Sound: Little Guys, Big Punch

Minisystems, in which a CD player, radio, and sometimes even a tape player come in a neat little setup, have always occupied the bottom rung on the stereo ladder. High on convenience, they have been short on style and sound.

No longer. Makers know the tastes and needs of listeners are changing. Consumers want personal systems for offices and homes. Even those who already own home theaters may want a small, stylish unit for the bedroom, den, or vacation home. So makers are introducing "lifestyle" products that place form on the same footing as function. Luckily, new technology has bred some stellar sound into these workhorses.

TRENDY. Not that these systems come cheap. The minisystems of yore could be found in superstores for $300 or $400, but the upscale minis are often sold through trendy retailers such as Brookstone Co. or tony direct-mail catalogs at near $2,000.

But for that kind of money you get sound and style aplenty. Most feature multiple-disk CD changers as well as high-quality FM tuners. Some come equipped with auto-reverse tape decks or even the minidisk--which is a smaller version of the CD that can be used for high-quality recordings. With their improved power and components, these upscale minis provide maximum sound.

Most distinctively, though, these systems just plain look good. You won't have to worry about a cheap-looking plastic box sitting atop your teak shelves. Marantz' Arch places the twin speakers at opposite ends of an arching central unit. The CD changer is hidden behind a darkened front panel. All that is visible is a digital clock highlighted by two recessed, incandescent lights. The Arch comes in finishes as exotic as cherry-hued "California walnut," or faux black marble. "The thinking was to move beyond the traditional black-box approach to stereo," says Marantz USA General Manager John McCready.

The unusual shape yielded acoustic benefits. Because of the unit's slender design, placing an amplifier inside was impossible. So amps were placed within each speaker. The result? Dynamic sound that uses its 60- watts per channel to deliver rich bass and clean, crisp treble.

Bose Audio, a pioneer of audio technology, takes a different tack. Its all-in-one Acoustic Wave system features a unique internal air chamber in which seven feet of ductwork are folded, allowing sound to interact acoustically with the interior surfaces of the unit. The lightweight unit can be carried easily from room to room. The Wave, available by mail from Bose (800 444-2673), sports a CD player and a sensitive AM/FM radio.

If recording ability is a concern, consider the Sony MJ-L1 or the Denon D-C1. The Sony has the requisite CD player and AM/FM tuner, and Sony's minidisk system--the latest in recording technology. More than an hour of music can be captured on one minidisk about the size of a computer diskette. The minidisk, popular in Europe and Japan, lets you record while the CD player offers just playback. And the Sony's slim, flat styling is more typical of higher-end audio equipment than traditional minisystems.

HIGH PRAISE. Denon, a leader in quality CD and radio players, offers the most conventional product. Its D-C1 is a handsome update of traditional black-box minisystems. But Denon uses larger speakers than those found on inexpensive minis. "There is always going to be some tradeoff in sound quality if the boxes get too physically small," says Steven Baker, Denon's vice-president for sales and marketing. The D-C1 features a 6-disk CD changer as well as an auto-reverse cassette tape. With the minimal power of 15-watts per channel, Denon manages to project a robust sound that has won accolades from European hi-fi magazines.

When it comes to minisystems, audio and aesthetics are no longer mutually exclusive. You will pay more, but these units are as easy on the eyes as they are on the ears.

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