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Sony XDR-F1HD review: Sony XDR-F1HD

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After years of being priced as luxury items, tabletop HD Radios finally dipped below $200 and even $100 in 2008. However, most of those models still didn't actually sound very good--either the tuner wasn't terribly adept at pulling in stations or the speakers were pretty cheap. That's where the Sony XDR-F1HD comes in. Instead of a table radio, the XDR-F1HD is an AM/FM HD Radio tuner component. You'll need to connect it to something with an auxiliary input (a stereo hi-fi, AV receiver, home theater system, or iPod speaker system) or even just a pair of powered computer speakers. The little Sony tuner receives analog AM and FM, as well as digital AM and FM stations that have adapted HD Radio technology to digitally broadcast audio and data in conjunction with their analog signals.

8.0

Sony XDR-F1HD

The Good

Budget-priced AM/FM HD Radio component delivers extraordinary sound quality and low-noise reception; small size; remote control; bright backlit LCD screen.

The Bad

No digital output; weak HD signals cause the XDR-F1HD to switch back and forth between analog and HD; the memory doesn't retain station presets if the radio is unplugged from AC power.

The Bottom Line

Hailed by audiophiles as one of the greatest tuners ever, the Sony XDR-F1HD is arguably the best--and most affordable--way to add HD radio to any stereo system.

Sure, a lot of folks have abandoned AM and FM in favor of Internet radio and satellite radio; too bad the sound quality doesn't hold a candle to cleanly received FM. Getting that clean signal, however, can be problematic; FM is too often plagued with static, noise, and distortion. That's why the XDR-F1HD HD Radio is so impressive: so long as you're tuning in a local station, it's mostly immune to those forms of interference. The Sony pulls in hard-to-receive stations better than any high-end tuner we've ever used (and way better than the tuners built into audiovisual receivers). Some audiophiles believe the XDR-F1HD may be the best tuner available, regardless of cost, and we're inclined to agree. Best of all, we've seen the XDR-F1HD going for as little as $81 online.

Design
The XDR-F1HD is a basic black box that will blend in with the rest of the gear in your AV rack. The compact chassis is just 2.3 inches tall by 7.1 inches wide by 6.3 inches deep and weighs about 2.5 pounds. With the exception of a centered LCD screen and power button, the front panel is otherwise bare. A row of control buttons are found along the front edge of the top panel: "Display," "Band," "Scan," "HD Scan," "Menu," "Tune +/-," "Enter," and "Preset +/-."

The top-mounted controls could be problematic if you have the XDR-F1HD sitting in a darkened (or space-challenged) equipment rack. Thankfully, a small black plastic remote duplicates most of the tuner's controls and offers a numeric keypad for direct access to the 20 AM/FM station presets. We were happy to see that it's a "real" remote control with actual buttons, not a cheap credit card remote. A sleep timer (accessible only from the remote) completes the features set.

The XDR-F1HD comes with a wire dipole FM antenna and external AM loop antenna (or you can provide your own). There's no digital output--just stereo analog RCA output jacks. In other words, the XDR-F1HD is compatible with anything that offers an auxiliary line input.

This little radio puts out some heat, so it shouldn't be hidden away in an unventilated cabinet. Since the XDR-F1HD doesn't have an internal battery backup, the memory doesn't retain station presets if the radio is unplugged from AC power. Also, when the unit is in standby mode, it defaults to a clock display. However, the LCD can be dimmed but not completely shut off--that could be distractingly bright in a bedroom or darkened home theater environment.

Features
Before we discuss the performance of the Sony XDR-F1HD, here's a quick clarification for those unfamiliar with HD Radio. HD isn't a separate band--when you tune to an analog station that has a digital counterpart, the "HD" icon will flash, along with the cell-phone-like signal strength meter. 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.


HD stations display artist and song information, in addition to digital signal strength.

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.

Performance
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 Sangean HDR-1, for instance). That said, 90 percent of the FM HD stations were strong enough to not suffer from the on-again, off-again HD reception woes. A locked station's sound remains static and noise free.

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.