After years of being priced as luxury items, tabletop HD Radios finally dipped below $200 and even $100 in 2008. However, most of those models still didn't actually sound very good--either the tuner wasn't terribly adept at pulling in stations or the speakers were pretty cheap. That's where the Sony XDR-F1HD comes in. Instead of a table radio, the XDR-F1HD is an AM/FM HD Radio tuner component. You'll need to connect it to something with an auxiliary input (a stereo hi-fi, AV receiver, home theater system, or iPod speaker system) or even just a pair of powered computer speakers. The little Sony tuner receives analog AM and FM, as well as digital AM and FM stations that have adapted HD Radio technology to digitally broadcast audio and data in conjunction with their analog signals.
Sure, a lot of folks have abandoned AM and FM in favor of Internet radio and satellite radio; too bad the sound quality doesn't hold a candle to cleanly received FM. Getting that clean signal, however, can be problematic; FM is too often plagued with static, noise, and distortion. That's why the XDR-F1HD HD Radio is so impressive: so long as you're tuning in a local station, it's mostly immune to those forms of interference. The Sony pulls in hard-to-receive stations better than any high-end tuner we've ever used (and way better than the tuners built into audiovisual receivers). Some audiophiles believe the XDR-F1HD may be the best tuner available, regardless of cost, and we're inclined to agree. Best of all, we've seen the XDR-F1HD going for as little as $81 online.
The XDR-F1HD is a basic black box that will blend in with the rest of the gear in your AV rack. The compact chassis is just 2.3 inches tall by 7.1 inches wide by 6.3 inches deep and weighs about 2.5 pounds. With the exception of a centered LCD screen and power button, the front panel is otherwise bare. A row of control buttons are found along the front edge of the top panel: "Display," "Band," "Scan," "HD Scan," "Menu," "Tune +/-," "Enter," and "Preset +/-."
The top-mounted controls could be problematic if you have the XDR-F1HD sitting in a darkened (or space-challenged) equipment rack. Thankfully, a small black plastic remote duplicates most of the tuner's controls and offers a numeric keypad for direct access to the 20 AM/FM station presets. We were happy to see that it's a "real" remote control with actual buttons, not a cheap credit card remote. A sleep timer (accessible only from the remote) completes the features set.
The XDR-F1HD comes with a wire dipole FM antenna and external AM loop antenna (or you can provide your own). There's no digital output--just stereo analog RCA output jacks. In other words, the XDR-F1HD is compatible with anything that offers an auxiliary line input.
This little radio puts out some heat, so it shouldn't be hidden away in an unventilated cabinet. Since the XDR-F1HD doesn't have an internal battery backup, the memory doesn't retain station presets if the radio is unplugged from AC power. Also, when the unit is in standby mode, it defaults to a clock display. However, the LCD can be dimmed but not completely shut off--that could be distractingly bright in a bedroom or darkened home theater environment.
Before we discuss the performance of the Sony XDR-F1HD, here's a quick clarification for those unfamiliar with HD Radio. HD isn't a separate band--when you tune to an analog station that has a digital counterpart, the "HD" icon will flash, along with the cell-phone-like signal strength meter. 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.
In addition to the digital version of the analog stations you already receive, many stations also offer "multicast" or HD2 channels. These secondary channels are generally digital-only stations that offer alternative programming. Yes, many (but not all) of these are available online, and some HD2 channels are merely simulcasts of AM news or talk stations that you can hear elsewhere on the analog dial. However, the big selling point here is that--unlike satellite radio--the HD Radio content is completely free. You just need to pay for the hardware.