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Quality Mini Stereos

As sales numbers continue to drop and consumers gravitate toward streaming media and cloud-based music services, mini stereos are having a difficult time in competing with speaker docks. But manufacturers are boosting speaker output to maintain a niche for these compact audio systems.

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Mini stereos—those $100 to $600 cubes that have a tuner, a CD player, a central amplifier and two detachable speakers—are a staple on bookshelves and in dorm rooms. But in the past 3 years, mini stereos have started to become relics.

As digital-music sales outpace the sales of CDs, and as more consumers stream music from their personal media player (PMP) or straight from the so-called online cloud, speaker docks and other networking devices have become the compact methods of choice for transmitting music to

Mini stereos “look old-fashioned to me,” said Chris Macaran, 19, in July while he pointed at five mini stereos that were for sale at a Target store in Rockford, Ill. “I don’t even listen to CDs.”

Way to make us feel old, Chris. But his point is valid. If all that you want to do is to stream music from your digital library or a cloud collection that’s on the Internet, then mini stereos are obsolete.

From what we’ve seen of the marketplace, manufacturers agree. Most are abandoning the category and now make just one or two models of mini stereo, compared with the three or four that companies typically carried 3 years ago. Polk Audio has left the category and is focusing instead on speaker docks.

And manufacturers have made no movement into adding wireless streaming to their mini stereos, like they have with their speaker docks and other network devices. This is because it still is too expensive to include streaming in mini stereos, according to all of the manufacturers with whom we spoke. (Of course, you can stream music through your PMP or your computer and play it on your mini stereo by attaching the devices through a dock or an auxiliary input.)

We wonder whether sagging sales of mini stereos might have at least as much to do with that lack of change, however. Consumer Electronics Association projects that 1.57 million mini stereos will be sold this year, which is down 30 percent from the 2.24 million mini stereos that were sold in 2008.

CEA also projects that 12.25 million speaker docks will be sold this year, which is a 49 percent climb from the number of speaker docks that were sold in 2008.

“We’re looking into a lot of different types of functionality for mini stereos, like network streaming and the ability to hook into your wireless network,” says Paul Wasek of Onkyo, which makes two models of mini stereo. But we don’t expect to see any mini stereos that have direct streaming technology for at least 1 or 2 years—if ever.

THE SOUND EQUATION. Jeff Talmadge of Denon, which makes only one model of mini stereo, says mini stereos still have some life left in them. However, the average price of a mini stereo is $107, compared with $77 for a speaker dock, according to CEA. If fewer people listen to CDs in the United States, why would anyone want to pay an average of $30 more for a mini stereo when he/she could just buy a speaker dock and plug in any external device via an auxiliary input? Yes, that’s a rhetorical question.

Manufacturers are well aware of the price conundrum, and they’re trying to keep mini stereos relevant by boosting the quality of the sound and the power of the bass that today’s mini stereos deliver.

Believe it or not, if you pay less than $200 for a speaker dock, there’s a fair chance that the sound that it generates could be tinny or flimsy—the telltale mark of a compressed audio MP3. That’s because many of these devices are so small and simple that there just isn’t much room for the woofers and tweeters that are capable of producing a full range of bass and treble tones, says Dwain Smith of Sony’s Home Audio Division, which makes mini stereos and speaker docks.

Manufacturers are taking advantage of the latest mini stereos’ larger cabinet size to build larger speaker drivers. That extra size typically means that the speaker can handle more power and consequently deliver a more dynamic range of sound as well as higher volume and less distortion at those higher volumes.

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