With the economy sliding under a cloud, the audio industry is adjusting to darker days and more attention is being given to low-cost equipment.
In the past, little thought was squandered on inexpensive models. Most were designed by rote. Now, by contrast, some bottom-priced sound gear is being spruced up with top-rank engineering in hopes of attracting otherwise reluctant buyers.
Three leading brands -- Technics, Denon and Yamaha -- have come up with fine examples of this trend. All three offer budget-priced stereo receivers with technical features not found previously in this price range.
Formerly such receivers rarely exceeded power ratings of 30 watts per channel (wpc). Yet the Technics SA-GX100 ($230), the Denon DRA-335 ($270) and the Yamaha RX350 ($239) all muster 40 watts per channel.
Those extra watts, among other things, make it easier to surmount the sonic hurdles on CDs.
These models also offer thoughtful innovations. Technics, for example, introduces a clever new way to scan whatever programs are broadcast in a particular area. Up to 24 radio stations may be placed into the tuner's memory in separate groups, such as classical, rock, jazz, etc.
Then, at a single touch, the tuner will sample all the available programs in one category, excluding all the others. When the listener finds something appealing, another touch locks in the station.
The remote control furnished with this receiver also operates other stereo and video components made by Technics.
No fewer than five external components (CD player, tape deck, LP turntable, etc.) may be linked to the receiver, including the sound portion of video programs.
Audio fans reading the fine print in the specifications may balk at the distortion rating of this receiver. At 0.5 percent it is somewhat higher than the norm these days.
However, according to various psychoacoustical tests, this degree of distortion is inaudible. The sound is altogether pleasant.
Denon also provides what is called an integral system control with its low-cost receiver. That is, a single remote control can address different components in the stereo system.
For example, the same hand-held remote unit controls the CD player or the tape deck as well as the receiver.
Aside from this, the main distinction of Denon's DRA-335 is the inclusion of refinements normally found only on more expensive equipment. All internal switching is done electronically, avoiding the use of mechanical contacts.
This eliminates a main source of malfunction, since most service problems in audio are due to the corrosion or wearing down of mechanical contact points.
If the sound quality of this unit rivals that of far more expensive equipment, it is because much thought has been given to internal improvements, invisible to the eye but readily apparent to the ear.
For example, the circuits have been laid out so that the signal always travels the shortest possible path, thus reducing the risk of picking up spurious electrical radiation along the way.
Moreover, individual capacitors in the various circuits are the costlier but more accurate sort made with polystyrene and polypropylene. This results in clearer sound and greater ability to handle the sharp dynamic contrasts in the music.
The use of an uncommonly large power transformer also contributes to greater power-handling capacity than the nominal rating of 40 watts per channel would indicate.
There are many similarities in concept and performance between the Denon DRA-335 and the Yamaha RX-350, and the two models might be regarded as virtually equivalent, except that the Yamaha does not have a remote control.
Both models can meet the considerable challenge of digital sound much better than other any budget designs were able to do in the past.
They also share an unusual type of loudness control. Normally, the loudness control is a simple switch that may be turned on to provide bass compensation for listening at low volume, which would otherwise entail the partial loss of bass.
However, the compensatory bass boost provided by such a control is fixed for an "average" low-volume setting.
By contrast, the loudness control used by Denon and Yamaha allows the listener to vary the amount of bass compensation to suit any preferred loudness level.
Listeners who want to economize can hardly obtain better value than with these receivers.