Stereo reproduction has existed in the home since the 1950's in many forms. Initially, audio manufacturers built radiograms, large pieces of furniture taking up a good portion of the room. These were all-in-one units, with usually a record deck and radio tuner, amplification, and a stereo speaker pair. With progress in miniaturisation of electronics came more compact systems, and the trend for separates. These were systems where the source components were housed separately from the amplifier, and where each stereo speaker was in a discrete box. Further progress in integrated circuit technology has allowed the production of stereo circuitry far smaller than the minimum size needed for source components such as CD drives and turntables, and many compact and shelf systems are barely larger than these source components. There seems to be no firm definition of the difference between a Compact Stereo System and a Shelf Stereo. Some regard a shelf stereo as a unit containing source components and a pair of stereo speakers; others also regard compact systems, with a central source and control unit and separate stereo speakers, as shelf systems. This article will consider features and buying hints equally relevant to both types.
1. Size and Finish
As the name suggests, the shelf stereo is designed to fit a limited space, and the primary consideration will probably be one of overall size. If the system will be installed on a shelf, ensure that the depth of the unit doesn't exceed the shelf depth, and that there are routes for mains and speaker cables, and for connecting cables to external devices such as mp3 players. Shelf stereos are available in a variety of finishes, varying through wood, metallic and plastic, and the finish should of course be selected according to the intended location and surrounding decor.
2. Sources and Facilities
The buyer should consider the music sources the stereo will be used for, and the facilities which it offers.
3. Compact Disc
With the growth in the popularity of music streaming and digital downloading, some commentators suggest that the life of CDs as a mainstream music medium may be coming to an end. However, many listeners still retain large collections, and there are many discs still available as new, and on the pre-owned market, so it seems likely that a CD player will be a mainstream requirement for many years to come. There's little to check in terms of features offered for CD players beyond the basic transport and playlist/programming features, except perhaps to verify whether or not the unit will replay CD-R, CD-RW and/or mp3 data discs, as well as factory-produced commercial CDs. Some compact systems offer multi-disc playback, but due to physical size once a multi-disc system is built in, it's debatable whether these truly fall into the definition of a compact system.
Many compact and shelf stereos come with radio functionality built in. Digital broadcasting has not yet reached full acceptance, and a full switchover from analogue broadcasting has yet to be made. A stereo system with radio could offer one or both of the existing analogue wavebands, AM and FM, and/or be set up for digital broadcast reception, in which case it should be marked with a DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) logo, or mention as such in its specification.
5. Cassette Tape
For many years, cassette decks were a standard fitment on many compact and shelf stereos, and although the growth of digital media has led to them being seen as an outdated medium, there are still many listeners with large collection of cassettes who will need a player for them. Beyond the basic transport controls, there's little to consider apart from the capability to cope with different tape types – normal, chromium dioxide and metal. Some cassette players offer an auto-reverse feature, allowing both sides of a cassette to be played in sequence, without operational intervention.
A turntable, in the years when vinyl was the dominant music medium, was also a standard fitment on a compact stereo system, and naturally formed a limit on how compact the system could be. It's perhaps debatable, given the miniaturisation of compact-disc based systems, whether a turntable-equipped system could be termed a compact or shelf stereo, but on the basis that it is, the buyer should look at what speeds the turntable offers – the most common is 33 rpm (revolutions per minute), sometimes 45 rpm, and even 78 rpm. If required, the system should be chosen according to the style of records which the buyer currently possesses, or expects to acquire in the future. If selecting a turntable-based system which offers 78 rpm, ensure that the cartridge fitted has some means of swapping the stylus profile (usually achieved with a flip-over mechanism), as 33 and 45 rpm microgroove records use a totally different stylus profile from 78s.
7. iPod Dock
The docking system adopted by Apple since their earliest iPods, and the widespread adoption of Apple products, has led many shelf stereo manufacturers to include iPod and iPhone docks on their units. The inclusion of an iPod dock is effectively a guarantee that the shelf stereo will work with any iPod and iPhone sharing that dock design, but it should be noted that in 2012/13, Apple updated their docking system, and in doing so generated a compatibility break between the new docking system and the original design. If no physical dock is fitted, the listener may be able to connect an iPod to the USB port, if fitted, but it should be noted that not all compact or shelf systems are compatible with iPods through their USB ports; those that are will usually state explicitly as such in brochures, on front panels, and in user manuals.
8. USB and Network Connectivity
With the growth in the use of digital media for music, many shelf stereos are now fitted with USB ports for the connection of data sticks, mp3 players and hard drives. However, the mere fitment of a USB port is no guarantee that it will work with all types of USB devices. Some units will only work with data sticks, others are designed to work with generic devices only, and if the seller is unclear as to the functionality of the port, the only sure way to confirm this is from the manufacturer's user manual. Armed with the model number, the manual can often be found in downloadable form on the manufacturer's website, and in some cases also on third-party and aftermarket websites. Many listeners are now looking to stream music from their own network, or from online sources, and this is now reflected in compact and shelf stereos with network connectivity, whether through Ethernet cabling or wireless means.
9. Other Audio Sources
Some, but not all, shelf stereos offer the ability to connect other audio devices, such as a separate cassette player, tuner or mp3 player. Audio inputs such as these will usually be in the form of a 3.5mm jack socket or twin phono/RCA sockets. If the unit has no iPod dock or USB port, these can be used to connect an iPod or mp3 player using their headphone sockets to feed the audio input on the stereo.
Equalisation, Tone Control, and Sound Quality
Compact systems sometimes offer equalisation modes to tailor the sound quality of the unit. These are often designed by the manufacturer with named presets, allowing creation of a 'concert hall sound', 'club sound', or similar, but can also found in the more traditional format of bass, treble or mid controls. In more specialised audio circles, tone controls are seen as an unnecessary addition, and it's generally seen that a unit without tone controls is one which will have better sound quality in the first place, on the basis that a good-sounding unit should have no need for the sound to be modified.
How to Find a Shelf Stereo on eBay
From the eBay homepage, select Shop by category, and from the pop-up category box, select See all categories. Select Sound & Vision, Home Audio & HiFi Separates, then Compact/Shelf Stereos. As pointed out earlier, there's no clear definition, whether within eBay or externally, of what constitutes a shelf stereo as opposed to a compact stereo system, but from this point, the listener could refine their search by specific brands, such as Sony or Bang & Olufson, or by other facilities, such as those with an iPod dock, or with AM/FM radio.
Shelf stereos can be found in many shapes and sizes, and with a wide variety of facilities and features. By consideration of the factors above, the listener can select a shelf stereo which not only fits in with their home situation, but also provides all the facilities and functionality they need, to provide listening pleasure for many years to come.