Somebody in Quora asked “Which is the best FM radio?”
So far, mine is the only answer. 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…
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.