TOP 40 PRODUCTS
Here’s our pick, from 1976 to 2016, of the kit that went beyond good to acheive landmark greatness. This is hi-fi’s royalty – in full attire
1976 LINN LP12
The Linn LP12 is arguably the most popular high-end turntable of all time, in the UK at least. Introduced in 1972, it went on to dominate the premium turntable market for decades afterwards. Linn made a range of compatible arms and cartridges too, so upgrading was easy.
The deck was superbly engineered but the company has never stopped developing it. Just about every aspect of the design from the suspension to the power supply has been revised over the years, leading to a string of incremental performance gains.
Early LP12S had a rounded, rich balance that was still lively enough to entertain. Later versions moved towards neutrality, enjoying greater precision and insight as a result.
1976 TECHNICS SL1200
Though we’ve never considered the SL1200, or any of its variants, class-leaders when it comes to sound quality, that doesn’t mean we don’t admire them. Every version we’ve tested was well-built, solid and beautifully engineered – one of the main reasons they were so successful with DJS across the globe. They’re easy to use too, with plenty of flexibility when it comes to positioning and cartridge-matching.
We love these decks because they’re tough and fuss-free. With a bit of effort, they’re upgradable too, but they sound good enough as standard to be enjoyable. Flawless? Definitely not, but that doesn’t stop the SL1200 in any of its forms from being considered a true classic.
1978 ACOUSTIC RESEARCH AR18
Back in the 1970s, Acoustic Research was one of the biggest hi-fi brands around. It made a massive impact with its original turntable, but these rather ordinary-looking standmounters are what we remember the most. Even then, they were basic – a two-way, sealed-box design using a 20cm paper cone mid/bass and a rather unrefined 32mm tweeter.
Yet Acoustic Research took this recipe and turned out one of the finest budget speakers in history. The AR18S sounded entertaining, but most of all they were fun. Sure, the treble could have been sweeter and their transparency barely lived up to the word, but play some music through them and all was forgiven.
1978 NAD 3020
The NAD brand is based on the foundations laid by the 3020 amplifier. To date, nothing else the brand has done has made the impact of this slightly flimsy budget box. Even back then, a power output of around 20W per channel wasn’t particularly impressive, but in use this integrated amp could drive speakers better than just about any rival.
Its smooth, full-bodied balance worked brilliantly with the less-than refined budget kit of the day, delivering the sound with unmistakable grace. Current amplifiers may be ahead on transparency and build quality, but find one of these in working order and it would still be a joy to listen to.
1978 REGA PLANAR 3
We doubt there has ever been a more dominant turntable than Rega’s Planar 3. Ever since its introduction in 1978, it has been the go-to middle-market record player, and little has changed in the subsequent years. In fact, the various iterations of this deck have won our sub-thousand pound turntable award so many times, we’ve lost count. So what’s the Planar 3’s secret? It’s a simple, well-made design based on sensible engineering principles.
Sure, the company has refined just about every component over time, most notably the introduction of the then revolutionary RB300 arm in 1983.
But in essence the Planar 3 still remains today what it has always been: a simple-to-use, fuss-free performer that makes our vinyl collection sound great.
“The various iterations of this deck have won so many Awards, we’ve lost count” Rega Planar 3
1979 SONY WALKMAN
At first the idea of a portable cassette player with lightweight headphones seemed a little niche. Would people want to listen to music on the move? The answer to that question seems obvious today, but back then there were doubts.
As it happened, the Walkman was a king-size hit for Sony. There were plenty of models ranging from budget right through to the premium-priced WM-D6C, something better known as the Walkman Professional. This unit sounded good enough to rival some of the best domestic cassette decks around but could still just about fit into your pocket. The death of cassette led to Sony using the Walkman name on other portable products, but none made quite the same impact as these tape machines.
1979 A&R CAMBRIDGE A60
If NAD was the king of the budget amps, then the A60 is what you bought when you wanted to upgrade. The A60 was the first product from A&R Cambridge (which later morphed into Arcam) and what a monster hit it was. Look past the unassuming appearance and you’ll find a product that combined sensible features, solid build and class-leading sound quality.
The A60 was a refined performer, which sounded good with a wide range of partnering kit. This wooden-cased unit was as engaging as they came with a wonderful combination of finesse, rhythmic talent and dynamic subtlety in its armoury.
1981 DUAL CS505
The likes of Pro-ject may dominate the budget turntable market today, but in the 1980s it was Dual with the CS505. It was a sophisticated deck with a proper suspended sub-chassis, while later versions had smart wooden plinths.
This tidy, well-balanced performer delivered satisfying results without putting too much of a strain on the entry-level kit it was usually partnered with. Oddly enough, that’s what made it so good in a budget context.
“Look past the unassuming appearance and you’ll find a product with sensible features, solid build and class-leading sound quality” A&R Cambridge A60
1982 WHARFEDALE DIAMOND 1
Back in 1982, no one would have believed the Wharfedale Diamond would dominate the budget-speaker market for generations to come. Standing just 24cm high, the originals were tiny, but delivered a huge amount of bass and had a rolled-off, smooth tonal balance. The Diamonds were much cheaper than their competition too, costing £65 while the rest hovered closer to £100.
Subsequent generations saw improved tweeters and better finishes, and the current Diamond 220s are arguably the best Diamonds ever. Yet, for that touch of magic that’s rare in hi-fi, it’s the originals we hanker after.
1983 AUDIOLAB 8000A
This is the product that started it all for Audiolab. It arrived out of nowhere, knocked the A&R Cambridge A60 off its perch and set the standard for midrange amplifiers for years to come. For the time, it was superbly made, making most rivals look like they’d been knocked up in a shed. The 8000A was also well equipped, having tone controls, a headphone output and a decent phono stage. It had plenty of grunt too, and could drive most pricecompatible speakers with ease.
The 8000A didn’t have it all its own way though. Its sound quality split opinion at the time. There was no denying the amp’s wideranging dynamics, insight and tonal evenness, but some commentators wanted greater rhythmic subtlety. Back in the ’80s, this was a fit-and-forget amplifier – an easy recommendation that pleased most of the people most of the time.
“No one would have believed the Diamond would dominate for generations” Wharfedale Diamond 1 “For the time, it was superbly made, making most rivals look like they’d been knocked up in a shed” Audiolab 8000A
“When it came to insight and uncovering the finest of details, it could rival most amps costing twice as much” Mission Cyrus One
1982 MICHELL GYRODEC
The Gyrodec is as much a piece of engineering art as it is a turntable. Still available today, this player has hardly changed in appearance since it first appeared. It hasn’t needed to, because Michell got the engineering spot-on right from the start. This is a beautifully made deck built to the kind of standard that routinely embarrassed rivals at double the money.
If you like Meccano you’ll love putting this deck together – it arrives in bits. But the clear instructions and Michell’s logical approach to the design mean it’s a breeze to construct. Once up and running it sounds detailed, expressive and graceful. Others may prioritise rhythm or dynamic contrast, but, even today, the Gyrodec remains what it has always been: a fabulous buy.
1984 MISSION CYRUS ONE
Cyrus started off as the electronics arm of speaker specialist Mission. The Cyrus One and the more powerful Two were the company’s first products. Early models had a plastic case to eliminate the distortion effects of eddy currents; later versions switched to a cast metal case that was astonishingly sophisticated for a budget amp.
This was a purist integrated amplifier, designed with maximum resolution as a priority. Provided you were in basic sympathy with its lean, lightweight presentation – power output was only 25W per channel – this amplifier stunned with its agility and dynamic expression. When it came to insight and uncovering the finest of details, it could rival most amplifiers costing twice as much.
1984 NAIM 32 PREAMPLIFIER/SNAPS/250 POWER AMPLIFIER
This is a classic Naim high-end combination, and it formed the heart of thousands of high-end hi-fi systems in the 1980s. It came in three bits: the 32 preamp – a flexible purist design – coupled to a dedicated power supply and the now-legendary 250 stereo power amp. Together, this trio could deliver drama and delicacy in impressive portions.
By current standards the sound could have been more transparent and open, but at the time little could match this combination’s dynamic punch, powers of organisation and stupendous rhythmic drive. Back then, Naim had a close relationship with Linn, so this amp was usually found partnered with the LP12 turntable used as the source.
1985 DENON DRM-44HX
Welcome to the only cassette deck on our list. It cost around £350 and packed in just about every piece of cassette tech you can think of bar auto-reverse. All the Dolbys are here, from noise reduction systems B and C through to HX Pro, that added an extra dose of openness and detail. As one of Denon’s premium products, it featured a tuning system that optimised the performance with the tape being used. The 44HX had lots of detail, good speed stability and strong dynamics.
1988 ACOUSTIC ENERGY AE1
The original AE1S sent shockwaves through the premium speaker market in the mid-1980s. They were small standmounters, barely larger than a shoebox, but delivered staggering levels of detail, dynamics and volume. They were exotically engineered, with an all-metal drive unit and a cabinet lined with plaster to reduce internal standing waves and improve damping.
These speakers were demanding of system and supports, and shone only with high-quality, muscular amplifiers. Get a pair singing though, and they will impress even today.
“At the time little could match this combo’s dynamic punch, powers of organisation and stupendous rhythmic drive” Naim 32 preamp/snaps/250 power amp
“This unassuming Denon is arguably the most important tuner in What Hi-fi?’s history” Denon TU-260L “The amplifier’s impact sent the competition back to the drawing board, forcing wholesale changes” Pioneer A400
1990 DENON TU-260L
This unassuming Denon is arguably the most important tuner in What Hi-fi?’s history. The MKI ran from 1990-98, and the MKII to 2006. That’s an impressively long life, and in its own way this FM/AM tuner was quite some product.
For the £100 it cost, we couldn’t find an alternative we preferred. The 260L was built well, simply laid out and easy to use. Once you got a decent signal it delivered a well-balanced sound that worked superbly across talk radio and music stations. There was plenty of detail and it was well organised, and wrapped up in an easy-going balance. Don’t let the Denon’s low-key appearance fool you: this is as much a classic as any other product here.
1990 PIONEER A400
The arrival of Pioneer’s A400 in the early ’90s was a seismic event in the budget amplifier market. This extraordinary box had a combination of detail, agility and dynamics few rivals could get close to, all wrapped in a slickly built package.
The amplifier’s impact sent the competition back to the drawing board, forcing wholesale changes in the budget market. Everyone from Arcam and Cyrus through to Denon had to revamp their products to compete, but even then they struggled. So did Pioneer when the time came to replace the A400, because subsequent models never quite captured the magic of the original.
We heard systems in which the Pioneer was flanked by high-end sources and speakers yet still came up smelling of roses – there aren’t many budget products with that kind of capability. The only downside was a slightly thin, excitable quality that needed a bit of careful system-matching to allow the amp to shine. Get that balance right and the A400 rewarded like few others.
“The 753s’ crisp and forward-looking design and subtle details made most rivals look old-fashioned” Mission 753 “The balance strayed to the rich side of neutral but still packed plenty in the way of excitement and drive” Marantz CD63 KI
1993 MISSION 753
How many drive units can you get in a single box? In the case of Mission’s 753s, as many as possible. When they were introduced back in the mid-’90s, these slim towers reignited the market for sub-thousand-pound floorstanders.
While the sound quality had much to do with their domination – we talked of strong dynamics, quick responses and loads of detail – other aspects of the design made these speakers stand out. At the time Mission was a master at turning out stylish speakers that looked hi-tech. The 753s encapsulated a crisp and forward-looking design with subtle details that made most of the competition look old-fashioned.
Perhaps even more importantly, the Missions looked great in a domestic environment, which meant they were welcome in houses where more traditional alternatives wouldn’t be allowed past the front gate. There’s a lesson in there that some sections of the industry still need to learn.
1995 MARANTZ CD63 KI SIGNATURE
Marantz is no stranger to producing top-class CD players, particularly at the more affordable end of the market. But, even in the light of the quality machines the company produces today, the CD63 KI Signature has to go down as its crowning achievement.
Based on the CD63, this product featured a host of improvements including upgraded circuit components and improved construction, which together lifted its performance dramatically. There were few players, even at double the money, which could outperform this unassuming machine.
Sonic gains included improved detail, more expressive dynamics and a chunky gain in refinement. The balance strayed to the rich and smooth side of neutral but still packed plenty in the way of excitement and drive to convince. The KI in the name stands for Ken Ishiwata, Marantz’s Brand Ambassador, who developed the player to match his own taste.
1998 DENON DM3 MICRO
Denon has dominated the micro-system market for almost two decades, thanks to the foundations laid by the DM3. The company has built generations of products based on its gloriously convenient half-width casing. CD replay and a radio have always been part of the equation, with later generations able to accept a digital feed from external sources. This original version came with optional speakers, which worked superbly with the main unit.
The DM3 didn’t become a legend by having a strong features list though. There’s no shortage of rivals that do at least as well. No, the Denon’s advantage was its superb sound. Sure, a collection of quality budget separates (from the same era) would outperform it in all sonic areas, but they’d inevitably cost far more. What the DM3 did – and its descendants still do – was to deliver an engaging and entertaining performance beyond that offered by the competition. That it did so in such an affordable, well built and easy-to-use package just seals its reputation.
1998 SENNHEISER HD600
There were premium headphones before the HD600 and there have been many after it, but there’s something about this late ’90s design that still strikes a chord. They had a wonderfully forgiving, smooth balance, yet delivered plenty of attack and drive when required. Detail levels were high, but despite all the analysis it was oh so easy to sit back and get lost in the music. Move away from the sound and the HD600S continued to impress. They were well built, and designed with long-term use in mind. An example? The cables were detachable, which meant you could easily replace them if one got damaged without having to pay for repairs or buy a new pair of headphones. These Sennheisers were comfortable too, being light and carefully shaped. Subsequent models made gains in transparency and overall performance, but even today the original HD600S still stand out as something special.
“What the DM3 did – and its descendants still do – was to deliver an engaging and entertaining performance beyond that offered by the competition” Denon DM3 Micro
1999 ARCAM ALPHA 7SE
For much of the ’90s, Arcam dominated the affordable CD player market with a series of machines that delivered a combination of great sound quality and superb build.
Arriving at the tail end of the decade, the 7SE was probably the brand’s crowning achievement. This £350 player steamrollered price rivals and set a stiff task for those that retailed for twice as much. The sonic presentation was authoritative and refined, but
1999 PRO-JECT DEBUT
Since its inception in 1990, Pro-ject has been one of the authentic heroes of the entry-level turntable and a true enabler of the current and on-going vinyl revival. Designing its products in Austria, manufacturing them in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, it’s a Central European success story – and the Debut (which was, annoyingly, not its first product) is perhaps the most successful of the lot. packed a good dose of dynamics. The 7SE uncovered an impressive amount of detail and organised it well too, delivering a wonderfully entertaining sound.
While that plastic front panel wouldn’t pass muster today, this player was solidly made and cleverly constructed. It was easily upgradable, but most owners were more than happy with the standard player. At the price nothing came close.
Following Pro-ject’s avowed ethos of delivering ‘simple-to-use, maintenance-free and reliable’ products that ‘perform beyond all expectations normally associated with their price’, the Debut was corking value for money and a deserved hit. Almost 20 years of improvements and upgrades has led to the Debut Carbon and its variants, but it’s with 1999’s Debut that Pro-ject first made its mark.
2000 KEF KHT2005
No one doubted the exciting audio potential of surround-sound, but the idea of being hemmed in by six burly speakers in order to properly enjoy a film was a difficult sell. It took KEF to utilise its long-acknowledged technical expertise and hitherto-undiscovered mastery of interior design to offer the best compromise: the KHT2005 5.1 speaker package, or ‘Eggs’ as they were immediately dubbed.
Thanks to a combination of thrilling, high-impact performance and an aesthetic that actually added to your decor choices rather than detracted from them, the KHT2005 was an instant and enduring hit.
Other manufacturers attempted to emulate KEF’S winning formula of great sound, high-quality materials and beautiful finish, but none succeeded. The KHT2005 was a classic from the off, and every subsequent version has only added to the original’s reputation.
The introduction of Sky+ in mid-2001 ushered in an era when we stopped being slaves to television schedules and instead started to dictate our own terms for how we watched TV.
At its launch, the Sky+ personal video service boasted a 40GB hard drive (for recording, pausing and rewinding live TV), twin tuners (for doing that while watching another channel) and a seven-day Electronic Programme Guide that was outstanding for the time.
A more or less constant regime of upgrades, including more memory (the set-top box’s hard drive has since grown to 2TB) and new features such as remote recording via mobile phone, which arrived in 2006, has kept Sky+ ahead of the game.
Sky+ established a template that competitors have had no choice but to try to emulate.
It doesn’t always pay to be the originator of new technology – sometimes you do the leg work and others swoop in when it’s established – but the rewards are there for those who truly innovate. That’s what Sonos did in 2002 when it launched its first wireless multi-room range. Thanks to the simplicity of constructing a system, the unshakeable stability of the Sonosnet local network, and discreet, stylish looks, all that was required was decent sound quality – and Sonos delivered this in fine style.
The California company’s intention to concentrate on maximising the potential of music-streaming services rather than on locally stored digital collections hasn’t hindered its progress – ‘Sonos’ is on the way to becoming a brandnomer like Hoover or, indeed, Tannoy.
2004 BOWERS & WILKINS PV-1
There are any number of sound engineering theories and principles which dictate the way B&W’S ‘pressure vessel’ (for this is nothing so prosaic as a ‘subwoofer’) looks – but don’t try and kid us B&W wasn’t thoroughly turned on by its appearance.
A design classic in a field dominated by products so visually tedious that even their own manufacturers would encourage consumers to hide them out of sight, the PV-1 redefined the sector. It dug deep, hit hard and fast, and dominated the What Hi-fi? Awards for years on end.
So completely did it boss the category that we eventually did away with the subwoofer Award altogether.
“The PV-1 is a design classic in a field of products so visually tedious that their manufacturers encourage you to hide them away” Bowers & Wilkins PV-1 “Sky+ ushered in an era when we stopped being slaves to TV schedules” Sky+
Yamaha was so far ahead of the curve with its YSP-1, there wasn’t yet a word to describe the product. We reviewed the YSP-1 in the April 2005 issue of the magazine, giving this ‘Home Cinema System’ four stars. But it’s thanks to Yamaha that we now know it as a soundbar.
These days, of course, a soundbar is mostly used for augmenting the flimsy sound served up by many wafer-thin televisions, but back in 2005 Yamaha was determined to deliver actual surround-sound from the YSP-1.
Thanks to no fewer than 42 tiny drive units and some fiercely complicated digital processing, it did just that – provided your room was of a sympathetic shape. Although soundbars have moved on in the decade since, with hindsight, the YSP-1 is as thorough and far-sighted a solution to a home entertainment problem as we’ve ever seen.
“Yamaha was so far ahead of the curve with its YSP-1, there wasn’t yet a word to describe the product” Yamaha YSP-1
“Find one of these now, and it’ll still be a joy to listen to” NAD 3020
October 1976: we started as we meant to go on, with solid verdicts and full listings
January 1984: In the month that Jacko’s hair caught fire we were more interested in Judie Tzuke’s