Low End Theory

Shelf-Rockin' Beats for Skinflints



By Brendan I. Koerner

There are really two types of stereo users in this world: those who will settle for nothing less than all-tube pre-amps with speakers bigger than a fat man's coffin, and those who make do with all-in-one shelf systems. The latter group is by far the larger, as most folks don't see the need to drop $2,999 in order to better enjoy the nuances of that Bob Marley: Legend disc they bought in 1997. Audiophilia is an exceedingly rare affliction in our society, for better and for worse.

Yet shelf systems, even on the low end, are a lot mightier than a few years back, 100 watts of power and dual tape decks were enough to make your dormmates jealous. And while the geek fixed-audio buzz is all about massive iPod docks, the store windows on 125th Street are all about shelf systems with Buck Rodgers looks and price tags on par with a 1-gig iPod Shuffle. After the jump, Low End Theory checks out the shelf-system scene at Record Shack. PLUS: One more chance to share your tales of Sharper Image excess.

First, a little preface about where the shelf-system market's at right now. After a few years in the doldrums, sales have picked up significantly over the past two years; in 2004 alone, U.S. unit sales increased by 15.4 percent to 7.06 million stereos. A lot of that's attributable to manufacturers making the systems CD-R and CD-RW compatible, as well as adding easily accessible AUX inputs for playing digital devices.

Alright, enough drab industry speak. On to the goods.

Though the shelf systems of days gone by were typically priced for the broke-ass college set, there's been a recent upward trend toward—or sometimes above—the perilous $500 mark. Take Yamaha's MCR-E600, which adds DVD playback to the mix. Or my personal favorite, the JVC EX-A1, with its wooden speaker cones treated with (I kid you not) sake.

But Record Shack, thank God, likes to keep its price tags below $200. Hey, you'd expect nothing less from a store that sells a $19 black-and-white TVs, right?

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Low End Theory was tempted by the Sharp XL-MP150 Microsystem, which was on sale for $129.99. The five CD changer was pretty snazzy, and, yeah, I was hypnotized by the flashing blue LED that syncs to the music. Great bell/whistle there, Sharp! But 220 watts of power? Weak sauce, my friends. Weak sauce.

The better deal, for just $10 more, is the 360-watt JVC MX-KC4, which Record Shack had proudly displayed in the window. Not only does it look like something from the bridge of an Imperial-class star destroyer, but it's also got (per the hype sheet) "RHYTHMMAX function to intensify music." As best as I can tell, this is a simple bass booster. But points for creativity go out to JVC's copywriters.

The Record Shack clerk was gracious enough to cue up some DMX so I could test out the sound. The verdict? Loud. Very loud. Beyond that, there isn't too much to say in this unit's defense, except that it delivers plenty of oomph for the buck. Let's do the math: 2.57 watts per dollar. Not bad, considering that in 2003, the rule of thumb was more like 1 watt per dollar for brand-name shelf systems.

The bottom line is that, as long as they can adapt to new music formats, shelf systems ain't going nowhere. What would the dorm-room experience be, after all, without them? The bedrooms are too small to accommodate full-blown stereos, and making love to the tinny sounds of a clock radio just doesn't cut it.

LAST CHANCE FOR GLORY: In last week's column, I asked for reader submissions regarding the zaniest Sharper Image products they could recall. The appeal attracted a few top-notch entries, but not nearly enough. So let's add another week to the contest, and see if anyone can earn the twin prizes: ever-lasting fame (i.e. an adoring mention in this space), plus a copy of Roller Coaster Tycoon 3. Drop me a line at brendan@gizmodo.com, and share your tales of Sharper Image gadgets that probably should've been left on the drawing board. Extra points for gizmos released before 1989.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appear every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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