How to buy the best mini hi-fi system
By Alison Potter
Separate speakers or an all-in-one? Bluetooth streaming or USB support? This expert guide will help you pick the best mini hi-fi for you.
The best hi-fi systems sound great, are easy to use, and will bring you constant listening pleasure for years to come. It's a crowded market, with plenty of micro and mini hi-fi systems to choose from, all promising to be the best you've ever heard. Only a few can deliver on that promise, which is why it pays to do some research before you buy.
Depending on how you wish to use your home sound system, mini hi-fi and micro hi-fi models can offer anything from just a simple CD player or radio to newer technology such as Bluetooth and internet-streaming services. Some will even let you digitise your music collection, and have a large internal memory that can store hundreds of songs.
Explore our expert advice below to help guide you through making your mini hi-fi purchase. We explain how much you are likely to spend on a new mini hi-fi system, what features to look out for, and how you can use your mini hi-fi to boost your TV's sound, as well as enjoy music, podcasts and the radio.
To discover the models Which? recommends, take a look at our mini hi-fi Best Buys.
How much should I spend on a mini hi-fi system?
Mini hi-fi models vary massively in price, from sub-£100 to more than £500. If you're looking for a system packed full of features with fantastic sound quality, these models come at a premium. But if you're after something a little more simple, you can look after your wallet without scrimping on sound. Our Best Buys always deliver a great listening experience and start at £170.
Separate speakers vs all-in-ones
Mini hi-fi systems generally fall into two categories: a main unit with separate speakers, or an all-in-one device with speakers built in. Both options have their advantages, offering you different things depending on your needs. When looking at a system with separate speakers, make sure you know whether speakers are included in the price, as this is not always the case.
- Separate speakers: A big selling point for separate speakers is that you can replace them if they're damaged or old, without the need to buy a whole new system. If you’re willing to splash out, you can often vastly improve the sound quality by swapping the speakers for a better set. Also, if you have a tight space for your mini hi-fi, a three-part system is a bit more flexible when it comes to positioning, although it may not be quite as convenient to set up as an all-in-one.
- All-in-ones: What they lack in versatility, all-in-ones make up for in simplicity. Although there's no option to change the speakers, these compact units generally have fewer wires, and are pretty much plug and play. For a more modern look, some all-in-ones have flat profiles to allow wall mounting.
Key features to look out for
There are a multitude of different features available for playing back your music and listening to the radio. Below we outline the main options, so you can make sure you find a mini hi-fi system that suits your needs.
It’s less common than it once was, but most mini hi-fi systems will have a CD player, and some can even hold up to 10 discs at once.
This allows you to record music, radio programmes and podcasts on to the mini hi-fi system’s hard disk. If you’ve got an extensive CD collection, it’s certainly worth considering, as you could potentially digitise your CD collection. For example, a mini hi-fi with 4GB of internal storage can save approximately 600 songs, which you can then transfer on to a computer, tablet or smartphone.
A USB port gives you the option of plugging in a USB stick to play your saved audio files, as well as potentially recording music and the radio from your mini hi-fi on to the stick. You can also connect external devices to the hi-fi using a USB cable for streaming purposes, or to charge a device such as a smartphone or tablet. It’s also possible to connect an external hard drive via the USB socket.
As with a USB input, a 3.5mm auxiliary (aux) input means you can physically connect your mini hi-fi to another device, so you can stream music out of your mini hi-fi speakers.
Bluetooth / NFC (near-field communication)
This allows you to wirelessly connect your mini hi-fi system to any Bluetooth or NFC-enabled device nearby. It’s convenient, as there’s no need for a physical connection to stream, but be careful of draining the battery on your smart device.
Mini hi-fis that are capable of accessing your home wi-fi network can stream music, radio and podcasts from online sources, including streaming services such as Spotify, BBC iPlayer radio, TuneIn radio and Google Play Music. It can mean a bit of fiddly setting up to get your mini hi-fi connected to the internet, but you'll only need to do it once.
Most mini hi-fi systems have a built-in FM/AM radio tuner or a DAB tuner. More than 70% of mini hi-fis we’ve tested have access to both, but only 18% can access internet radio. In general, hi-fi systems that are wi-fi-enabled and have internet radio are more expensive than their offline counterparts.
Not every mini hi-fi will have a headphone port, so it’s important to check if you plan to plug headphones into your sound system. If a mini hi-fi doesn’t have a headphone port but it’s Bluetooth-enabled, you can listen wirelessly with a pair of Bluetooth headphones.
Using your mini hi-fi for TV sound
Mini hi-fi systems are traditionally associated with playing music, but our tests have revealed they can be a worthy alternative to a TV sound bar. During our test to find out which device gets the best sound from your TV, we discovered that mini hi-fi systems can produce better TV sound compared with similar-scoring home cinema systems, sound bars and TVs on their own.
Our expert listening panel watched films in stereo and surround sound, as well as TV dialogue and musical samples. Unsurprisingly, all the one-star products were disliked across the board, no matter the type. But while a five-star TV can’t compete with a four or five-star sound bar, we were shocked to discover that the five-star hi-fi system we tested blew the sound bar out of the water.
So if you already have a decent mini hi-fi in your living room, it’s worth connecting it to your TV with a standard aux cable, or the digital audio output on your TV. Most hi-fis won’t have a digital optical or coaxial input to receive a Blu-ray player’s digital signal, but you can buy a digital-to-analogue converter (from £12). If you're connecting up your mini hi-fi to play TV sound, make sure the speakers are positioned correctly – you want to be sitting right in the centre of a surround-sound system to get the full effect.