Life with the next generation of AM-FM table radios

altIn an era that seems to be hosting a parade of gadgets coming over the horizon, it always amazes me that some of the most traditional mediums of electronic communication continue to thrive.

Take the lowly AM-FM radio for example. As I near middle-age, I realize that radio, in one form or another, has been with me almost every moment of my life...
And we cannot really say that for this generation... or the last one... or the one before that.

In fact, in the last 15 years or so, we have seen the emergence and maturing of Generation X, Generation Y, Generation Z and now... the Millennial generation. And for those groups, radio has not exactly been a priority.

A colleague pointed out something very interesting to me yesterday:

Apparently it took about 25 years for 95% of the North American population to acquire telephones... a quarter of a century no less. Between 1952 and 1962 almost every home in America could claim that they had one television... That is 10 years.
When VCR's arrived, it took less than 5 years for everyone to get one. DVD players? 2 years for 90% of the population to have one. The iPod? Don't ask - it is embarrassing.

altBut what about radio? Interestingly, AM radio had some pretty impressive growth spurts between 1923 and 1933 - and although I do not have hard stats at my finger tips, it is pretty safe to say that at least 50% of the population had radio in their household - and by the advent of World War II, 95% or more of the North American population had radio.

And this illustrates some interesting things - one of them being - the rate of increase in how we produce and consume new things... gadgets, gizmos... you know, shiny things.

In the year 2008, how is the venerable medium of radio doing?
Well, as commercial radio pushes towards its 100th birthday, it is doing very well thank you very much!
Why? There are dozen of reasons why AM and FM radio continue to fill a need - and most of that discussion is beyond the scope of this article on table radios - but there is a valuable point here.

When Keith at Durham Radio offered to send me a box full of modern table radios to play with and evaluate - I was naturally excited about the prospect of seeing where the medium was headed - especially in light of the fact that the stodgy old medium of analog radio has been facing some pretty youthful competition as of late.

{mosimage}In this first of a three part series (based on what came from Durham) on some pretty neat and modern table AM-FM radios, we contrast 2 radios from Sangean (the WR1 and the WR2) up against the Classic Tivoli Model 1 (with Henry Kloss tuner). In part two we quickly review the Sangean PRD5 high-performance AM-FM portable (and to keep it interesting, put the PRD5 up against the Sony 2010 and a "better than average" Sony Ultra-light portable - The Prison Radio). In concluding this series, we will examine the Eton E100 ultra-portable all-band receiver.

Some ground rules in these reviews: I live in a 16 story concrete and steel tower that bristles with antennas on the roof. My building is about 125 feet above sea level and I am about 100 feet above ground. I have a clear view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Olympic Peninsula, Mount Baker and a series of AM transmitting antennas about 3 to 4 km away. I am looking directly at a 10kw - 4 tower AM station that has about 250kw worth of RF pointed right at me - and what more perfect test environment could one have to see just how bullet-proof their radios are!

All of the radios were tested "as-is" - no mods or hacks - and the only extra antenna that was used was a 5' passive loop (inductively coupled to the table radios).

Out of the box - The Tivoli Model 1, Sangean WR1 and Sangean WR2 table radios are quick start units. There is little more than plugging in and going. Let's look at them one at a time.

Tivoli Model 1 AM-FM Table radio: Introduced in 2001, the Tivoli Model 1 AM-FM was considered quite revolutionary for its time - in an era where the general public was rapidly moving towards the ubiquitous personal-mobile audio device at the speed of light, the table radio seemed to be the product of a bygone era - yet here was Tivoli audio sticking their neck way out in hopes of capturing some excitement, or at best, some nostalgia - and they got both.

And they did this in part by engaging the genius of design engineer Henry Kloss. Kloss had 40 years of design ideas behind him, including the likes of Advent Audio - and Kloss packed his best ideas into the Tivoli Model 1.

From the long throw single speaker to elements in the circuit design, the late Henry Kloss left the World a very different radio - that left radio itself with one great breath of longevity - good thing!

Tivoli Model-1 Performance - The Tivoli Model 1 AM-FM impressed me immediately with its warm audio - solid bass and vocal ranges without too much sibilance - definitely designed for fatigue free listening hour after hour. As a DX receiver, it seems to hold its own quite well - the Tivoli Model-1 displayed more than adequate resistance to overload (considering my location), enough selectivity to pull out weak stations 10khz away from more powerful ones - although not sharp enough to crack Trans-Atlantic or Trans-Pacific splits under challenging conditions... and this should come as no surprise - because to do this, the unit would have to give up its fabulous audio. The Tivoli Model-1 AM-FM tabletop responded well to an inductively coupled passive loop - giving it a nice, distortion free boost without delivering any undesired byproducts. The AGC response on the Tivoli Model-1 is well suited to fringe-area reception yet it did not collapse under the crushing force of 2 seriously overpowering local AM transmitters - top marks! On FM, the Tivoli Model-1 performed very well, with no surprise images popping up anywhere. I live in a high signal area and many sensitive FM radios front-end crumble under the pressure. The Tivoli took it all in its stride - and again, the audio was warm and engaging.

Sangean WR1 Analog AM-FM - The Sangean WR-1 table radio surprised me immediately with, get this, better sound than the Tivoli. Which makes an interesting point: The engineers and listeners are paying attention. On FM (and to a point on AM), the WR-1 had a natural and full sound that was several clicks ahead of the Tivoli - and short of taking the unit apart, I am not entirely sure how or why. Downside - the Sangean WR-1 appears to be entirely vulnerable to common sources of homegrown electrical interference on weaker signals and seems to generate its own internal noise as well - coupling an inductive loop to the WR-1 did not appear to help. The WR-1 Sangean comes with a variety of back-panel hook-ups for your iPod as well as headphone out and antennas in. A Sony 2010 and Sony Ultra-light SRF-59 comparison revealed that there was noise on those 2 radios - perhaps running the WR-1 on a separate 12V supply or battery would eliminate the static - I will check. Overall, the WR-1 is a handsome radio that is very easy to use. The Tivoli has one up on it for DXing however.

Sangean WR-2 Digital AM-FM - The WR-2 is everything that the WR-1 is less the AM noise with a bunch of other features. The sound is every bit as good as the WR-1 (and better overall than the Tivoli Model-1) with the addition of digital tone control (at a push of the volume control), memory presets and RDS that actually works really well on FM. RDS, a subcarrier system that transmits station ID, format and song name could very well come in handy on DX sessions where long winded or AOR stations forget to give the station ID - because it is always on.
The Sangean WR-2 tunes in 10khz (or 9khz) steps - which precludes a lot of TA and TP split frequency hunting without setting to one format or the other - then again, this is a Hi-Fi table radio, not a DX receiver.
The AM sensitivity on the WR-2 is more than adequate and it responded well to the passive loop without any signs of overload or spurious responses.
FM on the WR-2 is absolutely delightful with all the extras and bonus points of RDS - the tone of the WR-2 with music or voice is startling.
Beefs would include a fairly shallow tuning knob that does not grip well and a continuous volume control that takes lots of turns to squeeze out the volume. The Sangean WR-2 is 179$ from Durham Radio in Ontario.

Summary and conclusion: For the DX enthusiast, the Tivoli Model-1 may well represent the best value of these three units. For pure sound and some extra features that enhance DX listening on FM and AM, the Sangean WR-2 is the clear winner. The Sangean WR-1 loses a few points on noise vulnerabilities but shines in the audio department on FM.

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