Sangean HDT-1X HD AM/FM Tuner
If you listen to US radio at all, you
may have heard something in the last year about HD Radio. Its the first major
advancement in broadcast technology since the advent of FM stereo in 1961, but
theres a lot of confusion about what it really is.
HD stands for hybrid digital (not high
definition). In an HD broadcast, a digital signal is sent at the same frequency as the
standard analog signal. Because the two signals exist in different domains -- analog and
digital -- they can occupy the same airspace at the same time. (You can read more about
this fascinating technology at www.hdradio.com/what_is_hd_digital_radio.php.)
In practical terms, HD Radio gives you less multipath
interference when youre listening to FM in the car. You get multipath when a signal
is coming at you from at least two different directions, one of them directly from the
broadcast tower and one reflected off a hill or building. The reflected signal arrives a
split-second later than the direct signal -- the difference between the arrival times is
just enough to cause interference, which is audible as an annoying spitting sound. But as
long as youre within range of a strong HD Radio signal, multipath is a thing of the
One of the biggest advantages of HD Radio is that it allows
stations to broadcast multiple programming channels. For instance, the second digital
signal of my local public classical station is my favorite: jazz 24/7. Our local classic
rock station offers analog and digital streams of its regular programming, plus a second
digital stream of deep-cut rock classics. Any number of HDR programming options are
available for stations to plug in and play, from full-time grunge to Americana to blues to
the BBC World Service. And once youve purchased an HDR tuner, its all free.
Most big-box electronics retailers stock only one or two
HDR models. But the radios wont be able to lock on to the HD signal, so youll
have to take their word that HD is a good thing. So far, the Internet has proven to be the
best place to buy HD radios for the car or the home (portables are coming in the next
One of the most fully loaded HD Radio models now available
is the subject of this review: the Sangean HDT-1X ($250 USD). Sangean has long built
amateur radio equipment and multiband radios -- for many years, they made the shortwave
radios sold by RadioShack -- and have a reputation for bulletproof construction.
The HDT-1X looks like a typical matte-black tuner of
standard proportions: 16.9"W by 2.75"H by 10"D. Most of its front-panel
controls are those youd find on any analog tuner, and most are duplicated on its
small but functional remote control. From left to right on the front panel are: a Power
button (it glows red when the HDT-1X is in standby mode), then a 0-9 numerical keypad with
two small pushbuttons. One of these lets you select among 20 FM and 20 AM presets; the
other lets you enter a stations frequency directly. In the center is a large,
multifunction LCD display. Depending on the signal youre tuned to, it can show that
an HD signal is being received, display the stations call letters as well as its
frequency, provide Radio Data System (RDS) info such as the title and performer of the
song being received (if the station broadcasts such data), or indicate normal (analog)
reception. The display options offered via the Info button to the right of the screen
include the time, incoming signal strength, station frequency, and the audio spectrum
(divided into ten bands) of the signal being received.
Hold down the HDT-1Xs Info button for two seconds and
you can cycle through several setup options. System Reset resets the tuner to its factory
defaults. The displays contrast can be adjusted from 0 to 9, and the strength of its
backlighting can be set to Bright or Dim. (Choose Dim -- with Bright, you could light up
Yankee Stadium in a heavy fog.) Through these advanced options, its also possible to
force the tuner into Stereo Only or Mono Only mode; Analog Only or HD Only; or, for you
broadcast engineers out there who want to sync your analog and digital signals, a unique
Split mode provides the digital signal in the left channel and the analog signal in the
right. These are pretty much set-and-forget, onetime operations, so it makes sense that
Sangean has placed them in a subsidiary menu.
Next to the Info button is the all-important Band selector.
Then come three rocker switches, which control various other tuning schemes. The first is
a manual tuning control that travels the FM band in steps of 0.1MHz. The second, Seek,
searches for stations up or down the dial until its released, at which point it
stops at the next station. The last is HD Seek, which searches only for HD signals. HD
reception is automatic if the station to which youre listening is broadcasting an HD
signal. The "HD>" symbol on the display will blink until the tuner has locked
to the digital signal, at which point the audio output switches to the digital signal.
The rear panel is sparsely populated. From the left are: an
F-connector for the FM antenna, two connectors for the supplied AM loop antenna, two RCA
audio output jacks, an S/PDIF optical digital jack, and a polarized AC jack.
Were this a typical tuner review, heres where
Id cite the techy stuff -- sensitivity, selectivity, capture ratio, etc. However,
Sangean provides virtually none of the usual tuner specifications. So on a single day
(weather conditions affect FM reception), to get some baseline analog data, I conducted a
face-off between the Sangean HDT-1X and my Magnum Dynalab Etude tuner, using the same
antenna for both. This turned out to be a good test of the Sangeans basic
The Sangeans analog reception can only be called
superb. There are 47 local FM signals that I should be able to receive, all broadcasting
from the Cincinnati or Dayton, Ohio, metropolitan areas. Connected to a BIC FM-10 Beam Box
indoor antenna, the Etude received 39 of those signals in listenable stereo (by listenable
I mean that I could listen for an extended period without noise or interference driving me
nuts). Using the same antenna, the HDT-1X listenably received 37 signals -- only two fewer
than the Etude. Not bad for a tuner that retails for less than a quarter the price of the
Magnum Dynalab in its day.
I then switched the Sangean to analog-only mode and did a
lengthy comparison of the sound qualities of various analog local FM signals. The most
revealing comparison was of the tuners reception of the lightly processed signal
from our local classical public-radio station. Both tuners produced solid bass and an
extremely sweet midrange. The only real difference was the Sangeans insignificant
extra bit of brightness at the highest registers of orchestral violins. Analog FM
performance was nearly a draw between the two -- which you preferred would depend on
whether you wanted just a touch more brilliance in your highs.
As for the differences between analog and HD reception,
this will take some explaining:
Before standard analog signals are sent to the transmitting
antenna and then to your radio, theyre subjected to processing. In the worst cases,
the entire signals dynamic range is compressed to no more than 5-6dB, and equalized
to enhance the midrange and deemphasize the bass and highs; at the same time, the output
of the studio microphones is "brightened" so that the DJs voices will cut
through background noise. And because of the phase shifts involved in such processing,
soundstages are unstable. As a result, most stations sound as if their audio has been run
through a stump grinder. Public radio stations, which have a higher regard for their
listeners intelligence and hearing, tend to process their signals far less.
So far, HD signals cant be subjected to drastic
levels of processing -- they go too easily into distortion, and a distorted digital signal
is all distortion all the time. (Its that On/Off, Ones/Zeros analogy:
a digital signal either isnt distorted and sounds good, or it is distorted and
sounds awful.) Even the analog stations that normally are the worst offenders back off on
how much they process their HD signals. Thus, when an HD radio switches from analog to HD,
the music sounds better, with a somewhat broader dynamic range (determined by the range of
the source material) and a more open sound.
The result with the Sangean HDT-1X? For the first time in
years, I could listen to several of the local commercial rock stations without grinding my
teeth. That brought pleasure.
Here was another pleasure. An HD radio or tuner has, in
effect, two receivers: the usual analog circuitry, and the far more complicated HD
circuits. When an HD radio picks up an HD signal, it must link to that digital stream,
which takes about seven seconds. During those seven seconds, the stations regular
analog signal is heard. As soon as the HDT-1Xs HD circuit took over, the highs
blossomed forth -- the upper registers opened up and became airier. Bass drums in
symphonic works were tighter, more like what I hear in concert halls. The mids remained
silky and gorgeous, but I noticed far less background hiss -- its a different sort
of sound than Im accustomed to hearing from FM. The soundstage was tighter, from
left to right and from back to front; the voices stayed put in front of me.
Theres also HD AM, but in my opinion, HD AM
doesnt offer HD FMs potential of success. For one thing, no subchannels are
available via HD AM. Second, the technology adds a lot of noise just off center channel to
what is already a noisy band. Where I live, for example, the HD AM signal of one big
station broadcasting at 700kHz AM causes interference on receivers from 660 to 730kHz.
However, the analog side of the HDT-1X is decent for an AM tuner today, with the usual
limited audio bandwidth, and decent sensitivity and selectivity -- just the thing for
listening to talk radio.
What you get in the Sangean HDT-1X for your quarter-large
($250) is an analog tuner that will satisfy most dedicated radio listeners who are
audiophiles. You also get the advantage of HD Radio, which delivers better sound than
standard FM, as well as a lot of new, interesting programming. If youre into radio
listening, you owe it to yourself to try the HDT-1X.
But remember that HD Radio, like anything digital, is a
switch -- its on or its off, with little middle ground. If the digital signal
level isnt strong enough, you dont get interference, you get a dropout. And in
areas where signals are weaker, they can drop in and out without warning. Broadcast
engineers are about to propose some changes that will allow HD Radio signals to travel
farther and stronger than they now can.
Dont try to find a Sangean HDT-1X at your local
big-box electronics store; they wont know what youre talking about. Go to www.hdradio.com or www.sangean.com to find dealers, most
of whom are on the Internet. HDRadio.com often posts notices of rebates or special offers
on HD radios, so its worth a look. But if youre into radio at all, by all
means investigate the Sangean HDT-1X.
Price of equipment reviewed