Warp back to 1978, and remember the Aurex System 15 by Toshiba. This was what the Japanese would call ‘epoch making’ – the first of its type, it was an incredibly small but exquisitely built ‘mini component’ system designed to perform as well – if not better – than its full sized rivals. It was an inspired creation, blending superb sound quality (for an all-in-one system), stunning ergonomics and ingenious design. The only problem was that it cost £1,000 – a lot of money now, but then it worked out at around four times the price of a Linn Sondek!
Enter the Aiwa. Although not the first micro system, it was undoubtedly the first affordable one. It still cost and arm and a leg, still offered surprisingly fine sound, but at around £350 (still more than an LP12), was just about within reach of the spatially challenged audiophile. In doing so, it created the market for proper miniature hi-fis.
The system comprises four separate half-width components, the C22 Stereo Preamplifier, P22 DC Stereo Amplifier, R22 Stereo Tuner and L22 Stereo Cassette Deck. Each separate boasts styling that could only come straight from the seventies, with thick silver brushed aluminium front panels and faux rack mounting handles. Round the back we see conventional RCA phono sockets and captive power leads coming out of each individual component. Although this is a nonsense for a system designed to work as a whole, it was Aiwa’s declaration of intent to the Japanese hi-fi press that this was ‘real hi-fi’ and not a re-styled music centre…
Build is superb. We’re talking aluminium casings, big power transformers, heavy heaksinking on the power amp and a beautifully compacted cassette mechanism taken from one of Aiwa’s very well respected high end hi-fi cassette decks. It’s important to remember that in the seventies at least, Aiwa was a true high end brand famous for innovative and pioneering design – and stiff price tags.
Although each component performs surprisingly well, it’s the preamp that lets the side down thanks to the welter of (not very useful) facilities. With inputs for phono (MM), aux 1 and 2, tuner and a tape monitor it was a versatile affair, and also has tone controls, loudness, muting, low filter (remember them?) and balance facilities. Sound is tidy and sweet but a rather veiled and shut in. By contrast, the 40W power amp is possibly the best, offering switching for two sets of speakers, a headphone socket and LED power meters. Feed it directly from a CD player and you’ll hear a surprisingly powerful, articulate and tuneful sound with few rough edges. Bass grip in particular is impressive, even through tricky loads…
The cassette deck is a masterpiece of miniature engineering – beautifully put together, it features the bare minimum of facilities (Dolby NR, CrO2 switching, LED meters, tape counters) but does the job well. It’s stable, open sounding and the heads are good enough to run the likes of TDK SA tape into the red zone relentlessly. Only the clunky piano key controls let the side down. The tuner is another little gem – digital tuning display (although it isn’t a quartz synthesised tuner), switchable AFC and Hi-Blend and an impressively sweet and open sound on FM. Better still is its AM performance – most modern tuners don’t even come close.
The original Aiwa microsystem won’t make you dump your modern system in the bin. It is, however, an interesting little bit of kit that – in one respect – is historically significant in hi-fi’s great scheme of things. A masterpiece of packaging, it put the writing on the wall for Japan’s mass-market manufacturers which had – until then – made ever larger and more imposing products. Today, you can pick up Aiwa microsystems for under £200 complete with the neat factory rack. If it’s music for your bedsit or bedroom you’re after, you could do a hell of a lot worse.