Hifi stereo systems: Best hi-fi systems 2023: CD, vinyl and streaming music systems for the home

7 reasons to buy a hi-fi system (and not a wireless speaker)

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We like hi-fi. You might have gathered that. What that really means is that we love music and we really want it to sound as good as it possibly can. That’s where having a decent hi-fi system comes into play. 

We now write about all manner of products that play music. Indeed, where once stereo speakers, an amplifier and a CD player or turntable was a prerequisite for a music system, now you can do it all (and more) with a single wireless speaker. And many of them are very good, not to mention far more convenient and affordable than any traditional system. 

But… it’s not quite the same, is it? There are still many reasons why a stereo system makes so much more sense. Please, allow us to elaborate.

1. It sounds better

Let’s kick things off with an easy one. You like music, right? So why not hear it sounding as good as it should? 99 times out of 100, that will mean a traditional separates system. 

The sum of the parts will almost always deliver better – and better-value – sound than a similarly priced wireless speaker can muster. Each box is a master of its trade, rather than a jack of all trades, the latter always requiring a compromise somewhere. From stereo separation to stereo imaging, Class D amplifiers to the limits of smaller boxes, the technical reasons are myriad but the end result is the same: when it comes to sound quality, a stereo system is very hard for a one-box wireless speaker to beat.

2. It will always work

As we write, it just so happens that Spotify is down. (We didn’t arrange that, it’s just a coincidence, honest.) In recent weeks, UK consumers were hit by an all-day outage affecting Virgin Wi-Fi, one of the biggest internet providers in the country. If you’re listening to music on a wireless speaker, there’s a fair chance you’re out of luck in these circumstances. And who knows, maybe one day your carefully curated music library will disappear? (Some of us still remember the mess when iTunes merged with Apple Music.) 

Yes, you can play music stored locally, and yes Bluetooth doesn’t require wi-fi, but a wireless speaker will ultimately leave most people, most of the time, at the mercy of The Cloud. Other than unforgiving other halves and the odd scratch, there’s very little to stop you ever playing a music collection made of CDs, vinyl or even downloads…

3. You get the best of both worlds

(Image credit: Sonos)

…but of course a traditional hi-fi system no longer has to mean thumbing through a dusty record collection to find the next thing to play (though we do like doing that). 

The hi-fi world has been in the 21st century nearly as long everyone else, which means you can now add a state-of-the-art music streamer to your amp and speakers and have a whole world of digital music at your fingertips, reaping the sonic benefits of your system as well having the convenience of Spotify or Tidal. You can plug your hi-fi into a multi-room wireless system from the likes of Audio Pro, Sonos or Bluesound for whole-home cleverness, or take advantage of the fact an increasing number of hi-fi brands have built their latest streamers to support multi-room music. On the flip side, you definitely can’t play a 12-inch record on a wireless speaker. Trust us, we’re experts.

4. There’s often an upgrade path

This brings us to yet another (OK, it’s only four so far…) reason why a system still can’t be beaten – the ability to upgrade over time. Fed up with your speakers? Simply buy a new pair and slot them into your system. Feel like adding a turntable? Go for it. A separates system allows you to upgrade components over time, as and when you’re able (financially or otherwise), as well as adding new features with new products. 

Conversely, wireless speakers are, perhaps counterintuitively, more inclined to go ‘out of date’ quicker than a pair of passive speakers. Voice control, room correction, new software – all this tech can be great, but it can also leave your once shiny new purchase looking sad and a bit ‘version one’. Just ask Sonos customers.

5. It’s more than just a box

This idea of upgrading and fine-tuning your system brings us neatly on to our next point: a hi-fi system is a living, breathing, beautiful thing… figuratively speaking, anyway. But trust us when we say you will feel a real connection to a system of components you have chosen, plugged together, positioned, perfected and sat back and enjoyed. And while plonking a wireless speaker in the corner of the room and then fiddling with your phone for ten minutes can be satisfyingly convenient, it is not conducive to feeling at one with your system and your music collection. 

It’s much like the argument for physical media over digital. We love streaming music, but it’s not the same. Think of a hi-fi system as the homemade sourdough to your Sainsbury’s sandwich loaf.

6. It can be artisanal, local produce

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Speaking of sourdough, another reason you’re likely to feel a closer connection to your hi-fi system is the level of craftsmanship that has gone into the products, many of which will be made by actual human hands in your home country.

Plenty of our favourite hi-fi products really are, from winding magnet coils to fitting drivers, even if (hopefully) you can’t tell. There’s a lot to be said for economies of scale, and some very lovely and really rather popular things come out of huge factories in China, but admiring the skill that goes into something made with human tender, love and care is hard to beat. And we should enjoy it while it lasts. Take a look inside ATC HQ to get a good idea.

7. Buying physical music supports artists

As mentioned earlier, a hi-fi system doesn’t have to mean physical media but often does support CDs and vinyl (and digital downloads). And, whether we like it or not, as things stand, if you want to support artists and bands making the music you love, buying physical media is a better way of doing it than streaming. They get more money, almost no matter how you slice it. And if you’re thinking of starting, or kick-starting, your vinyl collection, you’ll want more than a wireless speaker (we think we mentioned that already).

And finally…

The Linn Series 3 wireless speaker system (Image credit: Linn)

There is still a lot to be said for a hi-fi system, we hope you agree. But as we touched on at the start, what a hi-fi system actually is has become increasingly blurred. In many ways that has been a good thing, democratising good quality audio and offering more people the opportunity to enjoy their music in more ways and in more places. Convenience sure does make things easier.

And with the likes of the KEF LSX and Linn Series 3, it’s already becoming trickier than ever to make the case for separate components when the performance from these complete compact systems is so impressive. As we said in our opener, “99 times out of 100”…

But with many of us spending extra time at home right now, more and more people valuing a physical connection with music in this digital age, and everyone always eager to hear the music they love at its best, we think it’s as good a time as any to build and enjoy a brilliant, versatile and state-of-the-art hi-fi system. Happy listening.

  • How to build the perfect hi-fi system
  • 3 of the best turntable, amplifier and speaker systems
  • 10 affordable ways to upgrade your hi-fi system
  • 9 hi-fi tricks you might not believe affect sound quality (but they do)

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Joe is Content Director for T3 and What Hi-Fi?, having previously been the Global Editor-in-Chief of What Hi-Fi?. He has worked on What Hi-Fi? across the print magazine and website for more than 15 years, writing news, reviews and features on everything from turntables to TVs, headphones to hi-fi separates. He has covered product launch events across the world, from Apple to Technics, Sony and Samsung; reported from CES, the Bristol Show, and Munich High End for many years; and written for sites such as the BBC, Stuff, and the Guardian. In his spare time, he enjoys expanding his vinyl collection and cycling (not at the same time).

Denon D-M41DAB micro system review: a shining example of great sound in an affordable package

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What Hi-Fi? Awards 2022 winner. Bluetooth capability makes this Denon even better than before
Tested at £379

What Hi-Fi? Verdict

The D-M41DAB is impressive proof that great pound-for-pound hi-fi sound need not always mean several separate components

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Denon didn’t necessarily need to release a new microsystem with the D-M41DAB. The multi-Award-winning D-M40DAB hung around our most-read reviews list like an Adele record that simply refuses to drop out of the charts.

Logically, then, there are two explanations for this latest model. Either it’s a subliminal reminder that Denon remains at the top of this tree or, in the near-two-year wait for the product’s emergence, the company has once again managed to significantly better itself.

The lengths to which Denon has gone with this updated system would suggest the latter. And the multiple What Hi-Fi? Awards it continues to receive confirms it.

  • Denon D-M41DAB at Amazon for £205.16

Features

Even if the rest of the package had remained the same, the inclusion of Bluetooth for the first time in this range (which can be turned on or off to avoid affecting the D-M41DAB’s overall performance while not in use), is our first cause for celebration.

The lack of wireless capability didn’t stop us giving Denon Awards, but it had been the only blot on the M-series’ otherwise-pristine copybook.

Given the merits of the D-M40DAB, it might have been risky for the company’s engineers to tinker so much with the insides of its flagship micro system.

Denon claims its brand new analogue amplifier circuit offers greater clarity and purity, with shortened signal paths and further measures to avoid sources of interference built in.

This is part of what Denon dubs its Triple Noise Reduction Design which, while sounding like something off a gastro-pub menu, also encompasses careful separation of analogue and digital circuits plus precision signal grounding.

It also claims distortion from the input selector, volume control and power amplifier has been better suppressed for the purest possible sound.

Build

But if Denon has redesigned the interior of its micro system, the same cannot be said of the façade. At a glance, the only way to tell the D-M41DAB apart from its predecessor is the CD drive and display screen have swapped places, so that the former sits above the latter – as it did prior to the D-M39.

On closer inspection, however, you’ll notice the screen is flatter than before, meaning less reflection. It isn’t immediately obvious, but placing the pair side-by-side reveals a significant improvement.

You’ll also notice Denon has removed the USB input. There are still analogue and digital optical inputs for playing music from an external source without Bluetooth, such as an old iPod, but it means no more memory sticks.

As with previous models, the D-M41DAB is available with or without matching Denon speakers. Without, the system is called RCD-M41DAB. The speakers are dubbed SC-M41. Put the two together and you have the D-M41DAB we’re testing here.

Last time we tested a Denon micro-system, we preferred its designated speakers to any price-comparable alternative.

Though they look the same as before, Denon says it has fine-tuned this 12cm driver/25mm soft-dome tweeter configuration to make the partnership even more harmonious. If you buy the complete system, you’ll also take receipt of upgraded, heftier speaker cable.

Sound

So the design has undergone more than just a tweak, and the rewards are reaped in the performance. The D-M40DAB improved on its predecessor in just about every department, but it wasn’t as clear a leap forward as this. Here, the whole character of the system has been bettered.

We play Hot Chip’s Made In The Dark on CD and immediately notice the spacious gains in the soundstage as well as greater detail. Dynamics, too, are more insightful and expressive – and this is only in the album’s opening build with the intro of Out At The Pictures.

By the time it gets properly going, it’s as if the Denon has been on a mindfulness retreat for the past two years and rediscovered itself.

To say the presentation is more forward is not a slight. The balance here is still pleasantly even, but it really throws itself into the changing rhythms and does so with sprightly confidence.

We play around with speaker positioning and end up with the SC-M41s further away from our back wall than a bookshelf would really allow – but the tonal character isn’t compromised if it’s a tight fit. Really, it’s another feather in Denon’s cap to have retained worthwhile heft and stability without the assistance of a rear wall.

We’ve hinted long enough in our reviews that Denon should add Bluetooth connectivity to these systems, and it has been integrated very well indeed. The drop in sound quality from CD to Spotify stream has no effect on the D-M41DAB’s sonic mastery.

We change pace with Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker and it’s clear the energy with which the Denon rendered Hot Chip can be easily traded for gracefulness when playing the more delicate passages of this album.

While its touch is light across the fingerpicked acoustic guitars in tracks such as Oh My Sweet Carolina, it gives away no weight in Adams’ vocal performance.

The combination of low-end stability and dynamic sensibilities leaves us with a remarkably human performance for a hi-fi system at this price.

Verdict

Denon could have simply added Bluetooth to its system and struck the only item from our “against” column. But we’re pleased it didn’t.

If the D-M41DAB – which we’d again recommend pairing with the company’s designated speakers – doesn’t quite put its predecessor to shame, it certainly puts it in the shade.

It sees multiple marked improvements across the board, combining to offer a character of performance that could hold its own against groups of separates at a greater cost.

We suspected it would be good. We just didn’t realise it’d be this much better.

More:

See all the What Hi-Fi? Awards 2022 winners

Best hi-fi systems you can buy

Want to update the speakers? Here are the best budget hi-fi speakers

Denon D-M41DAB: Price Comparison

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What Hi-Fi?, founded in 1976, is the world’s leading independent guide to buying and owning hi-fi and home entertainment products. Our comprehensive tests help you buy the very best for your money, with our advice sections giving you step-by-step information on how to get even more from your music and movies. Everything is tested by our dedicated team of in-house reviewers in our custom-built test rooms in London, Reading and Bath. Our coveted five-star rating and Awards are recognised all over the world as the ultimate seal of approval, so you can buy with absolute confidence.

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