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back to article Ten... mini hi-fi systems

Compact enough for a bookshelf but punching above their weight compared to a portable radio, mini hi-fis are an audio staple. These items can become the sole sound system for anyone pushed for space in bijou flats, bedsits and student digs or serve as a back-up in bedrooms, kitchens and other places around the home. This part …

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I've researched most of these brands and more, and yet know one does a desktop system that you can stick a USB stick/SD card in full of podcasts and listen to them while you work.

The let-downs for them are that they:

1. don't remember last position if the machine is turned off, or power is otherwise lost

2. have no FF/RW within tracks, which you need for tracks that are 30-60 minutes long

3. tiny buttons or so vertically unstable that you have to hold them to operate them

4. No display to show track information

My cheap car stereo lets me do this, but honestly it seems there's nothing for the home that I can just toggle on and off when I walk into the kitchen. I don't want to have to plug in an iPod as that introduces more layers of complexity.

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Wtf!

You have missed the point, just get a decent iPod dock and an iPod touch. Will do exactly what you want with none of the added complexity you are bizarrely worried about.

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Mushroom

you have missed the point...

why the F should he have to purchase an iPod dock and iPod? he has perfectly functional SD cards and USB sticks...

If I see a product with an iPod dock on it, then I'll give it a miss as part of the price of the product is payment to Apple for the license to include said poncey iPod dock...

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Hitmouse is talking sense

I sympathise. For some reason, the industry does not want to make anything which allows flexible playback of your mp3 library on your hi-fi. The best you can do currently is buy a cheap mp3 player and attach it with a cable, as I do. It would be trivially easy for the manufacturers to make a good USB interface, or build mp3 storage into a receive unit, or even to make a seperate unit, but the nearest you will get to that is the Brennan.

There are products like squeezebox, but these introduce many layers of complexity, and want to involve your network, pc,TV, nas and other ecosystems.

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FAIL

Also sick to the back teeth of these things ruined by an iPod dock.

Trying to find a cheap mini hi-fi / clock radio that will play MP3s on alarm wake-up just like every CD hi-fi I've ever owned is an utter waste of time.

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FAIL

really

Pay 10x the cost of a equivalent sized USB stick to get an iPod that forces me to go through all the pain of iTunes to transfer files?

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wifi solutions

I have a SONOS system to manage distribution of music around the house, but it's ill-suited for a podcast library which turns over rapidly.

The kitchen environment is also not good for having lots of wired up solutions with separate MP3 players and speakers etc, plus such solutions are not great for portability. Being able to take the unit into the garden should be as simple as picking up one box, rather than a tangle of wired boxes.

My podcasts get divided between USB sticks which go into the kitchen and into the car. Having wildly different solutions for both environments is not a good solution.

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playing files from local storage ...

... is sooo last century. Can you guys suggest something with support for Spotify?

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Anonymous Coward

Yes, it's called your PC/laptop.

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So you sold all your cd's and threw out any network storage when you signed up to spotify did you?

Ipod touch running the app in a dock?

How many mini hifi's have spotify support? Surely you need screen real estate to choose/create playlists etc?

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Sounds like you need a Squeezebox or Sonos system. Both stream directly from spotify or your home server/NAS

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1. Sonos or Onkio (sadly not "mini" ) seem like good options, but the choice is rather small right now. Case in point : apparently none of the players presented supports Spotify, although Denon CEOL does seem to recognize it as a feature (sadly not implemented)

2. Buying a PC or laptop, and a decent amplifier and speakers, just to play Spotify while in the kitchen? I like your sense of humour.

3. It's not that difficult to show useful information on this small screen on front of the unit, and its not that difficult to put a small LCD on the pilot either. This all has been done and I'd rather pay for 3" LCD to navigate in Spotify than for laptop with necessary extras.

4. No I'm not throwing away my collection of CDs, and even from time to time I even buy new ones, but shelf space at my home is severely limited when compared to choice of music I have at Spotify. I mostly buy CD of "less popular" music (e.g. you don't have much Gardiner or Herreweghe in Spotify , last.fm etc. ).

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Unhappy

all right I did my research, indeed it's a "category of 0 devices". One can have strictly networked player like Squezeebox or Sonos suggested above; or large Onkyo AV with builtin support for Spotify and DLNA ; or a number of small AV device without Spotify. I found exactly zero mini systems with builtin Spotify and DNLA - although some support DNLA and many support Spotify (or anything really) streamed via iPod dock.

Hard to blame El Reg for not reviewing non-existing devices :(

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Do any of them have an RIAA phono input?

Some of us still want to play the vinyl we buy at gigs.

Some of us still want to play the vinyl we have on our shelves even if we've digitised it.

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Phono input

I know Arcam *used* to sell one separately for their kit; I doubt any of them provide one as standard any more :-( Of course there are plenty of third-party phono amplifiers around (probably of much better quality than anything built-in) which you could stick into an auxiliary input.

I know I know, once upon a time the phono input was THE important one...

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From what I can see, having done a fair amount of research on these a few months ago, I'd say your only option is a separate phono stage. The Arcam Mini doesn't even seem to have a phono option (unlike the FMJ or older Alpha/Delta amps).

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Some you missed...

Marantz M-CR603: has built-in AirPlay, which is nice (£400)

Naim UnitiQute: Sounds awesome. To be expected, as it costs over £1,400.

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Also the Denon DM38 is an excellent unit available for around the £200 mark (excluding speakers). Solid build, good sound, and the USB when used with an iPod/iWhatever will use the DACs in the Denon rather than those on the player.

I nearly plumped for this when looking for a system a few months ago, but while trying to source one locally, but in the end up got an offer I couldn't refuse on an Arcam amp (HiFi nerd in me came out), and decided it was time to go the NAS/FLAC + digital radio streaming route with a Squeezebox

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Groan...

Uncontrolled audio quality comparison tests which are not performed using "blind testing" techniques are next to worthless. The whole area of audiophilia is riven with mumbo-jumbo, meaningless and undefined terms and snake oil salesman.

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Go

@Hitmouse "cheap car stereo..."

Here's a suggestion: buy/build a 240-12v transformer and box for your car stereo: buy and connect your chosen speakers (car power amp optional) and you're done. Do need to have a car steroe with 'traditional' fixed front panel rather than the 'remote' display common in today's manf fitted models.

With all the 'custom' cases around for PC's - box for the radio/media player shouldn't be a problem.

Not a new idea I grant you - I did this >28yrs ago for university to end up with v compact radio/tape player. That was years before compact hi-fi systems were available for the budget user

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There's certainly no end to instructions for doing these, but none that I've seen create a very portable bit of kit that I can stick on the shelf like a standard radio. Adding additional battery support would be a pain too.

http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=desktop+housing+for+car+stereo

I have a radio that half-does the job, but when the power goes, the batteries don't kick in. Then you have to locate which file you were last listening to, and then forget about FFing to your last position.

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just what i was going to say Jean Le PHARMACIEN

the fact that it is a piece of cake to use a PC PSU makes it all the easier.

did this in my 1 year of being a hot hatch wannabe tit when i was running my car system in my garage on a table.... off a 400W PSU (sub and all)

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FAIL

Reg Recommended?

The minimum score for Recommended status seems a bit flexible. One or two at 75% get the Vulture gong but not others. Oh yes, I forgot, this is hifi we're talking about!

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I despair

I want a mini hi-fi that plays CDs, as i have plenty, and also takes a memory stick (from front or top) to play everything else, plus a reasonably good radio. I don't use an iPhone or an iPod. I also need something that can handle the file system into which I've put my music, as I need and want to preserve my own structures (that is, I never want to 'shuffle' the separate bits of a violin sonata, or shuffle these with a symphony's). I have almost given up hope that the sound system can be adjusted away from deep bass to something better for classical listening -- they all seem to favour floor-vibration.

Doesn't seem that any of these will do -- the Pioneer seems the closest. Very discouraging.

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Alternatively . . .

. . . Rip all the CDs to decent quality MP3 (I use CDEX and it does a cracking job with the filelookups) Heave all the files onto a nice Netgear ReadyNAS (such as the DUO 1TB) and play via a "Squeezebox" either the "touch" to use your existing amp, or "radio" tfor an all in one solution. Lets you choose "folder" view so how you file the music is how is finds it, NOT based on MP3 tags. Of course this also makes all your files available easily to any PCs in eh house that are on the same network.

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what were those things Steve invented?

allowed you to categorise your music? played it back on a shinny little thing you could plug into the speaker of your choice?

darn, just can't remember.... oh, well, back to the gramophone...

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Anonymous Coward

History rewrites

You did say "invented" didn't you..??

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FAIL

What's with this idiot perpetuation of the idea ...

that iTunes MUST organise your music for you. Preferences->Advanced->uncheck "Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to library". Fixed.

Many HiFi CD players offer a shuffle option, you're going to stop using them also?

Classical music doesn't include floor vibrating music? You've never heard Bach's Tocata and Fugue? A good HiFi needs to be able to reproduce a whole range of music without over-emphasising ANY part of the audio spectrum. The bookshelf speakers that most mini systems are shipped with are universally weak below 50Hz and lack the deep, booming bass that you complain of. What you appear to be lacking is a good, clear mid-range, which is where classical music lives or dies. Find yourself a good HiFi shop that will let you audition the systems that you are contemplating with your own music.

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You want

a Hi-Fi for listening to classical music in all it's fidelity and are looking at these things?

For serious fidelity you need a serious system - something in the range of a Cyrus setup (small boxes the same as here, but infinitely better quality sound) linked up to, at minimum, something along the lines of a set of CM9's. Not something that you are going to find for even close to 1000 pounds. You'll get something good for that money I'm sure, but not amazing. It depends on what you want to spend, and what you can justify to yourself.

As another poster has said something along the line of Tocata and Fugue do have very deep bass, and you need an amplifier with the power, and speakers capable of translating that into sound to reproduce the feeling you get standing in front of cathedral organ playing the sound. Of course it is never going to match the real thing, but you can get quite close.

If you have your own file system you can get enough music streamers that will do that for you.

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Sounds good

I have most on WMA as I think it is a wee bit better than MP3, but I take your point on the other.

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iAnything

I don't do Apple. Just don't like them.

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as I don't have anything i..

...either iPod or iPad, it sort of doesn't matter what they do.

I do not use 'shuffle' for classical. This I know I can get my playback whatever not to do. What I find difficult is to get standard playlists into the sort of order I want. I have managed it by going to the lengths of dozens and dozens of playlists with names like:

violin_bach_partitas_tetzlaff

violin_bach_partitas_oistrach

violin_brahms_concerto_barton-pine

violin_brahms_concerto_milstein

violin_beethoven_concerto_znaider

etc etc

I agree that I want to floor to rattle when Bach does his organ thing, and ditto some heavy-duty tympani in Brahms' symphonies and so on. Another poster has flagged up what I really meant to say: that mid-range tone are hard to get right without spending a lot of dosh on a good system, as most 'default' settings are built to favour modern pop/rock, int he way that Kodak and Fuji camera film were default-set for cooler or warmer tone pick-up.

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Stop

So you've taken to hating Apple

without finding out what they can do for you? iTunes and the iPod touch make for a pretty good streaming server & remote combo. They also make playlists easy (compete with ordering) and have a built in equaliser that lets you compensate for your sound system's foibles.

An Airport Express at the other end of a WiFi link lets you stream to your HiFi at high quality, optionally providing an optical digital feed to a high performance DAC of your choice. That or you can stream direct to AirPlay compatible devices like the Marantz MCR603 (which can also handle DNLA so doesn't event require Apple kit).

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sony

Why did the CMT MX700Ni not make the cut?

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"cheap and nasty mdf"

For many reasons, MDF is actually quite a favoured material for loudspeaker construction. I don't consider it to be either cheap or nasty.

I would be very surprised if the speakers supplied with the Sony were actually MDF at that price. Far more likely to be chipboard.

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What DF118 said

Most high end speakers [ and the studio monitors that the music is tracked and mixed on ] are constructed using MDF as it has better damping and far more consistent acoustic properties than 'real wood'. They just use it in much thicker slabs, usually at least 25-50mm, to ensure structural rigidity. Then they put a nice veneer on to make it look like furniture or vinyl if they want to reduce cost.

Chip-board is the crap alternative, often used in mini and micro systems.

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Indeed, although even chipboard has its uses

It's apparently great as the secondary material in a sandwich with MDF, as it's more absorbent.

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most of the time chipboard is rubbish, however once you get it to an inch or more in thickness it works quite well for audio applications, trouble is that at an inch or thicker its getting too heavy

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Cambridge Audio ONE+

The Cambridge Audio ONE+ is possibly the best product in this category, IMO, but doesn't even make the list. It's also got the best combo of inputs (USB, SD Card, iPod/Phone dock, CD player, FM/DAB radio). It's got an AUX input as well, IIRC, so you could also add, my personal favourite, a Squeezebox.

Anyone looking for something like this should IMO, check this out first (I've no interest in such small systems, but my Dad got one and loves it!).

HTH!

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How much?

Is it just me or does it seem these prices are quite high for mini systems? It wasn't that long ago you wouldn't pay more than a couple of hundred quid for a really good mini hifi system and a cheap thing was under £100.

I've got a Yamaha 5.1 AV amp that was just over £100 new. I know it didn't come with speakers or a CD player and the radio is just FM not DAB, but it does have something like 5x100W and decent quality with plenty of inputs so I can't see how the Yamaha in this review can be 3 times the price. Is an iPod dock and a pair of little speakers really that expensive?

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MJI
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What if you don't have/want an i thingy?

Looks like the market is being aimed at one make of PMP, what happens if you don't want an Apple product?

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Meh

Hifi separates?

As someone who still runs a stack of "hifi separates" I'd like a unit I could just switch on easily when I get home..... like a CD Player, sit back and relax on the sofa with a remote control, and a nice clear display I could read from the other side of the lounge.

I'd want to copy from USB sticks, not feed in CDs when I've already ripped them all for use with the portable and in-car players. Nice big (quiet) hard drive, or even a nice big 32gb flash mem with a slide out tray at the back of the unit where a HDD could be slotted in later.

Why don't they make such a thing? Am I the only one?

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ac ryan...

take a look at those AC Ryan boxes. im thinking of one for our bedroom to stream movies from the nas box. plays everything apparently and can be found for <£100 if you look hard enough. overclockers.co.uk forums suggested them to me. you can stream from NAS or even add a HDD to make them a nas box.

in the lounge we use a ps3 to stream NAS music to our home cinema - its handy as you have a large menu to see, i dont even need my glasses. the ps3 can be a little noisy but its far enough from me for the speakers to drown it out. when i build my cinema room its going in a sealed unit to make it silent.

in the conservatory and lounge we have sony nas players that stream audio from the nas boxes. they also do a party mode where all devices sync up and play the same music, for little systems they are decent but dont hold a candle to the B&W/denon setup in the lounge. for some reason the model i bought is discontinued but i got them from ebay where some store still had a few left

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Happy

Hope my hifi keeps on rolling a while longer...

I have a couple of hifi separates from the late-90s - Technics amp (the second aux input is labelled "DCC", which dates it a bit) and CD player, Aiwa cassette deck and Wharfedale speakers - and a couple of months ago I got a crazy deal from Logitech themselves on a Squeezebox Duet.

If I had to go out and find a replacement for my setup, I wouldn't bother looking at network connectivity as the Squeezebox does (for me) a pretty unbeatable job - wide audio format support, great sound quality and a TOSlink digital out if I ever decided I wanted an outboard DAC. Even better, I can install a software Squeezebox "emulator" like Softsqueeze or Squeezeslave on a desktop or laptop, and stream music to the hifi or a computer (or both - woo).

Thanks for this round-up, anyway - it helps me get "back up to speed" on the state of hi-fi, and persuades me to keep my "rig" going as long as possible...

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MJI
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So do I

My AV receiver is starting to play up.

The section of market I like to buy from appears to have dried up.

Cannot see a £100 amp being as good as what was a £500 amp.

Same with loudspeakers, the company who made them has gone (Castle).

I buy mid range stuff as I can't afford top end stuff.

Replaced my £500 DVD player (knackered laser) with a £110 one with more features, better quality audio but not as well made.

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Unhappy

Avoid the Denon

At least if our Denon F137 is anything to go by. First one went back bcos it was giving us electric shocks from the case, and it basically stopped working. Second one has just stopped playing ball with DAB and FM. Frigging joy... Sound quality is decent, sure, but that's more to do with some OK speakers than the amp.

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Anonymous Coward

The display is the issue

Navigating your tracks on these tiny displays is a huge PITA and just a plain turn-off for me.

I find it better to navigate on your ipod (dock) or android (USB) or (my chosen solution) dedicated networked 10-year-old pentium3 laptop.

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