The best FM radio

Somebody in Quora asked “Which is the best FM radio?”

So far, mine is the only answers. It’s tops with a whopping 3 upvotes, out of 139 views. Not a lot of box office there. So I’ve decided to duplicate the answer here,, for whatever additional good it might do. I also added a bit, because I can’t stop doing that. So read on…

becker-europa

Here’s your rule of thumb: The best FM radios today are in cars. And, since most car radios use identical or similar chipsets, many of them are tied for the distinction. (Though there are a few dogs. I once met a Toyota RAV-4 with a truly sucky radio. Other Toyota radios have been fine.)

The best of the best are in slightly older cars that have a vertical outside whip antenna. FM waves resonate best with antennas about 30 inches long, give or take, which ideally will be removed as far as possible from metal that might obstruct received signals. For practical and fashion reasons, most radios in new cars are compromised by the lack of an outside whip antenna, instead using short stubby rubberized ones on the outside, or thin horizontal ones embedded in rear windows and disguised to look like part of the defrosting systems there. Engineers have found ways to make these perform almost as well as outside whip antennas, but they’re still not the real thing.

The best radio I have ever known was the one in my wife’s 1992 Infiniti Q45a, which featured a “diversity” antenna system: a very innovative approach that chooses or combines signals from more than one antenna. The radio in the Q45a used both a motorized retracting whip outside antenna and a horizontal one embedded in the rear window, and chose the best reception coming from either or both. AM reception was also outstanding on that radio, featuring C-QUAM, the then-current AM stereo technology. Even when stations stopped broadcasting with that method, the sound quality was outstanding for AM, because activating AM stereo listening also widened the bandwidth, which maximized sound quality for mono stations as well. (When that car died, my wife replaced it with a very similar one three years newer. Alas, that was after Nissan, Infiniti’s parent company, had “de-contented” out some features the company thought the owner wouldn’t notice. One was the AM stereo feature, and along with it the wider bandwidth. So that radio still pulls in signals (and retains the diversity antenna), but sounds like shit on AM. An automotive engineer at the time told me this move saved Nissan 5¢ on cars that cost upwards of $50k new. Little did Nissan know or care that one reason we chose that first car was the quality of the AM radio. The one we replaced it with was only $5k, so it was a helluva deal at the time.)

The best AM radio I ever heard was the Becker in the 1966 Volvo 122s that my parents brought in Belgium on their only trip to Europe. (It looked a lot like the one above.) The FM dial only went up to 104 in Europe back then, while the U.S. band went to 108, so the radio cutting out stations at the top end of the dial. The radio was also mono, with just one speaker that faced forward from the deck below the rear window. But reception was about as good as it gets on FM and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before or since on AM. In the daytime, when AM signals travel only along the ground, I could get WNBC/660 (now WFAN) and WABC/770 all the way past Richmond, Virginia, when I drove from New York to North Carolina. Even in Greensboro, I could still hear the faint signals of both stations. (Here’s a coverage map for WFAN. No radio today is getting much of a signal outside the farthest line there, at least in the daytime.) And at night I could get listenable signals, bouncing in off the sky, from KFI/640 from Los Angeles, KNBR/680 from San Francisco and KSL/1160 from Salt Lake City. A close second to that was the after-market Motorola AM radio my parents bought in 1965 for their 1963 Chevy Bel-Air. Motorola in those days was perhaps the world’s most advanced provider of radio gear for many mobile purposes, and it showed in their radios.

There are two reasons car radios tend to be better than ones you carry or leave plugged in at home. One is their wide range of required operating conditions: from streets in city canyons among signal-reflecting skyscrapers (some topped with FM transmitters that can overwhelm circuitry of nearby radios) to far rural hills, mountains, plains and valleys. The other is that most radio listening these days is in cars.

A problem for both stations and listeners today is that interest in radio has faded in recent years, as more and more listening has moved to computers and mobile devices, and from stations to streams and podcasts. Modern car radios are therefore now entertainment systems that subordinate radio with each new generation of electronics. AM radio is completely gone from some cars, including Teslas. To put it simply, over-the-air radio is slowly fading, if not dying outright.

Still, there are good radios that will help you enjoy what old-fashioned broadcasting still has to offer.

For home or portable radios, you’ll find good models from C.Crane, Sangean and Eton/Grundig. I have a Grundig Satellit 800, which has outstanding FM reception, plus an old Sangean (made for Radio Shack), and the C.Crane CC Pocket Radio (there on the left) which are both also outstanding. GE’s SupeRadio is also deservedly a legend. Here are some on eBay. All generations of the SupeRadio are good. I have two of them I bought new in the ’90s, and they still work fine.

Here in my kitchen I also have the Teac HD-1, which was billed as a clock radio, but really isn’t. Instead it’s an FM/AM radio that also features an outstanding HD FM tuner, and okay AM HD tuner. No longer made, it’s still available on the used market. (I know because I just bought my second one, on Amazon.)

HD produces better sound, plus additional channels. So a station may be two or three in one. For example, WNYC-FM in New York has WQXR (its classical sister station) on its HD-2 channel, and WNYC-AM on its HD-3 channel. More importantly, HD clears up the truly awful multipath interference that afflicts urban radio listening, especially in apartment buildings like mine, which are dwarfed by countless other larger buildings standing in every signals’ path while also degrading and reflecting countless “ghost” signals along the way. (That’s called “multipath” interference.) If you live in a city and FM sounds like crap on local stations, get an HD radio just to clear up the bad sound. (By the way, your wi-fi and cell phone systems use multipath to improve reception by finding additional paths over which to send and receive streams of data. Digital is hugely advanced over old-fashioned analog FM in that respect.)

For pure reception performance, the best non-car radios I have ever owned or used date from the 60s, and came from European manufacturers. The standout manufacturers were Tandberg, Nordmende and Grundig. I have also used but not owned the Sony ICF-2010, which is legendary and deserves to be. All those are billed as shortwave radios, but do great work on FM and AM.

Bonus links: Why music radio is dying, The Slow Sidelining of Over-the-air Radio, Approaching the end of radio’s antenna age.

4 comments

  1. Ken Keller’s avatar

    Magnum Dynalab FT101

    I don’t have it anymore but in the 90s, my brother got one of these and later gave it to me. I forget now if it was the FT101 or 101A. But it was good. Able to pick up signals from in the centre of a ring of apartment buildings. No other buildings could even be seen yet it delivered very good sounding music. Other radios were essentially unusable.

    http://magnumdynalab.com/products.php

    At the time, I don’t think any retailers sold them nearby (i.e. in Toronto area) but as they were a local company I ended up getting it directly from them.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Ken, I would love to have gotten my hands on a Magnum Dynalab tuner. I never tried one out, but I do know it was the platinum standard in the genre.

    FWIW, I just put up a pile of photos from a visit to Mt. Wilson, overlooking Los Angeles from a mile-high vantage:http://bit.ly/wlsnant . I haven’t identified all the antennas, but I will eventually.

    Caring about this stuff is a bit like caring about steam engines, alas. It’s interesting to listen to KPCC, for example, on 89.3, while I’m here, but most of the time I’m listening on the road elsewhere in the world over the Net. Servers are the new transmitters, and “range” is an obsolete concept — unless all you’ve got is a radio.

  3. Ken’s avatar

    I spent about half an hour (or maybe more) reading their website after writing my comment. It was kind of fun to see that they’re still kicking along and have since introduced new product lines (e.g. amplifiers). A side note on antennas… the one they provide, which I think is called the silver ribbon, really made a difference.

    In your photos, are those radio (broadcast variety) or cellular antennas? I used to work for a carrier up here (Rogers – provides cable, wireless, wired internet, landlines, and they have a host of radio stations and magazines) and as I recall, there wasn’t any identification on the antennas, and at least within the city, they were always fenced off. Most of the big stations use the CN Tower to transmit from. Although, back in the day, Rogers set up a big wattage transmitter in Rochester, across the lake, because the distance let them broadcast to a wide swath of customers as the signal spread out. Kind of fascinating just how many antennas there are there.

    A long time ago, I was playing around with a short-wave radio and was able to pick up multiple baseball games. I keep wondering whether games are still broadcast this way. I use the MLB app to listen to games while I’m on the road but sometimes there isn’t a cell signal to take advantage of, and when I cross the border, things get inconvenient.

    For the most part, radio in Toronto can be likened to sewage. It’s always near at hand but you don’t really want to slog through it. For example, in the cafe I’m currently in, Britney Spears Hit Me Baby is playing. So I listen occasionally to CBC Radio using their app, and podcasts/lectures/baseball or my own music. As you suggest, it’s a new world. It would be hard to justify buying such a tuner again.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Ken.

    The photos, taken on Mt. Wilson, overlooking Los Angeles, are all of TV and FM antennas. The digital UHF TV ones look like vertical clusters of white boxes, all taller than wide. These resemble cellular antennas, which tend to to be contained in boxes (radomes covering the actual antennas) about the same size and shape, though a little smaller, since the cell bands are on higher frequencies. The biggest difference is power. The TV stations use those antennae to pound up to a million watts down toward the population. Cellular antennas, all located on low towers and buildings, are only a few dozen watts at most, since they only need to cover one small local cell.

    The CN tower’s spire design, an elongated wedding cake, was made to contain, going up from the bottom, low-band VHF (channels 2-6), FM (which is just above channel 6), high-band VHF (7-13) and then UHF (14 and above). I believe low-band TV is gone, as it is in the U.S., and I’m not sure if high-band is gone too. It’s in use in some U.S. locations (e.g. NYC and LA). Not sure about Toronto. UHF TV is used for sure.

    FM in Toronto continues to radiate from the CN Tower and buildings downtown.

    Three of the AMs (740, 1010, 1050) still radiate from Mississauga. Three other big ones are on the far side of the lake, east of Hamilton. Those are on 590, 680 and 820. All use a bunch of towers, to concentrate their signals at the metro. Go very far east or west and they’re gone. I think those are the ones you’re talking about.

    I’m currently in Helsinki, where AM is completely gone. (Like in Quebec City.) FM sounds like everywhere, with the single exception of 97.5fm, which plays German stuff and the BBC, for some reason.

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