Editors' Note: The rating on this review has been lowered from due to changes in the competitive marketplace.
HD Radio technology has been around for years, but finding products that support it remains something of a challenge--even as an overwhelming majority of home and car audio products offer plug-and-play support for Sirius or (especially) XM satellite radios. By contrast, HD Radio is still largely limited to extreme high-end AV receivers (the $2,500 Denon AVR-4308CI or the $2,000 Onkyo TX-NR905) or pricey tabletop radios (the $300 Boston Acoustics Recepter HD or the $500 Polk Audio I-Sonic). Or at least that was the case: Sony's XDR-S3HD lowers entry-level price for a standalone HD Radio to just $200. The catch: It's just a radio. But for those looking to listen to all-digital radio broadcasts--including HD2 multicast stations that aren't available on analog bands--that may well be enough.
With dimensions of 5 by 11.88 by 6.75 inches (HWD), the XDR-S3HD is a standard boxy tabletop radio, but it's got a nice (albeit simulated) cherrywood finish and a speaker grille covering nearly the entire front face. The LCD readout is mounted dead center, and displays all the station information, menu options, and so forth. The controls are found on the top side--the nine buttons along the front edge are hedged in by volume and tuning knobs. Alternately, you can opt to use the wireless remote control. Unlike the flat credit-card remotes that ship with a lot of radios, this full-size clicker has 27 buttons including a full numeric keypad. The extra buttons make the remote a better choice for navigating the setup options (such as clock, alarm, and preset settings), but if you misplace it, the radio's built-in controls can access all of the same functions--you'll just need to dive deeper into one of the LCD menus.
In addition to a 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 S3HD's speakers. One small annoyance: The XDR-S3HD has a nondetachable AC power cord. The 12-foot distance is ample enough, but it's got a power transformer awkwardly placed halfway down its length. That's countered by a nice design touch: The underside of the radio has a silent exhaust fan that keeps the innards cool.
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 XDR-S3HD. On the plus side, the alarm can be set to wake to any station preset, the line-in source, or a buzzer, and the volume can be locked in as well. The latter point is a nice touch, since it lets you drift to sleep with the radio barely audible (the sleep timer can be set at 15 minute intervals up to an hour), but wake up at a suitably high volume to rouse you out of bed. On the downside, there's only a single alarm, not the standard dual alarms you'll find on most such units. Also, while the LCD can be set at one of three brightness levels, it has to be done so manually; by contrast, some competing radios have a built-in light sensor that automatically adjusts the brightness according to the room's ambient lighting. It's also notable that the S3HD is missing a snooze bar--once you turn off the alarm, it's reset until the next day.
The alarm functionality is all fine and good, but the big draw here is the radio itself. In addition to the standard analog AM and FM bands, the XDR-S3HD can tune into the new digital HD Radio stations. 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.
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.