In the mythical golden age of Hifi before first CD and later lossless streaming threatened to open the black arts to the masses, every self respecting Hifi system consisted of separates and usually three – source, amplifier and speakers. Esoteric systems might have a pre- and power amp but having less components was a no-no.
Nowadays, even respected Hifi manufacturers are offering a bewildering array of possibilities from just add speakers one box solutions such as the Naim Unitiqute ranges, my own Auralic Polaris and others from Cambridge Audio and NAD to digital solutions which include distinct boxes comprising a NAS box, network switch, streamer, DAC, amplifier and speakers or any combination thereof. Even simpler are the likes of the KEF LS50 Wireless II which looks like a pair of speakers but is in fact a complete system in a pair of speaker cabinets.
So how many boxes should we aspire to? Single box solutions offer a number of advantages:
- Compact dimensions
- No duplication of components should reduce costs
- Each component and its interactions be optimised for the system as a whole – no need to worry about upgrading all those interconnect cables
Multiple box solutions suffer from the opposite
- Take up lots of space
- Duplicate components and require additional parts such as interconnecting cables, adding to costs
- System synergies can be found by trial and error at best
On the other hand, single box solutions offer a number of disadvantages:
- The components may interfere with each other adding noise and distortion.
- A common power supply may limit system performance
- It is more difficult to upgrade and can only be upgraded as a whole (for some this will be a plus!)
- It may not look much for the money spent
And again multiple box solutions offer corresponding benefits:
- The components can be isolated from each other to prevent noise and distortion.
- Discrete power supplies may improve system performance
- They can more easily upgraded and this can be done incrementally
- It may look like a lot of system for the money spent.
The truth is that none of these pros and cons are sufficient to mean that there is the same optimum solution for all. I currently enjoy two systems both based around a just add speakers solution. I enjoy the sound quality, the simplicity, the reduced temptation to continually upgrade and the easy way they fit into my living space. The esoteric system in particular is remarkably quiet calming my anxieties over cross contamination from having all the elements in one box. It works for me but it may not do so for you!