Thursday, May 17, 2012

HD Radio - Keeping the airwaves alive with the Sony XDRF1-HD tuner

I've been a HUGE fan of radio since I was a wee lad. I wasted SO many 9 volt batteries, leaving my transistor model on all night under my pillow, and that was on the nights when I actually kept it on despite repeated warnings, and threats that "if you leave that thing on all night one more time you'll be buying your own batteries from now on!"... Needless to say I had numerous Radio Shack battery cards!

Fast forward, HD Radio is a blast into the future, hybrid digital as opposed to high definition, to clear up the usual confusion. I own the Sony XDRF1-HD tuner, among vintage receivers (which I'll get to describing in future episodes of this blog) with tuners (hence the designation "receiver", as opposed to integrated amplifier, which as you know, is a receiver without a tuner!). The Sony has astronomical sensitivity ratings, produces the best AM sound quality I have ever heard (yes, I listen to AM, quite often in fact), and affords the fortunate owner HD programming, which allows both AM and FM stations the flexibility of sideband stations, mostly used to expand programming to include eclectic music, multicasts, and simulcast of AM stations on FM in glorious stereophonic sound! The baseball game never sounded so good, commercials and all! Diminutive in size, it's a stack-topper (or table topper, the same size as a clock radio), and features a remote with some (but not all the most necessary) functions that make it somewhat useful for the couch surfer in all of us. By the way, HD radio is not satellite radio, and is therefore a free service, non-subscription, making it better on that level as well.

The Sony is long out of production, as it burst onto the audio scene a few years ago to rave reviews around the world on multi-year-long threads extolling its off-the-charts ratings and superior sound. Then, as soon as it appeared, it was DISCONTINUED, and why it was dumped by Sony is still a mystery to this reporter. At an introductory price of around $85, it was a no-brainer for radio DX'ers and FM music freaks. With a simple dipole antenna, obscure stations and faraway AM icons (WLS Chicago and WSM Nashville, just to name a couple) appear magically fully tuned and fully listenable, such as never before this unit appeared on the audio scene.  As its popularity soared, and its availability waned, its asking price soared through the stratosphere, bringing BIN prices of $400-$700 on that auction site. Entire industries arose around modifications to various parts of the circuitry to further optimize its stellar specs. Needless to say, the giant-killer Sony was legit, and was routinely giving vintage tunas (arguably so, amid much debate) a run for their money. Some diehards still swear by their ancient McIntosh, Fisher, Sansui and Kenwood models in terms of sound quality and freedom from drift, but the Sony found a dedicated following and continues to spawn legend in collectors' circles. Its fans were speaking in reverent whispers, and sometimes raving in louder voices when extolling its virtues. Said to run a bit warm, one of the mods available in the aftermarket is to install small silent computer fans to reduce that suspect temperature. Others include a mod to regain treble response on AM, forced analog reception (the XDRF tends to fade in and out as the digital signal comes and goes occasionally), and feet to aid in the cooling process.

For radio lovers, this tuner (not a radio; it requires an amplifier or receiver to operate, it has RCA outputs to make it univerally compatible with 99% of all amps, every one with AUX or tuner line level inputs accessed through standard RCA stereo connectors) is a virtual godsend, and when I first turned it on I was absolutely blown away at the sound quality and ability to pull in distant stations with ease. I know a good deal when I see one, and I was sold when I read the glowing reviews that spanned years on end praising this wunderkind tuner. The sub-$100 price cinched the deal for me!

Bottom line, if you love radio and have stations in your area that are difficult to tune in, get the Sony, and try your best to grind down the asking price. Anyone who bought it aware of its superior specs will undoubtedly know they have a winner on their hands and will certainly be asking top dollar for this item in any condition, given its scarcity on the open market. I give this excellent tuner an overall rating of 5 stars. Mine gets play every single day as my primary source of news (CBS radio news at the top of the hour), and I often listen casually to a local HD station that is the best-programmed classic rock station I have ever heard since discovering the genre some 40 years ago (on the radio, by the way).
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Tomorrow...We'll take an up-close look at another of my front-end sources, the Sony RCD-W500C Compact Disc Recorder. Till then, keep your tubes hot and your antenna up!

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