All-in-one music systems have come a long way from the table-top-sized music centre. These days not only do they cram a lot into a very small space, but they’re also on a mission to prove that hi-fi separates are not the only way to get top audio performance.

Ever since Denon threw down the challenge with its earliest D-M series components, the heat’s been on in this sector of the market, with challenges from leading Japanese rivals, and companies better-known for full-size hi-fi components joining the party with gusto. Here, we put six of the best through their paces, in order to answer the all-important question: which gives you the biggest sound from the smallest system?

ARCAM SOLO MINI  $1200 ★★★★★

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Arcam has done a particularly good job of extending its Solo sub-brand. Starting with the original Solo model, we’ve now had a movie-playing version, the Solo Movie; an internet-streaming variant, the Solo Neo; and this, the compact version. OK, the Solo Mini is hardly petite by class standards. Compared with the other systems here, it’s a fairly usual 23cm wide and 35cm deep, but Arcam has kept things suitably low-slung – it’s just 9cm tall – and the quality of build and design gives the Solo Mini a sense of quality that’s almost unrivalled in this group of six systems. Bear in mind, though, that we said ‘almost’…

 It’s been around for a while and does give away its age with its specification. Yes, it has DAB/FM radio, a slot-loading CD mechanism and a USB input on the front panel; but there’s no sign of the network media streaming and internet radio available on one rival here, and, while there’s a USB input, its capabilities are somewhat limited.

You can’t simply hook up your iPod to this and get the digital connectivity others here offer. The USB socket is designed for WMA and MP3 files on thumb-drives, and connecting an iPod requires an add-on Arcam dock, which will give only analogue connection. You do, though, get four line inputs, a tape output and a pair of preouts, which could be used to link the Solo Mini to external amplification or a subwoofer. 

With the addition of some suitable speakers the Mini has an extremely persuasive sound. It uses its modest 25W per channel output to good effect to give a sound of excellent solidity and weight when used with the appropriate speakers.

It tracks complex rock basslines cleanly, as well as delivering plenty of power; and it is just as at home with large-scale orchestral works, having both authority and the ability to reveal bags of detail, while remaining smooth and easy to enjoy. 

Voices are full-bodied and expressive, though there could be a bit more air and space in the treble with atmospheric live acoustic recordings, but better that than a rough, in-your-face presentation likely to prove wearing over time.

For some time the Solo Mini has been very much the system to beat in this sector of the market, not least in terms of its superb performance and confidence-inspiring solidity. If you’re ready, let’s bring on the challengers…

 

 

DENON D-M38DAB $530 ★★★★★

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Denon has been at this game for longer than most – it launched its first ‘lifestyle’ systems way back in the early 1990s. Since then it’s been offering both miniature component systems and all-in-ones, and it’s fair to say that its success has inspired its rivals to play catch-up. In fact, were it not for those early Denon systems, you might not be reading this.

At first glance, the D-M38DAB has little to distinguish it from the D-M37DAB, so what’s new? Well, the system now has a direct digital input for iPods and iPhones: no need to faff around with docks, or put up with the digital conversion in the players. Now you can just use the standard USB sync lead into the front-panel socket. 

While they were at it, the Denon engineers gave the sound a brush up. The system now has a more powerful, pacier presentation. Oh, and the DAB tuner is now ready for DAB+ services.

Retained from the D-M37 are the styling and feeling of quality, which are impressive; less impressive – though perfectly adequate – are the SC-M37 speakers, also available with the old system. If it were our money, we’d go for the speaker delete option, just buy the RCD-M38DAB CD receiver and partner it with speakers such as the rather excellent Q Acoustics 2010s or Mission’s little MX1s. This receiver has more to give than the Denon speakers can reveal.

With the Denon speakers in the harness, the sound is certainly peppy, detailed and involving,
with fine bass definition and speed. Improve the speakers, however, and the sound becomes more spacious, gains weight and low-end clout, and projects voices and lead instruments much better.

In fact, what the Denon manages to do, given the restrictions of the CD receiver’s size and the tight budget, is simply remarkable. The tuner section is very good, especially when fed a decent signal from an outdoor aerial, it plays CDs extremely well, and even tunes from an iPod sound punchy and attractive, even if the remote control operation of the player via the system handset is less than entirely intuitive.

The verdict? Well at the lower end of the price range, Denon remains the undisputed champ.

 

MARANTZ M-CR603  $800 ★★★★★

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Last year Marantz launched a stylish little one-box CD receiver, the M-CR502. This year it’s got the bit between its teeth, with a three-strong line-up of systems under the Melody banner. 

There’s a revised version of the original, the M-CR503 Melody Music; the Blu-ray-playing multichannel M-ER803 Melody Movie; and the system we have here, the network-capable M-CR603, or Melody Media. 

There’s plenty to appreciate in this compact Marantz. Not only does it have the usual CD playback, DAB/DAB+/FM/AM tuner, and a 2x60W output from its onboard amp, it also allows digital hook-up and control of an iPod via the front-panel USB socket.

It has network capability via an ethernet port on the rear. Plugged into your home network, it will stream thousands of internet radio stations, allow you to access streaming services such as Napster, or even access music stored on your home computer or network. Plus, with an affordable upgrade, the Marantz will also act as an AirPlay client for iPods, iPhones, iPads and PCs running Apple’s iTunes 10. At a click and a flick, you can stream music from your device. Not into Apple? You can add an optional Bluetooth audio receiver to the rear-panel, which allows you to stream music from more devices.

This is one slick, fully loaded little system, and it has the performance, not to mention the build quality and finish, to back up all that cleverness. The wraparound casework gives it a look of real solidity, and we like the way the gloss top-panel overhangs the rear connections, tidying up the looks.

We tried it with everything from CDs to tracks streamed from iPods and a NAS drive, and it demonstrated speed, power and substance. It’s dynamic, exciting and yet always in control, even when we threw some tracks with really seismic bass at it, and while the Arcam Solo Mini has it beat on sheer refinement and separates-worrying resolution, there’s no denying that the Marantz is an exciting listen.

The M-CR603 has the power to rock out with some serious speakers, too, and all in all offers a tempting alternative, fitting between the great-value Denon and the more expensive Arcam. If that network capability appeals, you shouldn’t hesitate to give the Marantz a try.

 

YAMAHA MCR-640 $800 ★★★

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Almost all the systems in this test have their own twist to set them apart from the pack. In the case of the Yamaha, there are two. One is that this is part of the company’s Piano Black range, with a speaker finish drawing on the company’s piano-making experience; the other is that the main electronics come in two parts.

What we have here is a DAB/FM receiver, the R-840, complete with two line inputs and an iPod dock, and a power output of 2x65W. Plugged into it, using analogue phono leads for audio and a multipin mini-DIN-terminated control cable, is a standalone CD player, the CD-640. The two are the same size, so will stack or sit side by side. 

There are basic disc-management controls on the player, plus a USB input to allow memory devices to be played. The receiver has large input and volume controls, prominent tone and balance knobs, and a few ancillary buttons scattered around.

All of which leaves us with one question – why? The system needs two mains sockets, and while we can see the logic in having the USB input on the CD player, so the same DAC can handle the digital sources, Yamaha’s still doubling up: the receiver DAB, and thus another DAC and yet an analogue iPod dock. So it’s not as minimalist as the simple controls on the front panel would like to suggest. 

The NS-BP300 speakers, meanwhile, look the business, with their glossy cabinets, big 13cm bass driver tuned with a rear-venting port and 25mm soft-dome tweeter. Even the clip-on grilles are classy, being shaped around the drivers rather than just a rectangular lump of acoustic cloth on a simple frame.

Whether used with the standard speakers or some decent budget alternatives, the Yamaha isn’t entirely convincing. The sound is over-rich, lacking in top-end bite and openness, and rather subsumed in excessive bass warmth to give a presentation that’s more 1960s radiogram than modern micro. Driving rock suffers from a one-note character in the bass, and fails ever to spring free from the speakers, and things never quite get beyond easy listening and into miniature hi-fi.

This system is a disappointment in a group of high achievers. We’ve heard much better from Yamaha.

 

ONKYO CS-545UK $560 ★★★★

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All the systems here can be hooked up to an iPod, but only two of them have built-in iPod docks. One of them is a fussy affair – this is the other. It’s also one of the simplest. While Yamaha splits an ordinary system into two boxes, and the others here require a cabled connection to your Apple portable, the Onkyo CR-545UKD receiver is compact and has its iPod dock under a flap in the lid, which also acts as a support for the player.

There’s a composite video output to feed menus to a TV, but the scrolling display on the receiver is clear and easily read at distance. What the Onkyo lacks in extra inputs – it has a USB for memory sticks, and just one set of analogue line-ins – it makes up for in the simplicity of its front-panel layout. There are minimal play/skip controls, volume, input and tone adjustments.

And that’s it, give or take a headphone socket and a subwoofer output, plus a remote control that’s compact, but not terribly intuitive.

You’ll notice that we’ve been talking a lot about the main unit, but not about the speakers. That does the Onkyo D-045s something of an injustice. The Onkyos aren’t at all bad, as you might expect from a company used by many other brands as a speaker supplier.

You can buy the receiver without the speakers, but while partnering it with popular budget boxes can give a sound with more life, the amplification can struggle a bit at higher levels – hardly surprising given that it’s rated at 40W at 4ohms/1kHz/10% distortion. There’s a definite sense that the system and speakers have been built to work together.

The Onkyo isn’t going to trouble the most expensive systems in this test, and the Denon D-M38DAB has got the edge when it comes to ultimate sound quality, but the sound here is honest, has bags of life and drive (provided you turn off the Super Bass feature) and creates a more than convincing soundstage.

Playing everything from classical chamber music on CD to rock and pop from an iPod, this is an enjoyable, involving listen, if lacking the slam and weight available eleswhere in the group. Despite that dock, others here make more of the Apple players.

We keep coming back to that word ‘honest’, because it’s the best way to describe this system. It keeps things simple, and is all the better for it.