Why more boxes is not always better

A recent article in What HiFi was entitled “The more boxes the better: why the path to sonic heaven is lined with components, clutter and cables”. The article asserts that ultimate sound quality will always be delivered by more boxes, in spite of the growth of high quality one box solutions. Regular readers will know that both my main systems are built around single box electronics and that I have looked at this issue before.

The What HiFi article makes a number of assumptions that I think fundamentally undermine its conclusions. They say “Let’s not forget that a separates set-up that tries to match an all-in-one box for features will invariably end up costing a fair bit more too.” This is the classic reviewers’ assumption that price is not a factor. For a buyer in the real world, price is always a factor. The best sound is always the best sound available for your budget. NAD produce three well-reviewed all-in one systems the C700 priced at £1299 in the UK at the time of writing, the M10 v2 at £2199, and the M33 at £3999.

So if I am looking at a C700 and I have to pay more for corresponding separates, should I not be comparing them with the M10? And can we not make the same argument at a higher price point regarding the M10v2 and the M33?

The savings in cables (audio connects and power cables), multiple casework and power supplies reflected in component prices could easily make up the difference. So for me, the best sound quality has to be judged at a comparable total cost of ownership, else, the comparison is not meaningful in the real world.

The second area ignored by the What Hifi article is that the best set of components does necessarily make the best overall system. They assert that

“The best-sounding phono stages always seem to be outboard; the same goes for digital-to-analogue converters and headphones amplifiers. And I’ve never heard a well-designed monobloc power amplifier bettered by its stereo sibling either. It seems that some issues in packing everything into one box remain intractable.”

I do not contest this – but the more components in a system the more interfaces there are between them, each one having the potential to stop that individual component operating at optimum, so the fact that the individual components may be better needs to be balanced against the system optimisation built into the all-in-one system by hours of careful product design, testing and refinement by the manufacturer.

I suspect the real reason why some HiFi hobbyists will always prefer component systems is the ability to tweak, play, replace and upgrade individual components. The cost of upgrading components will always be less than upgrading an all-in-one system. For some people, this is the heart of their enjoyment, and if you have the budget to support it, good luck to you.

However, some words of caution. For the reasons of synergy and interaction, replacing one component may have a mixture of effects, not all good, and may, in turn, trigger further component upgrades with unpredictable results, and increased expenditure.

And perversely, whilst the cost of upgrading a single box solution may discourage the itch to upgrade, this may actually encourage you to enjoy what you have more. Or at least cause you to satisfy your urge to experiment by other means including:

  • Finding new music to listen to ( a low-cost option if pursued by lossless streaming);
  • Finding alternative recordings/remasters of material you know well (again a low-cost option if pursued by lossless streaming);
  • Moving your loudspeakers around (which I find can have a remarkable impact on sound, for no cost).

So I am sure that in an ideal world of unlimited budgets and experimentation, multiple boxes have the potential to deliver the best sound. For those of us living in the real world of finite budgets and with less ability to experiment, the all-in-one box may provide the very best sound we can achieve. My suggestion is – go listen and let your ears decide!

Leave a comment