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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Should anybody buy an all-in-one system?

Should anybody buy an all-in-one stereo or home theater system? Looking around at my friends and neighbors, it's clear many people have chosen the all-in-one route. That's really too bad. Because unless you care about simplicity more than sound, build quality, versatility, and long life, an all-in-one system is NOT for you.

The all-in-one stereo or home theater (HT) system is the embodiment of three market forces that have been active the stereo and HT industry for decades:

In essence, there is an abundance of equipment in people's homes: the market is saturated. Manufacturers, who must sell new products every year, rely on technological advances to drive sales.

But a second market force makes this difficult for most stereo equipment: the technology behind a quality amplifier, pre-amp, receiver, or (to a lesser extent) speaker, hasn't changed in decades.  With the exception of TV and media (LP, Tape, DAT, CD, Laserdisc, DVD, Data, HD-DVD, Blu-Ray), a stereo or HT from the 1980s is as good, and just as technologically advanced, as one from 2009.

Manufacturers have compensated for this with creative packaging, and even more creative cost-cutting.  Margins on everything but the newest technology (today that means flat-screen TVs and Blu-Ray players) are razor thin; prices are highly competitive.  In this kind of environment, some strange beasts have emerged.  One of them is the all-in-one system.

Marketed as an easy way to set up a home theater and ensure all the parts are perfectly matched to each other, all-in-one systems appear to be an easy sell, and a boon to consumers.  After all, the worst part about owning a home theater is the buying process.  There is so much to know, and so little reliable information, it makes a lot of sense to buy an all-in-one system from a reputable manufacturer.

But what if I told you there are other reasons manufacturers love to sell all-in-one systems?  Well, there are!  Here are a few that may alarm you:

  1. Crossovers, the circuits that split the sound signal into different frequency bands and send them to the tweeter, midrange, and woofer, are expensive.  Manufacturers now use the bare minimum amount of metal in these circuits to save costs.  All-in-one's allow many speakers to share a single crossover, rather than have one or more crossovers in each speaker.  Since it's an all-in-one, the manufacturer can use the bare minimum quality crossover possible, and push it to the absolute limit.  Any all-in-one is literally teetering on the edge of breakdown.
  2. As I alluded to above, all-in-ones take away the problem of making sure all your components "match" each other.  But the truth is, the difficulty of matching up a system of separate parts is played up in stores.  Add in the confusing and occasionally misleading information you get in a store or online, and matching up your own system seems daunting.  But when you buy an all-in-one, you're getting a system designed with the bare minimum possible quality, tuned to the bleeding edge to do what it does with as little cost as possible.  Is that really what you want?  Is that what "matched" should mean?
  3. If you want to upgrade your all-in-one, you're going to need to make use of knowledge and skills way beyond what it takes to put together a system from separates.  All-in-ones are not meant to be upgraded piece-by-piece.  They're meant to be thrown away after ten years, when one of the technologies in the system (almost always the tape, CD, DAT, Laserdisc, or DVD) goes obsolete.  how happy will you be when the next ultra-high-definition video/music media comes out in 2018, and the all-in-one you bought for $2499.00 at Tweeter in 2010 is packing Blu-Ray?
  4. All-in-ones are also marketed as a less expensive way to get the same wattage as a separates system, but for less money.  I won't go into why most of today's gear is overpowered - but suffice to say you are better off getting the quality, low-wattage separates than the higher-watt, lower-quality all-in-one.  Once you're home, and out of the huge room at Best Buy, those speakers are going to fill your room, I promise! :)  For a 20x20 foot room, you need no more than 40 watts per channel stereo, or for HT, 30 watts for each of the 5 surround channels, plus two or four 75-150 watt subwoofers.  I am not kidding.  If you want some extra flexibility, get an 80 watt-per-side stereo or 60-watt-per-channel home theater receiver.  This can drive nearly any speakers with fewer than 10 drivers per speaker (most speakers have 2-3 drivers), and fill a 30x30 room (with 10-foot ceilings) with rich sound.  

Does learning all of this change your perspective about who's interest is being served by the all-in-one?  I don't want to give the impression that all-in-ones are a one-way street: like most hit products, they fulfill important needs of great value to customers, while delivering bigger margins to sellers.  But I will make the claim that most people are made to feel more confused and apprehensive about making a final choice than they need be.  And I'll also make the claim that no matter how many hours you spend studying and listening to brands, retailers, salespeople, home theater consultants, interior designers, for-profit magazines and websites, newspaper technology columnists, or anybody else who makes their livelihood on the sales of new electronic, you will remain as confused an misinformed as when you started.  

You need to hear what real audio users, both amateur and professional, have to say.  You won't find that on websites affiliated in any way with the industry.  You WILL find candid talk about specific brands, best practice, and techniques on message boards and social networks.  Try www.audiogon.com for audiophile forums, and Audio Review for consumer reviews (these tend to be glowing). 

If you educate yourself for just a few hours by reading my Hi Fi University articles, you may find you understand l lot - and you may find the tools and the confidence to see the jargon, the obsessive focus on numbers of cones, speakers, or watts, and the unwillingness to compare new gear on the shelf to gear that's 10 years old for what it is: an entrenched framework for understanding what's important in a stereo or HT that is flat-out perverted.

Who knows, you may even feel confident enough to buy your gear in the secondary market!  But for now: no more all-in-ones for you :)

    Thanks for reading!

    ....And to all my all-in-one-owning friends: I'm talking about almost all all-in-ones.  But not yours.  Yours is sweet.

    visit my website at http://www.wicked-hi-fi dot com for more info, links, and products for sale


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