We like hi-fi. You might have gathered that. What that really means is that we love music and we really want it to sound as good as it possibly can. That’s where having a decent hi-fi system comes into play.
We now write about all manner of products that play music. Indeed, where once stereo speakers, an amplifier and a CD player or turntable was a prerequisite for a music system, now you can do it all (and more) with a single wireless speaker. And many of them are very good, not to mention far more convenient and affordable than any traditional system.
But… it’s not quite the same, is it? There are still many reasons why a stereo system makes so much more sense. Please, allow us to elaborate.
1. It sounds better
Let’s kick things off with an easy one. You like music, right? So why not hear it sounding as good as it should? 99 times out of 100, that will mean a traditional separates system.
The sum of the parts will almost always deliver better - and better-value - sound than a similarly priced wireless speaker can muster. Each box is a master of its trade, rather than a jack of all trades, the latter always requiring a compromise somewhere. From stereo separation to stereo imaging, Class D amplifiers to the limits of smaller boxes, the technical reasons are myriad but the end result is the same: when it comes to sound quality, a stereo system is very hard for a one-box wireless speaker to beat.
2. It will always work
As we write, it just so happens that Spotify is down. (We didn’t arrange that, it’s just a coincidence, honest.) In recent weeks, UK consumers were hit by an all-day outage affecting Virgin Wi-Fi, one of the biggest internet providers in the country. If you’re listening to music on a wireless speaker, there’s a fair chance you're out of luck in these circumstances. And who knows, maybe one day your carefully curated music library will disappear? (Some of us still remember the mess when iTunes merged with Apple Music.)
Yes, you can play music stored locally, and yes Bluetooth doesn’t require wi-fi, but a wireless speaker will ultimately leave most people, most of the time, at the mercy of The Cloud. Other than unforgiving other halves and the odd scratch, there’s very little to stop you ever playing a music collection made of CDs, vinyl or even downloads...
3. You get the best of both worlds
...but of course a traditional hi-fi system no longer has to mean thumbing through a dusty record collection to find the next thing to play (though we do like doing that).
The hi-fi world has been in the 21st century nearly as long everyone else, which means you can now add a state-of-the-art music streamer to your amp and speakers and have a whole world of digital music at your fingertips, reaping the sonic benefits of your system as well having the convenience of Spotify or Tidal. You can plug your hi-fi into a multi-room wireless system from the likes of Audio Pro, Sonos or Bluesound for whole-home cleverness, or take advantage of the fact an increasing number of hi-fi brands have built their latest streamers to support multi-room music. On the flip side, you definitely can’t play a 12-inch record on a wireless speaker. Trust us, we’re experts.
4. There's often an upgrade path
This brings us to yet another (OK, it’s only four so far…) reason why a system still can’t be beaten – the ability to upgrade over time. Fed up with your speakers? Simply buy a new pair and slot them into your system. Feel like adding a turntable? Go for it. A separates system allows you to upgrade components over time, as and when you’re able (financially or otherwise), as well as adding new features with new products.
Conversely, wireless speakers are, perhaps counterintuitively, more inclined to go ‘out of date’ quicker than a pair of passive speakers. Voice control, room correction, new software – all this tech can be great, but it can also leave your once shiny new purchase looking sad and a bit ‘version one’. Just ask Sonos customers.
5. It's more than just a box
This idea of upgrading and fine-tuning your system brings us neatly on to our next point: a hi-fi system is a living, breathing, beautiful thing… figuratively speaking, anyway. But trust us when we say you will feel a real connection to a system of components you have chosen, plugged together, positioned, perfected and sat back and enjoyed. And while plonking a wireless speaker in the corner of the room and then fiddling with your phone for ten minutes can be satisfyingly convenient, it is not conducive to feeling at one with your system and your music collection.
It’s much like the argument for physical media over digital. We love streaming music, but it’s not the same. Think of a hi-fi system as the homemade sourdough to your Sainsbury’s sandwich loaf.
6. It can be artisanal, local produce
Speaking of sourdough, another reason you’re likely to feel a closer connection to your hi-fi system is the level of craftsmanship that has gone into the products, many of which will be made by actual human hands in your home country.
Plenty of our favourite hi-fi products really are, from winding magnet coils to fitting drivers, even if (hopefully) you can’t tell. There’s a lot to be said for economies of scale, and some very lovely and really rather popular things come out of huge factories in China, but admiring the skill that goes into something made with human tender, love and care is hard to beat. And we should enjoy it while it lasts. Take a look inside ATC HQ to get a good idea.
7. Buying physical music supports artists
As mentioned earlier, a hi-fi system doesn’t have to mean physical media but often does support CDs and vinyl (and digital downloads). And, whether we like it or not, as things stand, if you want to support artists and bands making the music you love, buying physical media is a better way of doing it than streaming. They get more money, almost no matter how you slice it. And if you’re thinking of starting, or kick-starting, your vinyl collection, you’ll want more than a wireless speaker (we think we mentioned that already).
There is still a lot to be said for a hi-fi system, we hope you agree. But as we touched on at the start, what a hi-fi system actually is has become increasingly blurred. In many ways that has been a good thing, democratising good quality audio and offering more people the opportunity to enjoy their music in more ways and in more places. Convenience sure does make things easier.
And with the likes of the KEF LSX and Linn Series 3, it’s already becoming trickier than ever to make the case for separate components when the performance from these complete compact systems is so impressive. As we said in our opener, “99 times out of 100”...
But with many of us spending extra time at home right now, more and more people valuing a physical connection with music in this digital age, and everyone always eager to hear the music they love at its best, we think it’s as good a time as any to build and enjoy a brilliant, versatile and state-of-the-art hi-fi system. Happy listening.