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.
We fired up the XDR-F1HD, attached the provided antennas, and connected it to our AV receiver. Analog FM sound quality was superb, and the XDR-F1HD easily pulled in hard-to-receive stations with low noise. When tuning between HD stations the XDR-F1HD takes a few seconds to lock onto the HD signal, and that's when you can hear the difference between analog and HD sound quality. It is substantial. FM stations broadcasting in HD were dead quiet; there was no noise, hiss, fuzz, or distortion. The best HD stations delivered true CD quality sound. (As always, it's a "garbage in/garbage out" proposition; some HD stations severely compress the bit rate at the source, so they'll sound lousy even with the best hardware.)
Comparisons between our Sirius SR-H550 satellite tuner and the XDR-F1HD were revealing. The Sirius tuner's sound quality was reminiscent of very low-bit MP3s, with a "swishy" treble and a spatially flattened character. Even though satellite radio is noise-free, FM HD stations seemed quieter and much clearer overall. The Sony was dramatically better sounding than the best sounding Sirius channels. (Ironically, Sirius stations broadcast over the Internet actually sound better than the ones pulled straight from the orbiting satellites.)
Analog FM stations were also far superior to satellite radio sound quality, though with more background hiss. The XDR-F1HD pulled in difficult to receive analog college radio stations in the crowded New York City FM band better than any radio we've ever owned. Mind you, this performance was achieved using the included dipole (wire) antenna. In our Brooklyn apartment, we don't have access to the roof to mount a better antenna, but that didn't seem to adversely affect the XDR-F1HD's performance.
Analog AM sound quality was nothing special; AM HD was much quieter and cleaner, but still nowhere as clear as analog FM.
Our only real gripe with the Sony XDR-F1HD was how it dealt with difficult to receive HD stations, which sometimes failed to lock onto the HD signal. When that happens, the XDR-F1HD switches back and forth between analog and HD. We found it distracting to hear the noise level rise and fall. In those cases, it would be nice if you could manually turn off HD, and just listen in analog, but you can't (that feature is available on the
Caveats and conclusions
As avid radio listeners, we found a lot to love about the Sony XDR-F1HD. But read that sentence again carefully--"as avid radio listeners." We'll go ahead and state the obvious here: if you don't like over-the-air radio, the Sony XDR-F1HD isn't going to be of much use to you. Similarly, keep in mind that HD Radio isn't really a panacea for what ails standard radio: vanilla content and too many commercials. The multicast stations deliver content you can't get on the analog band, but the primary HD stations are merely simulcasts of the stations you can already hear, albeit with better clarity.
Also, the breadth of HD content varies by area. In New York City, for instance, there are upward of 50 HD Radio stations (including multicast stations); Houston also has 48 HD stations; Phoenix has 31, and so on. However, those living outside of densely populated urban areas will almost certainly have a more limited selection. Check the HD Radio Web site to see the stations available in your area.
Still, if you are a radio fan, and you have some worthwhile HD stations in your area, the Sony XDR-F1HD is highly recommended. It's been hailed by the audiophile cognoscenti as possibly one of the very best FM tuners ever built. We agree, and the HD Radio capabilities are a terrific bonus. Toss in its very affordable price, and you have a slam dunk for any radio lover.