2018’s best hifi system brands are firmly rooted in the historical giants of the audio industry – the Japanese, British and American innovators of the 1950’s who created the first amplifiers and receivers from which today’s systems descended. 2018’s top brands incorporate not only brilliant, rich sound, they also meet the sound separation and visual demands of film. Bluetooth, Dolby Atmos, Wi-Fi, HDMI and streaming capabilities are core features of today’s best hifi systems.
In 1887 Torakusu Yamaha founded Nippon Gakki Company. It manufactured pianos and reed organs. Locate in Hamamatsu, Japan, by 1922 Yamaha had branched into audio equipment with a hand cranked phonograph. Yamaha grew in many and diversified directions, but it was 1972 before Yamaha launched into audio electronics with the CA-700 amplifier. Although stylish and successful, it was one year later that Yamaha hit gold with its successor, the CA-1000.
Today Yamaha’s RX-V481 is a well-received, mid-range receiver. Priced at $399, it offers solid performance and AV features. Compatible with Yamaha’s MusicCast, it includes 5, 80W channels, surround sound, built in WiFi and BlueTooth. Its streaming services include AirPlay, Spotify and Pandora. The RX-V481 supports HDMI, has a front panel USB digital connection, dialogue level adjustment and excellent sound quality.
Pioneer began life in 1938 as Fukuin Shokai Denki Seisakusho. Its founder, Nozomu Matsumoto, developed the A-8 dynamic speaker. This Japanese firm changed its name to Pioneer in 1961. The Pioneer brand is associated with hi-fi speakers (1953), car stereos and CD players (1975-1984), and Blue-ray technology (2007).
Pioneer has branched into the commercial DJ market as well as home entertainment A/V systems. Pioneer offers two different all-in-one DJ systems ranging from $899 – $1,499. For $398, Pioneer offers the VSX-831, an excellent mid-priced receiver. The VSX-831 presents superb sound quality, six HDMI ports, multi-room audio with Google Case, Spotify streaming, and surround sound in one easy-to-use package.
Amar G. Bose began his career as a teenage audiophile who repaired radios out of his family home. Amar Bose subsequently became a professor at MIT and amassed a number of patents. Instead of licensing them to another company, he decided to keep them. Dr. Bose started Bose in 1964 in Framingham, Massachusetts. Today Bose is a privately held corporation, whose 2015 revenue was estimated at $3.5 billion dollars.
Bose’s SoundTouch300, a multipurpose sound bar, offers a serious alternative to traditional amplifier entertainment systems. For $699.95, SoundTouch300 provides ‘larger than life’ sound, Bluetooth compatibility, and WiFi streaming of Spotify and Pandora, without loss in sound quality. It is compatible with SoundTouch 10 speakers, has HDMI ports, PhaseGuide technology, QuietPort bass, and Dolby Digital and DTS decoding. Wireless rear speakers can be connected for full surround sound, and remote bass adjustments are very easy.
Originally founded as Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo in 1946 by Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita, TTK was unable to be used because a railway company, Tokyo Kyuko had claimed it. After much thought, the name was romanized to “Sony.” It comes from the Latin word ‘sonus,’ meaning sound, and for an American WWII slang expression, ‘sonny boy.’ It meant a smart, presentable young Japanese male, a description with which both founders identified. The first Sony branded product was the TR-55 transistor radio, but it was its TR-63 that “cracked open the U.S. market and launched the new industry of consumer microelectronics.” Sony is associated with product milestones such as the Walkman (1979), the 1983 launch of the CD with Philips, and Blu-Ray players in 2005. Revenue for 2016 was estimated at 8.1 trillion yen.
Sony’s STR-DN1070 is a mid-level receiver with an all-around, dynamic performance for $498. It offers BlueTooth, multi-room streaming, and superior sound. Although it does not support Dolby Atmos or DTS:X surround formats, the STR-DN1070 does support full spec 4K images and with the highest quality image formats for videos. The STR-DN107 has a SongPal application for multi-room streaming. It also works with Google Home to provide voice command recognition.
Samsung was originally founded in 1938 by Lee Byung-chul as a Seoul trading company. It has grown to a South Korean multinational conglomerate, located in Samsung Town, Seoul, Korea. Its revenue comprises approximately 17% of South Korea’s GPD. Samsung entered into the electronics industry in the late 1960’s.
The $700 Samsung DA-E750 Audio Dock is one of the most stylish audio docks on the market. It fully supports AirPlay and BlueTooth. It is beautifully made and streams well for both Android and Apple products. WiFi is built in. The DA-E750 offers excellent sound quality. Samsung’s amplifiers use vacuum tube digital amplifiers to combine the best of digital sound crispness and analog’s natural, rich warmth.
Formed in 1946 at the end of World War II, Onkyo is headquartered in Onkyo, Japan. Its name means ‘sound harmony.’ Onkyo specializes in premium home cinema and audio equipment, including surround sound speakers, receivers, and portable devices. In March 2015, Onkyo purchased the home electronics division of Pioneer Corporation, whereby Pioneer took a 14.95% ownership stake in Onkyo. Its capital is listed as 4,011,994,350 yen as of March 2016.
Onkyo’s TX-NR656 is a 7.2 Channel network, A/V receiver. It has 4K ultra high visuals, Dolby Atmos sound decoder, built-in Wi-Fi, BlueTooth and AirPlay streaming, and multi-room sound capability. Priced at $399, the TX-NR656 is a serious contender in a line-up of excellent mid-level receivers, with full surround sound decoders and solid sound quality.
Based in Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, England, Arcam was originally established in 1976 by science and engineering students from the University of Cambridge. They introduced the A&R Cambridge A60 integrated amplifier and established a reputation for brilliantly transparent sound. In the 1980’s the company name as shortened from A&R Cambridge Ltd. To Arcam. Arcam became a wholly owned subsidiary of JAM Industries, Montreal, Canada in 2012. Its product design, however, is still managed in-house in Cambridge, United Kingdom.
In 2013 and 2014, Arcam’s FMJ A19 was a A/V product winner recognised for its stability and sound clarity. The FullMetalJacket A19 retails at 650 pounds. New features include an upgraded circuit to deliver better sound quality to the headphone section of the amplifier. The FMJ A19 incorporates audiophile grade components designed into the circuit layout configuration and a muscular toroidal transformer is included in the damped chassis. It offers a digital hub for BlueTooth and USB streamed music.
DENki ONkyo Kabushikigaisha, shortened to DEN-ON, was established in 1910. From 1928-1947 it went through various mergers with Japan Columbia and Nippon Columbia before merging into Japan Denki Onkyo. In 2001 D&M Holdings was created, and two audiophile giants – Denon Ltd. And Marantz Japan – merged. Denon specialises in professional and consumer home cinema and audio equipment, including A/V receivers, Blu-ray players, tuners, headphones and wireless music. Denon is particularly well known for its high-end A/V receivers and moving coil phonograph cartridges.
Denon’s $499 AVR-S920W home theater receiver is a 7 channel, Atmos capable receiver that rivals Sony’s STR-DN1070. It presents a surprisingly musical surround sound for a home cinema experience with plenty of muscle. This includes HDMI inputs, a comprehensive AVR control application for Android and iOS for streaming Spotify Connect and Pandora, and built-in Blue-ray and Dolby True HD and DTS-HD sound decoders.
Cambridge began as a division of Cambridge Consultants in 1968. Its first product was a 2x 20watt P40 integrated amplifier created by a team that included Gordon Edge and Peter Lee. It was the first amplifier to use a toroidal transformer, which would go on to be a standard component in virtually every hi-end amplifier produced thereafter. In 1975 Cambridge launched the Classic One 2 x 25 W integrated amplifier made of custom integrated circuits using multi-layer boards. Cambridge wandered through a series of different purchasers from 1971 through 1994. In 1994 Audio Partnership founders, Julian Richer and James Johnson-Flint, recognised Cambridge as a match for Audio Partnership’s investment criteria and was its first acquisition.
For $999 Cambridge Audio offers the CXA80 integrated amplifier. It is an 80 watt powerful muscular best of an amplifier. Built of brushed aluminum, it offers the sleek look of Cambridge’s CX series, with a high-resolution DAC built-in, an USB port for Bluetooth streaming, a socket in the front panel for headphones, excellent clarity, rich detail and powerful sound from its standard toroidal transformer.
Marantz is a name synonymous with the best-of-the-best in audio equipment. Saul Marantz founded his business in 1953 from his home in Kew Gardens, NY. It is now headquartered in Kanagawa, Japan. After a long successful career introducing innovative consumer audio products, Saul Marantz died in 1997 at the age of 85. The Marantz’s Japanese connection began in 1966 through a partnership with Standard Radio Corporation. The 1970’s saw Marantz creating the most successful receiver line in consumer electronics history. By 1975, Standard Radio Corporation changed its name to Marantz Japan, Inc. In 2002 Marantz Japan and Denon merged to form D&M Holdings. In 2008 Philips sold its remaining stake in D&M Holdings, ending a 28 year relationship between Marantz and Philips that had begun in 1992.
Marantz’s entry level audio video hifi system is the SR5011 at $899. This is Marantz ‘cheapest’ full-size home entertainment receiver. The SR5011 is a 7.2 channel, 100 watts receiver that incorporates the latest audio and video technologies. The receiver includes Dolby Atmos and its tag-along DTS:X. The receiver offers HDMI 2.0a and HCP 2.2 support on each of its eight HDMI inputs. The SR5011 offers BlueTooth and Wi-Fi streaming support for Airplay, internet radio, Sirius XM, Pandora and Spotify. Its superb sound quality is a winning combination with its surround sound and latest video technologies.
Starting with Yamaha at No. 10 and travelling to the most expensive A/V counterpart, Marantz, at the No. 1 spot, even the most demanding and discerning audiophile can find a suitable hifi system. The last seventy years of A/V design and innovation have combined to yield sound systems of incomparable excellence and performance. It is virtually impossible to go wrong with any of the hifi systems listed above.