Sunday, June 18, 2006

Radio Free Europe

Originally Written: Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Look what I picked up for free. This is a Tandberg 3011A FM tuner, widely considered to be one of the best sounding analog FM tuners ever made. The preset section doesn't work, but the manual tuning section does! So someone wanted to throw it away! I stepped in and rescued it from the scrap heap, saving it from being cannabilized for parts. I'm sure the old owner will end up buying a mediocre digital tuner and won't even notice the drop in sound quality, that's the sad thing.

Analog tuners are far superior to digital tuners. Why are analog tuner better? Here is a quote from Robert Harley's "Complete Guide to High-end Audio." "Analog tuners have lower noise, and also allow fine-tuning to find the center of a station. Synthesized tuners jump in discrete steps of at least 25kHz, precluding the precise degree of fine-tuning possible with an infinitely variable analog tuner."

In Chicago there is a classical radio station called WFMT and occasionally they will do live broadcasts of performances from their studios. When I have been fortunate enough to catch these performances they have been ear-opening experiences, offering better sound quality than ANY CD or record. Most commercial stations sound mediocre at best. Classical stations are another story. For classical listeners I would recommend going to a pawn shop and finding an older analog tuner. Check out www.fmtunerinfo.com for some guidance about what is worthy of consideration. Then pick up a Fanfare FM-G antenna. For less than $200 one should be able to experience a lot of free music at extremely good sound quality.

So how did the digital tuners get their foot hold in the market place? The mass-market manufactures pushed digital tuners because they were cheaper to manufacture and required less warranty service. People adopted them because of the conveniences that they offered over analog tuners but for shear sound quality nothing beats analog. It's just another example of the dumbing down of our society to the lowest common denominator.

The really sad thing is that with HD radio and it's "near CD quality" the standards of radio are about to sink even lower. Near CD quality? There are those of us who are striving to surpass the quality of CD and even others that believe the term "CD quality" is in itself an oxymoron. One of my favorite stations just started broadcasting in HD radio. I sincerely hope that they continue to keep high standards when it comes to their analog broadcast.

2 comments:

Chris said...

FM radio is bandwidth limited to transmitting signals up to 15kHz, whereas CDs allow 22kHz. You can certainly make a CD sound worse than a radio broadcast by putting a lower-quality recording onto it, but the best quality analog radio broadcast has lost audio information compared to the best quality CD recording.

This is not to say that you're wrong about your radio broadcasts sounding better: what sounds better is subjective, and, taking into account that sounds over 15kHz aren't very audible (though they might be noticeable to young ears listening to something like classical music), the subtle loss caused by radio transmission may sound better to some people than a CD recording. However, "how" it sounds is subjective. Technically speaking, you could exactly recreate the sound of the radio broadcast (minus transient noise) from a CD recording, put through the right filters. You could not, conversely, exactly recreate the sound of a CD from a radio broadcast, because there has been information loss. (You may be interested in learning about Nyquist frequency and reading up on signal processing.)

Just FYI: analog radio broadcasts are not better quality, from a quantitative and scientific perspective, than the 16-bit 44.1kHz PCM-encoded audio on a CD. FM radio just has a smaller available signal bandwidth, and it's quite impossible to logically argue that 15kHz-limited signal is objectively better than a 22kHz-limited signal.

Analog receivers can still be better than cheap digital receivers, and all the electronics between receiving/reading the audio signal (whether off the air or from a CD) until it's output from a speaker to your ear, can do a lot to sound quality. So it's still quite possible that a crappy CD player will produce worse sound, quantitatively speaking, than a good analog radio receiver.

But if you're really striving for that imperceptibly better sound, stick to your perfectly maintained turntables and going to live concerts.

audioexplorer said...

Chris-

There is some good stuff in there very well thought out and argued. In general I agree with what you have to say. But my statement ONLY referred to live broadcasts from the studios. Yes, FM does not have the SN ratio, frequency response, or separation of CD or LP but a truly great FM broadcast that is live has no analog tape colorations nor any digital colorations. They can truly be astounding.

My digital front end is none too shabby. It consists of a Primare D20 CD player acting as a transport with a Theta DSP Pro Basic III DAC, connected by an Audioquest Video 2 75 ohm cable.

Thanks again for the comment. I hope you stop by frequently and enjoy the blog.