MP3 players are great but, on a long winter’s night, it’s hard to beat a proper hi-fi. Good hi-fi systems cost money, people. They always have, and a £50 iPod dock just won’t cut the mustard in comparison. Naturally, there’s plenty to choose from out there, so to guide you along the way we’ve come up with what we feel are the best hi-fi systems that money can buy and something to suit almost every occasion.
To keep things real, we’ve glossed over anything beyond £3,000 and tried to remain in the realms of the affordable. Some require separate speakers - a bonus if you already have a decent pair - some come built-in but all offer the kind of audio experience to bring serious sonics to the cast-off convenience of the iPod generation. Oh, and beard-scratchers beware. We will be talking wireless streaming.
BEST FOR MULTI-ROOM
Sonos Play:3 (£260)
Using your smartphone to create playlists from your PC or Mac to then spray around different rooms in your house is exciting enough, but the Sonos Play:3 all-in-one music player has more than multi-room to offer. Able to use either an iPhone, iPad or Android-based smartphone or tablet (running 2.2 or higher, such as the HTC Flyer, Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab and Sony Tablet S), the Play:3 can be controlled using the Sonos Controller app that’s itself a thing of beauty. Gorgeously designed and quick to swipe around, it’s able to fetch tracks from Spotify, Last.fm and any radio station broadcasting on the web as well as your own iTunes library.
Recent updates have added AAC+ codec support as well as access to your Spotify Inbox. Available in black or white and strapped with three integrated speakers and three digital amps, the Play:3 is, in some ways, a step backwards from the meatier ZonePlayer S5, but its much cheaper price suddenly opens the Sonos concept to more of us.
Happily, set-up retains simple - just connect each Play:3 to the web via a broadband router and download the app. The only snags are that at least two Play:3s are needed for multi-room (though the Sonos app experience alone makes a single Play:3 worth considering), while a Spotify subscription is going to be hard to resist.
BEST FOR VALUE
Onkyo CS-545UK (£299)
If you're after a basic hi-fi with a nod to the digital world, Onkyo’s rather retro micro system might be for you. With DAB, FM and AM tuners built-in, the CS-545UK stays old school with a CD tray but goes wildly modern with an iPhone dock (a separate, wired affair), USB slot for playing MP3 files and - rare additions indeed - both a composite video output and a subwoofer link.
There are no apps or AirPlay and the steadfastly 1970s-style remote control and small LCD screen can be a tad irritating if you're trawling through either a USB stick rammed full of files or an iPhone’s internal menus. You end up having to be sitting pretty close to the CS-545UK to see what's going on. But, with acceptable quality sound that’s helped by a Super Bass button, this makes for a great compromise option that falls just below the Marantz Melody Media if a traditional hi-fi design is what you're after. A package including speakers costs around £100 extra.
BEST FOR LOSSLESS MUSIC
Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30 (£400)
Not only a network music player but also the only lossless music streamer with 24-bit support, the Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30 is one for the audiophile of the future. It can stream lossless files in full 24-bit/96kHz studio quality, which are most typically offered in the FLAC or WAV formats, and on Cambridge Audio’s innovative UuVol service. An attempt to club online music services together, UuVol is a hub for 20,000 radio stations, Aupeo, Live365, MP3Tunes and BBC iPlayer Radio as well as music stored on a UPnP-compatible networked device in a home, such as a Mac, a PC and NAS drives.
Of course, there’s a UuVol app for that which does away with the need for scrolling through loads on information on the NP30’s tiny LCD screen. Unfortunately, the app only works on an iPhone and iPad.
There’s no CD player or DAB radio included in the NP30 - see elsewhere in the brand’s Sonata range for separate units - and speakers must also be added, but the NP30 makes for a great first step into high quality hi-fi with a thoroughly modern bent.
BEST FOR APPLE AIRPLAY
Marantz M-CR603 Melody Media (£449)
Owners of Android smartphones, look away now. The Japanese audio wizards at Marantz have created something of a first - a traditionally designed, compact hi-fi with networking and Apple AirPlay. We may have recently witnessed the first Android docks from Philips, but how about lossless audio streaming from an iDevice? Now that’s what makes a truly modern hi-fi, though there’s plenty more going on behind the scenes on the aptly-named Melody Media.
Equipped with an Ethernet LAN port for networking duties, the Melody Media can stream from both a PC or Mac (it uses the DLNA networking protocol) as well as from NAS drives, Napster and Last.fm and also builds-in FM/AM/DAB tuners and a CD player. The unit comes alone, so a couple of decent speakers will have to be sought out, but once that’s done the audio quality from good sources is simply awesome. Its digital amlifier also proves adept with lower quality streamed tunes.
BEST FOR BEDSIDE TABLES
Vita Audio R4i (£549.99)
More a music machine than the luxury DAB products the British brand is known for, Vita Audio’s white or walnut R4i offers a deep hi-fi experience. Measuring 255mm back to front, it's the cabinet’s meaty size that ends up its major attraction. Whopping bass is the result - something that can't be said for most tabletop products be they DAB radios or otherwise.
Forget streaming. The R4i is all about iPhone. There’s a dock on its top beside the confusing-at-first RotoDial control knob (which is detachable should you want a remote control) and it will charge while playing, but inside are also FM/DAB/DAB+ radio tuners. While it's the subtly-designed CD player in its front that lend it hi-fi credentials, it’s the R4i’s 80W amplifier that give it real audiophile appeal. There’s also a USB slot for playing MP3s from a memory stick,
BEST FOR LARGE KITCHENS
Meridian Audio M80 (£900)
Here’s a high-end choice with something extra, and we’re not talking about its unusual elliptical design. Hidden inside British audio brand Meridian Audio’s M80 flagship tabletop music player is a disc tray that plays not only CD but also DVD. Considering the price, some might say it should play 3D Blu-ray too but, while the M80 can’t be described as good value, it's brilliant at what it does.
Achieving 80W of power and some delicious low frequency sound, the M80 is perhaps the ultimate in build quality and sound at this size, and despite it not indulging in streaming or much else in the way of digital trickery (besides a DAB radio and an optional i80 iPhone dock), its subwoofer-powered sound quality is hard to resist.