Editors' Note: The rating on this review has been lowered from due to changes in the competitive marketplace.
HD Radio is the new digital broadcasting standard that has been available in the U.S. for the past several years. While the HD stations are just static-free duplicates of the FM (and some AM) ones you already listen to, the format also offers HD2 (multicast) stations in many markets--digital-only substations that you can't receive on analog radios. Compatible hardware has been slow in coming to market, but 2007 saw HD Radio being included in more products--and the price for standalone HD Radios finally dipping below $200. The Sangean HDR-1 falls into the latter group, and competes directly with similar tabletop HD Radio models from Boston Acoustics, Cambridge SoundWorks, and Sony.
Most of the aforementioned radios are extremely similar, so choosing between them often comes down to a matter of personal taste. With its real wood enclosure and a plastic-louvered speaker grille, the Sangean is perhaps the most genuinely "retro" looking unit of the bunch. If not for the center-mounted LCD readout, you would swear it was straight out of the 1950s--we half expected to hear Red Barber calling a Brooklyn Dodgers game when we powered it up. Dimensions are about standard for a tabletop model: 4.5 inches tall by 11.5 inches wide by 7.5 inches deep, and the wood casing gives the unit a nice heft.
Controls are limited to a single knob located just below the LCD. It adjusts volume by default, but clicking it brings up a list of other options on the LCD screen, which are further navigated by clicks and spins. That works great on an iPod, of course, but the Sangean HDR-1 doesn't come close to that legendary Apple ease of use. After some trial and error, you'll eventually get the hang of it, but we often opted to use the 24-button credit card-style remote instead.
In addition to the stereo auxiliary input and headphone jack, the radio's rear panel includes connectors for AM and FM antennas (both are included, or you can attach your own). While there's no built-in iPod dock, the line-in jack will let you connect the Apple player--or any other device--to the HDR-1's speakers.
Clock and alarm
With no built-in CD player, satellite radio, or dedicated iPod dock, the clock and alarm functionality represents fully half the value of the HDR-1. On the plus side, the alarm can be set to wake to any station, the line-in source, or a beeping tone, and the volume can be locked in as well. The latter point is a nice touch, since it lets you drift off to sleep with the radio barely audible (sleep mode can be set in 15-minute increments up to 90 minutes), but wake up at a suitably high volume to rouse you out of bed. It's a dual-alarm system, and they can be further customized to go off daily, weekdays only, weekends only, or just once. On the downside, there's no snooze bar. Also of note: the LCD backlight doesn't auto-adjust to the room's ambient light--but you can manually set it to one of seven levels (including off), so it won't keep sensitive sleepers awake at night.
The clock and alarm functions are all well and good, but if you're buying the Sangean HDR-1, it's to listen to some digital radio. HD isn't a separate band--when you tune to an analog station that has a digital counterpart, the "HD" notation will flash on the display. 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. Most digital stations are on the FM band, but a handful of AM stations are also available.
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 HDR-1 offers a few other nice convenience touches as well. Analog or digital stations can be stored in any one of the Sangean's 20 presets (10 FM, 10 AM). An HD Seek mode lets you roll through the available digital-only stations. And for analog stations, the HDR-1 supports RDS data, so you can see the text display (song and artist information) on stations that support it. The HDR-1 can also be set to lock into analog-only mode, which is useful for distant or weak stations that never quite properly "lock in" to digital mode.
In terms of sound quality, the Sangean HDR-1 delivered the same sort of standard performance we found from most of its competitors. Like nearly any radio or iPod speaker system of this size, there's not much in the way of stereo separation, and Sangean doesn't even offer an "expand" or "3D" mode (not that they usually work anyway). That's not to say it sounded bad, though: music had ample weight and presence, especially when compared directly with the Tivoli Audio SongBook and even the Boston Acoustics Recepter--though both of those are monaural analog models. And the ability to tweak the Sangean's bass and treble settings to our liking always helps customize a sound that's more pleasing to an individual listener.
Of course, we can't let a discussion of the Sangean HDR-1 end without listing our major gripe--that the whole HD Radio format doesn't (for most people) deliver a particularly major improvement over the analog radio experience. 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 Sangean HDR-1. 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 Sangean HDR-1 worth buying? At $200, it more or less matches the price of other namebrand HD Radio tabletops, including the Boston Acoustics Recepter HD, Cambridge SoundWorks 820HD, and Sony XDR-S3HD. For us, the admittedly attractive retro styling of the Sangean is overshadowed by the control shortfalls: both the single knob nor the credit card remote are more frustrating than intuitive. By contrast, the controls (just one extra knob makes a world of difference) and the better display on the Cambridge keep that model at the top of the heap. Those who like the Sangean's wood finish may also wish to check out the Sony, which is similarly styled. 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.