As What Hi-Fi? celebrates 40 years in the game, join us for a nostalgic look back at four decades of landmark products.
This is part three, featuring our pick of the best products from 1999 to 2006, and showcasing some hugely influential products from Arcam, B&W, KEF, Sonos, Yamaha and more.
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 2: 1983 to 1998
- The top 40 What Hi-Fi? products of all time, part 4: 2007 to 2016
Arcam Alpha 7SE (1999)
For much of the 90s Arcam dominated the affordable CD player market with a series of excellent machines that delivered a formidable combination of sound quality and superb build. We think the 7SE was the brand’s crowning achievement of the era.
Coming to the party at the tail end of the 90s, this £350 player steamrollered price rivals and set a stiff task for those that retailed at twice as much. The sonic presentation was authoritative, refined but packed a good dose of dynamics. The 7SE uncovered an impressive amount of detail too, and organised it well, delivering a wonderfully entertaining sound.
While that plastic front panel wouldn’t pass muster today, this player was solidly made and cleverly constructed. It was easily upgradable, but most owners were more than happy with the standard player. At the price nothing came close.
Pro-Ject Debut (1999)
Since its inception in 1990, Pro-Ject has been one of the authentic heroes of the entry-level turntable and a true enabler of the current and on-going vinyl revival.
Designing its products in Austria, manufacturing them in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, it’s a Central European success story – and the Debut (which was, annoyingly, not its first product) is perhaps the most successful of the lot.
Following Pro-Ject’s avowed ethos of delivering ‘simple-to-use, maintenance-free and reliable’ products that ‘perform beyond all expectations normally associated with their price’, the Debut was corking value for money and a deserved hit.
Almost 20 years of improvements and upgrades has led to the Debut Carbon and its variants, but it’s with 1999’s Debut that Pro-Ject first made its mark.
KEF KHT2005 (2000)
No one doubted the exciting audio potential of surround-sound, but the idea of being hemmed in by six burly speakers in order to properly enjoy a film was a difficult sell.
It took KEF to utilise its long-acknowledged technical expertise and hitherto-undiscovered mastery of interior design to offer the best compromise: the KHT2005 5.1 speaker package, or ‘Eggs’ as they were immediately dubbed.
Thanks to a combination of thrilling, high-impact performance and an aesthetic that actually added to your decor choices rather than detracted from them, the KHT2005 was an instant and enduring hit.
Other manufacturers attempted to emulate KEF’s winning formula of great sound, high-quality materials and beautiful finish, but none succeeded.
The KHT2005 was a classic from the off, and every subsequent version has only added to the original’s reputation.
MORE: KEF R100 5.1 review
More after the break
The introduction of Sky+ in mid-2001 ushered in an era when we stopped being slaves to television schedules and instead started to dictate our own terms for how we watched TV.
At its launch, the Sky+ personal video service boasted a 40GB hard drive (for recording, pausing and rewinding live TV), twin tuners (for doing that while watching another channel) and a seven-day Electronic Programme Guide that was outstanding for the time.
A more or less constant regime of upgrades, including more memory (the set-top box’s hard drive has since grown to 2TB) and new features such as remote recording via mobile phone, which arrived in 2006, has kept Sky+ ahead of the game.
Sky+ established a template that competitors have had no choice but to try to emulate.
MORE: Sky Q review
It doesn’t always pay to be the originator of new technology – sometimes you do the leg work and others swoop in when it’s established – but the rewards are there for those who truly innovate.
That’s what Sonos did in 2002 when it launched its first wireless multi-room range.
Thanks to the simplicity of constructing a system, the unshakeable stability of the SonosNet local network, and discreet, stylish looks, all that was required was decent sound quality – and Sonos delivered this in fine style.
The California company’s intention to concentrate on maximising the potential of music-streaming services rather than on locally stored digital collections hasn’t hindered its progress – ‘Sonos’ is on the way to becoming a brandnomer like Hoover or, indeed, Tannoy.
Bowers & Wilkins PV-1 (2004)
There are any number of sound engineering theories and principles which dictate the way B&W’s ‘pressure vessel’ (for this is nothing so prosaic as a ‘subwoofer’) looks – but don’t try and kid us B&W wasn’t thoroughly turned on by its appearance.
A design classic in a field dominated by products so visually tedious that even their own manufacturers would encourage consumers to hide them out of sight, the PV-1 redefined the sector.
It dug deep, hit hard and fast, and dominated the What Hi-Fi? Awards for years on end. So completely did it boss the category that we eventually did away with the subwoofer Award altogether.
MORE: B&W PV1D review
Yamaha YSP-1 (2005)
Yamaha was so far ahead of the curve with its YSP-1, there wasn’t yet a word to describe the product.
We reviewed the YSP-1 in the April 2005 issue of the magazine, giving this ‘Home Cinema System’ four stars. But it’s thanks to Yamaha that we now know it as a soundbar.
These days, of course, a soundbar is mostly used for augmenting the flimsy sound served up by many wafer-thin televisions, but back in 2005 Yamaha was determined to deliver actual surround-sound from the YSP-1.
Thanks to no fewer than 42 tiny drive units and some fiercely complicated digital processing, it did just that – provided your room was of a sympathetic shape.
Although soundbars have moved on in the decade since, with hindsight, the YSP-1 is as thorough and far-sighted a solution to a home entertainment problem as we’ve ever seen.
MORE: Yamaha YSP-2700 review
ATC SCM11 (2006)
In answer to the frequently asked question ‘What’s the best pound-for-pound speaker you can buy?’, the ATC SCM11s are always among the first names on our list of potential answers. They have a simple case to make.
In 2006, ATC produced a blank-sheet design, using components designed and built in Gloucestershire. With their black speaker grilles and cherry wood veneer finish, the SCM11s may have looked a bit homely, and slightly retro by the standards of the mid-2000s, but they sounded superb.
Refinements and improvements in the quality of drivers, and the materials and finishes of cabinets, have seen the SCM11s comfortably maintain their place at the top of the pile – as multiple Awards (most recently in 2015 for best standmounter) attest.
The best pound-for-pound speaker you can buy? It’s right up there.
MORE: ATC SCM11 (2013) review
Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin (2006)
In 2006, the idea of a premium iPod dock (and back then it meant a physical dock for your 30-pin connection) was so novel we reviewed the original B&W Zeppelin in the Temptations section of the magazine, where we feature high-end kit that’s beyond the dreams of most.
£400 for an iPod dock? It still seems pretty outlandish, but fortunately the Zeppelin set new standards for the previously humble dock in terms of both sound quality and decorative potency.
So of course there followed a raft of competitors, each seeking to up the iPod’s game. None of them looked like a Zeppelin though, and consequently none achieved the ongoing iconic status of the B&W.