What's the lowest price of admission to the pleasures of good sound?
An inexpensive, simple and often satisfactory solution is what is known as a single-brand package.
This is a system with matched components, all made by the same manufacturer and usually sold at an inviting price.
Choosy audio fans previously tended to frown on such package systems, and with reason. Traditionally, this gear was designed to look rather than sound good, its gleaming facades disguising feeble amplifiers and strident speakers.
Yet this fall, several new systems transcend the mediocrity typical of this type of equipment. They are musically capable, compact and complete, and priced below what one would expect to pay for such quality.
Small enough to fit on shelves or a table top, they make ideal starter sets for newcomers to audio, and they provide musically pleasing sound wherever limits on space or cash preclude larger equipment.
Two outstanding systems of this kind are Panasonic's SC-CH9 and Denon's Cellena, priced, respectively, at $850 and $800. Both represent remarkable feats of miniaturization, and their sound belies their size.
Each component in the Panasonic system is exactly half the size of conventional components, taking up only 8 1/2 inches on a shelf. This compactness allows the components to be arranged -- either stacked or side by side -- in spaces that could not normally accommodate a stereo system.
The individual components (radio tuner, amplifier, CD player and a dual cassette deck, plus a pair of speakers) boast many clever touches.
For example, the CD player automatically times each track on the disk so it can be copied onto tape without cutting off the music when the tape runs out. It even calculates the program length to avoid leaving too much empty tape on the cassette.
The Denon Cellena is similarly compact. In fact, the entire system, including the speakers, takes up less than 2 cubic feet of space, and it resembles the Panasonic system in other respects.
Here, too, the CD player measures the duration of various selections on a disk and, if so instructed, automatically arranges them to fit the length of the tape when copying from disk to cassette.
The other copying option -- from one tape to another -- is accomplished by a dual cassette deck with automatic reverse.
How do they sound? Well, the most surprising aspect of both systems is their sonic prowess. One hardly believes that such big sound can come from such bantam components.
Credit for this goes to electronic bass reinforcement that partly compensates for the natural limitations of small speakers.
As might be expected, there are differences in sonic character between the two designs. The Panasonic tends toward a brighter timbre while the Denon has somewhat more warmth.
Both systems are exemplary in terms of clarity, and each features a five-band equalizer, allowing listeners to adjust the tonal balance to their liking and to the requirements of their rooms.
Nobody claims that these bantams are equivalent to costlier full-size systems. But they offer much for their size and price.