Choosing a Compact Music System

By Michael Riggs

Compact systems are changing fast and selling even faster. The reason is simple: A little shelf system may be perfect for an office, bedroom, or dorm room–or if you’re just not ready to invest in a more powerful component system with big speakers and assorted other conveniences.

Key Questions
Micro-, mini- or midi-system?
Stereo or surround?
External input included?
Is it cute enough?

What we used to call mini-systems have diversified as the category has become more popular. Now the catchall phrase is compact systems, of which there are three basic sizes. Most popular is the micro-system, which has the smallest footprint and often lives on a desktop. It usually includes a CD player and sometimes adds a single-well cassette deck. The micro-system's Achilles heel usually is the speakers, which to limit their size typically have single, nominally full-range drivers. The smallest micro-systems are basically one-piece table radios, often with CD capability and credit card-size remote controls. The term mini-system now describes a unit wide enough to accommodate a dual-well cassette deck and a three-disc CD changer. A midi-system has bookshelf-sized speakers, power rivaling that of modest component systems, and a five-disc changer. Both usually have two-way speakers (with separate drivers for highs and lows) and full-size remotes. None of these designations is specifically low- or high-end; compact systems span a wide range of musical competence and cost. Keep in mind that most are designed for mellow background music, not concentrated listening.

Stereo vs. Surround
It is difficult to supply the features and performance typically expected of a home-theater system in a single shelftop package. Consequently, packaged surround systems are often configured somewhat differently from "traditional" compact music systems. For more on this subject, see Choosing a Packaged Surround System.

Too many mini-systems are indifferently made underachievers, their front panels (and sometimes their remotes) jammed with cryptically labeled buttons. As you scrutinize each feature, ask yourself if it's something you want or just more rampant featuritis. Rare–though welcome–is the mini-system with simple bass and treble knobs! Instead, most compacts come packed with digital signal processing (DSP) or equalization (EQ) modes that supposedly mimic the acoustics of concert halls, stadiums, and the like. Confusing controls and bad sound are the usual result. On the other hand, the two-channel faux-surround modes often included in DVD players and other components actually work quite well with compact systems. Look for such monikers as VMAx, Virtual Dolby, etc. Also handy is the "bass boost" control, usually a pushbutton that steps through increasing levels of bass emphasis. The features that are most useful in a compact system are those that are useful in any system, including CD track programming, cassette autoreverse, and AM/FM presets. Really good systems usually include Dolby B noise reduction for cassettes.

Interconnecting components is rarely a problem with compact systems, whether you're looking at the most common all-in-one-chassis configuration or the more high-end semi-separates. But do look for at least one stereo analog input, preferably separate left and right RCA-type plugs, so that you can plug in other components as needed. Another big (though rare) plus is speaker cable that's detachable at both the system end and the speaker end. Most systems hardwire a slender cable into the speaker. Accordingly, when that fragile wire breaks, the speaker becomes useless. Even most step-up systems have this problem. In general, only compact systems rivaling components in cost and performance have speaker terminals at both ends, allowing replacement or upgrading of the cable.

Look and Feel
Compact systems include some of the ugliest electronic products ever sold, although some can be quite presentable, handsome even–especially the new breed of micros with small footprints. You needn't live with a techno-styled monstrosity of strange curves and flashing lights. In a unified system, the remote that makes it all work is the most important component in terms of convenience. Can you do everything you want to do with the remote, such as select CD tracks via direct numerical access? Are there things you have to do with the remote that you'd prefer to do at the unit's front panel? Are the controls generally easy to figure out, or do seemingly simple functions require a dive into the manual? Make sure you play with the controls, the remote especially, before you buy.