Choosing a Compact Music System
By Michael Riggs
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
roomor if youre just not ready to invest in a more powerful
component system with big speakers and assorted other conveniences.
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. Rarethough welcomeis
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 evenespecially
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