When it comes to a hi-fi system that will do sterling service without breaking the bank, we would urge you not to discount equipment that What Hi-Fi? has awarded four stars. It might seem the obvious and desirable thing to plump for five-star (or – hey, even better! – Award-winning) products, but you run the risk of pricing yourself out of the market for gains that may not even benefit you and your particular needs. A four-star product may be the perfect fit for the system you are after.
CD player: NAD C 538 (£299 / $349 / AU$599)
Integrated amplifier: Cambridge Audio AXA35 (£349 / $449 / AU$670 approx )
Standmount speakers: Dali Spektor 2 (£249 / $320 approx / AU$479 approx)
Total: £897 / $1118 approx / AU$1748 approx
CD player: NAD C 538
And, while a thoroughly modern hi-fi system might, on first consideration, demand streaming capabilities, at this level only a spendthrift would discount the compact disc as their musical source. CDs are in plentiful supply, they are relatively inexpensive, and – if you are anything like us – you have plenty of them already. No point wasting all that previous investment simply to gain a little operational convenience. The quality of sound attainable via compact disc still stands up today with the (forgive us) mainstream streaming services, so there’s plenty of life in the CD yet.
Here, then, we have a budget system that, while it wouldn’t have looked out of place 30 years or so ago, can still perform to a standard that is comfortably high enough for most people’s needs. There isn’t a vast choice as far as new CD players go nowadays, but the NAD C 538 we have here is a fine musical player that is available for a reasonable price. As far as bells and whistles go, there isn’t a whole lot to this NAD; it simply gets on with its job competently and simply, without fuss.
It has an even tonal delivery and a solid soundstage. All in all, it is a fine all-rounder for the price and serves as a good source for this system.
Integrated amplifier: Cambridge Audio AXA35
We pair the CD player here with a price-appropriate integrated amplifier from Cambridge Audio. We had a couple of niggles with the AXA35 in our original review, but neither of those relates to its musical ability, so they are by no means deal breakers. And besides, where Cambridge takes away with one hand by not including Bluetooth capability, it gives back with the other by incorporating a moving-magnet phono input; so you can add a price-appropriate turntable to the system at a later date, should an amble into analogue take your fancy.
Our other minor moan is with the functional remote control, which works perfectly well from head on, but struggles a bit when off-axis from the amplifier. As we say, not the end of the world.
That’s especially true when the important bits are dealt with so well. There is a confidence-inspiring assurance to the Cambridge AXA35’s performance right across the musical spectrum; from its powerful, weighty bass through to a clear, precise treble that is spirited but in no way over-bright, this is as entertaining a performance as we could hope for at this affordable end of the market.
Standmount speakers: Dali Spektor 2
In our review of the AXA35, we recommend a price ceiling, as far as speakers go, of around £500. We suggest Dali’s excellent Oberon 1 (£399) to be “a great match for the Cambridge Audio, forming a lively and hugely entertaining partnership.” For this system, however, we are on a bit more of a budget, of course; which is where the Oberon 1’s smaller siblings fit in seamlessly. The Dali Spektor 2 are superbly entertaining for their price – and took a What Hi-Fi? Best Buy Award in 2020 to prove their excellence.
The energetic little standmounters deliver music with pep and finesse – and they can go surprisingly loud without losing their composure.
For their price – they were tested at £200 originally, but the same holds true at their current £249 – they deliver one of the most entertaining sounds you can get. And if that isn’t what listening to music ought to be about, we’re not sure what is.
The Spektor 2 duo draw the listener in to the music with seemingly no effort, with a full-bodied, balanced presentation; and they are the perfect complement to their electronic partners in this top-value, bargain hi-fi set-up.
You might think sticking to a strict budget will limit your choices; we think of it as a way to get creative. We've always said that simply bunging a bunch of five-star products together won't necessarily give you the best results. Take note of each component's characteristics and sonic flavours, match them appropriately, and you'll get a system that is far more tailored to your tastes, your room and how you'll be listening to your music.
This budget CD-based system is proof that when you pair the right separate hi-fi products together, even four-star products, they will get a chance to shine and show off their best qualities.