As What Hi-Fi? celebrates its 40th anniversary, we continue our look back over four decades of landmark products.
This is part two, featuring our pick of the best products from 1983 to 1998.
You can read all four parts of the feature by following the links below.
- The top 40 What Hi-Fi? products of all time, part 1: 1976 to 1982
- The top 40 What Hi-Fi? products of all time, part 3: 1999 to 2006
- The top 40 What Hi-Fi? products of all time, part 4: 2007 to 2016
Audiolab 8000A (1983)
This is the product that started it all for Audiolab. It arrived out of nowhere, knocked the A&R Cambridge A60 off its perch, and set the standard for midrange amplifiers for years to come.
For the time it was superbly made, making most rivals look like they’d been knocked-up in a shed. The 8000A was also well equipped, with tone controls, a headphone output and a decent phono stage.
It also had plenty of grunt and could drive most price compatible speakers with ease, though the sound quality split opinion at the time. There was no denying its wide-ranging dynamics, insight and tonal evenness, but some wanted greater rhythmic subtlety.
But back in the 80s, this was a fit-and-forget amplifier – an easy recommendation that pleased most of the people most of the time.
MORE: Audiolab 8200A review
MORE: Audiolab 8300A review
Mission Cyrus One (1984)
Cyrus started off as the electronics arm of speaker specialist Mission. The Cyrus One and Cyrus Two - its more powerful brother - were the company’s first products. Early ones had a plastic case to eliminate the distortion effects of eddy current, but later versions switched to a cast metal case that was astonishingly sophisticated for a budget amp.
This was a purist amp, designed with maximum resolution as a priority. Provided you were in basic sympathy with its lean, lightweight presentation – power output was only 25W per channel – this amplifier stunned with its agility and dynamic expression. When it came to insight and uncovering the finest of details, it could rival most amps costing twice as much.
MORE: Cyrus One review
Naim 32 preamplifier/SNAPS/250 power amplifier (1984)
The legendary Naim 250
This is a classic Naim high-end combination, which formed the heart of thousands of hi-fi systems in the 1980s.
It came in three bits; the 32 preamp – a flexible purist design – coupled to a high-grade dedicated power supply and the now legendary 250 stereo power amp. Together, this trio could deliver drama and delicacy in impressive portions.
By current standards the sound could have been more transparent and open, but at the time little could match this combination’s dynamic punch, powers of organisation and stupendous rhythmic drive.
Back then, Naim had a close relationship with Linn, so this amp was usually found partnered with the Linn LP12 turntable used as the source.
MORE: Naim Nait 5si review
Denon DRM-44HX (1985)
Welcome to the only cassette deck on our list. We could have gone for one of the top-end models from Nakamichi and justified the choice quite easily, but the Denon is just more real world – and more of a What Hi-fi? product.
It cost around £350 and packed in just about every piece of cassette tech you can think of bar auto-reverse. All the Dolbys are here from the noise reduction systems B and C right the way through to HX Pro, which added an extra dose of openness and detail to the sound of magnetic tape.
This was a three-headed machine, which allowed the listener to hear the recording while it was being made. Being one of Denon’s premium products, it featured a tuning system that optimised the performance with the tape being used.
The performance was excellent, with lots of detail, good speed stability and strong dynamics.
More after the break
Acoustic Energy AE1 (1988)
The original AE1 sent shockwaves through the premium speaker market in the mid-1980s. It was a small standmounter, barely larger than a shoebox, but delivered staggering levels of detail and dynamics.
They were exotically engineered, with an all-metal drive unit configuration (rare for the time) and a cabinet lined with plaster to reduce internal standing waves and improve damping. The two small front-facing reflex ports looked pretty cool too.
These speakers were demanding of system and supports. They worked best on their dedicated stands, which cost half as much as the speakers themselves, and only shone with high quality, muscular amplifiers.
Get a pair singing though, and they would impress even today.
Denon TU-260L (1990)
This unassuming Denon is arguably the most important tuner in What Hi-Fi?’s history. The Mk1 version ran from 1990-98, and was followed by the Mk2, which ran up to 2006.
That’s an impressively long life, but in its own understated way this FM/AM tuner was quite some product. For the £100 it cost we couldn’t find an alternative we preferred.
The 260L was built well, simply laid out and easy to use. Once you got a decent signal – a dedicated outdoor FM aerial was desirable in most cases – it delivered a well-balanced sound that worked superbly across talk radio and music stations.
There was plenty of detail and it was well organised, and wrapped up in an easy-going balance. Don’t let the Denon’s low-key appearance fool you, this is as much a classic as any other product here.
Pioneer A400 (1990)
The arrival of Pioneer’s A400 in the early 90s was a seismic event in the budget amplifier market. It had a combination of detail, agility and dynamics few rivals could get close to, all wrapped in a slickly-built package.
The amplifier’s impact sent the competition back to the drawing board, forcing wholesale changes in the budget market. Everyone from Arcam and Cyrus through to Denon had to revamp their products to compete, but even then they struggled.
So did Pioneer when the time came to replace the A400, and subsequent models never quite captured the magic of the original.
We heard systems where the Pioneer was flanked by high-end sources and speakers yet still came up smelling of roses – there aren’t many budget products with that kind of capability.
The only downside was a slightly thin, excitable balance that needed a bit of careful system-matching to allow the amp to shine. Get that right and the A400 rewarded like few others.
Mission 753 (1993)
How many drive units can you get in a single box. In the case of Mission’s 753s, as many as possible. When they were introduced back in the mid-90s, these slim towers reignited the market for sub-thousand pound floorstanders.
While the sound quality had much to do with their domination – we talked of strong dynamics, quick responses and loads of detail – other aspects of the design made them stand out.
At the time Mission was a master at turning out stylish speakers that looked hi-tech. The 753s was a crisp and forward-looking design with subtle details that made most of the competition look old-fashioned.
Perhaps even more importantly they looked great in a domestic environment, which meant they were welcome in houses where more traditional alternatives wouldn’t be allowed past the front gate - a lesson that sections of the industry still need to learn.
Marantz CD63 KI Signature (1995)
Marantz is no stranger to producing top-class CD players, particularly at the more affordable end of the market, but even today the CD63 KI Signature has to go down as its crowning achievement.
Based on the CD63, this product featured a host of improvements including upgraded circuit components and improved construction, which together lifted its performance dramatically. The KI in the name stands for Ken Ishiwata, Marantz’s Brand Ambassador, who developed the player to match his own taste.
Sonic gains included improved detail, more expressive dynamics and a chunky gain in refinement. The balance strayed to the rich and smooth side of neutral but still packed plenty in the way of excitement and drive to convince.
MORE: Best CD players 2016
Denon DM3 micro (1998)
Denon has dominated the micro system market for almost two decades thanks to the foundations laid by the DM3. The company has built generations of products based on its gloriously convenient half-width casing.
CD replay and a radio have always been part of the equation, with later generations able to accept a digital feed from external sources. This original version came with optional speakers, which worked superbly with the main unit.
The DM3 didn’t become a legend by having a strong features list though. There’s no shortage of rivals that do at least as well. No, the Denon’s advantage was its superb sound. Sure, a collection of quality budget separates (from the same time) would outperform it in all sonic areas, but they’d invariably cost far more.
What the DM3 did - and its descendants still do – was to deliver an engaging and entertaining performance beyond that offered by the competition. That it did so in such an affordable, well-built and easy-to-use package just seals its reputation.
MORE: Denon D-M40DAB review
Sennheiser HD600 (1998)
There were premium headphones before the HD600 and there have been many after it, but there’s something about this late 90s design that still strikes a chord.
They had a wonderfully forgiving smooth balance, yet delivered plenty of attack and drive when required. Detail levels were high but despite all the analysis it was oh so easy to sit back and get lost in the music.
Move away from the sound and the HD600s continued to impress. They were well-built, and designed with long-term use in mind.
An example? The cables were detachable, which made them a breeze to replace if one got damaged. These Sennheisers were comfortable too, being light and carefully shaped.
Subsequent models made gains in transparency and overall performance, but even today the HD600 headphones stand out as something special.
MORE: Sennheiser HD800S review
Read part three of our feature below: