Technology

Sangean HDR-1's Vintage Look—and Sound


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Editor's Rating: star rating

The old-school design offers a fresh take on an HD Radio receiver. Too bad the sound and controls are outdated as well

Any company trying to make a name for itself in HD Radio equipment faces something of a marketing hurdle—the preconception that radio is a form of entertainment belonging to the past. I don't know about you, but I hear the word and picture a family huddled around a big box tuned in to Duke Ellington.

The folks at radio licensor iBiquity are trying to shake up this perception and have come up with the highfalutin notion of HD (or hybrid-digital) Radio. Meantime, radio manufacturers are cranking out sleek, almost futuristic-looking receivers such as RadioShack's (RSH) Accurian (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/9/07, "RadioShack's Inadequate Accurian") and Boston Acoustics' Receptor Radio HD (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/13/07, "The Big Noise in Digital Radio").

Partnering with the Past

Yet Taiwan-based Sangean Electronics, in contrast, is embracing radio's past with its HDR-1 tabletop radio. The $249 unit, which began shipping last December, has a decidedly vintage look. Its wood-grained veneer and silver grated face hearken nostalgically to those old Truetone receivers of a bygone era. Each side of the 4.5 in. high, 11.5 in. wide, and 7.5 in. deep radio is flat and rectangle, and at 6 lbs., 9 oz. it's surprisingly hefty.

Design-wise, it's a standout. "Whoa, that one's really cool," a co-worker said to me after I took the Sangean out of its box and placed it on my desk next to two other more high-tech and expensive HD Radio receivers.

Sangean also took a page from the past in addressing problems of HD Radio reception. In their efforts to deliver the blend of analog and digital signals called for by the HD platform, some radiomakers advise customers to string a T-wire FM antenna up on the wall near a window. But the HDR-1 has a built-in telescoping FM antenna, which you can extend and fiddle with until you get rid of the static. It won't necessarily get you more stations or better reception than a wire antenna, but it's easier to adjust and much more pleasing to the eye.

Vintage Limitations

But there are limits to the outmoded design. There's only one—count it, one—control knob, used to turn the radio on and off, to adjust volume, and to change stations. For every other function—and there are many—you'll need the credit card-sized remote control that comes with the HDR-1. All 28 buttons are the same size, so don't even think about using the remote in the dark. The presets and the "last recall" button are handy, but I wish they had been integrated into the unit itself.

The tune up/down and volume up/down are intuitive enough, but there's an additional set of navigators labeled "HD seek." A great idea in theory, this function is useless because it scans faster than the time it takes to pick up most HD signals. Ultimately, the button only directed me to the four strongest stations, even though there are about 23 available in Manhattan. Still, Sangean is on to something: HD Radio stations should be easier, not harder, to navigate than regular radio. And when radio manufacturers figure this out, satellite providers will need to watch out.

I've given up anticipating the "near-CD" sound quality that iBiquity says HD Radio delivers. But at this point, I'll take any step up from traditional radio, however incremental. Still, the sound coming from the HDR-1 disappoints me. It has spots of fuzz and hissing while playing most HD stations, and when it's struggling for reception, one of the speakers actually goes silent.

Mismatched Genres

There's a sound-equalizer function on the remote that lets you optimize the radio for rock, jazz, pop, classical, and something called "my bass" and "my treble," but these preset levels strangely aren't suited to their intended genres. When I listened to Creedence Clearwater Revival's Lookin' Out My Back Door on "rock," the bass was too murky and drowned out John Fogerty's voice. When I listened to Charles Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady on "jazz," there was no bottom at all—distressing during a bass solo! Finally, I got a good thing going when I listened to the jazz station on the "pop" setting.

The Sangean HDR-1, like all HD receivers, is priced with an early-adopter premium. It's among the cheapest in its category at $249, but it will be tough for this radio to compete with the knockout Boston Acoustics Receptor Radio HD, which costs about $50 more. However, if you like a taste of nostalgia with your radio, and you listen to mostly talk and jazz, the HDR-1 is for you.

MacMillan is a reporter at BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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