The AIG FM Tuner Project: Introduction

      Date posted: September 17, 2007

Reasons & Beginnings…
AIG FM Tuner Project
I’ve been an FM radio listener almost all my life, and worked in it as a programmer and personality for close to half of my 60 years or so. In my teens I had a Blonder-Tongue tuner with a cranky dial cord that would receive the few Toronto stations up and running in the late 50s. These included CFRB-FM (later to become CKFM, which became the City’s highest rated FM voice in the 70s and early 80s, and where Audio Ideas, my radio show, began in November of 1973 and ran until 1986), or CBC-FM, or the real Canadian FM pioneer, CHFI, which sold its own table-top FM radios to help get the format going. In the late 60s and early 70s I managed a pair of university stations, and in the wake of CRTC mandates to end AM/FM simulcasting, began separate programming on CFRC and CFRC-FM at Queen’s University. So FM has been a big part of my life for a long time as profession and pleasure, quite literally, at both ends of the broadcast chain.

After moving up to King City almost a dozen years ago, I became a little frustrated with my FM reception, especially from sources other than Toronto. Both in the Niagara region and in the GTA, I had always listened to Buffalo stations, and as FM grew so did the clutter on the dial. As a classical music buff, I found the close proximity of CBC-FM (94.1, now Radio 2) and WNED-FM (Buffalo’s NPR classical station at 94.5) a frequent frustration in Toronto because of the extreme differences in radiated power and the fact that they were pretty much in the same geographical direction from anywhere north of the CN Tower, especially south of the 401 in the Yonge Street corridor where I lived for 22 years. But a few selective and sensitive tuners like the Technics ST-G7 and the Fanfare FT-1 kept the two stations separated, even if WNED was not always perfectly received. And there were those I reviewed that I couldn’t then afford, such as the mighty McIntosh MR-80 which showed their mettle in these conditions.

Up here in King, about 40 miles north of downtown TO, and roughly 85 air miles from Buffalo, the problems are a little different, but still, sensitivity and selectivity are, I found, even more important. One reason is because I still look directly through the CN Tower at Buffalo’s transmitters, though WNED’s is off a few degrees on Grand Island just above Niagara Falls. But, again, the closeness of frequency and the geographical directional proximity come into play in a large way. And the WNED signal has become pretty much deep fringe at that distance. Luckily a good tower came with the house, with a big multi-element yagi directional TV antenna at the top, and a smaller one with fewer elements just below. The top antenna was amplified with a very good wide-bandwidth booster, which also contained an FM trap (the FM band is between channels 6 and 7 and strong signals can cause TV picture problems; you can usually hear the sound of channel 6 at the bottom of the band on any analog FM tuner). The lower antenna didn’t have amp or trap, and I used it for quite a few years. But with a few reflectors missing, quite a lot of rust, and God knows what other faults of age, it was not the best pure FM aerial.

The next refinement was a Canadian-made Lindsay (made in that Ontario town) double dipole, which crossed them in a bowtie shape for omni reception. Made of coated aluminum and now weather proven, it has turned out to be a great test for the selectivity and sensitivity of tuners, as well as their capture ratio (the ability to select rather than merge or confuse signals on close together or identical frequencies with as low as 1 dB in signal strength difference between them). With the Lindsay the best tuners will also show the least multipath interference (here we’re looking at rejection of reflections on the same frequency, essentially the same problem that a lower capture ratio deals with). It had the ability to bring in more stations in clean stereo from more directions. This antenna remains a very important part of our tuner testing apparatus.

Frustrated by my inability to get WNED with Radio 2 in the way, so to speak, I also added a highly directional antenna, a Channel Master 3025 FM Stereo Probe, a 10-foot 9-element highly directional FM-only antenna, and trying to avoid balun losses (however slight they might be), I connected it with low-loss foam-shielded 300-ohm cable slightly spiraled (twisted as recommended) all the way down to the tuner, about a 50-foot run. With a lot of highly physical experimentation (climbing up, turning it, and listening), I got it aimed as closely as possible at WNED. This turned out to be something around 10 degrees away east from the CN Tower and Radio 2, a surprise until I started drawing lines with a ruler on a map.

So now I had 3 antennas (or antennae, if you speak Latin, or are a doctor or biologist) up there at varying heights, all with different reception characteristics. The highest one was old, rusty and missing some of its marbles, so to speak, a condition I hope to not see soon personally (I guess a few missing reflectors could represent one’s short-term memory, but let’s not dwell on that! What was I saying?). It also has a 300-to-75-ohm balun way up there where I dare not climb, so works on coax with inputs of that latter lower impedance, which some tuners prefer, I’ve discovered.

The next down on the mast is the Lindsay, its contacts treated with Stabilant 22 periodically, and is about halfway between the top one and the Channel Master, and it also has twisted low-loss 300-ohm cabling. Simply because of size, weight (and fear), the Probe 3025 (which I bought from Fanfare FM founder and friend, Marv Southcott) had to be lower on the tower just above an unused Star Choice satellite dish. Just getting the damn thing, over 10 feet long, around the Lindsay and secured above it would have been too much for me, and I figured that 6 feet of height at 85 miles away from the target signal (and way up here on the elevation of the Oak Ridges Moraine) was pretty insignificant in the larger picture (or sound), especially considering that the old top antenna didn’t do too well with WNED, being aimed in the same general direction. And I could lose a lot of marbles (or reflectors) falling off an antenna tower at my age. In other words, vertical valour is for fools, and discretion is for older, wiser fools. Like me. Almost…

Through this process of reception augmentation emerged The Tuner Project. As with my foray into portable professional analog recorders chronicled elsewhere here, it started with buying a tuner on eBay, an Onkyo T-4, which looked quite lovely, with its wide, silver front panel, and long horizontal dial. And thereby hangs a tale, as well as these antennae, and about 40 FM tuners. Did I use the word “fool”? Stay tuned, if the reception’s good enough. You say you’ve lost a few reflectors? Oh well, forget about it, it’s just FM…

Looking For The Great FM Fix

The first few months of evaluating tuners involved buying them and comparing them to my Fanfare FT-1, both in terms of reception and sonics. I eventually developed the methodology and tools noted above, checking reception on the antennas with each, though, by the time I started writing about it (or even making serious notes) I concluded that the high 75-ohm directional yagi and lower Lindsay omnidirectional 300-ohm double dipole were the best for quantifying a tuner’s sensitivity, selectivity, and ability to reject spurious signals on the same or nearby frequencies. More serious contenders also got evaluated on the Channel Master for quiet WNED stereo performance.

I won’t go through the 40 or so I acquired chronologically, nor bore you with the emerging logic of their acquisition (some of my friends still think I’m crazy). I think I’ll just run through their selling via the reviews written for each sale. I should note that some early reviews written and posted in June had to be reconstructed from my notes because eBay erased them after 60 days, which occurred when I was on vacation up north through July.

But before I start that string of reviews I should clarify exactly what I was looking for, my personal criteria, so you can understand my overall context. I decided I wanted two tuners: the first would be the best sounding, the hottest I could find and/or afford, with the selectivity to bring in stations in all directions, and the greatest ability to reject the spurious and phantom signals I’ve described earlier. It would be an all around killer station puller and high fidelity and stereo reproducer.

The second had a more specialized function: to bring in WNED at 94.5 as cleanly and quietly as possible on its dedicated Channel Master 3025 aimed right at the transmitter. You may ask here, why didn’t I want just one tuner with that big directional antenna on a rotor? Well, the rotor position at tower top was already occupied by the antenna bringing in HDTV from Buffalo, and frankly, I didn’t want to be fated to endlessly fiddle for reception (sing for my songs, beg for my music, etc.), but have instead a dedicated, fixed system where the only variable would be the weather and the atmospheric skip conditions. Turn on, tune in, and drop…sorry, that was another decade…how about just tune and swoon?

But before I do so, let’s offer the first review that sold the first tuner, followed by the buyer’s response:

Hitachi FT-4000 AM/FM Tuner: A Sleeper DX For Sure!

Andrew Marshall

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4 Responses to “The AIG FM Tuner Project: Introduction”

  1. Bruce Braun c-us Says:

    Is there any reasonably priced modern FM tuner with digital output other than Sageon (coaxial RCA)? I am aware of the pricier units, like MR-88.

  2. Andrew Marshall c-unknown Says:

    Hi Bruce,

    I couldn’t find any, and the only one we’ve reviewed with digital out as additional option is the very expensive Accuphase. It seems like a no-brainer and easy to implement in a digital tuner, but it’s not happening. The next best option might be to tune internet radio and get a digital signal through a USB box, but this will be much lower digital resolution and audio quality than you’d hear from a decent FM signal.

  3. Bruce Braun c-us Says:

    It appears that Best Buys sells their own Insignia branded version of the
    Sangean HD FM tuner with both coaxial and optical digital outputs for $99.

  4. studeer c-unknown Says:

    Hi there. 1st of all — congrats for the great job and this nice article.
    How does this Lindsay Double Dipole look like?
    (appears that Lindsay is currently out of business and I can’t find too many references nor pics of their antenna design.)
    Thanks in advance.

    Best regards.

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