The inside story on home audio choices
Tech Know Special - Home Audio

It genuinely wasn’t that long ago when any self-respecting music aficionado had to find a way to accommodate a heinous rack of rectangular black boxes within their designer crash-pad in order to unleash thumping tunes on those lucky enough to be invited back to an afterhours session. Soon, much of this grim-looking audio kit was being dumped in the loft, right next to those big crates of defunct CDs (seriously, when did you last crane your neck to scan a row of discs?) as people mostly made do with an iPod dock for the sake of an easier life.

Today, though, it is perfectly possible to buy a home hi-fi that both sounds and looks the part, without breaking the bank to do so. Most of these sexy beasts are geared up for connecting to an iPod or computer and many of them also employ supercool wireless technologies that add a big spoonful of musical convenience into the mix. What’s not to like? To illustrate this, Clash took six stonking new systems along to Air Studios in London to appraise their charms in this acoustically ideal setting. This issue’s resident muso, Roots Manuva, was thankfully on hand to help run the rule over them, too, with a selection of his own favourite beats - including the very first airing of the tune he had just created on an iPad. Some of these brands may be a tad unfamiliar but this selection was curated so as to offer a tempting combo of gadget eye-candy along with some proper treats for more discerning ears. Audiophiles might still prefer a more traditional set-up with separate speakers and, to be clear, there is nothing wrong with that. Nevertheless, most music fans would be delighted to live with these predominantly one-box systems that are guaranteed to become as much of a talking point as that rare remix or obscure lyric as your guests kick back into the wee hours.

“I like something with a bit of character to the sound,” Roots confesses when faced with a tableful of stereos, before proceeding to try each one. “If you can get something to sound good on that,” he says, disappointed by the Arcam rCube, “then you know your mix is doing okay. It almost sounds like it’s in mono.” This is, however, true of many one-box systems.

Air Studio’s in-house engineer (and Clash’s professional ears for the day) Adam Miller is also on hand to advise on how to best assess audio equipment. “Bring some music with you that you know really well and then listen carefully to how well the details come across on the new kit. Can you hear the vocal clearly and are you feeling the low-end or not?” he suggests.

Finally, even though Adam mostly works with Air’s reference speaker-systems, he offers all budding music-makers an invaluable tip gleaned from his many years of studio experience. “Always test your new music on a wide range of kit. We listen to our songs on small, crappy speakers as much as the big fancy ones to ensure the mix translates well to most audiences.”

The Pick of the Bunch

Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air - £500

Not content with making the ultimate iPod dock, Bowers & Wilkins has completely redesigned this and made it AirPlay compatible too. This means you may now play music on it over wi-fi via iTunes from a computer or, better still, an iPhone which can remain safely in your pocket. The sound is richly potent, given its size, and that unique design will attract envious glances.

Vita Audio R4i - £550

Still got CDs knocking about the place? This svelte all-in-one system will belt out this booty or you can deploy the top-mounted iPod cradle, DAB /FM radio, and various other inputs. The system is elegantly finished and its neat RotoDial selector will act as a detachable remote. Sound quality is surprisingly good, albeit limited by its built-in speakers and design aesthetic.

Meridian M80 - £1200

Say hello to the world’s fanciest ghetto-blaster. This truly imperious piece of kit will play CDs and DVDs or suck in tunes via a supplied iPod dock. Your best bet is, however, to connect a computer to its digital inputs. As with its Zeppelin and Arcam rivals, the M80 has multiple speakers plus a subwoofer within its chassis and this will shake the room with aplomb.

Arcam rCube - £350

The rCube lacks the big guns of the B&W or Meridian systems here, along with some of their sophistication, yet its clear sound quality far exceeds expectations at this price. Despite a top-mounted Apple cradle, the Arcam will also play music wirelessly from a nearby computer or iPhone with an optional dongle (around £45). It’ll run off battery power for around eight hours.

Bose SoundLink - £260

This Bose dock dispenses with a dedicated Apple cradle and, instead, has a standard 3.5mm socket plus a Bluetooth wireless connection. This means it works well with any phone that rocks a stereo Bluetooth feature within a range of ten metres or so. The SoundLink is elegant, has a handy rechargeable battery, and punches above its size. Even so, it is heavy and overpriced.

Eclipse TD508 II with amp - £825

Eclipse makes swish studio speakers and these miniature versions bring much of that sophistication to the party for a less eye-watering cost. Your money buys a pair of speakers, reminiscent of spooky eyeballs, plus a cone-shaped amplifier to which you can attach any audio source. Unlike all its rivals here, these Eclipse speakers can be spread apart for a genuine stereo effect and you can even add a matching sub-woofer for extra low-end grunt.

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