find on professional microphones and are the preferred method. I went with the XLR balanced connectors, which cost me about $30 per cable—and that's for seven cables, mind you (one for each channel, plus the subwoofer). Remember to factor in the cost of cabling when you're planning your budget!
The amplifier itself is quite large, standing 7.5 inches high and 19.5 inches deep. It also generates quite a bit of heat, although that's to be expected, given its power output. You definitely want to place this type of component in a well-ventilated rack; put it in a sealed cabinet and you might build up enough heat to shut it down.
Fortunately, I don't have to leave the amplifier on all the time. The 200.7 has a control input that connects to the matching preamp, which turns on the amplifier only when the preamp is in use. The connection is a standard mono mini-jack.
While I'm talking about amplifiers, I'll mention a second amplifier I purchased for my new system. This is a simple AudioSource Amp 100 that I use to power the outdoor speakers on my rear deck. At just $135, the Amp 100 offers 50 watts x 2 channels, which is perfect for background music. The unit is only 3 inches high, so it can sit unobtrusively on top of another component in my rack.