Audio and video technology -- A guide to the cutting-edge stereos, VCRs, radios, TVs, and speaker systems

The paradox of making hard things soft is a trick nature mastered long ago; consider the rounded stones of a streambed. Now designers are trying to instill a similar sense of softness in audio and video gear as an alternative to the angular, black, technocratic style that dominated the ’80s. Drawing on the natural world for inspiration in color, texture, and form, they can do in a few minutes with plastic or metal what erosion takes thousands of years to do with rocks. ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY presents some of the best of the new designs on these and the following pages.

Polk RM-3000 stereo speaker system
The compact (7 inches high) loudspeakers at left, from Polk Audio, are made with a rock-hard resin composite molded into soft contours with a flecked, granite-like finish. The design is completed by a rounded, fabric-covered wire mesh grille. The heavy composite material is more than stylish; it has the mass and vibration-deadening qualities needed by the speaker’s moving parts. Designed to reproduce the treble and mid-range portions of the musical spectrum, this pair is bolstered by a single bass unit resembling a black Formica footstool, which can be placed anywhere in the room — preferably out of sight. Together they do justice to discs from classical to, uh, rock.

Yamaha YST-7 tabletop stereo system
Unusual in appearance as well as in function, the Yamaha grouping above is one of the first ”tabletop” stereo systems to hit our shores. It consists of a tiny, rounded stereo receiver and bullet-shaped speakers. The compatibly styled CDX-P7 compact disc portable is a $249 option. All of the components are encased in a gray plastic with a slightly flocked texture that is noticeably soft to the touch. The receiver doubles as a clock radio, so it is suitable for tabletops in the bedroom as well as the living room. And the receiver’s amplification is tailored to the speakers to provide strong bass that is out of proportion to the size of the system. Neatest feature: a credit-card-size full-function remote control.

Sony ICF-C730 AM/FM clock radio
Does this clock radio most resemble a pillow or a sleeping pill? Either way, it’s a restful design that reflects the ease of most of its operating controls. Simple thumb-wheels on the back of the radio let the user pre-tune three favorite FM stations. A touch of one of the three buttons on the right front will select one of the preset stations — and turn the radio on if it isn’t already. In another nice touch, the model provides two alarms that can be adjusted separately, along with the usual snooze bar and fall-asleep-to-music features. On the downside, the alarm adjustment only goes forward, so setting it a few minutes earlier is a little knotty.

Mitsubishi HS-U82 Super VHS VCR
The Mitsubishi VCR below combines soft colors and cylindrical details to create a quiet, unassuming component that gives not the slightest clue of the impressive technology lurking inside. It doesn’t look like a VCR that comes with a 231-page instruction book. The trick is that the front of the machine swings down to reveal the slot for the cassette and myriad buttons (most of which can be happily ignored in favor of the remote control). Still, despite a list of features far too numerous to describe here, many of this deck’s refinements benefit even those who just want to put a tape in and hit the play button: When a cassette is inserted, the tape starts playing almost instantly, and the Super VHS circuitry delivers pictures that are dramatically sharper than those of ordinary VHS recorders. Even a technophobe can enjoy the large knob on the remote that makes special effects like slow motion and adjustments like setting the clock so simple they’re almost intuitive.

Toshiba CF3060K television
The bulbous, aerodynamic shape of the Toshiba above neatly encloses its gigantic 30-inch picture tube in a relatively compact cabinet. The set delivers images that are not just large but sharper than broadcast quality when connected to high-resolution VCRs such as the Mitsubishi on the previous page. All picture adjustments, including brightness, contrast, and tint, can be made by remote control from an on- screen menu; an audio menu operates the bass, treble, and stereo balance settings.

Bose Lifestyle Music Center
Sold with two sets of self-powered speakers, the Bose component appears on first inspection to be a conventional audio receiver — albeit one of stark design. But this is not really a receiver at all; it’s a switching center that can play two separate music programs simultaneously and route them into two different areas in your home. The hand-held remote control can transmit through walls and floors to adjust volume and operate an AM-FM tuner, a CD player, and options like a tape deck and a CD changer.

Madrigal Proceed CD player
The Madrigal Proceed CD player is tall (9 inches), dark (muted gray), and hand-built (from custom-made components). At $1,650, it is designed for people willing to pay for the privilege of hearing music that sounds less like a recording and more like a live performance. In keeping with its main mission of music, the Madrigal features a relatively simple set of oval buttons, logically arranged: The largest one, for example, is the play button. Interestingly, the Madrigal Proceed has no power button on the front, just one marked ”standby” that makes the unit look as though it’s off but leaves its circuits warmed-up, rock- steady, and ready to play.