34 Marantz MCR611
The great advantage of the music systems they sell in the big discount stores is that they’re dead easy to set up; just unpack, connect the speakers, plug it in and you’ve got music. The disadvantage is that these don’t sound anywhere near as good as equipment from the specialist audio brands – the kind of equipment that can drive serious speakers and fill the room with rich, full music. And maybe even hook into your television for vastly improved sound over the strangled tones coming from its tiny internal speakers.

If you’re looking at music systems in the big stores, usually priced up to around $500, try turning the volume right up, if only briefly. Some of them, you’ll discover, don’t go very loud at all which means they’ll have problems filling a room with music let alone doing justice to an action flick. Those that do go loud often distort the music up there. The bass goes all furry and indistinct and the highs sound like broken glass. Lots of them have all the bells and whistles, but bells and whistles frequently come at the expense of sound quality.

If you’re prepared to spend more a number of top shelf audio brands offer equipment that’s just as simple as the all-in-ones at the chain stores, the added benefit being that you often get to choose the speakers to go with them. The very best thing about choosing speakers is that you get to relax for an hour or so listening to your music through a range of speakers while the salespeople do all the running around. And you’ll be amazed by just how different speakers can sound.

But wait, there’s more. Individual hi fi dealers often package these music centres with a pair of speakers at a killer price, and while that price is certainly higher than you’ll strike in the discount stores, it’s actually pretty low for stuff wearing these brands, and for the type of stuff they sell in the specialist stores generally. The prices are sharp because they want to establish a relationship with you, so that when you add a turntable or streaming, or maybe start dabbling in a multi-room system, they will be your first port of call.

I listened to a bunch of them at one specialist hi fi dealer recently and the sound-quality-for-bucks ratio is truly impressive.

34 Denon Ceol_N9The cheapest I saw was Cambridge Audio’s One packaged with a pair of good two-way speakers for $898. The One is extensively featured with Bluetooth and an FM and digital radio tuner, RCA and optical inputs and a 3.5 mm input for music from a phone or digital portable. It puts out 30 watts per channel which is enough to fill a normally sized apartment with sound. Cambridge Audio makes matching speakers, or choose your own. The ones this dealer had put with it gave a light and airy sound that was most pleasant.

Denon’s CEOL-N9, with matching speakers from the same brand, was the next step up at $995 with speakers. About the only thing it doesn’t have is a digital tuner, making do with AM and FM. Otherwise it has AirPlay, Spotify, Bluetooth and NFC and supports most formats for music stored on outboard drives, both USB and NAS. And there’s internet radio. You’d buy this one for the features, as sound quality isn’t a noticeable step from the Cambridge Audio, but that said they both sound full and rich. Its power is also about the same.

Then there’s the Marantz CR611. This is a serious piece of kit that has much the same features as the Denon (with the addition of digital radio) while offering more power and the ability to drive two separate sets of speakers. The sound is rich and clean, and so it should be for $1099 without speakers, but it will drive a very wide range of speakers and I’d budget at least $500 to do it justice.

All of these systems come with an in-built CD player, but if your music is all electronic there are streamers offering much the same performance and quality in this price range.

Published September 2016


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