Should More Audiophile Companies Standardize the Size of Their Gear? 

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By Jerry Del Colliano

You’ve seen the film This Is Spinal Tap!, right? Even if you haven’t, the chances that you don’t know the joke that goes “but this one goes to 11” are pretty slim, unless you’ve been living under a rock since the mid-1980s. In America, we love things that are bigger. Bigger is almost always better, and that’s just how we roll. Costco sells things that are bigger than found in the grocery store. McDonald’s offers options for sizes of fast food that takes unhealthy eating and truly super-sizes it. An AMG Mercedes with a twin-turbo-charged V8 is better than a stock version with a standard six-cylinder engineplant. In audio, floorstanding audiophile speakers that are bigger are somehow better, even in a world where badass subwoofers play louder and lower than even the most expensive standalone speakers. Amps that can’t be lifted without a crane are better. 30-inch subwoofers are better than 12-inch ones.  

This one goes to 11

Why Are Some of Today’s Audiophile Components Shrinking in Size?

So, if bigger is better in every aspect of our lives in this country, including historically in our audio system, then why are so many audiophile components getting physically smaller? Some of the most important components today use non-standardized form factors, more than ever. I had a chance to play with a Gallium Nitride semiconductor-based Class-D amp recently, and the amp was a gem. I considered buying it, but opted for a Pass Labs XA25 instead, which is also simply a fantastic power amp. The GaN amp was not wide enough to even come close to filling up a standard 17-inch rack width – an odd decision made by the designers and engineers. Overly narrow widths make an audio product look downright silly in my well-engineered, eight-foot-tall Middle Atlantic Equipment rack. If I were to have kept said amp (I sent it back, kept the Pass, and never regretted it), I would have needed to give Middle Atlantic the exact physical specs on the amp and have them make a custom rack shelf that might have cost upwards of 10 percent of the total value of the super-lightweight power amp. The non-standard size of this amp also doesn’t match my standard-sized Anthem STR Stereo Preamp,thus in a more standard fare audiophile rack, the gear looks asymmetrical and pretty lame. Audio gear has always been 17 inches wide for the most part, and when you are assembling and building an ever-changing system

 over time, you have more and more issues matching your equipment physically. A stock-width stereo preamp doesn’t look like it matches with a non-standardized, new-school amp. 

Why is this the case? In the example of an amp like this one, there is plenty of room for a good power supply, as well as the relatively small circuitry. The days of heat sinks are over when it comes to this group of Class D amps. You simply don’t need them, because you don’t need them anymore. Using less metal also makes the amps lighter, thus they are easier and less expensive to ship, which is a solid perk. Using less metal makes the amps less expensive to manufacture, but how much more could it cost to make an audiophile component the standard width? The difference in cost is close to zero, thus it is a conscious choice by some audiophile designers, but it fights norms in ways that simply don’t need to be fought. 

The Bluesound Node looks elegant in white and comes with some top navigation which is both new and a little odd.
The Bluesound Node looks elegant in white and comes with some top navigation which is both new and a little odd.

Today’s Steamers, Endpoints and DACs Are Physically Small Too…

In 2024, for most audiophiles, the most important component in their setup is their digital streamer or audiophile endpoint, yet these components are often tiny. I am currently reviewing the crafty-little NAD CS-1 musical endpoint, as well as its audiophile brother, the Bluesound Node. Both are affordable products at. Like, $350 to $450 per component, yet they are both very capable of delivering music playback in HD from any number or type of streaming or (in the case of the Bluesound) local audiophile source files. 

Right now, I can place the NAD CS-1 and the Bluesound Node both on one standard U2-sized shelf in my rack. They don’t look very sexy like my nine Sonos Ports (I line them up three at a time across a 2U rack shelf with custom holes cut for the old Sonos endpoints), or like my side-by-side DirecTV receivers, which are neatly installed in the Smart Home neighborhood of my rack. As I mentioned below, you can have custom or pre-made rack shelves made for smaller components but, at the affordable level, these rack shelves can cost many times what the component cost. Thank God that my new $68 Black Friday special Roku that can play Disney+, unlike the old Roku, can fit into my old shelf that has a custom cut-out for both a Roku and an AppleTV. These smaller components also often get secured into place with a bracket on the back of the rack, so that there is no shifting or wiggling of your gear. Then again, the labor needed to get my new Roku working with a new driver for Crestron was well above my pay grade, and ultimately cost me three to four times the cost of a new Roku in an hour’s labor. If I need a new rack shelf, that could easily be a couple hundred more bucks. How does it look properly installed, versus just stacking up gear on blank shelves? It is a night and day difference. 

The PS Audio Sprout 100 is one of our favorite small audiophile components.
The PS Audio Sprout 100 is one of our favorite small audiophile components.

Many of Today’s Entry Level Audiophile Products Are Also Smaller Physically

We’ve recently reviewed a bunch of non-standardized products, as that seems to be a trend that extends past these exciting new Class-D amps and digital audiophile streamers. Entry-level products that we love like the PS Audio Sprout 100 or the FiiO K9 are good examples. The shipping weight issue is a big deal again. The overall portability or the ability to place said products in tight spaces makes these smaller products more appealing. Packing up a few Chi-Fi components isn’t the end of the world, like packing up a Gryphon amp that needs three men to lift. That’s a whole other conversation and set of logistics. 

This is what an audiophile system should look like when properly installed (Warhol in the background optional)
This is what an audiophile system should look like when properly installed (Warhol in the background optional)

Larger Than Standard Gear is No Good Either!

If I used a more traditional audiophile equipment rack, installing a component that was a fraction of an inch too wide wouldn’t be the end of the world. To the naked eye, you likely couldn’t tell the difference like you can with the GaN amp and its matching preamp that I mentioned earlier. But in my world, the product literally will not fit in a rack, thus leaving anyone in the custom installation or pro audio world out in the cold.

We can write this topic off to language barrier issues, but I recently received a CD Transport from China that was over 45 pounds in weight. The fact that it wasn’t a CD player (as promised) and only a CD Transport was an issue, but the fact that, like a number of audiophile components that I’ve run into over the past few years, the unit was perhaps an eighth of an inch wider than the standard 17-inch width of my rack. That means it will simply not fit. You can try to force it, but that’s batshit crazy, as you are going to ruin the product. Hint: if you own an audiophile magazine and people send you cool toys to play with – they will stop if you destroy them during the review. I ended up driving the CD Transport to Brian Kahn, and he did a great job reviewing the very unique, boutique audiophile product. I brought him back his Marantz SACD 30n and he got the review done and done well.

Some smaller rack components from Jerry Del Colliano's "work in progress" Middle Atlantic rack
Some smaller rack components from Jerry Del Colliano’s “work in progress” Middle Atlantic rack

Final Thoughts on the Physical Size of an Audiophile Component…

You need ample space to make room for a serious power supply into today’s audiophile components, but by no means do some components need to be as large as they used to be. Fitting in boards, parts and wiring is easier today than ever before, thus gear is smaller. In the world of amps, the days of having massive heat sinks (not spelled “synchs,” as a rude Internet troll pointed out to me recently) are a thing of the past. Some argue that the room needed to allow tubes to “breathe” makes them a little bit outdated in today’s audiophile world.

The standard that the audiophile manufacturers should be looking at is the width of their components. Today’s components need to look good when stacked up with other brands of gear, not just matching products. There is plenty of room to go up and make taller components. The idea that amps sit on the floor is one of the hobby’s biggest head-scratchers. Amps can get hot, which isn’t good for pets or small children. Wiring can be dangerous, and your cleaning lady can bash her Miele vacuum into your D’Agostino monoblocks, which can devalue your gear. I know you paid a lot to look at those glorious amps (and super-cool gauges), but they are better in a rack, somewhat protected and capable of operating their best, but that isn’t always trendy.

The reality is that the hobby is going to change with a new demographic of buyers, but certain physical realities remain, the width of a product being perhaps the most important going forward. Can you make a small component sound fantastic? Yes, but despite what the hardcore forum people will tell you, sound isn’t the sole factor in why we make our audiophile investments. Being able to enjoy the look of our products is one level of importance, but there are more. Protecting our investment is another. Making sure that there is room for all of the top-performing components is another. There are reasons why there are standards in design, and we should be sticking with some when it comes to the size of the next generation of audiophile gear. 

Is your system standard-sized? Do you have any oddly-sized components? Have you made the decision to buy (or not to buy) gear based on its size? Comment below and we will approve your content which will post on the article quickly. We love to hear from you. 

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Christopher

This was a very good take on a problem that is overlooked. I kept thinking what kind of rack are we talking about, very nice rack by the way 😀

Drexel Lake

I avoid the new smaller footprint devices. I don’t care what the component is, it has to fit in. The smaller units aren’t stable after connecting cables in most cases. The slightest shift of anything knocks everything out of whack. It’s just another way for manufacturers to charge more for less.

Al Clark

We make products that are essentially rack width.

That said, we are also planning a variety of products that are 1/2 rack compatible (9.5 width when ears are added). This makes sense for somewhat simple products that would be mostly air inside if enclosed in a larger box. I think it really depends on the user and the application. Half rack boxes are still larger than many of the smaller audio boxes, but can be a lot more flexible when space is limited.

Do you really need a full rack box for a DAC?

The half rack size is a reasonable compromise since it is possible to combine them multiple ways. It is also probably the closest small box that is used by different suppliers.

There is an arms race of sorts with housings in high end audio. I realize that looks matter to a degree, but it is interesting to see products that have higher housing costs that the cost of the internal components. I am not taking a shot at Nelson. His products have always worked well and look great. They are also fairly expensive.

Large housing with thick front panels are expensive to produce. Have one quoted at a metal fabricator sometime.
It will likely be a factor in the final cost of the product until you get to very expensive products where manufacturing cost is essentially irrelevant to the selling price.

As a manufacturer, we try to strike a balance with respect to performance and packaging. I think some of the manufacturers that you avoided are attempting this as well.

Respectfully,

Al Clark, CEO
Danville Signal

Ron

I’d like to point out a couple of issues around gear size. Most home TV furniture wall units have shelves, some open and some behind doors, that can be used for gear. Pretty much though, the shelves are standard at 18″ wide and often the hinges on the door units only give 17″ access…which means that the gear has to be angled in…not so easy to do with a 35lbs amplifier….

Furthermore, these units often have backs on them with small holes for wires…not so great for heat dissipation…no tubes or class amps allowed.

In my case, I have a Pass XA-25…and since it can’t go in the wall unit, it occupies it’s own space off to the side…which results in an unhappy WAF.

There are great sounding, smaller, cooler alternatives that will easily fit into these wall units…Benchmark, Orchard, Atmasphere and AGD to name a few. My sense is that gear makers choose their cases for many reasons including cost, looks, identity, etc.

So, while more standardization might be nice, I don’t expect it any time soon.

rwwear

I believe components should be the same 17″ size because it just looks better. Power supplies should be stackable. I personally think large amps should be narrower though than they are deep and not look like pancakes. I just think it looks better.

Last edited 2 months ago by rwwear
Robert

Just the width, in the ’80s and the ’90s it was a standard at 17 4 professional was 19 rack mount. My poison was adcom I had it all nicely stacked and displayed for all to see around my JBL speakers

Scot Crispin

Technology moves forward, sadly the audiophile community in many ways does not and actively resists change. This is far different from when my father first got involved in building speakers in the 1950s. Actual innovation has given way to a small coteri of very wealthy people who want to display a room full of beautiful build quality equipment costing over 100k.

Mark

I’m sorry my friend, but this is nonsense. I honestly couldn’t tell if this article was satire while I was reading it. The variety in form factors is a blessing, not a problem!

A high-quality listening experience should not be reserved for millionaires with dedicated listening rooms – it should be for *everybody.* And that means, components should fit into the homes of people who want to use them.

People shouldn’t need to buy a full rack to enjoy great music and quality audio. If a listener only has a little bit of shelf space available, then a PS Audio Sprout is a godsend (as is a NAD D3045, or a little Schiit stack).

And it’s not just folks in small apartments who appreciate these components. Sometimes, people want to listen in other parts of the house! Small components are fantastic for bedrooms, offices, workshops, etc.

There will *always* be rack-sized components for you, if that’s what you like. But don’t complain about alternate form factors. They’re not a problem, they’re just made for users who are different from you.

Simon Mackay

This situation came about since 1979 with the increase in smaller form-factors for hi-fi equipment like those “micro” and “mini” hi-fi systems and record-jacket-width “midi” hi-fi systems. A classic example was the Aiwa Series 22 micro hi-fi components.

These smaller sizes were brought on with efficient power-supply and amplification designs thanks to silicon semiconductors and Switch-Mode power conversion.

But the industry resolved to use particular sizes due to achieving economies of scale when designing and manufacturing the equipment or to work with physical storage media like vinyl records, cassette tapes and CDs. Think of mini-width systems accommodating a double cassette deck or a 3-disc carousel CD changer. Or the midi-width systems that were the width of a vinyl record cover.

What is likely to happen is for the industry to resolve to standard sizes if they desire to work at scale with their designs.

Nrchy

Most of my equipment is “standard sized”, but I recently bought the DS Audio 003, which is not standard sized. It almost looks out-of-place. So I’ve been thinking about this issue. In the 60’s and 70’s when standard sized equipment was being developed, the cases were full, at least in the better gear. As technology has advanced, there seems to be less in the cabinet than there used to be.

I’ve owned huge Krell and Classe amps, and then, much smaller Atma-Sphere amps. Now it seems like most of the cases are empty, just to fill that 17″ width requirement. Phono stages especially seem to have a lot of air in them. There’s really no point to that size. While I still look at the DS Audio with a little consternation, there is no reason for it to be bigger. I guess it must be a little cheaper to make a smaller cabinet, or case, is that reflected in the price??? I don’t know.

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