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Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 820HD review: Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 820HD

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Alarm functionality isn't usually notable, but the Cambridge 820HD offers some subtle flexibility not found on most run-of-the-mill clock radios. Each of the two alarms can be set to wake with an alarm tone or with any AM or FM station, though, annoyingly, you can't specify any of the HD2 stations, only the primary stations. Moreover, the alarm can be set to go off daily, weekdays only, weekends only, or just once. You can also lock in the exact volume for each alarm, so it can be as loud or subtle as you like in the morning, regardless of what the volume level was when you turned it off. You can have your favorite station lull you to sleep with the volume set to be barely audible (the sleep timer can be set at intervals from 15 to 120 minutes) but be guaranteed to be awakened at a dream-ending 70 percent of maximum volume. Snooze, meanwhile, can be preset to intervals of 5 to 55 minutes, depending on your personal level of morning procrastination. And while Cambridge doesn't mention a battery backup, there's clearly something inside keeping a charge, because the radio kept our alarm and preset info intact after remaining unplugged for at least 12 hours.

Radio is all about reception, and Cambridge has seen fit to include a panoply of options for pulling in the best signals. The RF-style screw connector on the rear panel will interface with any one of the three enclosed FM antennas: a single-strand wire antenna, a dipole (split-wire) version, or a more traditional telescoping aerial. A plug-in AM loop antenna is also provided. You can mix and match whichever ones work for your particular environment, with one FM and one AM plugged in simultaneously at any given time.

The Cambridge 820HD is pretty much a souped-up clock radio designed for critical listeners willing to pay a premium for sound quality, design, and the still-novel HD Radio support. To that end, we focused on radio reception and sound quality during our listening sessions. With the telescoping antenna attached, FM reception was generally very good. The steel-and-concrete jungle that is Manhattan is notoriously bad for radio, but we were able to pull in all but 4 of the 28 area stations (found via Radio-locator)--and at least half of those misses were college stations. Analog AM was its usual mess of static and pops, but most of those stations came in after some fiddling with the loop antenna and adjusting the placement of the radio.

Many of the FM (and even some AM) stations in the New York now broadcast in HD Radio. Simply tune to the regular analog station, and--if a digital version is available--the HD Radio indicator will light up, and the radio will tune over to the digital version within a few seconds. We were able to get most of the digital stations available (check the HD Radio site for a complete listing of stations in your area) on the FM band, although there were occasional dropouts on some, and one or two were so weak that the digital signal just couldn't quite lock in. Meanwhile, the two AM HD offerings just didn't seem to tune in at all, but given the truly awful AM reception from other radios in this location, we're not counting that against the 820HD.

In terms of sound quality, the 820HD was about what you'd expect from a tabletop radio. Flipping around the dial, the stereo sound was reasonably rich and full, though a touch brighter than we liked, until we adjusted the bass and treble controls. The rear bass port can really pound out the deep notes, and clicking the setting up just a couple of notches added a welcome bit of oomph to pop and rock tunes. (By comparison, turning the "loudness" function on or off didn't really seem to make a discernible difference.) When we put the Cambridge head-to-head with the Polk Audio I-Sonic, the latter system came out on top: a classical piano piece (on an HD Radio station) sounded a bit more refined and offered better presence on the Polk. But the Cambridge system more than held its own, especially when you consider that the Polk system is fully three times the price of the 820HD. The bigger issue with the Cambridge is one that affects all radios and speaker systems of this size: with the speakers just a few inches apart, the stereo separation is limited.

Sound quality nitpicks aside, the real problem with the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 820HD 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 info. That's nice, but nothing that can't be done with RDS info on analog stations, and many 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 Cambridge 820HD. The same issues exist on the Polk I-Sonic, and will continue to exist for any and all HD Radio receivers until the stations decide to offer more bandwidth and better data support.

While the HD Radio issues aren't particular to the 820HD, they're certainly a factor to weigh when considering purchase--in other words, if HD Radio isn't all it's cracked up to be, why pay a premium for a radio that's got little else to offer (no CD player, no network audio streaming, no satellite radio support)? Well, if you're in the market--for a Bose, a Tivoli, a Boston Acoustics, or a Cambridge--the 820HD is a pretty great little unit. It compares favorably to identically priced models such as the Cambridge SoundWorks 735i (with an iPod dock, but no HD Radio) and the more expensive Boston Acoustics Recepter HD (HD Radio and outboard stereo speaker), and it's got better alarm functionality than the Sony XDR-S3HD. As of June 2008, Cambridge has effectively cut the price of the 820HD from $300 to $179. With that impressive markdown, the Cambridge SoundWorks 820HD becomes a much easier recommendation for anyone looking for a great tabletop radio.

Assistant Editor Matthew Moskovciak contributed to this review.

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