Below is an excerpt from the April GEC tele-briefing hosted by HiFi+ Editor-in-Chief, Alan Sircom:
It seems strange to discuss the possibility of getting a big sound from a small system, to a group of audiophiles who are likely to have large, full-range systems. But, with fewer ‘bricks and mortar’ audio dealers, audiophiles are increasingly being called upon to act as audio advisors for friends and families. We now have to learn how to make up a good system that might be very different from the one we might normally use.
Audiophiles occasionally need to build second systems. These systems usually have to go into smaller rooms than the main equipment. It’s wise to keep up on the latest developments.
And there’s always ‘downsizing’ to consider too. We sometimes have to reset our levels, to fit in with new circumstances. Rather than sacrificing all, a good small system can retain much of what the best in audio can do, in a smaller and sometimes cheaper package.
Before we start discussing the advantages and disadvantages of small systems, it’s good to define terms. Small systems are inherently simple in design; typically a source or sources, coupled to an integrated amplifier and a pair of small tower or bookshelf loudspeakers. These systems differ from all-in-one integrated systems thanks to increased flexibility, and an open-ended approach. In addition, such systems are often – but not exclusively – price and value led.
Most people started with small audio systems and upgraded over the years. So, what’s changed since you last had a small system? There’s been a perceived shift in significance of source components in recent years. First, loudspeakers were all-important, then the source became fundamental to the performance of the system. Today, in smaller systems at least, there’s more of a sense of proportion and balance. Part of the reason for this is a general shift toward computer audio in prospective newcomers; more people are listening through a Squeezebox, a laptop or an iPod dock than a CD player these days, and our task is to raise those people’s awareness of the importance of good DACs to improve the performance of those sources.
Of course, another reason why there’s now a sense of balance in system design, and that’s because there’s been a general improvement in audio performance across the board. Sources, amplifiers and loudspeakers have all improved significantly in recent years. This, coupled with a greater understanding of the importance of the getting the fundamentals right in audio – good power conditioning, cabling, equipment support and room acoustics – all makes for better sounding small systems.
Smaller systems are inherently limited by their design. You can make a small loudspeaker deliver good dynamics at realistic volume levels, something approaching full-range sound and a large soundstage, but you can’t get them to do all these things simultaneously. That’s the domain of the big systems. In addition, it’s difficult to design an integrated amplifier with big power amp output and good preamp resolution. Something has to give. And also, small systems tend to be used in smaller rooms, which provide their own limitations to accurate full-range frequency response and loudness levels. On the other hand, small systems are often not limited in the resolution of detail within their other limitations. The art of building a good small system is about balancing those inherent compromises.