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Best Compact Stereo System 2020 – Ultimate Buying Guide

Have you noticed that your TV’s audio sounds a little… underwhelming?

Sure, it does the job, but sometimes it’s way too loud, sometimes way too quiet?

Maybe you want an upgrade so you can listen to your music the way it’s supposed to be heard. Ah, but here comes the fatal flaw: you don’t have a lot of space for a huge, fancy stereo.

No problem, we’ve done some research and come up with a list of the best compact stereo systems available, so you’re sure to find one that produces big results, with a tiny footprint.

The Absolute Best Compact Stereo System 2020 – Compared

Below, you’ll find a brief technical overview of each of our products, to give you a feel for the kind of stereo each model is. So without further ado, here are the best compact stereo systems of 2020.

Product NameRMS Power (Watts)Removable SpeakersCheck Price
Sony CMTSBT100 (Editor's Pick)50Yes
Panasonic SC-HC3940No
LG Electronics CM4550230Yes
Yamaha MCR-232BL40Yes

Now let’s go more in-depth. We’ll weigh the good and the bad for each system, as well as its potential use scenarios, beginning with the Sony CMTSBT100.

Sony CMTSBT100 – Best Home Stereo

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The Sony CMTSBT100 is a stereo system that’s small enough to fit on a shelf or windowsill. It has a simplistic design that’s almost a throwback to the era of colossal HiFi’s thanks to its black plastic casing.

Thankfully, though, the casing doesn’t look cheap (it actually has an almost brushed metal appearance when you get close), and the system itself is small and modern.

It’s worth mentioning too, the old adage that black and white go with anything, so despite your home’s décor, this stereo will look wonderful.

To confirm this stereo’s modern credentials, Sony has included Bluetooth support, meaning you can connect your phone wirelessly and play music through the speakers. This alone would have been acceptable, but they’ve gone one step farther and added NFC support.

This means that if your device has an NFC chip, you just enable it, then hold the device up to the stereo.

Voila, instant connection.

This stereo also has an AM/FM radio, CD slot, auxiliary jack and USB port.

These inputs will cover the majority of ways you’ll play music and help make sure that this stereo is relatively future proof. Technology comes and technology goes, but USB is showing no sign of going anywhere just yet, and so flash drives will be around for years.

So, how does it perform? Well, it is easily powerful enough for a house party.

We turned the sound up to a little over two-thirds of its capacity and were already a little overwhelmed. We think full volume would be more suited to use in some kind of exercise class or hall than in a home setting.

The sound is high quality and bright, with best results at higher volumes, and to further this, there’s simple bass and treble sliders on the front, and also a bass-boosting button. Initially, we found the sound to be a tad muffled, but upon inspection, we discovered that the grilles on the speakers can be easily removed and replaced (if you want to), which completely fixed this problem.

Another bonus to this model is that it comes with a remote control.

This has obvious upsides, but is particularly relevant to a compact stereo system since they may well find themselves sitting on a shelf or unit and it’s nice to not have to cross the room to change the song. The stereo has a white light that blinks when it receives remote input, although it is quite bright.

We’d recommend maybe putting some dark tape over it to dull the brightness a little since it can’t be dimmed via the stereo. Also, there was a strange oversight on Sony’s part with regard to the remote control: there is no CD eject button. This is understandable in that if you’re ejecting a CD, you’re probably right next to the stereo anyway, but still, it’s a little strange not to include.

If we had to list a problem with this stereo, we’d raise the issue of wait times. The stereo takes a few seconds to start up, a few to read a CD, a few to connect to the radio. They’re small waiting times, sure, but once you notice them, they become a minor source of annoyance, especially if you’re impatient.

Overall, though, we really like this stereo. It’s small and yet more than powerful enough for your home. Its audio quality is fantastic and it supports a wide range of inputs, whilst not being too expensive. Regardless of whether you’re looking for a music player or a surround sound system for your TV, Sony has got you covered.

  • Wide range of inputs, NFC a welcome bonus
  • Loud enough to fill a hall, easily
  • Design combines a vintage look with a modern twist
  • Removable grille

  • Short waiting times do add up
  • Bright light blinks when the remote control is used
  • Limited equalizer options

Panasonic SC-HC39 – Best Budget Stereo System

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If you’re looking for something a little more modern looking that won’t cost the world, the Panasonic SC-HC39 might be more to your tastes.

This stereo is made of silver metal with a black plastic contrast and looks incredible. It’s a little wider than other microsystems, but still a lot thinner and smaller than a traditional stereo system. This model would look great on a bookcase or sideboard, and the colours chosen help ensure that the system will match almost any surroundings.

Thanks to its top-mounted control buttons, the system avoids fingerprints on its shiny front faces. We also like that this unit can be wall-mounted since that’s not an option often seen in stereo systems.

This system has a good range of input options: USB, CD, Bluetooth (with NFC compatibility), auxiliary and even a dock for your iPod. Various audio information is displayed on a small screen located on the black panel, and the text is a nice light blue colour. The CD player is a retro-inspired front loader and blends in really well, actually being near invisible from the front. It also includes an unusual but welcome feature: the CD drawer is opened by a motion sensor on the top. We were a little skeptical, thinking that it’d open the drawer if we walked past it, but it actually works really well.

Audio performance is actually a lot better than you’d expect from a 40W system. Individual instruments are clearly separated and Panasonic has used their own specialist hardware to make sure there’s no distortion even at high volumes. Bass and treble are pretty well balanced and notes are clear and crisp, even in busy pieces of music.

There is a limited selection of equalizer presets, and although you can’t fine tune these, you can generate your own. Like Sony’s offering, Panasonic has included a bass boost button, and we found that it actually provides better results than manually turning the bass all the way up since it doesn’t overwhelm higher notes.

The radio comes with two options: DAB or FM. As expected, DAB audio is clearer but obviously, the radio’s quality is largely down to system placement. You can save 20 DAB radio stations and 30 FM stations, and the display shows the signal strength and frequency, as well as program name in DAB mode.

Happily, search times are fast and painless, although it wouldn’t have taken much to add AM support and it’s a little strange that this isn’t included.

As far as downsides go, the Panasonic doesn’t have many, but the main one is to do with ease of use. Firstly, to play music from a flash drive, you have to download specific Panasonic software.

This doesn’t take long but is an unnecessary nuisance in this day and age. Also, the system comes with a shutoff timer option, which is set to on by default. We found that this turned off the radio whilst we were listening to it and required navigation through several menus to turn off. Again, it’s not a huge deal and is implemented with energy-saving intentions, but it is a bit of an annoyance.

All things considered, there’s a lot to like in this model. It looks sleek and professional, supports a wide range of inputs and boasts a deceptively loud and high-quality sound. It’s a bit large, sure, and at times its features hinder rather than help, but for someone on a low budget, this is the best quality sound available and will make a great addition to any room.

  • High sound quality
  • Attractive design
  • Affordable
  • Wide range of inputs

  • USB media requires software to function
  • No AM radio

LG Electronics CM4550 – Best Home Theatre Stereo

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It’s generally accepted that the more powerful the system, the bigger it is. LG has created a compact stereo system (albeit one on the larger side of things) that boasts a phenomenal 700W total output, with an RMS power draw of 230W – that’s almost six times more than the Panasonic offering we reviewed earlier. Although it’s a little more expensive, it’s not prohibitively so and is actually relatively cheap, considering stereos this powerful often retail at $400 and up.

So, the CM4550 talks the talk, but can it walk the walk? In a word, yes. The bass is ridiculous for something this size, and can actually shake the furniture if you turn it up too high, and the volume goes much louder than you’ll ever need. Sound quality is good, not too weak in the high ranges and balanced in the mids, but where this stereo really excels is in low-frequency ranges.

Unfortunately, there are no manual equalizer options, but there are presets which you can choose from, as well as a bass boost button.

The external speakers are fantastic, and thanks to their raw power, they make a great surround sound system for a home theater. Further cementing this fact is the plentiful number of different input methods: two USB ports, Bluetooth, CD player, auxiliary port and component jacks. This ensures that you always have a way to connect to your source.

Additionally, if you have an LG smart TV, this system can automatically connect to it via Bluetooth, although we encountered infrequent disconnects that were fixed by resetting the system. If you want to connect additional speakers, you can (as long as you have additional cable), which makes this a very versatile system and only helps reinforce its home theater credentials.

If you’re planning on using this as a music system first and foremost, you’ll appreciate its “Auto DJ” feature. This finds the optimal place to blend songs together in order to eliminate the second or two of silence when switching tracks. Another interesting feature is the ability to record music from the radio, CD, or auxiliary input onto a flash drive.

This takes us back to the days of cassettes and waiting for your song to play on the radio, and we’re not sure how useful it would be in a modern setting, but it’s a nice option to have nonetheless.

Aesthetically, this system is pretty nice.

The red and black colour scheme works well and doesn’t look out of place when placed in a living room. It’s quite a tall system (standing at a foot tall), so if you want to put this on a shelf, you might have some difficulty reaching it, although thankfully, it comes with a remote control

There is a light around the volume dial that helps enhance the appearance of the system, and this can be dimmed or turned off if you find it distracting. It would have been nice to see alternate colour options, but honestly, that’s a compromise we can live with due to the high overall quality of this unit.

Overall, we were amazed by this product. For under $300, you can have an absolute behemoth of a stereo system, and although it’s a little larger than other microsystems, it’s still small enough to be considered compact and portable.

What it lacks in equalization options, it makes up for with a myriad of input options and high stock sound quality. In short, if you’re looking for an inexpensive surround sound setup for your home, we can’t recommend this model enough.

  • Extremely loud, very powerful bass
  • Huge range of inputs
  • High customization potential with regard to additional speakers/subwoofers

  • Limited to pre-set equalizer options
  • Larger than most compact systems, smaller than a standard stereo

Yamaha MCR-232BL – Best Stereo System for Older Media

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Okay, so the MCR-232BL is a few years old now, but that doesn’t mean it’s not great! Sure, the iPod dock that’s built into it has been replaced by the newer lightning connector on newer versions, but other than that, there really isn’t anything that stands out as outdated.

Audio comes through bright and clear. One thing’s certain – this stereo is at its most comfortable in the midrange, and although it includes a subwoofer output, we found that the stock bass was, whilst not as powerful as its rivals, still decent enough to give songs that kick we all love. High-frequency sounds are generally good, although at higher volumes they tend to grate a bit.

The interior of the system has wooden bracing to minimize any distortion caused by vibration – perfect for people who like their music loud.

This system includes a CD player, AM/FM/DAB radio, old-style iPod dock, auxiliary jack, RCA connectors and a single USB port. Unfortunately, there’s no Bluetooth support, so to connect a phone or tablet, you’d have to use an auxiliary cable. We did, however, appreciate the support for AM radio, since they’re becoming rare as a lot of manufacturers start to phase these out.

The CD player is probably better than you’re used to, too, since Yamaha included a Class D amplifier. In practical terms, this means your CDs will have more presence and sound a lot fuller than you might expect.

In terms of design, this stereo takes an understated approach. The receiver is small and classy looking and is made of wood as opposed to the plastic we’re used to. It is around a foot deep, so might be best positioned on a deep shelf or unit, as opposed to a bookcase or something similar.

The grilles over the speakers can be easily removed if you’re so inclined, which is a bonus, and the top buttons are standard plastic, whilst the volume control knob has a nice aluminum finish.

It’s clear that Yamaha was inspired by the hi-fi systems of the ’80s and ’90s when designing this, although thankfully, they’ve modernized it by including more up to date inputs.

We really wish there was an HDMI input, though since it would have made this system a whole lot more versatile.

As we’ve mentioned, this isn’t a system with the latest and greatest features, but there is one group of people that this stereo seems to be perfect for, and that’s the slightly older crowd.

Generation X-ers will find the design and functionality of this system a welcome throwback, and I’m sure we all know someone who still uses their old iPod, so the dock won’t be an issue.

It’s worth noting that you can connect newer Apple devices to this using a 30 pin to lightning adaptor, although this will cost a little more.  If you know someone who hasn’t quite made the jump to today’s technology, this system is perfect for them: it has a range of slightly older inputs and a few more modern ones to help ease the transition.

We really liked this product. It’s a retro-inspired stereo system with a lot going for it: small size, high-quality sound, even a subwoofer output. If you don’t mind the old-style dock and lack of HDMI input, this stereo might just be the perfect addition to your home or office.

  • Good range of slightly older inputs
  • Bright, high-quality overall sound
  • High-quality construction with internal braces to reduce vibration

  • Old style iPod dock
  • No Bluetooth support
  • No HDMI input

Buyer’s Guide

Stereos can be pretty complicated, so we’ve put together a guide to some of the most vital specifications and things to consider before you buy one. This will let you make an informed decision as to which is the best stereo mini system for your needs.

Positioning

We already know that you need a compact stereo system, so we’re going to assume space is a factor here. If the stereo has additional speakers, where are you going to put them? Do you even need them, or would a single unit with built-in speakers suit you better? Are your walls thin, and would that cause an issue with your neighbors if you put the stereo against one of them?

Budget and Purpose

What do you plan to use the stereo for? If it’s just movies, you don’t need foundation-rattling volume, so you can focus on audio quality, and maybe look for a system with surround sound. If you like to party, you may be more interested in something capable of outputting huge amounts of sound, as well as something that focuses on bass.

As with all things, the price is wildly variable, with high-end systems often being multiple times the cost of something low-end. Consider your needs and budget accordingly.

Frequency Response

Frequency response refers to the range of sounds that your stereo can produce.

Manufacturers often provide this in the form of a graph, with higher values in the low or high-frequency range, signifying that the stereo favors bass or treble. Ideally, we’d have a perfectly straight line indicating perfectly identical capabilities across all frequencies, but realistically, you should look for one with a reasonably balanced curve.

There will usually also be a decibel rating, which lets you know how much of a difference there is across the whole range used in the test audio. Lower is obviously better, and we’d suggest around 3db as a reasonable level.

Power

There are different methods of measuring power requirements, but since some producers employ various tricks to artificially inflate their numbers, the best method of measurement is by looking at Root Mean Square (RMS) power draw. This is the average power draw across the speakers operating range.

In general, higher RMS means higher overall power draw, and therefore, louder audio. If you’d like to read more on the other methods, there’s a useful guide here.

Conclusion

It’s plain to see that all of these stereos are great. Some focus on pure audio quality, some pride themselves on thumping bass or their surround sound, but all of them are small, attractive systems which would make a great addition to any household. That said, we find ourselves coming back to the LG Electronics CM4550.

It’s a little larger than the others, but the number of options it gives with regard to future hardware additions and its massive power makes it more attractive overall.

As ever, we hope our research has been helpful to you.

With a bit of luck, one of our recommendations has caught your eye and if so, we hope you have as much fun using it as we reviewed it.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, and we hope to see you again the next time you need product advice.

Jason is a music enthusiast and a sound addict, so it was only natural for him to buy some stereo speakers for his new car. After looking at a bunch of websites online, he couldn’t really find what he was looking for, so he decided to create his own site - BestStereo.io.