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  Sony XDR-F1HD AM/FM/HD Radio Digital Tuner

      Date posted: September 22, 2009

Sony XDR-F1HD Tuner
Sony’s Latest & Hottest Tuner - HD Radio & Super Sensitive FM

Sugg. Retail: $99.95 USD (not available in Canada)

Manufacturer: Sony.com

Who could have imagined that the best new FM tuner (and possibly the best ever designed) would be priced at under $100, and be a miniature design, but with full remote control. It makes me wonder why I embarked on the Audio Ideas FM Tuner Project, when the ultimate conclusion is so small and affordable. I guess that’s a good thing.

I already own the other two best Sony tuners, the gorgeous ST-A6B, and the incredibly sensitive and selective ST-5130, the latter used in recent years as my dedicated WNED-FM tuner from a large, highly directional Channel Master FM Stereo Probe 3025  antenna. Even with this kind of signal pulling power, I still had somewhat variable reception of WNED, ranging from like-local to very noisy, or interfered with by another signal on the same or an adjacent frequency. But that’s all history now, after I used my residual PayPal bucks to purchase this new Sony.

The XDR-F1HD  is only 7″ wide by just over 2″ high, and just over 6″ deep. Its direct controls are on the top of the black case, these duplicated on the remote control. There’s a coaxial FM input and spring-loaded AM connectors on the back panel, along with the single pair of RCA line outputs. There are 20 presets available, far more than I would ever need, these directly accessed on the remote. The LCD screen on the front panel has 3 brightness levels possible, and reads RDS data, as well as relative signal level, and whether an HD signal is being accessed or not.

HD Radio is a digital signal which can be carried on the sidebands of the stereo FM signal. According to Wikipedia, “The FM hybrid digital/analog mode offers four options which can carry approximately 100, 112, 125, or 150 kbit/s of lossy data depending upon the Station Manager’s power budget and/or desired range of signal. The HD Radio also provides several pure digital modes with up to 300 kbit/s bitrate, and enabling extra features like surround sound. Like AM, pure digital FM provides a ‘fall back’ condition where it reverts to a more-robust 25 kbit/s signal.”

“FM stations have the option to subdivide their datastream into sub-channels (FM97-HD1, -HD2, -HD3) of varying audio quality.” For example, WNED broadcasts their FM signal on the left sideband of their 94.5 FM signal, and their AM NPR news/current-affairs signal on the right side of the same frequency. Unlike my Sanyo RD-227  internet radio, the XDR-F1HD  does not display the bitrate of HD transmission, so one can only guess. HD Radio can also be transmitted by AM stations, but because of the limited bandwidth, it’s unlikely the signal would sound any better than AM, except to provide less noise in optimal reception conditions. We didn’t evaluate the AM performance of the XDR-F1HD  for these and other obvious reasons.

CBC engineer Peter Cook says on the Radio 2 web site, “HD Radio was designed to co-exist with current AM and FM technology. The new digital signal is broadcast on the same frequency using the same broadcast tower. In fact the audio itself must include the same audio programme which is being broadcast on the analogue signal. This is a requirement of the FCC (the Federal Communications Commission) in the United States.”

“I said the digital signal was broadcast at the same frequency. That’s almost true. It’s actually ‘hidden’ in unused frequencies adjacent to the primary analogue signal and is broadcast at a very low level. Otherwise the digital signal would interfere with the analogue broadcast. The principal benefit of HD Radio is that in urban environments it is much less susceptible to interference than AM or FM. Ibiquity claims that the AM version of HD Radio upgrades the service to FM quality and that the FM version of HD upgrades that service to CD quality.”

Thanks to Peter Cook for that very clear explanation. What I was interested in was whether HD radio would sound better than either satellite or internet radio, and the conclusion was immediately very clear, literally. Although there are a few caveats I’ll get to later, HD Radio sounds much better than anything I’ve heard from the internet, with the possible exception of stations who go as high or higher than 256 kbps. And satellite radio? Forget about it! Neither Sirius nor XM provide signals that I would ever find listenable, except for news or sports. It’s the old garbage in, garbage out situation.

But the Sony XDR-F1HD  is a different kettle of FM and/or HD fish. In fact it’s a lure that pulled in 64 stations in below-average condiitions last week, and today, a sunny and cool Fall Sunday, it brought in 83 stations (!), most in listenable stereo, including WXXI/91.5 from Rochester! That’s the fullest FM band I’ve ever experienced, a good 20-or-more signals than I’ve heard from the best McIntosh, Accuphase  or other supertuners. And for less than a hundred bucks! Actually, by the time the robbers at Revenue Canada got finished, there was another 24 dollars in duty, taxes, and handling charges: pure legal larceny. Even the FedEx guy apologized.

The remote control has a button for HD Scan, which I tried in both test sessions, but it yielded only 9 or 10 HD signals, two of which were for WNED-FM in Buffalo, as noted earlier. It appears that HD radio has not really caught on with broadcasters, and I’ve heard little or no buzz about it at the consumer level. But there are over 50 stations in the New York City market broadcasting HD Radio. The “HD” designation does not mean “High Definition”, by the way, but “Hybrid Digital”, according to its developer, iBiquity Corporation.

“The extra bandwidth of an HD Radio signal leaves room for completely separate channels operating on the same frequency. Here’s how it works: Suppose your favorite radio station is 102.5 FM. When you tune in, you pick up the regular broadcast — classic rock. Your HD Radio receiver indicates that the station is multicasting. You turn a dial to select the alternate channel, where they play nothing but blues. Or your favorite talk radio station might have separate, simultaneous broadcasts featuring news and weather, sports talk and political commentary.”

“Current HD technology allows the addition of one extra music channel and three extra talk channels before the sound quality begins to suffer. The extra stations are referred to as HD2 stations. If an HD Radio receiver loses the digital signal, it seamlessly fades back to analog FM until the digital signal returns.”
HD Radio Diagram
The above-quoted paragraphs come from the site, http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/hd-radio.htm. With the Sony  tuner, you tune a little to the side of the main frequency, say 94.5, and the HD signal appears, for example WNED-AM’s digital HD Radio feed. I find when the signal is strongest, the main HD version of the FM signal is heard. But the problem with continuously varying reception strength is that the FM keeps switching with the HD signal, which is not actually seamless, but causes audible little burbles in the music or speech. That is not to say, however, that it is worse than the FM signal being plagued with noise or interference.

Sometimes, I’ve discovered that the sound is better with the marginal FM signal (the HD lights flashes on the front panel of the XDR-F1HD)  than in HD operation. It’s always much quieter than my Sony ST-5130, but I feel FM sounds a little better than HD radio, which is audibly more digital in character. Unfortunately, there is no manual switching offered between HD and analog FM reception. But the stereo quieting is so good with this tuner, that I marginally prefer the analog FM signal, when I can have it.

That said, I’m eternally grateful for being able to receive a quiet, clean signal from WNED-FM, digital or analog, with this amazing tuner from Sony, who have historically made some of the best FM tuners at any price. Now that CBC Radio has been bastardized by the barbarians in management there, WNED is my only Classical music refuge beyond my own music collection or the inferior sound quality of internet radio. And while the Sony XDR-F1HD  is not the best sounding tuner in my long experience with FM (my Accuphase T-101 has that honour), it is far-and-away the most sensitive, and offers better audio quality than most FM stations bother to broadcast. My advice is, cobble together your hundred bucks and order one of these from one of the many US online suppliers right away.

Andrew Marshall

Comments

Hello Andrew,
I just want to thank you for your article on the Sony XDR-F1HD tuner.I live outside of Toronto and was having trouble bringing in FM radio stations and also I like AM 740. I have an older Sony home theatre system.
So I searched to see if I could find a solution. I came across your article..and ordered this from B&H photovideo in New York. Price was $85.00 plus $30.00 shipping..and $11.37 customs COD at the door. Delivered by UPS. I am very pleased ..I can receive 48 FM stations and about 6 of those are HD from the U.S. I hooked up a coax cable using a splitter to the antenna for my Televison. I don’t have cable TV.
I can also receive about 10 AM stations using the loop antenna.
So, again..thank you..I am grateful for your help.
Cheers, Carol Peddle

AM Replies:

Carol, you are certainly a tech-savvy lady! The only problem with this extraordinary tuner is that with the low level of signal I often get up here in King City, it starts to switch often between HD radio and FM and make a burbling sound in the process, so I’ve found a away to turn off the HD altogether by cutting a trace on the circuit board. I really don’t have any use for HD, just for the remarkable sensitivity and low noise of the FM tuner itself. For any other readers with this problem go to www.fmtunerinfo/sony.html or more directly www.ham-radio.com/k6sti/xdr-f1hd.htm.

This latter site has a very clear diagram showing the way to disable the HD, and other mods, as well as a thorough technical review of the XDR-F1HD.

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5 Responses to “Sony XDR-F1HD AM/FM/HD Radio Digital Tuner”

  1. dakmart c-unknown Says:

    By all accounts, this is a great tuner — at US$100, it’s a steal — but since Canada does not use the HD Radio standard, it is of limited usefulness for Canadians, especially those who live far away from an American city with HD Radio channels.

  2. Andrew Marshall c-unknown Says:

    Hi Dakmart,

    Actually, the opposite is the case. The FM section of the tuner is so good that the HD part of the tuner becomes an impediment when dealing with stations with HD subcarriers like WNED-FM in Buffalo, in that reception is better when the signal is too low in intensity to trigger the HD signal, since regular FM actually sounds better than the inferior low-bit digital HD signal.

    In other words, this is a better tuner when HD radio is not available than just about anything out there. You’re better off dealing with non-HD broadcasters than with them in my experience. That’s an irony (not the first time) that you sometimes deal with with in Sony products.

  3. Ben Barkow c-ca Says:

    Thank you much for discussion of this amazing tuner. And just criticism of the barbarians at the CBC (well, at least they change the managers from time to time as people like us persevere in our complaints).

    A lot of its magic lies in trickery with weak signals. I can’t understand much about how it handles noise between notes, but it is far more acceptable than the old mix-to-mono FM approach.

    Yes, big PIA when the HD signal is marginal and the Sony switches back and forth. There is a small processing timing difference between the FM-stereo sound and the HD sound. As with HD-TV sound, the station can dial-in better synchrony.

    About our dearly loved WNED, their FM antenna is in Boston, NY, which is 30 miles further south than their TV antenna. And it seems to be quite low because a nearby antenna at pop-WTSS, 102.5, with similar power delivers excellent HD to me all the time.

    Personal note: the CN Tower and Buffalo transmitters are within a few degrees on my antenna location. Hard to boost the distant signals without getting blasting from the local ones. There is no feasible tech solution to that one.

    There’s a skilled (and friendly) engineer at WNED who wants to help us. They have permission to increase their HD power and may do so in the second half of 2011, money permitting. I’ve paid my PBS dues and hope everybody will!

    The Sony has such good FM-stereo, that the few times I’ve had HD from WNED, I could hear a difference but not a dramatic one - so far. Maybe soon I’ll be able to relish the HD sound on my Dayton-Wright speakers. Sure hope so.

    Ben Barkow
    middle of Toronto

  4. Denis Matteau c-unknown Says:

    Hello! I’m from Trois-Rivières, Quebec.
    Could you let me know how can I procure the Sony XDR-F1HD tuner. I am interested in buying this item.
    Thank you very much.
    Regards
    Denis

  5. Andrew Marshall c-ca Says:

    Hi Denis,

    These have been selling on eBay at twice the original $100 retail, but now it seems to have gone from profiteering to outright extortion! Like, $700 or so?

    So, mon ami, I fear you’re merde out of luck…

    cheers, Andrew

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