For a long time, computer-based music playback and audiophile hardware have remained resolutely separate. Proper hi-fi companies went on for years making CD-players and SACD players, amplifiers and speakers as if the iPod had never existed.
In recent months, however, we’ve seen some softening of that stance, and the two are finally beginning to come together. I’m thinking principally of B&W’s notable entrance into the crowded iPod hi-fi market with its remarkable Zeppelin iPod sound system, but it’s by no means the only one. We’ve also reviewed a few other serious iPod music setups over the past year or so, from Fatman’s valve-based iTube amplifier and controller, plus a rather lovely lifestyle speaker and amp system from esoteric audio specialist Ferguson Hill. I noticed recently that Krell – a name synonymous with hyper-expensive, audiophile hi-fi – has also released an iPod dock called the KID. Naturally, it’s expensive, retailing at a stomach-turning £1,300.
Well, now it’s Arcam’s turn to pull off the same trick with its Solo Mini. Arcam has long been a favourite of the British hi-fi press, winning award after award for its audio products for the sheer value and sound quality they offered. I once owned one of the firm’s popular Alpha 7SE CD players (before moving up in the world), and it was an extremely impressive piece of kit.
So when I read about the Mini, I was quite excited. Here was an iPod-capable music system from a manufacturer that really knows its audio onions – I was keen to find out just how good it could make an iPod sound. But before I go any further, it’s worth pointing out that I’m reviewing a combination of products here: the Solo Mini doesn’t actually come with the rDock as standard – it’s an extra £120 on top of the £650 you pay for the Mini, which adds up to what looks an extremely high price tag of £770 and that’s before getting a pair of speakers – a lot of money to spend on playing back music from a sub-£200 portable music player.
But the Solo Mini is no one-trick pony – it’s a truly do-everything hi-fi system. It will play back CDs via a sleek, slot-loading player, has an integrated 25W-per-channel amplifier, AM and FM radio tuners, plus a DAB radio receiver and an alarm clock facility (for those rich enough to install one of these systems in a bedroom).
On the front panel you’ll find a 3.5mm line-in input for another MP3 player, and on the rear a whole host of connections – four pairs of stereo phono inputs plus pre-outs for power amplifier connection, and a pair of proper binding posts for speaker connection – no spring clips here. Most impressive of all, though, is the box all this comes packaged in. Though quite deep (350mm), it’s all squeezed into a case half the width of a standard hi-fi component (230mm).