Home hi-fi systems seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur — until you look carefully. Beyond audiophiles with carefully tuned ears and
jazz/classical aficionados that refuse to give up their vinyl, home audio is hanging tough. It seems the bigger our television units get and the more highly defined the image, the more we want the sound quality to match. And really, nothing is quite as satisfying as your favourite song cranked way up during laundry time — no matter whether you´re using a digital system or keeping it analogue.
If you plan on indulging your aural vices, you´ll find there´s an option to fit most budgets and spaces. Be it traditional standing speakers, bookshelf models that have come leaps and bounds in power and sound quality since their introduction in the 1960s or contemporary soundbars, whatever your desire and focus (music, movies, games), there´s a loudspeaker for you.
For the serious music nut there´s probably only Bowers & Wilkins. The short explanation: If B&W are good enough for Abbey Road Studios, they´re good enough for your living room. The hardware of choice for the world´s most storied recording house uses B&W, and that magical sound quality is available for consumers. To the untrained ear the fine details of what makes the top-of-the-line the 800 Diamond so spectacular are lost, but for hardcore sound enthusiasts they´re worth every penny of the astounding $200,000 price tag. There are simply not enough fawning (earned) words to describe the sound quality. Available in stylish cherrywood, rosenut or piano black finishes, the legendary 800 Diamond is still manufactured in England, and its 6dB at 25Hz and 33kHz frequency range and realism of sound reproduction is second to none. If the Beatles don´t impress you, Skywalker Sound — as in Star Wars´ sound studio — also uses B&W.
Nothing is a close second to Bowers & Wilkins but for the average (as in, not rock stars) listener, the next best thing might be Bang & Olufsen´s BeoLab 20 ($100,000). With a frequency range of 19.3 to 23.8kHz the BeoLab is also wireless, boasting a digital sound engine that promises reduced — or eradicated — resonance, boosts definition and creates excellent reproduction. The irregularly shaped, black and polished aluminium design looks positively space age but has its roots in functionality, in this case bass performance.
If the choice is a down payment on a flat or speakers, it´s Bose to the rescue. Compact and versatile enough to be used for more than just audio, the new Bose SoundTouch 20 and 30 Series II Wi-Fi ($3,400, $5,980) one-piece home theatre or stereo systems are as intuitive as they are ultra-modern. Controlled from the handheld gadget of your choice, the SoundTouch line´s various parts work together for maximum flexibility for what you want. With most music now streamed via and App, iPod, iPad or other mobile device, the Bose line seeks to make that easy. However, the dedicated Stereo JC Series II Wi-Fi ($10,500) is designed for music only and offers up deep, rich, detailed sound on a budget.
Better still: Pioneer´s SBX-N700 sound bar ($3,880) is one of the best around — both in and out of its price bracket. Though designed for multimedia and wireless or Bluetooth streaming and use with a television the SBX-N700 does have optical audio connections as well as a USB jack (though it lacks an HDMI input). Elegantly designed for mounting and well integrated the speakers also give off crisp details and booming bass for all those prog-rock rhythms you know you´re still listening to.
Finally, if you´re on a real budget, Yamaha´s Soavo 900M bookshelf units ($2,590, at Tom Lee Music, TST). Yamaha has long been associated with affordable but high-quality sound — they make musical instruments after all — and Japanese stalwart´s PMD diaphragm woofers have made them perennial favourites with a respectable 56 Hz-to 50kHz frequency range. Put all that inside a funky, quasi-asymmetrical cabinet just under 35 centimetres tall and you´ve got music blasting tools at your fingertips that fits inside flats with limited room.