Stereo is dead, right? No, wrong, wrong and wrong again! Good old two-channel hi-fi is most definitely alive and very well. And we're not just talking about the retro-vinyl revolution or in the esoteric high-end sphere where people spend upwards of a few grand on a CD player. The audiophile-on-a-budget is also still being catered for, and as this collection of dedicated two-channel amplifiers and CD spinners shows, there's plenty of choice out there.
Whether it's a combo for under £500 or more refined high resolution-capable kit costing twice that, there's something in the market for everyone. True, the last couple of years have been a little bit quieter in this area, but that now seems to be changing with a host of new products from manufactures who have come back into the market and some from those that never left it. And all it takes to keep it this way is for enough people to forsake the wrong path of playing CDs on their budget DVD players, and embrace the true way of stereo! You know it makes sense.
Price: £420/£400 More info:Arcam Size (WxHxD): CD 43x29x9cm, amp 43x29x9cm
Weight: CD 4.6kg amp 5.4kg SACD playback: No Amp power rating: 40 watts per channel Analogue inputs: 4 Phono stage: Yes Headphone socket: Yes
Arcam DiVA CD73 and DiVA A65+
Cards on the table time: my first proper hi-fi was an Arcam double act just like this one in many respects… but completely different in others. It's similar in that there are certain Arcam elements that have survived recent changes - anyone used to the old Alpha kit will recognise the layout and displays - but gone is the cheap-feeling battleship grey plastic fascias, replaced with a considerably more attractive metal finish (available in black or silver). The build quality has moved to match the changing look - it may not be up to the brand's FMJ range but for the money it's impressive.
It's not just the styling that's gone upmarket though, as the sound quality has also improved with recent technological developments and research conducted into higher priced kit. The CD player in particular performs very well, with an open, direct approach to sound reproduction that immediately draws you into the music and wins a place in our heart.
The A65+ amplifier has been around for a good few years now, but it still performs well for its price. Although, compared to the best of the competition here, particularly the Denon powerhouse, but also the Marantz PM4001OSE, it lacks a little bit of punch for our liking.
As a double act they perform well, but as with Eric Morecombe and Ernie Wise you feel that one of them is the real star while the other one could do with a makeover.
Good looking duo with the top notch CD player really doing the business with stereo
The amp lacks the dynamics to really get excited, particularly with the Denon costing only a bit more
Price: £250/£250 More info:Cambridge Audio Size (WxHxD): CD 43x31x7cm, amp 43x32x10cm
Weight: CD 4.6kg, amp 7kg SACD playback: No Amp power rating: 65 watts per channel Analogue inputs: 5 Phono stage: No Headphone socket: Yes
Cambridge Audio Azur 640C V2 and Azur 640A
A few years ago, two events changed the budget two-channel market for ever: the DVD explosion and the complete turnaround at Cambridge Audio. The British company went from being the Richer Sounds house brand to a serious option for the audiophile on a budget, producing top-notch kit that many major manufacturers struggled to match for the money.
Still, the company hasn't rested on its laurels, and this latest incarnation of its affordable hi-fi family is better than ever. This double act isn't quite entry level, as it sits just above the brand's 540 components, but it's certainly far from expensive. Not that you would be able to tell that from looking, because in terms of styling and build quality this system gives all the others here a serious run for their money.
The same is true in sound quality, and you have to keep asking how they do it for the cash, or lack of it. The answer that they build the kit in China doesn't hold water as so do most of the other manufacturers. There's an openness to the sound that belies the price point, and, getting away from money for a moment, it offers all-round excellent sound reproduction full stop. The tricky areas of female vocals and complex classical concerts are both handled with flair, and every CD we played on this system came to life before our ears.
Seriously impressive kit, that manages to cement Cambridge Audio's reputation as the first stop on many a price-conscious audiophile's shopping list.
Fantastic build quality; great price, wonderful performance
No phono stage, but that's about it
Price: £500/£550 More info:Denon Size (WxHxD): CD 43x14x33cm, amp 43x40x13cm
Weight: CD 7.6kg amp 14.6kg SACD playback: Yes Amp power rating: 70 watts per channel Analogue inputs: 5 Phono stage: Yes Headphone socket: Yes
Denon DCD-1500AE and PMA-1500AE
Denon's move back into affordable hi-fi is an interesting example of how the industry is once more coming over to two-channel. This is its most affordable current combination, and one that has gradually filtered down from the very high-end products that it has continued to make in Japan. Still, this combination comes in at the top end of our little group of two-part, two-channel challengers, and to be honest it looks like it. Whether it's the larger-than-life CD player or the built-like a brick outhouse amplifier, you know you have your hands on some serious products here.
Build quality is sublime, with top-notch speaker terminals, excellent remote controls and fascias that fairly scream high-end. In fact, the only thing that doesn't scream is the audio performance, which is easily the best here and has a deftness of touch that none of the competition can match (although to be fair, two of them sell at half this price).
This combo is also the only one here to offer SACD replay, but we'll concentrate on the standard version for the sake of fairness, even though the high resolution performance is first rate. This combo just kept demanding we play music on it: whether it was the latest Cat Power offering or the Ramones' Greatest Hits, the Denon duo blew us away with a deft combination of subtly and powerful attack.
Yes, it's the most expensive kit here, but if your budget can stretch to it, then your ears will love you forever.
Superb build and truly excellent sound
It's the most expensive here, so therefore its price acts against it
Price: £250/£250 More info:Marantz Size (WxHxD): CD 44x32x9cm, amp 44x34x16cmcm
Weight: CD 3.7kg amp 6kg SACD playback: No Amp power rating: 55 watts per channel Analogue inputs: 5 Phono stage: Yes Headphone socket: Yes
Marantz CD5001OSE and PM4001OSE
All hail the comeback kids. For a few years there, Marantz shunned the affordable stereo market in the same way that supermodels tend to shun an audiophile when he manages to sneak into a night club. But the legendary stereo brand is back, and back with not just one entry-level CD player and amplifier, but two! Like the Cambridge kit here, there's another cheaper family member for those with budgetary restrictions, but these OSE versions come in at a very reasonable £500 for the pair. For this you get an amplifier and a CD player with such niceties as an improved power supply and improved capacitors - plus some general hi-fi tweaking.
On the looks front we have to say that while we love the styling of the CD player, we don't think it quite works on the amplifier. And while the metal finish is still a bonus at this price, neither unit feels quite as solid as the similarly priced Cambridge. But, it's all about sound quality at the end of the day, and in that area of expertise Marantz is still the daddy. The combination offers a performance with plenty of drive, attack and a toe-tapping approach to music that keeps you coming back for more.
This stylish combination well and truly puts Marantz back on the affordable hi-fi map, and is worth serious consideration if you are in the market to bring your CD collection back to life.
Dynamic, enjoyable approach to music, solid build quality, has a phono stage for connecting a turntable
Styling may not appeal if that's important to you
Group test verdict
It wouldn't be an understatement to say we were blown away by each and every one of the combinations in this group. The standard across the board was highly impressive, and really puts out to pasture any doubts about the strength of the affordable two-channel arena - at least in terms of the quality of the products available. The Quad 12L (£500) loudspeakers that we used with each of the products enjoyed every minute of the workout, and have rarely sounded so good with price-comparable kit.
At the lower end of the price bracket it was a tough battle between the Marantz and Cambridge Audio pairings, with the Marantz doing better on the feature front but the Cambridge kit just winning out in terms of sound quality and build. However, anyone considering a purchase should certainly check out both, as the slightly different sounds may appeal to different people.
The Arcam kit also sounds excellent and it retains a place in my heart and a tonal balance I'll always feel at home with. However, the new Denon range beats it in terms of features, build and overall sonic output, and it looks like the Japanese company's stereo resurgence is keeping up its head of steam.