Cambridge SoundWorks Radio CD 745i
The realm of high-end tabletop radios once seemed to be the sole domain of Bose. In the past few years, however, the market has been crowded with competitors including Tivoli Audio, Polk Audio, and Boston Acoustics, not to mention upstarts such as Chestnut Hill Sound. Two of our favorites were from Cambridge SoundWorks--the company's Radio 730 and Radio CD 740 delivered some of the best sound quality we'd heard from a tabletop radio. Since the debut of those two Cambridge models, however, the need for iPod integration has become an even more critical feature for lifestyle-friendly audio products. So the company has added an iPod dock to both models, and updated the model numbers accordingly. Enter the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 735i ($199) and the Radio CD 745i (which adds CD playback for an additional $50).
Like most of the products in the rarefied tabletop radio world, the Radio CD 745i is pretty straightforward: it's an AM/FM radio and CD player with a dual-alarm clock radio and an outboard iPod dock thrown in to boot. Aside from the iPod dock, the Radio 745i is basically a dead ringer for its predecessor, the Radio CD 740. Like that venerable model, the 745i is available in white or black and measures out at 5x14x10 inches--so make sure your nightstand or bedside table has enough real estate. It tips the scales at a hefty 11 pounds, but we're not complaining--it's a tabletop radio, not a portable you'll be moving from room to room.
Except for the Snooze/Mute button on the otherwise bare topside, all of the Radio CD 745i's controls are located on its front face. A 32-character LCD readout sits above two clusters of eight buttons each, separated by a jog dial that's 1 inch in diameter. The display is linked to a light sensor, so it dims in dark rooms. The jog dial controls volume by default, but clicking the nearby Jog key toggles it to a variety of other functions, including Bass, Treble, and Loudness. The knob offers much more visceral control than a pair of up/down keys, but the rest of the controls aren't nearly as pleasing: the tiny circular buttons are identically sized and shaped, so they're hard to distinguish in low light or when you're groggy--not good for a radio that boasts alarm clock functionality. It's the same problem we had with the more downscale Lasonic MSU-2020--but the 745i's better-known brand doesn't make the poorly arrayed controls any more palatable.
The 745i crams a 2.1-speaker array into its comparatively tiny frame--two front drivers, and a downward-firing woofer for added bass. The speakers are magnetically shielded, so they can be placed near a TV or any other sensitive device with impunity. Using the jog dial, the audio output can be set to Stereo, Mono, or "Wide," which attempts to simulate stereo separation beyond the seven inches or so of space between the front speakers.
The left set of buttons are the radio presets--just depress one of them while on the station of your choice, and it's saved to one of the three "bands" (FM1, FM2, or AM). The right set of buttons offers a choice of source (AM, FM, iPod, CD, or front auxiliary), as well as up/down radio tuning; there's a Seek function for jumping from station to station as well. The Cambridge tuner supports RDS (Radio Data Service), so the readout offers call-letter and song information from stations that support it. (The display can be set to display the text as static or scrolling, or can be turned off altogether.)
Alarm functionality isn't usually notable, but the Cambridge 745i offers some subtle flexibility that's worthy of its luxurious price tag. Each of the two alarms can be set to wake to an alarm tone or to any one of the AM/FM radio presets (but you can't wake to the iPod). But this is one of the few alarm systems we've seen that also lets you lock in the volume setting of 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. So, you can have your iPod lull you to sleep with the volume set to 3 (the sleep timer can be set at intervals from 15 to 120 minutes), but be guaranteed to be awakened at a dream-ending 15. Snooze, meanwhile, can be preset to intervals of 5 to 22 minutes, depending on your personal level of morning procrastination. A standard 9-volt battery (inserted on the underside) sustains the clock, the alarm, and the radio presets during power disruptions of as long as 48 hours--we unplugged the 745i for 30 minutes without losing a thing.
If you're looking to pull in some distant radio stations, you can attach the included external AM (1/8-inch) and FM (RF screw-type) antennas to the rear panel, or fashion your own to boost the signals. The two-jack connector for the iPod dock is also nearby--one for power, one for audio. What's nice is that the iPod dock audio connector is a standard 1/8-inch stereo jack, so it will work with any audio source that has a headphone jack or a line output--a satellite radio or a computer, say--so long as you provide your own matching patch cable.
The iPod dock itself is a proprietary module designed to work only with the Radio 745i. Cambridge throws in some dock adapters to fit popular iPod sizes, and it will accept any first- or third-party standard adapter as well. In addition to the hard-wired cable that connects the dock to the main Cambridge radio, the dock offers composite and S-Video outputs for connecting to your TV--a nice option not always found on audiocentric iPod-compatible products. The dock also has its own remote sensor for picking up signals from the remote control (the remote can also sit in a dedicated slot in the dock when not in use). You get full access to the iPod's menu system from the remote, but it's a pretty unsatisfying experience. Not only does the remote use a series of buttons rather than the iPod's familiar scroll wheel, you have to be almost on top of it to actually see the onscreen menus. But the ability to skip, rewind, and pause songs can be done blind, so it's not a total loss.
The slot-loading disc player handles audio CDs, CD-Rs, and home-burned MP3 and WMA CDs as well. Unfortunately, there are a few features you won't find on the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 745i. Satellite and HD Radio reception has not been included. Those looking for the latter should consider the $249 Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 820HD; it lacks an iPod dock, but the auxiliary input will suffice for quick and easy iPod hookups. And there are always plenty of other alternatives, as well as larger but cheaper shelf systems, many of which offer DVD playback in lieu of alarm clock functionality.
Those shortcomings aside, the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 745i is really designed for critical listeners willing to pay a premium for superior sound quality from radio programming and iPod-based music--and that's exactly what we put to the test. Using the included external FM wire antenna, the Radio 745i's sound quality on FM was above par on easy-to-receive stations, and it successfully pulled in most of the low-power college radio stations in our area. AM reception was less impressive, and even after we experimented with a bunch of different placement spots for the included antenna, AM sound was nothing special.
We next checked out Arcade Fire's Neon Bible over our iPod and on CD. The mighty organ that opens the title track sounded a little clearer, and the bass definition was slightly better on CD. That said, Neon Bible's densely orchestrated sound highlighted the limitations of the SoundWorks Radio CD 745i's abilities. In other words, the 745i sounded like a table radio, albeit one with better-than-average bass and volume capabilities. Don't expect sound comparable with home theater in a box or separates-based systems.
Moving on to less sonically challenging music highlighted the Radio 745i's strengths. Acoustic jazz from Miles Davis delivered an impressively direct sound: vocals had plenty of weight, and that's where the Cambridge really came into its own, sounding far better than average. We also listened to CDs with our Sennheiser HD 580 headphones and were surprised by the sound, especially when we boosted the bass.
The Cambridge SoundWorks Radio CD 745i's volume control raises and lowers the volume in discrete steps, and we sometimes wished for finer gradations between them. That said, we were happy to see Cambridge's designers provided variable bass and treble controls (plus or minus 4dB), and a loudness control that boosts the bass even more. Even after we pumped up the bass, the 745i's speakers didn't buzz or rattle. You can listen in mono, stereo or "wide," which we preferred because it opened up the sound--just a little--beyond the 14-inch spread of the speakers.
So, when the rubber meets the road, is the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio CD 745i worth its $299 asking price? We would've preferred another upgrade besides just the CD player--but stepping up to the Polk Audio I-Sonic (with HD Radio, XM-ready satellite functionality, and a CD/DVD player) costs twice as much. Meanwhile, if you don't need the CD player or bundled iPod dock, the Cambridge SoundWorks 820HD offers a much-improved design for $100 less. (It also offers HD Radio, an "upgrade" that's not available in the CD 745i.) But if you don't mind the outboard iPod dock and somewhat outdated design, the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio CD 745i is a great-sounding--if expensive--tabletop radio/CD player.
Freelancer Steve Guttenberg contributed to this review.