The brains of your home theater are always going to be in your audio processor. Most folks at least begin with a receiver, which has to handle the demanding task of preamplification and processing, as well as pumping out power to your speakers. Getting the right receiver is crucial.
Receivers are tricky creatures, and a lot like Microsoft Office; you'll often find lots of bells and whistles, but it's not easy to figure out what you actually need. Assuming you want to impress your buddies, there are some definite requirements.
Ensure that any receiver you look at has Dolby Digital EX (6.1/7.1-channel decoding) and DTS-ES (6.1-channel decoding). These are usually well represented on both the box and the face of the unit (see Figure 3-1).
Ensure you have at least two coaxial audio inputs and two optical inputs. Many higher-end components will have both sets on their output strip, but you'll want to use coaxial when possible, so the more the merrier.
Figure 3-1. Dolby Digital and DTS logos
Tim Taylor, eat your heart out. Until you break your receiver into separates, it's going to be both the controller and the amplifier in your system, so buy high. Going less than 80W per channel is a waste of time, and 100W in each channel is worth the extra cost.