Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 820HD Review

CSW Radio 820HD
HD Radio isn’t exactly spreading like wildfire. But if you’ve experienced it, you know it offers clearer sound and more channels than regular analog radio, and for nothin’ — except the extortionate rather high price of HD-capable radios. Cambridge SoundWorks’ 820HD Radio is a bit closer to affordable, with a list price of $299, and it’s pretty slick-looking too, but I’m pretty sure that not enough people are hip to the concept yet for it to really take off at that price. Maybe they should be.

The glossy Onyx finish (also available in Arctic White), royal blue LCD, and rounded edges make the 820HD an elegant and unobtrusive addition to any room. Two speakers are housed in a single enclosure that measures 4.3 x 13.3 x 7.5 inches and weighs 8 pounds — definitely meant for a table or desk.

The 820HD has two knobs and eight small buttons on the front face, and a large snooze/mute button on top, plus headphone and line-in jacks conveniently located on the left side. On the back, there’s another 3.5-mm line-in jack as well as a 2.5-mm power jack, for use with optional accessories like CSW’s iPod dock, though it’s not currently available as an accessory. There’s also an optical (Toslink) output for hooking the 820HD up to a nice stereo system (or… uhh… recording device).

CSW Radio 820HD
There aren’t a whole lot of included accessories — just a soft white bag, an IR remote with blister buttons, and several different types of antenna. Setup is very simple, though it’s a bit of a drag that you can’t have both the FM antenna and AM loop plugged in at the same time.

For testing, I left the 820HD in its HD Radio + Analog mode, as opposed to analog-only. (An HD-only mode wouldn’t really be practical, since HD Radio uses analog as a backup when the data stream is weak.)

The 820HD gets very good FM reception, especially with the long dipole antenna. I got mixed results with the metal telescoping antenna, and although the package includes a special plastic tool to help you screw in this particular antenna, I had a tough time getting it to stay screwed in tightly when adjusting it. AM reception is also very good, though the limitations of that band prevent it from being as clear as FM.

It’s interesting to listen to a station in analog mode and then hear the difference as the receiver begins to pick up the digital signal; an HD icon on the screen accompanied by a service bar indicator tells you how strong the signal is and when it switches from analog to digital. The increase in clarity is dramatic, as highs become crisper and bass has more depth than distortion. Most notable is the almost complete lack of system noise or hiss that radio listeners are so used to.

Multicasting is all the rage with digital broadcasting, so you’ll notice that, say, 93.9 (WNYC) has three different subchannels, all with slightly different formats. This is pretty cool in itself, as it means you effectively get more stations and more varied formats. For a list of which stations broadcast in HD, click here.

The radio’s enclosure is very sturdy, and it doesn’t rattle even at high volumes. The headphone output is powerful enough to drive my ultra high-end AKG K701 headphones even beyond comfortable listening levels.

I like that the screen shows RDS data, and stations that are broadcast digitally provide a healthy does of info about what’s playing. You can even receive traffic and weather reports from some stations via the LCD.

The rest of the radio’s functions are easy to control via the on-board controls as well as the remote, and the dual alarms offer an impressive amount of flexibility. Both auxiliary inputs work just fine, though you can’t use the included remote to control your external audio source.

There are other HD Radio-capable devices out there, like Polk Audio’s I-Sonic, which has a built-in DVD player — and costs $559 (after rebate!). Radiosophy’s Multistream HD has a brilliant modular design but is sold out according to the company’s Web site. The Radiosophy HD100 — one of the only budget models around, at just $59 — was supposed to ship mid-May but apparently hasn’t made it to market yet, according to the site.

So for now, this is your best bet for a relatively affordable HD Radio–it’s dead simple to use and versatile without feature bloat. You can find it online for about $50 off list price, bringing it down to around $250, which is just about in impulse-shopping range.

If you’re a big radio fan, the 820HD is worth the price — and even if you’re not, it’s a great way to get reacquainted with radio in a more satisfying way than you’re probably used to. It helps that there are no subscription fees or accounts to set up shame on you, satellite radio!.