I must say that I’ve put aside the concluding chapter of this project for many months, though I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was the inertia caused by this last horrible Winter, or maybe I just got sick of all these tuners once I’d found the two that did what I needed an FM reception device to do. I’ll say more about these two below, but I don’t mean to tease: there are a bunch of really excellent tuners that stood out from the rest of the 50 or so that I bought and evaluated, some of which have not been formally reviewed, so they’ll get a once-over here.
The Honourable Mentions
Kenwood KT-815 - In our reception tests, this KT-815 pulled in 54 stations on our high-tower yagi, and 55 on our lower Lindsay double-dipole (bowtie) omni antenna. It proved highly selective, as well as sensitive, with very clean sound and little multipath distortion. I liked its uncoloured and un-enriched sound compared to other tuners, such as many McIntosh models, especially such tuner/preamp models as the MX-113 we tested and sold in the Spring (which, of course, has its own felicities, and is now happily operating in France), and some other highly touted models from other makers. Neutrality is a good start in a tuner you want to listen to seriously and perhaps record from, as I do.
Luxman T-110u - On our high 75-ohm yagi antenna 53 stations were received in less-than-average conditions in mid-September, while the omni double dipole lower on the tower brought in 54 signals. The latter antenna also brought in more clean stereo signals, indicating a pretty good capture ratio and ability to reject multipath. Dial calibration was very accurate, and tuning smooth and silky. Sonically, the T-110U stands out from the crowd, with solid bass and a very sweet treble, making it a perfect match for the best Luxman solid state amplifiers of the period, which were way ahead of their time. It compared well with our much more expensive reference, just lacking that in-studio quality, but better and warmer sounding than most analog tuners, and much better than any digital tuner I’ve ever heard [though a couple of later-reviewed models did surpass], except, of course, the Luxman T-02 in our next review.
Luxman T-02 - Our tests more than confirmed the findings of users here or abroad in quite good reception conditions. The T-02 brought in 59 signals on our high 75-Ohm yagi antenna, and 60 with our Lindsay double dipole omni antenna, also on the tower, but lower. These were characterized by excellent sound quality, good stereo on most, and the tuner’s capture ratio clearly delineated stations, this best heard on the latter aerial. Using the IF button with the CAT one, weaker signals could be significantly improved, a great feature for DXers. To make the best of its reception possibilities, I’d recommend a good, high omni antenna, or a directional one with rotor. Myself, I hate fussing with rotors for FM. Sonically, it came quite close to our reference, though not quite as close as the T-110U did. But the sound is very neutral and clean, with very low distortion, and few reception artifacts once the CAT has been put in the cradle, so to speak.
Mcintosh MX-113 Tuner/Preamp - I did like the tuner, basically an MR-74 front end, a lot for its sensitivity and selectivity (Narrow IF selectable), helped by a fairly high stereo threshold and variable separation to maintain good, quiet reception and sound in a continuum from mono to stereo, so that almost no stations sounded really bad. In this light, I can note that it received 42 stations on our 75 Ohm yagi antenna, but a more generous 53 on the Lindsay 300 ohm double dipole, which it obviously preferred, with virtually no multipath distortion, and the ability to lock stations in for extended listening. This Mac was characterized by consistently excellent sound quality, with particularly solid and extended bass and a very sweet, if a little rolled off, treble. Compared to an Accuphase, I’d call it less revealing, perhaps, but definitely more pleasant and forgiving on some signals.
Onkyo T-9 and T-4 - If my memory serves me correctly, the T-4 was the first tuner I acquired for this project. I liked its styling, particularly the big, bold and clean brushed aluminum look, and the long dial with its flywheel tuning. For reasons I can’t recall, I never formally reviewed either the T-4 or T-9, though I lived with the latter for many months. Looking inside each, one could see a lot more circuitry in the T-9, which belied performance that was quite similar, though the T-9 was a little more selective and quieter on most stations than the T-4. It was an affordable near-classic in its day, with a bright, open sound on the best signals.
Pioneer TX-9500 - This Pioneer pioneer (it spawned a series, after all) is in very good alignment, as our tests show: On both the high yagi and lower (on our tower) double dipole omni, the 9500 brought in 56 stations, but more were listenable in better stereo on the Lindsay omni, indicating excellent selectivity and capture ratio. In these better-than-average conditions, WNED, 94.5 from Buffalo, 85 miles away, came in with only slightly noisy stereo. The servo lock works well, but avoids that AFC-style strong-arming found on many other tuners. WNED is near the very strong CBC Radio 2 at 94.1, and a slightly less powerful (but overmodulated) “Smooth Jazz” (clearly an oxymoron) station closer at 94.7. With the TX-9500 this feature works just right, in my opinion, any stations pulled away from to a stronger probably simply not listenable, anyway. It’s a very fine and attractive tuner that deserved and found a good home at a price somewhat lower than did the others in the series, and should be viewed as a potential high performance bargain by those seeking an analog FM tuner.
Pioneer TX-9800 - Operationally, the 9800 is very smooth, with excellent flywheel tuning action, typical of this series of Pioneer tuners, but reflecting best of breed. In our reception tests, it received 54 stations on our tower yagi directional antenna in relatively poor reception conditions in early october. The Lindsay double dipole antenna received 57 signals, with better selectivity and capture ratio, and more listenable stereo signals. It’s a very fine sounding tuner, with a slightly drier and brighter quality than our reference (the Accuphase T-101), and obviously a good unit for distance reception. It’s sensitive, selective, and one of the more collectible and enjoyable analog tuners within the range of affordability that most of us live with.
Sansui TU-999 - On both 75 and 300 ohm antennas, the TU-999 received 46 and 48 stations, respectively, and will probably favour a 300-ohm antenna, but is comfortable with either. Conditions were a little poorer than average in early Winter. One oddity I should note is that the Stereo light stays on when the Selector is set to FM, even though the sound is mono; I guess this allows one to check which stations are stereo when in this mode. Mono stations are muted in FM Stereo mode. The TU-999 is quite selective, but its stereo quieting is not up there with the best models on weak signals. Sound quality is typical of the better Sansui models of its era, with very solid, defined bass, a sweet, open midrange, and wide separation. I liked and enjoyed this tuner a lot, and the TU-999 is an early classic predecessor to the legendary TU-9900, and a very fine performer in its own right. Both exhibit the solid and enduring quality of the marque at its height.
Yamaha CT-1010 and CT-800 - These two tuners were very popular models in their years, with very similar performance. Like the Kenwood KT-7500 and 7300, they were very successful middle-of-the-range models in their time. I didn’t formally review these, but lived happily with a CT-1010 for several months. It was an excellent tuner, sensitive and moderately selective, with an open sound like the aforementioned Onkyo models.
Some tuners we did not purchase because of our $500 limit, but would have liked to audition, included the Denon TU-850, Kenwood L-07T and 917, Marantz 2130, McIntosh MR-78, ReVox B-760, Sansui TU-9900, TU-919, and TU-X1. Some of these are also quite rare and hard to come by on eBay at any price.
Our Top 10 Tuners
10) Sony ST-5000FW - In our tests, both realigned ST-5000 samples showed similar sensitivity and selectivity, with my friend’s (contributing editor Hy Sarick) bringing in 47 stations in generally good stereo on our tower 75-ohm yagi, and 51 on the double-dipole bowtie 300-ohm omni antenna. The one I bought was a little better on the same winter afternoon, with 49 on the yagi, and 52 on the omni. Both preferred the 300-ohm antenna, and multipath was lower and separation greater, the resulting sound cleaner in most cases. This tuner is also a classic in build quality, with thorough shielding of IF and other electronics inside.
Sonically, this tuner is superb, even as it passes 40 (debuted in 1968), but the build quality is such that, just looking at it, one sort of expects this. Like a Rolls, its durability is legendary, and its performance is, as Rolls-Royce power was described by its dealers, “adequate”. A finicky collector might want to disassemble it like a classic car to polish every part, but in listening I found it rather more than adequate. The bass is rock solid, the midrange lucid and arresting, and the top end sweet and musical.
9) Kenwood KT-8300/9900 - It has that extra Deviation/Multipath meter, which in the former setting is like a VU meter, but calibrated to show over-modulation of a station, and in the latter mode it can help you aim or orient your antenna for cleanest stereo and lowest overall distortion. It’s also a beautiful beast, with that silky sweet tuning action, and with the rack handles, just about the sexiest look of any tuner ever made! I was almost hoping no one would bid, so I could keep this beast, but I’ve already got the great DX sleeper Sony ST-5130, and the awesome-sounding Accuphase T-101, so what can I do? And, there, I’ve let the cat out of the bag, since this is a very strong supporting player in The FM Tuner Project. And my wife says, “Sell them ALL! NOW!”
This is a classic tuner that outperforms just about anything made since 1980, and sounds better than most of them. In our station-pulling tests it brought in 56 stations on our outdoor tower yagi, and the same number with lower multipath and better stereo with our double dipole omni, on 2 different occasions, indicating not only superior sensitivity and selectivity, but a better capture ratio when they’re coming at you from all directions. That’s just about the toughest test of a tuner’s station-receiving ability. The European model KT-9900 is identical except for its darker, more copper-like finish, and our sample was also identical in performance.
8) Pioneer F-90 -This was one of my favourite digitals, with excellent sound and quite good DX reception in narrow mode. It employed, according to a Pioneer ad from 1983, “an unconventional circuit that uses a 1.26MHz pulse train and a pure 38 KHz sine wave, thereby eliminating the need for a conventional noise filter (which creates distortion, harmonics, and limits frequerncy response).” Not quite as hot as the Yamaha T-85, the F-90 was an impressive performer, and very quiet on most FM signals. And you do get to love presets.
7) Accuphase T-100 - In our standard Audio Ideas tests in good reception conditions, it pulled in 56 stations on our Lindsay double dipole omni 300-ohm antenna, which is lower on our tower than the 75-ohm-connected yagi that brought in 48 signals. The better omni/300-ohm performance was accompanied by more good stereo signals, generally lower noise, and much less observable multipath. It appears that the Lindsay aerial allows the native selectivity of the T-100 to shine, but I’m sure a rotor based super antenna would provide spectacular DX results that were even better (our big tower-top rotor yagi is devoted these days to getting HDTV from up to 80 miles away). The sound quality of this tuner is really what puts this Accuphase into the top echelons. As a broadcaster for much of my life, I know what “in-the-studio” sound is all about, and the T-100 definitely has it!
6) Yamaha T-85 - In our reception tests, the T-85 was very hot, receiving 60 stations on our 75-ohm yagi antenna, the only one we tested it on because of its single input and unusual fitting. All our other antennae are 300-ohm types. Its high selectivity was enhanced by the Super Narrow setting, and stereo separation could be reduced to minimize background noise, which made this Yamaha able to make more stations listenable than any other tuner in our experience. However, it was not quite as capable as the Sony ST-5130 when dealing with WNED at 94.5, sandwiched as it is between other stronger signals at 94.1 and 94.7. The Yamaha T-85 was, however, one of the best sounding digital tuners in the Project, up there with the Luxman T-02 and Pioneer F-90, if not quite in the Accuphase class.
5) Sony ST-5950SD - Though it has only one IF path, like the remarkable 5130, it also has auto variable IF, so can actually be more selective than many tuners with dual path switches. And there’s no AFC or Quartz Lock to pull it away from weaker signals to adjacent strong ones, so it’s an excellent DXer, holding distant signals well. Though the Hi-Blend is not up to that of the ST-5130 in reducing noise, the Dolby feature can be used for this in extreme situations while maintaining stereo reception. In our reception tests on a quite average late March day’s reception, it received 53 stations on both 75-ohm yagi and 300-ohm omni antennas, but the latter showed less multipath and better stereo with lower noise. With respect to multipath, the ST-5950SD has a momentary pushbutton, which when pressed shows multipath intensity on the signal strength meter. Speaking of which, this is one SS meter that doesn’t pin right all the time, and gives useful information about relative signal power, as well as quality in the multipath setting.
The sound quality of this tuner is excellent, with good deep bass, lucid midrange, and good top end extension. It’s not quite in the league of the Accuphase tuners, but very much in the running with such models as the Kenwood KT-8300 and similarly priced Sansui models. In sum, it’s very much in the great Sony ES tradition, and a fine tuner in all respects.
4) Sony ST-A6B - Called a “sleeper” by some reviewers, this quite beautiful piece of industrial design is close to my favourite among these tuners. A 7-gang design, it combines high sensitivity with selectable Narrow IF, unusual in Sony designs of the late 70s, and it brought in 55 stations on our Lindsay omni and 56 on our directional yagi antennae. Sound quality was described as “phenomenal” by one contributor to fmtunerinfo.com, and I concur, though it does not have quite the listen-through quality of the Accuphase, probably a function of parts quality available to Sony at their set price point, about $300 at introduction. The metering is exceptional, with accurate estimates of signal level, but stereo quieting does not quite match that of its predecessor, the ST-5130. But it sure is pretty! I still haven’t let this one go, but probably will this fall.
3) Sony ST-5130 - I once again compared this tuner with the ST-A6B, and the auto-IF-narrow stereo quieting of the ST-5130 was superior on our favourite classical station, WNED-FM in Buffalo. Receiving 54 stations on the omni antenna, and 53 on the yagi, this tuner yielded more listenable stereo siignals than any other tuner except the T-101. Its auto IF control works to make weak signals listenable without sacrificing much stereo separation except at the highest frequencies, but reducing noise significantly with the High Filter on. The provided AFC is unnecessary, and can pull to stronger stations from a weak one. Sound quality is very high, if admittedly a little warmer and mellower than the Kenwood and Pioneer tuners of the same era. I liked it so much I bought 4 samples of this tuner, and kept the best one for WNED reception. Our keeper among these was fitted with a pair of rack handles that I bought from someone who claimed they fitted some Kenwood models, which they did not. However, I like the look they give to the 5130, and are handy when moving it around.
1) Accuphase T-101- Our other keeper, the T-101 simply sounds better than anything else I’ve heard. It also brought in 60 stations on the yagi, and 58 on the omni double dipole, but more were listenable in stereo with the omni antenna. It did not, however, receive WNED-FM as quietly as did the Sony ST-5130. But with a good live stereo broadcast like those on Sunday afternoons on CBC Radio 2, the sound is simply awesome. When I give my friends CDs of some of these broadcasts, they find it hard to believe that the source was an FM tuner. Of course, no FM tuner can undo the effects of the heavy limiting employed by all FM stations, So these days, I’m more inclined to record Jazz than Classical music, since it doesn’t suffer the effects of compression to the same extent.
That said, the T-101’s midrange is lucid and liquid, the bass bottomless, with a silky, sparkling top end, and that sense of liveness from a good Radio 2 concert, or a Cleveland or Chicago orchestral broadcast, is palpable with good antenna and reception. As a veteran broadcaster, I can almost identify the voice microphones used in many cases. But it’s the music that matters, and that’s what Accuphase tuners are all about.
My only regret about this whole exercise is that CBC Radio 2’s Classical programming has gone to hell in a handbasket over the last year or so, except for their Sunday afternoon ghetto, and weekdays’ Tempo, with droolie Julie and her potboilers for desperate housewives. And as far as Jazz is concerned, while Katie Malloch is a knowledgeable and charming, as well as very competent and professional host, she now plays a lot of soul and schlock that doesn’t deserve to be called Jazz, so I tend to record parts of her programs on my Stellavox SP 8 (which allows quick on-the-fly editing), usually the artist or band concert profile just after 7 PM. I call these tapes “Tonic Detoxed”.
So it’s a little less often that I hear anything else that excites or intrigues me on CBC, and I listen to WNED-FM most of the time. I did buy the Sanyo R-227 internet radio I reviewed, and use it to tune in WFMT in Chicago online. But internet radio has a somewhat vacuous sound; there’s less there there, though full frequency response and no noise, and it just doesn’t grab your ears and interest like a good FM signal.
Now that VHF TV is off the air in the US, I’m starting to worry that new uses of that frequency band may have deleterious effects on FM reception. After all, the FM band is wedged between what were channels 6 and 7. But Canada will not make this transition for another year or so, and then we may see other services using this VHF band space. If that makes you wonder why I ventured upon this FM Tuner Project, all I can say is, stay tuned.
Table of contents for The AIG FM Tuner Project
Related Reviews:The AIG FM Tuner Project: Hitachi FT-4000
The AIG FM Tuner Project: Budget Sony 5000 Series
The AIG FM Tuner Project: Kenwood KT-900 - A New Style for the 80s
The AIG FM Tuner Project: Marantz ST-400 AM/FM Tuner
The AIG FM Tuner Project: Kenwood KT-8300/KT-9900: 70s Statements!
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