Most everyone appreciates good quality stereo sound. However, not every space is conducive to larger stereo component systems or home theaters. As a result, people with champagne audio tastes on beer space budgets need to find compact solutions. Stereo shelf systems run the gamut from cheap plastic offerings to true Hi-Fi systems in a svelte chassis. Speakers, upgradability and the ability to connect portable MP3 players all factor into making a stereo shelf system worthy of taking up a portion of your square footage.
1Essential Components: Since many people eschew traditional compact discs in favor of portable audio devices, you may discover many shelf systems are essentially iPod docks with speakers. Many systems still include CD players, cassette decks and sometimes turntables, but the latter are increasingly rare. Any stereo shelf system will include a pair of speakers, whether integrated or separate units. A quick audition should reveal the differences in sound quality between speakers and shelf systems as a whole.
2Upgrade Paths: Manufacturers more attuned to sound quality might include a subwoofer output to augment the small speakers that accompany a conventional shelf system. Should the system be optimized for movie playback as well, you might find video jacks on the rear for connection to a television. Examine the amplifier section's wattage ratings, listed as an "RMS" figure as opposed to "total system power." If the rating is anywhere from 20 to 40 watts or more and the speakers included are separate, there is a good chance you can upgrade the ones packaged with the system to a better pair.
3External Audio Jacks: Shelf systems are ideal for quick connections to iPods or other portable MP3 players. Look for a front-panel USB or 3.5mm input jack to enable this. You might look for a set of RCA jacks on the back panel for an external audio source, which you might use for a portable audio device, external CD player, DVD player or cassette deck. You may even find optical or coaxial digital inputs on the back of the shelf system, ideal for extracting higher-quality digital audio from an external CD or DVD player. Wireless connectivity enabled by Bluetooth reduces clutter even further, transmitting audio from your iPhone or to a set of headphones.
4To Equalize or Not to Equalize: Equalizers are found on larger stereo shelf systems, often accompanied by flashing lights and various preset sound enhancement modes such as "Hall," "Bass Boost" and "Impact." Depending on the quality of the speakers included with the system, equalization may offer a perceived sound improvement. You will notice that shelf systems from higher-end companies tend to eschew equalization in favor of conventional bass and treble tone controls, if they are present at all. Since equalization is largely designed to tailor sound to individual tastes, having one on board is a matter of preference. If your shelf system does not include an on-board EQ but has tape monitor inputs and outputs, you can add a separate unit if you want to experiment with the sound.