It used to be that if you wanted audiophile quality hi-fi then you had to spend big on separates - while the convenience of integrated stereo systems was typically compromised by limited sound performance.
But the boundaries have become blurred with a range of high-end, single systems that offer style, convenience, flexibility and sound quality that compares to standalone components.
We've brought together four of the finest integrated systems to find which one-box rules them all.
Price comparison:Arcam Solo More info: Arcam Size: 430x350x80mm Weight: 7.75kg Amplifier power: 50W per channel Tuner: DAB/FM Line inputs: 4 Outputs: Tape loop, optical digital, pre-amp, multi-room
Arcam's Solo is recognised as the first integrated stereo system that 'truly' offers an uncompromised alternative to traditional hi-fi separates. It's not necessarily better than using dedicated components but no other single system offers the same convenience without sacrificing sound quality.
The elegantly understated design comprises a CD player, integrated amplifier and DAB/FM tuner all in a single, compact unit - with optional speakers also available (£400). Build quality is immaculate and only high quality components have been used in the internal construction, which has been largely based on Arcam's excellent CD73T player. The 50 watts per channel amplifier has been designed to accommodate the size and suit a wide range of speakers.
There are five line inputs including a tape loop, a digital output for CD/DAB recording and both preamp and multi-room outputs for flexible functionality. Arcam has also recently provided a dedicated interconnect (rLead, £60) that allows you to connect and control an iPod using the system's remote. Responsive controls and an oversized display ease operation while the ordinary appearing remote is spacious and intelligently arranged.
The sound produces a beautifully cohesive presentation that's greater than the sum of its parts and adapts incredibly well with whatever you're listening to. Expressive dynamics and an even tonal balance are equally adept at energizing lively tracks as they are exposing delicate subtleties, which creates a surprisingly expansive sound stage. Musical timing is exceptional and the Solo's composure is never questioned even when faced with the most challenging material.
Finally, tuner reception is sensitive provided you position the aerial correctly and radio performance is detailed and insightful - especially from FM station broadcasts.
Build quality; flexible features; ease of use
Price comparison:Audio Analogue Enigma More info: Audio Analogue Size: 210x120x370mm Weight: 9.5kg Amplifier power: 50W per channel Tuner: AM/FM Line inputs: 2 Outputs: Tape loop
Audio Analogue Enigma
Despite a few foibles when it comes to usability, Audio Analogue's Enigma offers almost peerless sound performance for a price that's more attractive than most.
Its sonic success can be attributed to the use of valve audio circuitry in the preamplifier section - you can see the single valve at work through a small window on the front panel. Musical purists generally believe that valve technology produces a warmer and more natural sound than its electronic equivalents - and on this evidence they have a case.
The boxy design integrates an amplifier, CD player and FM/AM tuner within unusually shaped dimensions that are deeper and more compact than its rivals. And all components are designed and expertly constructed in Italy, which make the affordable price even more impressive - although the specification is slighted by limited connectivity including only two line inputs.
As mentioned, the Enigma isn't the easiest to use. The front panel features poorly positioned and unresponsive controls while the display is too small and the unattractive remote is basic at best. You also need to wait a while for the valve to warm up before playback can begin.
Nonetheless, if you can ignore these slight annoyances then it's virtually impossible not be overwhelmed by the system's sensational sound quality. The consequence of the valve circuitry is a beautifully refined presentation that sounds wonderfully natural and articulate. Vocals are particularly detailed and expressive during an unrestrained delivery that that copes well with both scale and subtlety. There is a small lack of authority with low frequencies but it doesn't dissuade from the overall performance.
Although there's no DAB radio, the FM/AM tuner offers decently detailed reception and low noise.
Competitive price; valve amplifier design; beautifully refined sound Minus points
Unfriendly functionality; no DAB tuner; limited conne
Price comparison:Denon DF-103 More info: Denon Size: 250x110x250mm Weight: 3.9kg Amplifier power: 35W per channel Tuner: FM/DAB Line inputs: 4 (plus phono input) Other: USB, ethernet Outputs: Tape loop, 3x line out, 3x optical digital, subwoofer preout
The principle of high quality sound from an integrated system may be the same but Denon's DF-103 is an altogether different proposition. Typical features like a CD player, integrated amplifier and FM/DAB tuners have been accompanied by a hard disk recorder/networking component that offers a sort of mini-system for the 21st century.
This means you can stream music files from your Mac/PC using an Ethernet port (or even wirelessly if you add a network adapter). You can also simultaneously play and rip CDs directly onto the 40GB hard disk, which has enough space to store up to 10,000 compressed songs or around 900 songs using the full quality LCPM format.
There's also USB connectivity that lets you copy files from your computer, back up your hard drive collection or play music directly from a portable media player. And, if that player is an iPod, there's an optional dock (ASD-IR, £80) that displays track information on the front panel and can be controlled using the system's remote.
The stylish aluminium design features two boxes and this price also includes a pair of decent standmount speakers (SC-F103) that have been specifically tuned for the critical UK market. And Denon claims that by using high-grade internal components and an advanced amplifier design, sound quality hasn't been compromised.
In this company, sound performance was always going to struggle against dedicated audiophile systems from the likes of Arcam and Primare. But the uncompressed sound is surprisingly impressive and graced with Denon's traditionally warm detail, composure and cohesion. However, compared to the class-leading models, the delivery sounds reserved and lacks impact with hard-hitting material.
Although you can access internet radio using the Ethernet port, the sound quality from either the DAB or FM tuners is more impressive with pronounced detail and decent dynamics.
Future-proof specification; integrated hard disk storage; stylish design; warm, detailed performance Minus points
Restrained sound; compressed music quality
Even two years after its inception, Arcam's Solo is still one of the very finest integrated stereo solutions on the market. Put simply, no other system offers the same user-friendly functionality, impressive features and consistently outstanding performance.
Audio Analogue's Enigma can compete in terms of sound quality with a beautifully refined performance and the price is attractive. But the restricted feature count and frustrating usability mean it's worth increasing your budget to accommodate the Arcam.
Finally, Denon's DF-103 offers a range of convergent features that take hi-fi firmly into the 21st century including hard drive storage and networking capabilities - but sound quality doesn't compare to the dedicated systems.
Adding a valve can only IMO add distortion, and that is exactly what it does, however it is a distortion that sounds good to many, largely even harmonic. However I personally would concure with the likes of Peter Walker and his statement that an amplifier should be 'a length of wire with gain', therefore to deliberatly add distortion is realy a HiFi no no. If anyone can convince me that adding distortion adds refinement or detail then maybe I am barking up the wrong tree, and should take up knitting or pot painting for a hobby. John...