Compact audio systems: Mini-Hi-Fi and micro-Hi-Fi
Compact audio systems are the perfect option if space is limited or if you're looking for an all-in-one system or a system you can use in a specific room, such as an office or a teen's bedroom. The principal differences between a mini-hi-fi system and a micro-hi-fi system lie in their size and power (expressed in watts). Mini-hi-fi systems are approximately 30 centimetres wide, whereas micro-hi-fi systems are never wider than 22 centimetres and are considerably less powerful.
Mini or micro, many of the compact systems now read CD-ROMs as well. Some models can handle up to five audio CDs at a time, and a few even feature a CD burner. An important point to consider: Sound quality does not depend on the power of the audio system. To determine your needs in terms of power, make sure you take into account the size of the room and, if necessary, consult an audio expert.
As for sound, Digital Sound Processing (DSP) offers some interesting options because it simulates the acoustic properties of environments such as a stadium or concert hall. In general, compact audio systems are sold with speakers. And while ordinary speakers do a decent job of rendering the bass tones, a subwoofer will enhance the bass frequencies considerably. If this is an important consideration, look for a model with a subwoofer output. Also check if the audio system you have in mind features a graphic equalizer (GE), which makes it possible to adjust the bass, mid-range and treble tones.
A good proportion of compact hi-fi systems are compatible with MP3 music files. And though some only read MP3 CDs, others feature a memory card reader or a USB port, which allow the user to plug in a Walkman or a USB key with MP3 files. As well, an increasing number of compact hi-fi systems come with an iPod dock or cradle. SoundDoc, one such system currently available, features a relatively powerful speaker and provides far richer sound, and the remote control unit lets users select songs and control volume from a distance.
The digital Radio Data System (RDS) is also worth a look, as users can find and memorize their favourite radio stations with a simple press of a button. RDS sometimes offers a text option as well – the artist and song names appear on the display unit as you listen – but this service is only offered by certain radio stations. A few models also have a “programmable” function that lets you configure the CD player so that it only plays songs from the disk you want to hear. The “karaoke” function, for its part, lets the user plug a microphone into the system. If you're a cinephile, a hi-fi system that connects to your DVD player or includes a DVD player may be an even better option.
Two channels or multiple channels?
People interested in putting together their own audio system will need a stereo or audio-stereo amplifier (AV). In both cases, technological advances have allowed manufacturers to miniaturize the internal components, making them lighter and more compact. But there is a difference between these two systems: The stereo amplifier is equipped with two loudspeaker channels, while the AV amp has a multi-channel decoder that separates the audio signal from a CD player or TV into five, six or seven distinct channels and redirects it toward the speakers. Here, the advantage is that you can plug in as many as seven speakers, including a subwoofer for extremely low audio frequencies. As you may have guessed, the AV amp is designed for home theatre, while the stereo amplifier is geared first and foremost to music lovers.
Of course, the stereo amplifier can be connected to a CD player, and some models come with an integrated CD player. This type of amp is relatively basic and doesn't feature any new innovations, other than higher-quality components than in the past. Still, some models with an RDS function can be connected to DVD players and do have a subwoofer output. As for the AV amplifier, it can handle all of the latest functions, such as MP3 and iPod compatibility and XM receiver. The most recent models include outputs for HDMI digital audio/video cable. Usually, the digital audio and video signals are captured separately, while HDMI technology places the receptors for these signals in the same cable. This digital technology offers the best performance and the highest quality sound and image, though other digital outputs, for the most part, provide decent quality. Note that high-end AV amplifiers are sometimes equipped with a small microphone that automatically balances the sound from each speaker.
Also available on the market are all-in-one home theatre systems, often called “THB.” Like a compact hi-fi system, this one includes everything you need for a great home-theatre experience: an AV amplifier and speakers, with integrated DVD player (optional). Even if it is of lesser quality than a stereo amplifier and traditional speakers, this system is often more than sufficient. In addition, the high-end models come with all of the latest functions, including MP3 compatibility.
Cables and speakers
Regardless of where the cables are connected – to a television, a CD or a DVD player – it's important not to skimp on quality: If you do, your audio (and video) system's performance will suffer. While somewhat pricey, gold-plated cable is especially durable, and gold is an excellent conductor. One way or the other, ask an audio expert what your best option is before you plug in your cables. As a rule, the shorter they are, the better.
Some stereo and AV amplifiers are sold with speakers, but more often than not, the speakers must be purchased separately. Your choice will depend on various factors, among them the size of the room in which you plan to use the speakers. And of course, there's no point in purchasing powerful loudspeakers if your amplifier is comparatively weak: You will not achieve better sound – quite the contrary.
The same goes if you use a low-end CD player. Speaker and amplifier power should be more or less the same. As for the materials used to manufacture the speakers – often a mix of plastic and metal or an amalgam of plastic and wood – there are no hard-and-fast rules for determining which is best. Trust your ears! And bear in mind that prices for speakers or a multi-speaker system vary considerably, depending on power output, size and the materials used.
Finally, regardless of the type of audio system you have in mind, bring one or two CDs when you're shopping around and take the time to listen to them on the systems that interest you. Ask as many questions as you can. And, of course, don't forget to carefully read the warranty.
Three tips for making the right choice
1 Bring a few of your favourite CDs to the store and give them a listen.
2 Pay special attention to the voices: They should be clear, realistic and not strident or strangled.
3 Listen at different volumes, as volume plays a major part in the impression a speaker leaves.