It’s going to be a great year for hi-fi. I can feel it in my bones.
After a handful of years blighted for various reasons, there’s a sudden influx of new hi-fi separates from numerous audio brands coming to the market this year. And I couldn’t be happier.
While the last few years saw many hi-fi manufacturers move towards more lifestyle-friendly all-in-one designs (and rightly so), 2023 started with a big splash for fans of separate boxes for each hi-fi element: Naim and JBL both announced a whole new range of hi-fi electronics at CES 2023 in January.
For Naim, that was the premium-priced NSC 222 streaming preamp, NAP 250 power amp and NPX 300 power supply. The NAP 250 in particular has been a long time coming – it’s the sixth generation of Naim’s long-running amplifier that’s never been out of production since 1975, and one that has been received favourably and to huge success in every generation (we gave it five stars in 2008). For JBL, it was a brand new step into the world of separates, with its Classic Series consisting of the SA550 integrated amp, MP350 hi-res music streamer, its first-ever turntable TT350, and a CD player, CD350. With a silver-walnut wood retro design, they look rather smart too.
JBL will no doubt have seen the fresh interest in vintage speakers getting revived with a modern twist – Mission and Wharfedale are key players here, along with JBL’s own L100 Classic speakers – not to mention the ongoing vinyl popularity. But to go all-in on a full range of electronics speaks of a confidence in the hi-fi consumer market that has been missing in recent years.
And they’re not alone. Audiolab announced its flagship 9000 series (£1999 integrated amplifier and £999 CD transport) at the end of 2022 to be on sale in 2023, followed very swiftly with the announcement of the mid-tier 7000 series (£1099 integrated amplifier, £549 CD transport and music streamer) in January – both of which I saw at the Bristol Hi-Fi Show last weekend. Exposure also announced a new 3510 series of separates (integrated amp, pre/power and monoblocks), Cyrus said it will be reviving the popular Classic series (Classic PRE preamp £2595, Classic AMP integrated £1995 and a proposed BluOS-supported music streamer), and Musical Fidelity launched a re-engineered high-end NuVista range (all separates, all upwards of £20,000).
And Leema Acoustics is back: the Welsh company piped up after a quiet few years to reveal its new Quantum range of electronics, consisting of the Electron CD player, Positron music streamer, Neutron DAC/preamp and Graviton power amplifier (roughly £1500 - £1750 each, I’m told). And there are even more that I can’t fit into this list.
Speaking of comebacks, the Bristol Hi-Fi Show was back on our calendar after a three-year absence and despite trepidation that the public might not be too keen to come back to the old show (now in its 34th year), it was a buzzing, extremely well-attended weekend. The first two days were absolutely rammed, with some demo rooms full to the brink and people trying to tiptoe above heads to see what was being played inside. Manufacturers I spoke to at the show (Dali, Leema, PMC, Rega, Wharfedale and more) were surprised and relieved at the reception, and pleased to see hi-fi fans back in their droves.
2023 also marks the 50th anniversary of some of the most well-respected, venerated British hi-fi brands: Naim, Rega and Linn. Cable makers QED is also celebrating their 50th birthday, while Leema Acoustics is celebrating its 25th. No wonder everyone is bringing their A-game this year.
- Bristol Hi-Fi Show 2023: pictures, news, highlights and latest products
- My top ten highlights from the Bristol Hi-Fi Show 2023
Why is all this exciting? Because as convenient and enjoyable as all-in-one systems, wireless speakers and the like are – in pure performance terms, they’re still not a patch on a set of good quality hi-fi separates. Quite simply, products that are dedicated to doing just one thing have an advantage over the ones juggling multiple tasks at once. And considering the pedigree of hi-fi brands involved in 2023’s launches, it’s impossible not to eagerly anticipate the quality of performance I might hear. I’ve only gotten into hi-fi (properly) over the past decade, but the stream of separate products – whether that’s a stereo amplifier, a pre/power stack, or just a CD player – I’ve heard during my time at What Hi-Fi? have stayed with me more than a wireless speaker ever could.
During the UK launch of the Classic series, Naim’s Jason Gould said: “We think if people have got better music in their houses, it's good for you. And you know what, it will broaden your musical horizons like you wouldn't imagine – because you're hearing things properly. You'll start listening to music you've never heard or bothered to spend the time and attention with.”
Now, doesn’t that sound wonderful? If you love music and truly care about listening to it in the best quality you possibly can (and what your budget will allow) a system made of hi-fi separates will perform in a way that’s no coming back from.
But now it’s time to address the big elephant in the room: cost. There’s no getting around the high expense of some of these products. Naim’s new products start at £5700. JBL’s separates are between £799 to £1599, while Audiolab and Cyrus’ products are around the £1000 to £2000 mark each. That’s quite a bit to spend on one component and it all adds up – we still have to factor in source, speakers and cabling. If you’re starting on your hi-fi journey for the first time, it can be quite daunting on your bank balance.
Thankfully, there are a handful of budget products on the horizon offering a more value proposition, that I’m incredibly excited about. First up is the Mission 778X amplifier – the brand's first amplifier in nearly 40 years! Not only is it exciting to have a new stereo amplifier from an established brand after so long, but it’s also set to retail at a very appealing £549.
Cambridge Audio’s new MXN10 streamer has also caught my eye with its smaller footprint and £449 price tag. Space-saving and wallet-friendly – that’s two boxes ticked already. Pro-Ject also launched a petite stereo amplifier with Bluetooth powers at £349, the Stereo Box S3 BT, that I’m keen to get my hands on, while Tangent’s Ampster budget range offers separates as low as £200. There is a dearth of quality products being launched at around £500 and below, so these budget products are talked about with as much enthusiasm as the higher-end models in the What Hi-Fi? office.
Hi-fi is still very much a luxury for many, but unlike the wider tech world that moves far too quickly, hi-fi tends to take its time to get it right. And it looks like brands have taken their rightful time with these new separates products. Hi-fi products are designed to last a good few years, too, and become part of your everyday life, letting you enjoy music in the best quality possible. Why wouldn’t you want to invest in that?
My colleague Becky surmised that 2023 might be the year of better but smaller hi-fi and audio, and I largely think she’s right (truthfully, even I can only realistically fit half-width products in my home). Hi-fi separates will likely never reach the heyday of its 70s and 80s – but I think there’s every chance that we could see a blip - a good blip - this year, with full-size separates taking centre stage in our corner of the market. Tech giants like Apple and Sonos may be grabbing headlines, but I’m convinced that hi-fi separates will have a good go at it this year.