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 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. But 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. (For a complete list of the HD Radio stations in your area, check out the HD Radio Web site.)
The S3HD offers a few other nice convenience touches as well. Analog or digital stations can be stored in any one of the Sony's 40 presets (20 FM, 20 AM) at the touch of a button. Two scan modes allow you to roll through available stations, either hitting every one or just the HD versions. And for analog stations, the S3HD supports RDS data, so you can see the text display (song and artist information) on stations that support it.
In terms of sound quality, the Sony XDR-S3HD delivered pretty standard performance. Stereo sound on FM HD stations sounded a bit flat at first, but a minor adjustment to the S3HD's bass and treble controls got the music closer to our preference. If the Sony has a weakness, it's that the bass isn't particularly weighty; with the bass turned all the way up, even hip-hop wasn't exactly packing a punch. Moreover, the Sony doesn't deliver much in the way of stereo separation. The radio offers a "surround" option, but it just tends to add more echo and warble to the music. But we're not knocking the Sony; both issues are endemic to nearly all tabletop radios of this size, where the speakers are just a few inches apart. And while the Polk Audio I-Sonic outgunned the Sony with more bass, wider dispersion, and better overall sound, once you factor in the much higher sticker price--it costs three times as much as the Sony--it puts the XDR-S3HD's performance in much better perspective.
Sound quality nitpicks aside, the real problem with the Sony XDR-S3HD is the same issue that afflicts all HD Radio products: HD Radio technology hasn't yet distinguished itself as a worthwhile added value. To our ears, the HD Radio stations weren't delivering a dramatic improvement over their analog counterparts. And while we welcomed the presence of digital-only HD2 stations on the dial, many of them seemed to be noticeably compressed--more MP3 than CD. Moreover, the data streams seemed limited to artist, song, and show title information. That's nice, but nothing that can't be done with RDS information on analog stations, and some of the HD stations seem to lack the informational displays altogether. While the digital stations certainly offer static-free reception, that's only if they're within range; a distant HD station will drop in and out if it's too far away. Even more disturbing is that some nearby HD stations seem to blink out randomly--the cell-phone-like signal meter drops a full six bars to zero and then shoots back up again a few seconds later, even when the radio is completely stationary. To reiterate, none of these problems are the fault of Sony XDR-S3HD. The same issues exist on the Polk I-Sonic and Cambridge 820HD, and will continue to exist for any and all HD Radio receivers until the stations decide to offer more bandwidth and better data support.
If none of that scares you off, the question becomes: Is the Sony XDR-S3HD worth buying? At $200, the radio was positioned to be the most affordable name brand HD Radio to date. But as soon as it was released, Cambridge cut the price of its competing 820HD to match the price of the Sony. That model offers the same basic features and performance, but with a dual alarm. If the 820HD's slight edge on the feature front doesn't win you over, then it's pretty much a toss-up as to which cosmetic design you prefer--the modern look and feel of the Cambridge, or the more classic, stately wood-paneled Sony. The ultimate decision is a matter of subjective preference. In the meantime, a lot of us will continue to wait for HD Radio to simply be a standard feature that's folded into run-of-the-mill AV receivers, audio systems, and boom boxes, rather than something that requires paying a big premium--or the purchase of a whole separate product.