Sound systems place a premium on design
You could be forgiven for wondering whether we’re moving forward or backward when it comes to the stylishness of home audio systems.
Forgetting the issue of sound quality, there’s an argument to be made that we’re right back where we were in the first half of last century. From the roaring ’20s to the rock ’n’ rolling ’50s when Elvis was king, style was everything. Whether you’re talking 1923’s varnished-wood RCA-Westinghouse Radiola Grand or 1946’s Deco-ish R.A.P. 846, audio systems were legitimate pieces of art.
Then came the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, when audiophiles found themselves mixing and matching components. Forget the one-piece unit: suddenly you needed a turntable, cassette deck, receiver, compact-disc player, and—for optimum sound—speakers taller than the average four-year-old child. More often than not, the whole set-up ended up being so unsightly and bulky that the only sensible thing was to stick it in a Stonehenge-size stereo cabinet that took up a good chunk of the living room.
Fortunately, there’s now a better way, and thank god, considering space is now at a premium in increasingly cramped Vancouver. Say you’ve just scored your first condo, the downside being that it’s just a hair over 550 square feet. That means your significant other won’t want you dragging along the five-piece stereo system you’ve been hanging on to since your first university kegger.
The alternative? Well, thanks to the marvel known as the iPod, there is no shortage of compact alternatives out there.
“As many people have iPods as they do cellphones,” says Kelly Carter, interviewed at the Vancouver specialty store Commercial Electronics Ltd. “So there is a big demand for small, little systems.”
This is echoed by Harry Saini, owner of Digital Smart Homes in Yaletown.
“People want to get rid of their CD player and source components because now they can store everything on a media player,” he says. “So we’ve got a lot of cool stuff that doesn’t take up a lot of room. It can be hidden away in a 500-, 600-, 700-square-foot apartment easily so it doesn’t dominate the apartment.”
Carter notes that there are two basic ways to downsize your stereo. One is a compact system where you compensate for the compressed files on your iPod with an external digital-to-analogue (DAC) converter, which juices the sound when run through a receiver or integrated amplifier.
“Then there are the mini and micro systems,” Carter notes. “These are the stand-alone radio or the integrated CD player with speakers, like the Bose Wave or the Boston Acoustics—those are the mini systems, where you have an iPod dock. Those are made for convenience. And for what they are, there are a lot of good products in that category.”
Manufacturers have responded to the demand in ways that place a premium on style and design. Living in an ultramodern glass-and-steel unit in Coal Harbour? Weighing in at just over three pounds, the shoebox-sized Yamaha PDX-50 (approximately $250) comes in sleek black and is both iPhone- and iPod-compatible. Hired an interior designer to perfect that 2001: A Space Odyssey look? Consider the Pioneer XW-NAS3 (about $500) in shining porcelain white with the ability to connect to your plasma television, thereby enabling you to annoy the neighbours with that digital copy of Saving Private Ryan you downloaded off iTunes. As a bonus, both are wireless.
Main Street beardos going for that perfect retro ’60s look will want to check out the spaceman-meets-pea-soup-green Kanto iPort 5 (approximately $350), which also comes in a variety of less funky colours.
Those who long for a time when men wore hats and cars were the size of grey whales will find plenty of units designed to replicate those of the ’40s and ’50s. Made for a small room, the Tivoli Model Three (approximately $300) in cherry and metallic taupe looks, fantastically, like something salvaged from the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Keeping with the small-room theme, ’57 Chevy fanatics will appreciate the Tangent Uno (about $180), which comes in candy-apple red and bone white, accented by a retro-riffic clock face.
If you’re lucky enough to have the top floor of that Yaletown high-rise all to yourself, you’re going to want to go bigger. Digital Smart Homes does brisk business with two powerful but compact all-in-one systems: Cambridge Audio’s One ($700) and the oh-so-European-looking GenevaSound (starting at $500) from Switzerland’s Geneva Sound Labs.
“The footprint of the GenevaSound is about the same as a MacBook Pro,” Sinai says. “My store is about 900 square feet, and the sound completely fills up my store.”
And what do all of these miniature systems have in common? Well, they look like pieces of art, which is more than you can say for that silver Dual turntable and black Kenworth receiver combo your parents were rocking back in 1991.