If you don't care to delve into numerous specifications, and if you are not concerned about the "ultimate" in audio but still want clean and dependable sound for a home stereo system, you ought to consider buying one of the "modular" or "compact" systems. These products, on the wane for a few years, are now making a comeback, with offerings of new models from more manufacturers than we've seen in some time.
The basic format remains the same as in the past. One module -- called the "control center" -- contains stereo receiver and record changer. The other two pieces are the stereo speaker systems, separately housed. The complete system is purchased at once. (It is, in effect, the modern version of the older "radio-phonograph"). The interconnections between the elements are pre-arranged, including the installation of the phono cartridge in the tone arm. All the buyer need do, as a rule, is connect the left-and right-channel speakers by means of the supplied cables. The three pieces may be located wherever convenient, but the fact that the speakers are separate units does permit spacing for optimum stereo spread.
Beyond the basic format, some compacts include added facilities -- the inclusion of a cassette or an 8-track cartridge tape machine, for instance. Others, which consist only of the receiver and record player, usually have optional signal jacks for adding your own tape equipment later, if desired.
The average cost of any of these compacts is about the lowest you can pay and still get some degree of genuine stereo hi-fi sound. It is interesting that, while the performance of these compacts as a class does not equal the performance possible with (costlier) separate components, it still is at least as good as the performance once regarded as hi-fi from the separate components made some years back -- for instance, 10 watts of power with no more than 1 percent distortion.
As for cost, it may be possible -- by painstaking shopping -- to buy a separate component system that offers a lot better performance, or an added feature or two, for the same money. But the appeal of the compacts is precisely to those buyers who do not care to "make a career" of audio shopping, who do want good sound but who do not, as a concomitant, care to become amateur audio engineers in order to get it. That this represents a substantial portion of the market for home sound is seen in the rise of compact sales (dealers and manufacturers report increases that are "substantial" -- in some cases as much as 25 percent), and in the number of compacts becoming available (which is about double that of two years ago).
Obviously, it is impossible to sample all of them, but here are some highlights of recently announced models. The Pioneer Centrex ( $450) offers 12 watts, built-in tape machine, two 3-way speakers. Panasonic is readying a dozen compacts with varying features and prices. Hitachi reports a new compact that includes both cassette and 8-track tape. So does Sony, with the added option, for one model, of three different sets of speakers.
While some compact manufacturers emphasize simplicity of design and operation, others deliberately go after the "747 cockpit look." In this, as with the functional options offered, the buyer still has a choice even within this general product group. My advice: Try to determine whether all the lights, knobs and switches that attract you in the showroom will be of real interest after you have lived with the system for a few months. Above all, listen to the system. Your ears can tell you whether it has acceptable sound, compact or no.