If you're looking to build a grown-up hi-fi system from scratch, then hopefully this set-up can provide some inspiration.
For this system we've combined the old school joys of vinyl with the convenience and scope of a dedicated music streamer, aided by a serious integrated amplifier and some of our favourite bookshelf speakers.
All four of these products are Award winners from 2021, and in this system, they blend together beautifully.
Turntable: Technics SL-1500C (£899 / $1199 / AU$1999)
Music streamer: Arcam ST60 (£1199 / $1500 / AU$2495)
Amplifier: Cambridge CXA81 (£999 / $1299 / AU$ 2499)
Speakers: KEF LS50 Meta (£1000 / $1499 / AU$2495)
Total: £4097 / $5497 / AU$9488
Turntable: Technics SL-1500C
We’ll kick things off with the Technics deck. The SL-1500C comes supplied with the well-respected Ortofon 2M Red and is equipped with a built-in phono stage. There’s even a switchable auto-lift function that takes the stylus off the record once the end of the side has been reached. So it’s really fuss-free to use. As referenced above, the overall standard of build is impressive, and the SL-1500C feels solid and well engineered with a pleasing sense of precision to the way everything works.
Surprise number one for us is that the built-in phono preamp is really good. That doesn’t tend to be the case normally, and means that you don’t have to spend extra on a dedicated outboard unit to get the best from the record player. The phono stage is intended for use with moving magnet cartridges, but should work just fine with high-output moving coils too, should the itch to upgrade strike.
The SL-1500C package, as supplied, is one of the best sounding we’ve heard at this price. It has a clean and precise presentation, one that defines the leading and trailing edges of notes with skill.
We’re impressed by the SL-1500C’s sonic agility; the way it resolves plenty of detail and manages to deliver all that information in a cohesive and musical whole. There are few rivals around this price point that do it better.
Amplifier: Cambridge CXA81
The Cambridge Audio CXA81 sets a new baseline for the best stereo amplifiers at this level. It’s a rare product that has the ability to make us switch off our reviewing brain and simply let us be wowed by the music.
Confidence is key to the CXA81’s performance. It hammers out staccato rhythmic patterns with assured conviction, snapping in time and allowing its expert handling of alternately loud and soft beats to lock in a groove. Above it, a full-bodied and expressive midrange deals out melodies that are given space to soar, yet still sound definitively part of a musical whole. There’s a richness overall to the balance, too. This Cambridge is powerful and weighty in the low end, but lean and agile enough to dance around with the most excitable bass lines, while the treble is left plenty of headroom without sharpness or rough edges.
It can, perhaps, sound a little forward, but its level of expression is such that it is sympathetic to more minimal, sombre recordings as well. Feed it a solo piano work or chamber quartet and it is only too pleased to show you its more caring, gentle side. What really shines through though is a level of clarity that makes close rivals sound even a little cloudy.
And its lack of a phono stage is no hindrance to its inclusion in this system, as the Technics deck supplies all the necessary duties on that front.
The Cambridge amp performs just as well with the digital source we are using in this system, too.
Music streamer: Arcam ST60
The ST60 may be Arcam’s first standalone, dedicated music streamer, but the company has experience in the medium, having scored some fine hits with its compact Solo Uno and more high-end SA30 just-add-speakers streaming systems.
The ST60 uses the streaming architecture from that premium amplified sibling (stripping out the amplification stage), and so grants owners access to AirPlay 2, Google Cast, uPnP playback and internet radio, as well as analogue and digital connections and support for MQA and Roon. And this is an impressively talented performer. The ST60 is self-assured in its delivery – big, full, solid and expressive, with a pleasingly open and broad soundstage.
Over our many years of reviewing Arcam products, we have become used to the company’s signature sound and are happy to hear the ST60’s impressive tonality and clarity, combined with an easy muscularity that never feels strained. It’s a captivating performance, and more revealing of a piece of music than any rival we have heard at this price, with a firm grip on detail and dynamic insight, and impressively tight timing.
Arcam’s MusicLife App has been improved, but we must say that it’s still not a completely seamless experience and the interface isn’t as sophisticated as some. But there are ways round these issues, and when a product sounds this good we think they’re worth it.
It’s not solely a streaming product; the ST60 also accommodates external sources through its twin coaxial and optical inputs. A USB drive can be plugged into its USB socket, which is also the port of call for software updates. Much more of a necessity for a music streamer is its outputs, and to that end the Arcam has a fine selection – coaxial, optical, RCA and balanced XLR, so it’s easily accommodated into pretty much any hi-fi system and means you can easily add a better DAC to the ST60 as and when you might feel the need.
Speakers: KEF LS50 Meta
We can’t imagine you will feel the need to upgrade the speakers any time soon, though. The KEF LS50 Meta are our standmount speaker Product of the Year for 2021 for a reason. The LS50 Meta don’t look any different from the original five-star LS50, and in many ways, they aren’t. KEF considered revising that beautifully made enclosure but concluded that little could be improved.
The one area ripe for improvement was the LS50’s Uni-Q driver array,
where the tweeter sits in the throat of the mid/bass unit. This has been thoroughly reworked, taking in all the refinements that KEF had developed and adding something new in the form of Metamaterial Absorption Technology (MAT).
MAT is KEF’s way of coping with the sound that comes off the back of the 25mm aluminium tweeter dome. Here, the rearward sound feeds into something about the size of an ice-hockey puck that looks like a plastic circular maze. It is layered and made up of 30 tubes, each tuned to absorb a different frequency – all with the intention of providing cleaner, less distorted highs.
It doesn’t take long to realise that the LS50 have improved significantly. While the basic sonic character is instantly familiar, the new ones have gained a level of clarity and finesse the originals only hinted at.
It’s a surprisingly full-bodied presentation with a good degree of authority for such compact speakers. It looks like the Metamaterial technology really works. These new KEFs sound so much cleaner and more sophisticated than before, particularly at higher frequencies.
Large-scale dynamics are handled well and there’s a good amount of muscle for a speaker of this size. These are refined and composed performers that rarely sound stressed unless volume levels are high.
A big brand like Technics can do things that smaller specialist brands find very hard to achieve, with economies of scale coming into effect. Its SL-1500C is easy to use, extremely well built, and it has a good integrated phono stage. The Cambridge amplifier is the best all-round amp you can buy for below a grand, while Arcam’s first pure musical streamer is a fine-sounding piece of kit with all the essentials.
The KEF speakers too, like the other members of this quartet are superb all-rounders. These speakers, as their Product of the Year title testifies, really have no flaws at all, merely all-round excellence. All of which means that this system ends up being a great set-up with no real compromise. Which is nice.
This system provides a great listen with superb build quality. It is undoubtedly a fine set-up with no real compromise, and it’s really easy to live with.