Editors' Note: The rating on this review has been lowered from due to changes in the competitive marketplace.
HD Radio is the new digital broadcasting standard that has been available in the U.S. for the past several years. While the HD stations are just static-free duplicates of the FM (and some AM) ones you already listen to, the format also offers HD2 (multicast) stations in many markets--digital-only substations that you can't receive on analog radios. Compatible hardware has been slow in coming to market, but 2007 saw HD Radio being included in more products--and the price for standalone HD Radios finally dipping below $200. The Sangean HDR-1 falls into the latter group, and competes directly with similar tabletop HD Radio models from Boston Acoustics, Cambridge SoundWorks, and Sony.
Most of the aforementioned radios are extremely similar, so choosing between them often comes down to a matter of personal taste. With its real wood enclosure and a plastic-louvered speaker grille, the Sangean is perhaps the most genuinely "retro" looking unit of the bunch. If not for the center-mounted LCD readout, you would swear it was straight out of the 1950s--we half expected to hear Red Barber calling a Brooklyn Dodgers game when we powered it up. Dimensions are about standard for a tabletop model: 4.5 inches tall by 11.5 inches wide by 7.5 inches deep, and the wood casing gives the unit a nice heft.
Controls are limited to a single knob located just below the LCD. It adjusts volume by default, but clicking it brings up a list of other options on the LCD screen, which are further navigated by clicks and spins. That works great on an iPod, of course, but the Sangean HDR-1 doesn't come close to that legendary Apple ease of use. After some trial and error, you'll eventually get the hang of it, but we often opted to use the 24-button credit card-style remote instead.
In addition to the stereo auxiliary input and headphone jack, the radio's rear panel includes connectors for AM and FM antennas (both are included, or you can attach your own). While there's no built-in iPod dock, the line-in jack will let you connect the Apple player--or any other device--to the HDR-1's speakers.
Clock and alarm
With no built-in CD player, satellite radio, or dedicated iPod dock, the clock and alarm functionality represents fully half the value of the HDR-1. On the plus side, the alarm can be set to wake to any station, the line-in source, or a beeping tone, and the volume can be locked in as well. The latter point is a nice touch, since it lets you drift off to sleep with the radio barely audible (sleep mode can be set in 15-minute increments up to 90 minutes), but wake up at a suitably high volume to rouse you out of bed. It's a dual-alarm system, and they can be further customized to go off daily, weekdays only, weekends only, or just once. On the downside, there's no snooze bar. Also of note: the LCD backlight doesn't auto-adjust to the room's ambient light--but you can manually set it to one of seven levels (including off), so it won't keep sensitive sleepers awake at night.
The clock and alarm functions are all well and good, but if you're buying the Sangean HDR-1, it's to listen to some digital radio. HD isn't a separate band--when you tune to an analog station that has a digital counterpart, the "HD" notation will flash on the display. After a couple of seconds, the radio will automatically switch from the analog to the digital signal, and the display should show additional data (usually the song and artist information, and station call letters) available on the digital stream. Most digital stations are on the FM band, but a handful of AM stations are also available.