Testing products is a full-time, season-spanning job for our experts reviews team, but in the weeks building up to the What Hi-Fi? Awards every year, testing ramps up as brands submit their choice of products in 26 categories and an intense judging process goes underway to determine the best of the storeroom-filling bunch.
For the just-announced What Hi-Fi? Awards 2022, we tested more than 20 systems in our ‘Systems’ category alone, from just-add-speakers streaming amplifiers to all-in-one and active speaker systems. We saw examples of the former from the likes of Naim, Marantz, Mission, Technics and Audiolab, and those of the latter from KEF, Audio Pro, Triangle, Q Acoustics and JBL. Within this Awards judging and during regular reviews testing of newcomers in the months prior, we covered a good chunk of the ever-expanding market. And these are the handful we would most recommend...
- See the 6 systems that won What Hi-Fi? Awards 2022
- See all 109 What Hi-Fi? Awards 2022 winners in every product category
The two best just-add-speakers streaming systems
If you want a true hi-fi system without all the boxes – perhaps you don’t have the space, budget or even the will to accommodate one or two for sources and another one or two for amplification – a streaming amplifier might be just what you need. These integrate source (oft network streaming) and amplification (pre and power) in one box, requiring only a pair of passive speakers to make up a full working system.
These streaming amplifiers have been one of the biggest growing hi-fi categories in the past couple of years, as manufacturers have capitalised on the increasing popularity of network streaming and the attractiveness of such a domestic-friendly solution. Cramming both source and amplification into a single chassis doesn’t always spell success, with engineering compromises often having to be made to accommodate such a versatile, compact design, but while systems of separate boxes still tend to have the sonic advantage, we have now reached the point where streaming amplifier performance is very decent indeed.
We have tested such offerings from a wide range of brands – Bluesound, Arcam, Cambridge Audio and HiFi Rose, in addition to the brands mentioned previously. But the two that stand out and set the benchmark at their respective price points are the Technics SA-C600 (£899/$999/AU$1749) and Naim Uniti Atom (£2500/$3800/AU$5250).
The Technics – our ‘Best hi-fi system under £1500’ – is arguably the system more befitting of the ‘all-in-one’ description in that it has the increasingly rare inclusion of a CD player alongside the more typical suite of network streaming features – your UPnP, your Spotify Connect, your AirPlay 2 and Chromecast and whatnot. Bluetooth and DAB+/FM radio are also on the menu, as are analogue and digital connections offering owners the option of connecting a turntable, laptop or another source. Really, the Technics leaves no stone unturned in the features department, and its expressive and musically entertaining performance doesn’t let it down either.
In our minds, paired with either the Dali Oberon 5 or Wharfedale Diamond 12.3 floorstanders or the Dali Oberon 1 or B&W 606 S2 Anniversary Edition standmounts, the Technics plays a big part in offering an excellent, versatile and space-efficient system for between £1200/$1600/AU$2500 and £1800/$2500/AU$3300.
Our other favourite occupies a higher price point and wins our ‘Best hi-fi system over £1500’ Award, but it isn’t actually as well equipped, forgoing a CD player (a feature of Naim's higher-ranging Uniti Star) to first and foremost focus on network streaming, plus Bluetooth, radio and physical connections. What the Uniti Atom does have over the Technics is a notably more sophisticated performance for those who can afford to take this kind of system to the next level. Unlike the Technics, which is relatively new, the Naim has sat at the top of this end of the market for years, so its unwavering dominance speaks a lot for its talent.
This ‘next level’ Naim is better suited to ‘next level’ speakers such as the Triangle Borea BR08 or Wharfedale Evo 4.4 floorstanders or the KEF LS50 Meta standmounts, so you’re looking at a total system price of between £3400/$4700/AU$7500 and £3600/$5000/AU$8400 here – not insignificant by any means, but worth it for the quality of performance from this few boxes.
- The best hi-fi systems on the market
The three best all-in-one speaker systems
If three boxes (one streaming amp plus two speaker cabinets) is still one box too many, but you still want a sound that’s more sophisticated and room-filling than the one you’d get from a talented but ultimately limited one-boxer such as the Sonus Faber Omnia, you might want to consider another burgeoning hi-fi category: the all-in-one speaker system. Everything – source, amplification and speakers – in just two speaker cabinets.
While we have had active and powered speakers (speakers + amp) with wireless connectivity (typically Bluetooth) for years, KEF laid the foundations for this more mature kind of streaming system in 2016 with its LS50 Wireless, and it’s the second-gen version of this system that remains our easiest recommendation for those who can afford its £2499/$3800/AU$4295 asking price.
The LS50 Wireless II are active standmounters based on the highly successful LS50 Meta passive speaker design, packing 380 watts of amplification and a streaming module that provides a gateway to AirPlay 2, Google Chromecast, UPnP and the usual streaming service suspects. There are physical digital and analogue connections and Bluetooth too, but the real charm isn't even their versatility; it's the unique sophistication of their convincing 'hi-fi' sound.
Below that price point? Another two What Hi-Fi? Award winners that do a similar job but in a smaller form factor and, unsurprisingly, with more modest sound performances: the Triangle AIO Twin (£699/$1000/AU$1099) and KEF LSX II (£1199/$1400/AU$2195).
Both active standmounters offer a generous feature set that ticks the boxes of network streaming, Bluetooth and digital/analogue connections, though the KEF adds AirPlay 2 and Chromecast, and the Triangle requires a wire connecting the right and left speaker whereas the KEF does not. Performance levels go up as price does in this instance, too, so we’d go with the KEF if you can afford it or the Triangle if you can’t.
Just be aware that both KEF speaker systems don’t have a phono input, so those who want to play vinyl will require a turntable with a built-in phono stage or an external phono stage to make that possible. The Triangle does have an integrated phono input, but know that it isn’t of the same high quality as the streaming output.
Compact hi-fi system alternatives
If none of the above suit your system requirements or budget, you should peruse our long list of the best hi-fi systems, which features recommendable, five- and four-star winners head to toe.
There's the multi-Award-winning Denon microsystem for those who don't need network streaming and have a tight budget; turntable specialist Rega has the perfect all-in-one set-up for those looking to get into hi-fi and records; and one-box wonders from Sonus Faber, Naim, Ruark and Revo will make for considerable upgrades on a Bluetooth wireless speaker. There are also high-end versions of the hi-fi streaming systems above, such as the KEF LS60 Wireless and Naim Uniti Nova.
Just know that in many cases a similarly priced system of separate components, while not as convenient, does usually have a sonic advantage and is invariably easier to upgrade, so if you can accommodate one, we would. On the fence? Here are some separates systems that work splendidly together:
- CD player + streamer + amplifier + speakers = £1896 / $3842
- Turntable + streamer + amplifier + speakers = £4097 / $5497 / AU$9488
- CD + turntable + amplifier + speakers = £5852 / $8172 / AU$11,848
- Turntable + streamer + amplifier + speakers = £10,793 / AU$25,539
- 3 vinyl systems from £728 / $889 / AU$1308