The static is finally clearing from the dormant world of radio. Long relegated to secondary feature status on utilitarian alarm clocks and ever more Jetsons-like boom boxes, tuners are returning to the spotlight. Canadians, who average three hours of radio listening a day, are demanding better sound and classier looks in lieu of feature bloat. “People often complain the radios that come with stereo systems aren’t very good,” says James Marshall, manager of Bay Bloor Radio, a Toronto electronics store. In response, companies are offering tuners marketed to adults (read: boomers) looking for the simple-to-use devices of their youth. These high-design, high-tech-and high-price-clock radios boast sensitive tuners and sound you’d expect from more complex units. Recently, we took recording engineer and sound expert Tim Muirhead shopping at Bay Bloor and Great Metropolitan Sound in Toronto. We tested five of the latest models, looking for great sound, snazzy looks and ease of use.
Sleek but subtle, not overdesigned. Looks like something dad would own. Credit-card-sized remote control is perfect for losing in the couch cushions. Space-age sleek. Snazzy LCD can be set to one of eight colours. But all buttons on the remote are the same size, and there are lots of them. Also, manual EQ setting offers flexibility but you have to do the work yourself. Plastic nostalgia, available in four colours. Not exactly classy, but perfect for a theme restaurant. However, the CD player’s plastic cover looks likely to break, and setting the alarm clock requires lots of fiddling. Beautiful addition to the loft of an urbanite with a penchant for sleek design-ware. Lots of buttons, meaning lots of control over sound, but finding Snooze in the morning a bit of a challenge. Adorably retro, and the clock with actual hour and minute hands is the perfect touch. There are on/off, volume and tuner buttons, and that’s it. A large tuning control lets you find stations precisely. Available in five wood finishes.
Proprietary technology gives a large yet gentle sound, with excellent bass. The automatic ramping feature means the radio doesn’t blast straight to full volume-which you’ll appreciate in the morning. “The three speakers give depth of sound and wide coverage,” says Muirhead. Bass boost and EQ settings ensure high quality at any volume. “The volume goes way up,” says Muirhead, “but you can hear the speakers crackle with the strain. And they are so close together they barely count as stereo.” Like a $100 bottle of wine: if you can tell the difference, go for it, but most of us will be just as happy with the $20 bottle. Only one speaker, meaning the sound is in mono. “It’s a bit grating when at full volume,” adds Muirhead.
The equalizer is “continuously variable,” meaning it adjusts automatically as the volume changes. “You can also add an external antenna to the already excellent tuner,” says Muirhead. Comes with a vertical-load CD player, a remote and a mini auxiliary input for MP3 player hook-up. Includes a top-loading CD player and an earphone jack. Higher-priced version comes with a record player for the true retrophile-but without an alarm clock. Has an input for an MP3 player and an output that allows you to record from the radio to a computer or a recordable CD player without loss of sound quality. For even greater simplicity, choose the $149.95 clock-less model. Can buy extras such as a CD player and dual alarm.
TIP! You can’t get digital stations on radios like these. While digital tuners are now wildly expensive, enthusiasts may be better off going straight to those.
For past Money’s Worth test drives, go to www.macleans.ca/topstories/consumer
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