If you're looking to pull in some distant radio stations, you can attach the included external AM (1/8-inch) and FM (RF screw-type) antennas to the rear panel, or fashion your own to boost the signals. The two-jack connector for the iPod dock is also nearby--one for power, one for audio. What's nice is that the iPod dock audio connector is a standard 1/8-inch stereo jack, so it will work with any audio source that has a headphone jack or a line output--a satellite radio or a computer, say--so long as you provide your own matching patch cable.
The iPod dock itself is a proprietary module designed to work only with the Radio 745i. Cambridge throws in some dock adapters to fit popular iPod sizes, and it will accept any first- or third-party standard adapter as well. In addition to the hard-wired cable that connects the dock to the main Cambridge radio, the dock offers composite and S-Video outputs for connecting to your TV--a nice option not always found on audiocentric iPod-compatible products. The dock also has its own remote sensor for picking up signals from the remote control (the remote can also sit in a dedicated slot in the dock when not in use). You get full access to the iPod's menu system from the remote, but it's a pretty unsatisfying experience. Not only does the remote use a series of buttons rather than the iPod's familiar scroll wheel, you have to be almost on top of it to actually see the onscreen menus. But the ability to skip, rewind, and pause songs can be done blind, so it's not a total loss.
The slot-loading disc player handles audio CDs, CD-Rs, and home-burned MP3 and WMA CDs as well. Unfortunately, there are a few features you won't find on the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 745i. Satellite and HD Radio reception has not been included. Those looking for the latter should consider the $249 Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 820HD; it lacks an iPod dock, but the auxiliary input will suffice for quick and easy iPod hookups. And there are always plenty of other alternatives, as well as larger but cheaper shelf systems, many of which offer DVD playback in lieu of alarm clock functionality.
Those shortcomings aside, the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 745i is really designed for critical listeners willing to pay a premium for superior sound quality from radio programming and iPod-based music--and that's exactly what we put to the test. Using the included external FM wire antenna, the Radio 745i's sound quality on FM was above par on easy-to-receive stations, and it successfully pulled in most of the low-power college radio stations in our area. AM reception was less impressive, and even after we experimented with a bunch of different placement spots for the included antenna, AM sound was nothing special.
We next checked out Arcade Fire's Neon Bible over our iPod and on CD. The mighty organ that opens the title track sounded a little clearer, and the bass definition was slightly better on CD. That said, Neon Bible's densely orchestrated sound highlighted the limitations of the SoundWorks Radio CD 745i's abilities. In other words, the 745i sounded like a table radio, albeit one with better-than-average bass and volume capabilities. Don't expect sound comparable with home theater in a box or separates-based systems.
Moving on to less sonically challenging music highlighted the Radio 745i's strengths. Acoustic jazz from Miles Davis delivered an impressively direct sound: vocals had plenty of weight, and that's where the Cambridge really came into its own, sounding far better than average. We also listened to CDs with our Sennheiser HD 580 headphones and were surprised by the sound, especially when we boosted the bass.
The Cambridge SoundWorks Radio CD 745i's volume control raises and lowers the volume in discrete steps, and we sometimes wished for finer gradations between them. That said, we were happy to see Cambridge's designers provided variable bass and treble controls (plus or minus 4dB), and a loudness control that boosts the bass even more. Even after we pumped up the bass, the 745i's speakers didn't buzz or rattle. You can listen in mono, stereo or "wide," which we preferred because it opened up the sound--just a little--beyond the 14-inch spread of the speakers.
So, when the rubber meets the road, is the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio CD 745i worth its $299 asking price? We would've preferred another upgrade besides just the CD player--but stepping up to the Polk Audio I-Sonic (with HD Radio, XM-ready satellite functionality, and a CD/DVD player) costs twice as much. Meanwhile, if you don't need the CD player or bundled iPod dock, the Cambridge SoundWorks 820HD offers a much-improved design for $100 less. (It also offers HD Radio, an "upgrade" that's not available in the CD 745i.) But if you don't mind the outboard iPod dock and somewhat outdated design, the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio CD 745i is a great-sounding--if expensive--tabletop radio/CD player.
Freelancer Steve Guttenberg contributed to this review.