Earlier this month we revealed the What Hi-Fi? Awards 2023 Best Buy winners. And if you took the time to check out these winners you’ll have noticed it’s been a great year for hi-fi systems, with numerous new products earning full marks after passing through our test rooms.
Putting aside our best systems category, look at our best floorstanding speakers and best standmount speaker winners list and you’ll see more than a few systems creeping in, which in my mind is a great thing.
Why’s this awesome? First, the winner list shows that hi-fi manufacturers are taking the category seriously and are aware of the allure products like the Apple HomePod 2 and Sonos Era 300 have for the masses.
Second, because the reason people like them is pretty obvious – they’re easy. Having a simple plug-and-play set-up that doesn’t require too much tweaking or manual tinkering, and that also doesn’t take up oodles of space, is a serious draw for most people.
I personally experienced this moving into my new house late last year, with my lounge simply not having the space, and my diminished bank balance not having the capacity, to accommodate the separates set-up I dreamed of in my head. This is why, at the moment, in my living room you’ll see me rocking the Technics SA-C600 system paired with a set of Q Acoustics 3030i speakers via a Chord Company RumourX cable.
And for the past 12 months, I have been undeniably happy with that. The app’s a little bit finicky to get Tidal Connect running, especially since my wife seems to have a magical ability to steal control via Bluetooth whenever I start playing anything too “noodly” – she’s a philistine who doesn’t appreciate the majestic chops of Steve Vai or epic ballads of King Crimson.
The simplicity and plug-and-play nature of it is brilliant and the sound, considering the cost, makes the set-up fantastic bang for your buck. It also helps that its sound quality is still a cut above what you get in most non-audiophile homes – to the point where guests often comment on how much better it is, at which point I usually bore them to death explaining codecs and bitrates…
I also love the smugness of being able to point out that Technics has won awards multiple years in a row and is still very much a best-in-class product at its price point.
But, despite being “fine” with the set-up, during Awards testing in particular I felt a growing twang in my heart. Watching our resident audio experts discuss and compare the various candidates for stereo amplifier, network streamer, CD player, turntable and speaker trophies, I was reminded how much I love creating a proper separates system from scratch.
Jump on over to our how to build the perfect hi-fi system guide and you’ll get a detailed breakdown of why. The short version is that there’s an art, or in my case Frankenstein science, to matching separates. And the process of listening to how the combination of parts you think will work together actually performs in the real world is a truly special experience.
This experience brings me back to my youth when my dad and I would hop on over to our nearest hi-fi shop and spend an hour or two checking out the latest hardware, getting the poor shop attendant on duty to swap out parts and put up with our “acquired” tastes in late ’70s prog, as we attempted to create the perfect system.
Because a rack can have new parts swapped in and out, where a system is pretty much 'what you see is what you get', separates offer the ability to evolve and have new functionality added over time at a hardware level.
This is particularly true this year, where we’ve seen a number of great network streamers appear, like the Award-winning Cambridge Audio MNX10, which opens the door to giving older hi-fi a new lease of life. If you look at our Technical Editor Ketan Bharadia’s “That Was Then…” series of articles, you’ll know a lot of older hi-fi still performs surprisingly well sonically, so being able to add streaming smarts is a blessing that opens up a whole new opportunity when planning your next system. His look at the Rotel RA820BX (1984) in January is a great example of this.
Even when you’re done, there’s still the fun of planning where and how you’re going to set up the system in your home. As we noted in our past how to set up hi-fi guide, the little things really matter and this can be one of the most fun and most challenging parts of the process – especially if you don’t have oodles of space.
And that’s why I’ve felt a real pang of jealousy watching our intrepid team of hi-fi reviewers work, going through this process while picking this year’s What Hi-Fi? Awards winners, and why I am having to fight the urge to rush to the nearest Richer Sounds, Peter Tyson or Sevenoaks Audio and start planning my next separates system.
These are the best stereo amps we’ve tested
Check out our picks of the best floorstanding speakers
Don’t forget to grab a decent cable. These are the best speaker cables we’ve reviewed