It's British Hi-Fi Week here on What Hi-Fi?, so what better excuse to come up with a wonderful system comprising the best of British components? The set-up we have here is thoroughly 2023, embracing as it does the double joys of streaming and vinyl in one neat system. And, for the price of a (decent) all-in-one system, you can enjoy the undoubted benefits of having specialist bits of kit doing what they do best, and providing a sound that is unrivalled at the price.
Music streamer: Audiolab 6000N Play (£449/$600/AU$999)
Turntable: Rega Planar 2 (£499/$775/AU$999)
Integrated amplifier: Rega io (£420/$725/AU$949)
Stereo speakers: Wharfedale Diamond 12.1 (£249/$399/AU$699)
Total: £1617 / $2499 / AU$3646
The joy of selecting products for a top-value system comprising British kit alone is the sheer volume of choice that that ‘restriction’ brings. Of course, that very benefit brings about some serious selection headaches. Which stellar performers to leave on the bench for the final? “What?” we hear you cry, “Despite their years of sterling service? Harsh…”
Well, perhaps. But such decisions must be made, and when we look at the kit that makes the cut, we can’t think of many products we would rather have in each position, British or not.
Here, then, we present our first team representatives for an all-round terrific-value best of British streaming and vinyl stereo system. It would do the UK proud in a World Cup of hi-fi, of that we have no doubt.
Music streamer: Audiolab 6000N Play
First up is the Award-winning Audiolab 6000N Play streamer. Having DTS’s Play-Fi hi-res, multi-room platform at its software core means that when connected to a network through ethernet or its dual-band wi-fi, the 6000N Play can access services such as Spotify Connect, Tidal, HDtracks, Deezer, Qobuz, Amazon Music, Napster, TuneIn, iHeartRadio and SiriusXM.
It also means it can stream hi-res music files up to 24-bit/192kHz from networked servers, thanks to DLNA and UPnP compliance. In other words, it covers most of the bases for the modern world of digital music streaming. There are digital and analogue outputs, the latter of which can be plugged into Rega's io amplifier (below) in this system.
The Audiolab is an insightful and involving listen, with great clarity, openness and a down-the-middle tonal balance that keeps us agreeably entertained. It reveals a wide-open canvas, colouring it with well-imaged detail lavished with a welcome amount of subtlety and space. It has insight into a track too, and has the dynamic interest to grab the listener's attention and hold it for the duration of a piece.
Turntable: Rega Planar 2
The modern hi-fi system is by no means all about the digital realm, though. Despite the vinyl-bashing fanfare with which the compact disc entered the musical fray 40-odd years ago, the turntable emerged after only a few years of slumber to take to the musical pitch once again. Enter the Planar 2, Rega’s turntable midfield general.
The model number has been around for almost 50 years now in various guises; this iteration was introduced in 2016 and is fitted with Rega’s RB220 tonearm, which features new ultra-low friction ball bearings, a stiffer bearing housing and an automatic bias setting, making it virtually plug ’n’ play.
And anyone well versed in Rega’s impressive decks will no doubt recognise its sonic stamp: balanced and authoritative with impressive scale and natural musicality. It has a terrific ability to get toes tapping, delivering bass with punch and texture. It has insight and agility too, while being precise and rhythmic enough to present a soundstage accurately. Yet it manages to retain an enjoyable enthusiasm for the music at the same time.
That ability to tie all the musical strands together and paint them on a precise and spacious canvas seems to come easy to the Rega, and is what singles it out as deserving a place in this set-up.
Integrated amplifier: Rega io
One thing the Planar 2 doesn’t have is a built-in phono stage; happily that base is nicely covered by its stablemate amplifier that comes complete with a very decent moving-magnet stage. Another Award winner, this time of the 2021 vintage, the Rega io is an impressive little box of tricks that works both with the Planar 2 and the Audiolab 6000N Play streamer. The 30W-per-channel, entry-level (for Rega) io can be purchased as part of the brand’s System One all-in-one proposition with the Planar 1 turntable and Kyte speakers. But it comfortably holds its own in this step-up system.
Rega’s consistency with components and their implementation make the io instantly recognisable as a descendant of the more expensive, and really rather excellent, Brio. They both display an incredible sense of rhythm, punchy dynamics, agility, detail and all-round fun.
As we say in our review of the io: “Play Drake’s Money In The Grave ft. Rick Ross, and the io’s nature comes to the fore, its natural sense of momentum driving the dominant bassline forward. The deliveries of the two rappers have the transparency, richness and clarity that demands they are taken note of, while the amplifier’s innate musicality captures the rhythmic chimes that hold it all together.” There is a directness and buoyancy to the io’s sound that makes for a truly compelling listen.
It isn’t the most versatile amp out there – it is analogue only, which in this system works perfectly well – but those who are happy with a simple, no-fuss, purely analogue amplifier and who prioritise entertainment will be more than happy; Rega’s unmistakable and unquestionably entertaining signature amplifier sound is now more accessible than ever.
Stereo speakers: Wharfedale Diamond 12.1
The final members of this potentially world-beating for the price British hi-fi squad are Wharfedale’s lovely Diamond 12.1 standmount loudspeakers. These neat, well made, compact boxes stand just 31cm tall, so they won’t dominate any room. They aren’t overly fussy about placement, but they do excel when they are a little bit away from any walls.
And, for their size, the Diamond 12.1 have a surprisingly bold and full-bodied presentation. They sound confident and composed – especially when you consider their very reasonable price – and offer plenty of refinement.
When playing Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa they dig up a pleasing amount of detail and manage to organise things in a cohesive and musical way, with a presentation that doesn’t start to get confused when things get busy.
They are smooth and forgiving but remain nicely balanced, with enough in the way of bite. We like the reassuring way the Diamonds handle larger-scale dynamics, delivering more in the way of authority and scale than their modest price and size suggest. Low frequencies come through with confidence and more fullness than expected.
They deliver a good soundstage, too, have a strong punch and deliver rhythms with a surefooted sense of drive. We are impressed by the seamless integration between the drive units and the way these speakers convey vocals with such confidence, communicating the passion in music really well.
If you want to make the most of your music, it is generally accepted that separate components is the way to go. We feel that this quartet proves that. There is an undeniable convenience to an all-in-one system, and they are getting more and more competent and impressive all the time; but employing specialist kit in each role can’t help but do a better job, and bring you more joy to your music listening. If you have around £1600 to spend, you will struggle to do better than this for your money – British representatives or not.
These are the best stereo amplifiers: the best integrated amps for every budget