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Tuner group test

Article Index
Tuner group test
NAD C422
Creek T50
Cambridge Audio 640T
Pure DRX 702ES
Arcam DT91
NTL/Pace Di1000
Leak Troughline 3
Conclusion
All Pages

From Hi-Fi World - JULY 2005 issue

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denon-tu-260-l-ii

DENON TU-260L MkII  £129.99

 

An audio classic that has provided high quality sound at a very reasonable price for many years, the Denon is a very important benchmark for hi-fi tuners. The TU-260L II is the smallest tuner here measuring just 434x75x239mm and weighing 2.5kg. At the front is a basic, though good display which is clear and visible, a lightweight but precise rotary tuning knob, Tuning/ Preset button to the right and twelve buttons to the left of the knob controlling eight presets and Display/ Memory/ Band and Shift-Pty (for automatic RDS named station select). To the left of the display are four buttons to control, Auto/ Manu (tuning), Search/ Character, RT (radio text), EON TA..

 

The black all aluminium casework is satisfactorily built for the price but is rudimentary and dated to the late nineteen eighties. Internally it features Denon’s linear power supply, Mitsumi FM module and a small frame type transformer. There is a large 2,200 micro farad capacitor and several smaller value ones spread across the circuit board, all by SMG. At the rear are connections for AM, female coaxial socket for FM, phono sockets and figure-eight mains input socket.

 

SOUND QUALITY

With Radio Two FM, the Denon had a warm overall sound, yet it was never cloyingly tepid either. Rather it presented the music and speech with a well-rounded feel that invited longer listening sessions, crucially, without inducing lethargy and subsequent attention deficit to the sound. The speech was very slightly sibilant however, and compared to our reference, the Denon also had a more internalised presentation. However, for the extremely reasonable asking price, it was possessed of a dynamic ability with both music and speech. It was expressive too, while the bass was quite extended but mostly tuneful.

 

Treble was also suitably sophisticated providing nice texture to both guitar and orchestral stringed instruments. Vocals had a minute amount of sibilance to the treble regions and though the sound was a little internalised compared to the Cambridge, I found the Denon was still enjoyable none the less. For Radio Three FM, the Denon’s spatial awareness was very good with the orchestrations. The sound was controlled and tidy without any tangible nastiness – where the horn sections had a nimble presentation because the timing qualities of the Denon (on both Radio Two and Radio Three) was excellent.

 

The Denon performed well in this test and is to be commended. In use it was a pleasure, being precise in tuning through its rotary knob and easy to discern display. The sound quality was also at a similarly excellent and pleasurable standard considering its low price. It was warm and weighty yet dynamic and engaging too! It was let down slightly by the dated finish and some cheap plastic feet, but this is only a small gripe and is excusable as it is a genuine low-cost hi-fi tuner.

 

MEASURED PERFORMANCE

This tuner has been a benchmark for budget vhf/fm tuner performance for a decade or more and has a deserved reputation. It now has, in MkII form, a flat frequency response as our analysis shows. There’s still a small top end roll down, above 8kHz, to ensure the sound stays smooth. Pilot tone rejection by a deep filter is high, as is sub-carrier. Under test there was little intermodulation distortion from this source as a result.

 

Harmonic distortion levels at 50% modulation are consistently around 0.15%, a fine performance. Our analysis shows 0.3% on a centre image signal (R+L) at 100% mod., with second and third harmonics only.

 

The Denon is sufficiently quiet at –73dB for hiss to be nearly inaudible. However, it needs 1mV for this, which in most locations demands an outdoor aerial. Sensitivity of this sample seemed relatively low, as 47uV was needed for stereo with –50dB hiss (IHF stereo sensitivity).

 

The TU-260L MkII remains balanced and well specified, measurement shows. It needs a good aerial for best results though. NK

 

Frequency response  10Hz-10.4kHz

Stereo separation 41dB

Distortion (50% mod.) 0.3%

Hiss (CCIR) -73dB

Signal for minimum hiss 1mV

Output 1.1V

Sensitivity

mono  3.5µV

stereo 47µV

signal strength meter:   none

 

 

denon-tu260l-ii-fr

 

denon-tu260l-ii-thd

 

 

verdict 4

Denon UK Ltd.

+44 (0)1234 741 200

www.denon.co.uk

 

FOR

-  low cost, operation

- excellent performance

 

AGAINST

- dated styling


 

nad-c422

 

NAD C422  £189.95

This NAD C422 is finished in an attractive silver. The front panel is a simple affair, discretely styled with a tuning ‘knob’ to the right of the display and a set buttons to the left of the display for Preset/ Tune, Display, AM/ FM, FM Mute/ Mode, Memory and Blend. The Blend feature is like a noise reduction for the FM, enabling weaker received stations to function in stereo without the hiss or having to resort to mono. The Blend feature can also be stored for one of the 30 individual assignable AM/FM presets. The display is very good and can be viewed from a distance; it also has a radio signal strength meter just under the Antenna moniker.

 

Internally the NAD has quite a substantial tuner circuit board. There looks like an OEM encoder at the rear connecting to the AM/FM socket, while liberally supplied Elcon and Licon capacitors are spread across the circuit board. The power switch gets its own board while the power transformer is a frame type, providing separate linear power supplies to the digital and analogue sections of the C422. For the tuner section, the NAD uses an LA1837 Sanyo IF chip, a phase lock loop LC7218 chip and the RF decoder is a LCF72723 type. When I spoke to one of NAD’s engineers, he said that there was some special tweaking of the C422, which resulted in a flatter than normal response. Nicely built and finished for the price, the controls work with solidity and it is functionally logical too. It was a delight to operate and use. The C422 measures 435x80x285mm and weighs 4kg.

SOUND QUALITY
The NAD was initially underwhelming as it sounded thin compared to the others, but through extended listening proved interesting, as I began to really appreciate its consistently neutral sound. It was controlled through all the frequency extremes where there was no sibilance in vocals or plumminess to the speech. There wasn’t exaggerated bass bloom either, that could easily dislocate and ruin the musical structure. The treble didn’t suffer; there was no screeching or high pitched whine that some vocals can have on both FM and DAB. On Radio Three FM, it didn’t flatter the music broadcasted; rather it was disciplined and precise without being unemotional. The NAD had excellent timing too, never being out of control on dynamics - it handled the difficult orchestral crescendos really well. With Radio Two FM, the sound quality remained entirely neutral and the NAD was expressive and timed very well. The speech was nicely presented if not as well rounded or deep as others.
The NAD was deceptively good, providing a continually neutral and excellent sound quality that at first seemed underwhelming. It is nicely made and finished for the price and is only really let down by the ‘semi’ rotary knob. It’s a league above the Denon sonically, with more incision and less euphony, although obviously doesn’t quite achieve the cheaper unit’s stratospheric value for money rating. Strength in depth!

MEASURED PERFORMANCE

Frequency response of the C422 has a distinct lift at high frequencies our analysis shows, giving it a brighter sound than most rivals, which these days measure flat. The steep drop at right in this trace is the pilot tone filter, giving the C422 less pilot and intermodulation distortion around it. With reasonably low levels of harmonic distortion, most low order 2nd harmonic our analysis shows, the C422 should sound clean enough.

 

The C422 uses conventional chip sets, managing a reasonably "normal" level of hiss that measured -72dB (IEC A wtd.). This makes it one of the quieter tuners of the group and it needed just 750uV from the aerial to achieve this result, which is pretty good. Sadly, the little signal strength display hit maximum with just 20uV, not even enough to get –50dB noise when receiving stereo. Stereo sensitivity was a good 30uV and mono just 5uV.

 

The C422 was a good all-rounder under measurement, but may sound just a little bright. NK

 

Frequency response  10Hz-15.5kHz

Stereo separation 44dB

Distortion (50% mod.) 0.3%

Hiss (CCIR) -72dB

Signal for minimum hiss 0.77mV

Output 0.9V

Sensitivity

mono  5µV

stereo 30µV

signal strength meter: reads to 20uV

 

nad-c422-fr

 

nad-c422-thd

 

verdict four globes

NAD Electronics

+44 (0)1908 319 360

www.nadelectronics.com

 

FOR

- unflappable, incisive sound

- well built

- simple to use

 

AGAINST

- non rotary dial


 

creek-t50-final

CREEK T50  £550

An ostensibly simple looking affair, measuring only 430x60x250mm and weighing 4kg, it doesn’t immediately strike you as being (materially) worth £550. The Creek is quite simply attired with an internal folded silver chassis and black rear plate. The front plate is nice though, being a solid brushed silver affair, which contrasts nicely with the rather thin and resonant black top plate. At the front there is a superb rotary tuning knob which has excellent feel and is a delight to operate.

 

The vacuum fluorescent display has an attractive green lighting to the frequency legends that is both precise and clearly legible from a distance at different viewing angles. When tuning, the display becomes brightest to indicate when a station has been tuned, (similar to the old Naim NAT03 tuner) and also shows its name if it is RDS compliant. There are 99 presets for FM and 29 for AM. The main tuner circuit board is one of Creek’s own, with no discernable bolted-on OEM tuner modulator. There is a series of Samwha capacitors spread across it. There is a separate mains filter PCB which contains the T50s fuse that sits in between the IEC socket input and the power transformer. The display PCBs are mounted vertically across the inside of the front panel.

SOUND QUALITY

On Radio Two FM, The sound was well balanced with a really amazing bass in both extension and tunefulness. Treble was sophisticated because it was controlled, textured and expressive. These qualities enabled the Creek to have a very high resolution sound for the price, even comparing brilliantly to the group reference. The speech was entirely natural with no sibilance and was perfectly weighted. The Creek preferred to concentrate on the high resolution of instruments and timing over ultimate spatiality and as such may not be as immediately vibrant as say the Cambridge continued to be, however it didn’t take too long for the Creek’s real musical abilities to come forth. On Radio Three FM, the high resolution presentation continued where the vocals were nicely resolved and there was extended and tuneful bass. With excellent instrumental separation, the Creek produced an atmospheric and continuously listenable sound.

 

Horns were nicely rendered and the orchestral string sections emotive yet smooth. Orchestration was expressive, emotional and had in-room impact. Timing overall was also good, (if not the best in the group when considering price) where all instruments and vocals had a sympathetic relationship to each other, never once sounding dislocated.

 

I really enjoyed the Creek as a tuner. It has an excellent display and tuning knob alloyed to brilliant sound quality that in some respects runs with the far more expensive and esoteric reference tuner right up to the wire, with only depth perspective pulling it back from pole position. It is only let down by the rudimentary finish considering its price, but considering the design and engineering work that’s obviously gone into it, then it’s churlish to complain.

MEASURED PERFORMANCE

The T50 was notable for its absence of a pilot tone filter, something our frequency response analysis clearly shows by lack of a filter notch at right. There are two main effects: a smooth audio response that will sound great in terms of naturalness, but the presence of strong intermodulation distortion against 19kHz pilot. This may intrude at high levels, possibly muddying violins and complex material a little. Our distortion analysis shows that, otherwise, the T50 produces little harmonic distortion.

 

At –67dB (IEC A wtd.) a little hiss might well be noticeable on stereo, typically during Radio 3 silences, and speech intervals on Radio 4, etc. Sensitivity was respectable at 42uV and full quieting occurred at just 530uV, but then it would since noise floor is high in any case.

Against today’s rivals the T50 looks a little dated in some areas, but I suspect it will sound pretty good all the same. NK

 

Frequency response  10Hz-14kHz

Stereo separation 44dB

Distortion (50% mod.) 0.3%

Hiss (CCIR) -67dB

Signal for minimum hiss 0.53mV

Output 0.95V

Sensitivity

mono  6µV

stereo 42µV

signal strength meter: none

 

creek-t50-fr

 

 

 

creek-t50-thd

 

 

verdict five globes

Creek Audio Ltd.

+44(0)1442 260 146

www.creekaudio.com

 

FOR

- outstanding sound quality

- tactile use, discrete

- excellent display

 

AGAINST

- finish


 

cambridge-640t-final

CAMBRIDGE AUDIO AZUR 640T  £199.95

 

The first of the three hybrid DAB/FM designs, the Cambridge sports the best silver coating of the group, with finely countersunk openings for the centrally located display and buttons either side. The poorly legible LC display is a disappointment. To its right are countersunk buttons for DAB/FM, Autotune, Info, Select and Left and Right Arrow symbols for tuning. The side panels are attractive extruded aluminium C-sections, each smoothly folded six times. The top plate is nicely screwed into the main chassis with flush mounted countersunk star head fixings.

 

Inside the Cambridge also features a Radioscape DSP similar to the Arcam, which takes both the FM (with direct digital synthesis and digital demodulation) and DAB through the digital DSP. The DAB module uses a Texas Instruments fixed point DRE200 chip while the DAC is a Wolfson WM8716 24/192Khz type with 48kHz sample rate. A frame transformer feeds a linear power supply. At the rear panel, there is an F-Type aerial socket for DAB/FM, gold-plated electrical digital out, optical digital out, input loop through phono sockets to save an input socket on an amplifier, output phono sockets, switchable ‘Natural Contour Technology. Vital statistics are 70x430x305mm and 3.9kg.

SOUND QUALITY

The Cambridge produced one of the best results for the group on both FM and DAB. On Radio Two DAB 128kbps, it featured a vibrant sound that I thought was not possible on DAB, let alone the lower bitrate of 128Kbps! It proved thoroughly enjoyable, with the vocals in music being beautifully presented. On Radio Three DAB 192kbps, orchestration was lush and unrestrained - where the Cambridge handled the crashing crescendos without strain. I couldn’t discern any DAB compression or sibilance to the vocals either.

 

With Radio Two FM, the sound gained in spatiality in comparison to the Cambridge’s own DAB version.. Radio Three FM also had an excellent showing; violins were really tangible while horns were well rounded and dynamically resolved, convincingly, naturally, rendered. Still, the Cambridge did have discernible midrange smear on both DAB and FM compared to the other tuners, but this did not detract from an otherwise brilliant performance.

 

An excellent all rounder and an absolute pleasure to use and listen to, this tuner is very well built, finished, priced and designed - few hi-fi components tick all four of these boxes! In absolute terms it can’t quite match the Creek, NAD or the reference on FM, but remains absolutely outstanding value for money.

MEASURED PERFORMANCE

The Cambridge Audio Azur 640T is very similar to Arcam’s DT-91, using a Radioscape DAB/VHF module, but there are differences. Cambridge have fitted switchable frequency response equalisation to the rear panel, marked "warm" and "lively" in addition to normal (flat). Warm lifts bass only, by around +3dB below 450Hz – quite a lot. Lively lifts bass less, by +3dB again but below 250Hz. It also raises treble level to add  some brightness. Switched to Flat the 640T gave a smooth response with slightly rolled off upper treble, our analysis shows. Like the Arcam, pilot tone at 19kHz barely existed, measuring –90dB. There was little intermod. against this tone as a result. Distortion levels were lower than those from the Arcam too, quite significantly so in the midband on stereo signals (L+R and L-R) at 0.05%, if not on full left and right signals (L, R) at 0.2%.

 

The 640T also turned in 3dB less noise, managing –66dB (IEC A wtd.), so it appears to have a better spec. Radioscape module inside, but hiss will still be audible at times, minimised only by the compression and lack of silences on most radio programme.

 

Like Arcam’s DT-91 the 640T was massively sensitive, maintaining minimum hiss (full quieting) down to a miniscule 22uV. For this alone, to most people, who have poor aerials, it may well seem unusually quiet. It neither needs nor benefits from a big outdoor aerial. Another mixed bag, but interesting. NK

 

 

Frequency response  10Hz-10.6kHz

Stereo separation 60dB

Distortion (50% mod.) 0.2%

Hiss (CCIR) -66dB

Signal for minimum hiss (50ohms) 22uV

Output 0.78V

Sensitivity (50ohms)

mono  1.4µV

stereo 12µV

signal strength meter: reads up to 9uV

 

camb-640t-fr

 

verdict 5

Cambridge Audio

+44 (0)207 940 2200

www.cambridge-audio.co.uk

 

FOR

- blistering value

- superb design, build

- excellent sound quality

 

AGAINST

- poor display

- no rotary knob


 

pure-drx-702es

PURE DIGITAL DRX 702ES  £329.95

 

A complex machine featuring a multitude of functions, the black anodised aluminium front panel is nicely laid out. The backlit LCD display, while clear and informative close up, is not the best at a distance or at angles, which was disappointing. To the left of the display are three LEDs for Remote, Secondary and Stereo, then a headphone socket and Power On/Off switch.

 

Inside there is a separate board for the headphone output and a main PCB containing a Frontier Silicon Chorus FS1010 third generation DAB chip, either side of which is an optional balanced output board and the standard Panasonic FM module, and there’s a small toroid transformer. The Pure uses a Wolfson 24/192 Delta Sigma DAC for the DAB and its digital outputs. At the rear there are separate connectors for FM (male coaxial socket), AM and DAB (F-Type screw-in socket) meaning you have to connect three aerials for DAB, AM and FM. Then a USB socket, electrical/optical digital out socket, RDI optical, input phono sockets for loop through connection saving an input from amplifier, output phono sockets, optional Neutrik balanced sockets and IEC mains input socket. The balanced option DRX-702ES costs £399 or £100 for a factory fit to standard £330 DRX-702ES. The aluminium bodied Pure comes in black or silver and measures 430x65x 270mm.

 

SOUND QUALITY

With Radio Two FM, the Pure Digital’s sound quality was neutral, with speech also being well handled. Music had controlled bass which was tight and dynamic but not as extended or as fully tuneful as some of the others, thus the Pure Digital came across a little thin and undynamic compared to the vibrant Cambridge 640T or full bodied Arcam DT91 for instance.

 

On Radio Three FM, violins had a nice tonality with good texture and expression – revealing some nice timing ability enabling the Pure to keep a grip on some of the more challenging orchestral swings. On Radio Two DAB 128 Kbps, there was slight sibilance to the speech but the music didn’t suffer untowardly because DAB compression was less noticeable on the Pure Digital than say the audible trace amounts evident on the Arcam DT91 - which can be described as a slight muddying and loss of absolute clarity. Radio Three DAB 192kbps, was a little disappointing however, because the music wasn’t as expressive as the other tuners on digital or DAB. Midband had a slight grain to it. Timing remained very good though, and notably better than the newer Arcam DT91.

 

A nicely built and finished tuner with excellent flexibility and generous preset allotment, but its sound lacks body and weight. This superbly engineered tuner has a professional feel and appropriately analytical sonics, and when specified with the balanced XLRs would be an excellent broadcast monitor – but domestic buyers might prefer the superior sonics and value of the Cambridge Audio.

 

MEASURED PERFORMANCE

The DRX-702 is a little unusual in its smoothly rolling response that adds a little boost to both ends of the audio spectrum to add a little zing to sound quality. This affects DAB as well; in fact it is there for DAB. The digital output measured flat, when fed to a digital analyser direct; the e.q. affects analogue output only. There is no pilot tone removal and both pilot at 19kHz and subcarrier at 38kHz were high, giving rise to intermodulation distortion against the pilot. Harmonic distortion levels showed why: linearity wasn’t so hot generally, with 1% distortion - 2nd harmonic luckily – on a sum signal (centre image) in stereo.

 

Hiss was on the high side at –66dB (IEC A) and may just be audible at times, during Radio 3/4 silences. With full quieting measuring 530uV and stereo sensitivity 34uV the DRX-702ES is normal enough in these areas. It signal strength meter worked well too, usefully showing maximum at 425uV. Results were identical via the balanced output, into a balanced analyser, except it gave much higher output, no less than 2.3V.

 

The DRX-702ES vhf/fm section will give fair results, but it doesn’t set standards. NK

 

Frequency response  6Hz-15.5kHz

Stereo separation 33dB

Distortion (50% mod.) 0.3%

Hiss (CCIR) -66dB

Signal for minimum hiss 0.53mV

Output 1.28V

Sensitivity

mono  6µV

stereo 34µV

signal strength meter: reads up to 425uV

 

pure-drx702-fr

 

pure-702es-thd

 

verdict 3

Pure Digital

+44 (0)1923 277 488

www.pure-digital.com

 

FOR

- well built, finished

- timing

 

AGAINST

-  so-so sound


 

arcam-dt91-final

 

ARCAM DT91  £450

 

This new tuner is well made and finished. The front panel has the best display of all the tuners reviewed. The centrally mounted logic switching rotary knob which can scroll through the display functions is a delight, being well weighted and a pleasure to use.

 

Internally the Arcam utilises a Radioscape DSP and routes both DAB and FM through it. Thus you can have analogue and digital outputs for both FM and DAB! Digital signals are taken through a Wolfson 8740 DAC for which Arcam have paid special attention to the clocking circuitry for better sound. The Arcam’s digital sampling rate for DAB is 48kHz and for FM, 32kHz. The Arcam uses a linear power supply from a toroid transformer that has separate windings for its digital, analogue and display sections.

 

At the rear panel are two sets of phono socket outputs, an F-Type aerial socket, gold-plated electrical digital out, optical digital out, remote-in socket, RS232 port, an opening labelled – ‘program’, voltage indicator and IEC mains socket. Casework is aluminium with a thick damped steel base-plate at the bottom, and the aluminium front plate is in three parts, the main panel being a gently curved C-section flanked by two matching end caps. Vital statistics are 435x320x83mm and 3.6kg.

SOUND QUALITY

On Radio Two FM, vocals and speech had a nicely rounded and smooth delivery. While also being natural, speech didn’t have that plumminess that some tuners have when their electrical design is tailored to sound rich and weighty. For music, the bass was deep and sonorous while there was a nice overall spatiality to the sound.

 

The Arcam proved to be continually listenable. On Radio Three FM, the sound had a sustained warm presentation and had a rather nice liquid quality. It was very good actually with fine vocal ability and depth. Strings from the orchestra were lush and expansive. On Radio Two DAB 128kbps, the Arcam was open and dynamic in comparison to the FM section;, minimising the trademark DAB splashy sibilant presentation, revealing a slightly rolled off treble. On Radio Three DAB 192kbps, speech was good while the music boasted better than average instrumental detail. I could still discern the typical DAB compression though, but it was not so evident - I was really impressed with the Arcam’s sound via DAB as it wasn’t only listenable but enjoyable too!

 

The Arcam is a great all rounder, doing everything to a very high standard. It doesn’t offer the best outright DAB and/or FM sound, rather its skill is the way it brings extremely listenable sonics together with superb styling and ergonomics. As the strap line goes, it’s ‘reassuringly expensive’ and no less classy.

 

MEASURED PERFORMANCE

The DT-91’s vhf/fm section gives identical results to those from the Cambridge, both using an unusual and, in some areas, advanced chip set from Radioscape. This is software radio, of a form. The bad news here is that the DT-91 is noisy by vhf/fm standards, measuring a poor –63dB hiss (IEC A wtd.). This is 1dB worse than a Leak Troughline from the 1960s and 17dB worse than a Hitachi FT-5500 from the 1980s.

 

Whilst channel separation was almost infinite, there was some distortion in the quiet channel. However, one has to take a view here; there was no pilot too, so none of the intermod. it raises through non-linearity. Harmonic distortion levels were mediocre at 0.3% but the distortion residual was distinctly digital, unlike that of the Pure. Note the extended  harmonic spectrum – not nice. Frequency response was flat, our analysis shows.

 

The DT-91 was, however, fantastically sensitive, hitting full quieting (i.e. minimum hiss) at just 22uV, and with a stereo sensitivity of 14uV. With a poor aerial the DT-91 will be quieter than rivals, except the Cambridge, by a country mile. A very mixed bag then. NK

 

Frequency response  10Hz-10.5kHz

Stereo separation 70dB

Distortion (50% mod.) 0.28%

Hiss (CCIR) -63dB

Signal for minimum hiss (50ohms) 22uV

Output 0.87V

Sensitivity (50ohms)

mono  1.4µV

stereo 14µV

signal strength meter: reads up to 6uV

 

arcam-fr

 

arcam-dt91-thd

 

verdict four globes

Arcam

+44 (0)1223 203 200

www.arcam.co.uk

 

FOR

- build, operation, finish

- warm, engaging sound

- flatters DAB

 

AGAINST

- cheap control buttons


 

 

ntl-di-2000

NTL/ PACE DI1000  £100

 

Right, this is where the fun starts! We’ve decided to include a digital cable set top box to provide a counterpoint to the DAB tuners in the test? Why, well you can get so-called Digital Radio through cable and Freeview, often at considerably higher bitrates, at a much lower price – and free TV too! Kind of makes life tricky for the Cambridge Audio, Pure and Arcam, doesn’t it…?

 

The NTL/ Pace Di1000 reviewed here has just been superseded by the Di4000N, but is still perfectly representative of the myriad ‘digital set top boxes’ around in design, build and features. By and large they’re pretty generic designs using similar chipsets, with any visible ‘distinguishing marks’ being on the TV side of things. We also tried Philips’ DTR500 (£60) Freeview receiver, and most of what we’ve found here applies to this, too. The key point is that both provide considerably higher bitrates for radio than DAB and feature digital audio outputs, so you can pipe this ‘higher resolution’ digital radio out to your hi-fi digital to analogue convertor, or AV receiver, or use your DAT, MiniDisc, DCC or CD recorder in ‘monitor’ mode to listen.

 

The NTL/Pace box provides outputs for digital TV (including Sky), Ethernet broadband internet and digital radio (supplied by Sky).  The Di1000 set top box comes as part of NTL’s series of entertainment packages starting from £10 per month for the Base Pack which includes the familiar free to air broadcasts like BBC1-6, ITV1-2, Discovery Channel, Sky One, etc., and no less than 42 digital radio stations bought in from Sky. The Di1000 has a basic display on its curved plastic front plate, with large green legends denoting setup and channel number. There is a set of arrowed navigation keys similar to the ones on a DVD player below the display set in an oval button count. To the right of the display are four smaller oval buttons for TV, TV Guide, Interactive and Favourites. On the far right is the power standby switch. To the left are buttons for Channel up/down, OK and a fold out flap containing a viewing smart card slot.

 

Internally it features an 80 MIPS (Million Instructions Per Second) processor, 8MB RAM, 6MB FLASH, 4 MB video RAM, 4 MB graphics RAM and MCNS DOCSIS/ EURODOCSIS cable modem. There is a separate tuner module which utilises the QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation) technique to bring digital signals from the radio stations and then the signals go through a demodulation tuner to get sound and music. The Di1000 has a switch mode power supply. At the back are various Scart and aerial socket connections along with an Ethernet port, phono sockets, F-type connector for the digital cable feed and figure eight mains input socket. The Di1000 has a perforated metal top cover because it runs very warm in use. The newer Di4000N is broadly similar to the Di1000 but features a faster 175+MIPS main CPU, USB and optical digital output while it omits the phono sockets for a mini-jack connection instead. They both measure 380x73x255mm and weigh less than 2.9kg.

SOUND QUALITY

Even via its onboard DAC and analogue audio output stage, the NTL /Pace had a generally good spatial sound quality - remarkable considering all the other elements such as the potentially sound degrading TV/ video sections to its electronic design. On Radio Two Digital Cable, the speech had a slight sibilance to it probably because the general tonal shading of the NTL/ Pace was spread towards the upper HF regions. However the bass was excellent, being both well extended and tuneful too, amongst the best in the group! This gave the music a good rhythmical thrust and provided a very tuneful feel to all the music broadcast. Musically there was a snap and fleet of foot presentation, never sounding aggressive or crude.

 

The Pace was quite enjoyable really on Radio Two, with a nice fluid midband and excellent musical separation, considering its Digital Radio DNA - it procured a generally musical presentation here. On Radio Three Digital Cable, the speech was improved over the Radio Two presentation, though there still remained a tendency to favour for the upper HF regions of the musical spectrum. The music on Digital Cable was clear, crisp and dynamic, while the NTL/ Pace was just about able to hang onto the orchestral crescendos as the music went from the quiet passages to huge dynamics.

 

The shock result is that, even via its ‘bread and butter’ DAC and analogue output, this humble set top box achieved the strongest and most dynamically assured sound - all the more remarkable considering the hostile internal environment of the set top box, with all its video circuitry and switch mode power supply. Pipe the digital signal out to a serious audiophile DAC and watch it fly on digital radio broadcasts, thanks to those valuable extra bits going into the tuner…

 

verdict 4

NTL

+44 (0)800 052 2000

www.ntl.co.uk

 

FOR

- surprisingly good sound

- satellite TV, broadband

- ease of use

 

AGAINST

- slight vocal sibilance


 

 

leak-troughline

 

GTA LEAK TROUGH LINE 3 STEREO  £800 approx

 

Our reference is a Graham Tricker Audio (GT Audio) Leak Trough Line 3 Stereo. There are two options from Graham Tricker, the £250 Standard and the £350 Audiophile (our review sample was the latter) with a modern decoder chip and Class A output amplifier. The Leak Trough Line measures 292x108x210mm and weighs 5.8kg.

 

The front has two rotary knobs, for tune and off/mono/stereo, a tuning dial and slide switches, for AFC and local/distant sensitivity. The AFC (Automatic Frequency Control) when switched off activates the EM84 Magic Eye tuning indicator. Once the desired station is tuned in, the AFC can be switched on locking in the station, which then switches off the EM84, preventing valve burn out.

 

SOUND QUALITY

On Radio Two FM, the GTA Leak was stunning. The sound was immensely deep and expansive, and yet so dynamic and well resolved. Speech was spot-on, neither thin nor plummy. The fluid midband was an aural delight; tuneful with excellent decay to musical instruments that underlined just what a phenomenally natural performer this is.

 

On Radio Three FM, with a live broadcast, the sound from the GTA Leak enveloped the room with an eerie quality as if the presenters were there with you, while the subjective dynamic range was so good and the subjective distortion so low that the music had an quality that you don’t normally appreciate from either vinyl or CD; it was different. There was a delicious timbre to the violas making their inherently deeper and richer sound all the more believable. For the higher frequency violins, there was delicacy and definition without either a nasty stinging rasp or muted softened dynamic. For the stringed orchestration there was an exquisitely silky presentation. One could listen to the Leak for hours on end without getting bored or fatigued, it was just right.

 

Sublime performance, design and ergonomics, the GTA Leak is truly special and in a class of one. It shows what is possible from analogue radio transmissions, providing the hardware is right. The magic of a Troughline like this is the connectedness you feel to the broadcasting studio.You need a serious roof-mounted FMantenna though.

 

MEASURED PERFORMANCE

The Troughline is surprisingly accurate, having a frequency response that smoothly covers the audio spectrum, our analysis shows. Within 1dB frequency response limits, the Leak manages 10Hz-9.75kHz, little different from others in this group.

 

Using the magic eye I got around 30dB channel separation across the audio band to 10kHz, and around 0.6% second harmonic distortion (see our analysis) at 100% modulation, with little less at 50% modulation. This is fair, considering it is all innocuous second harmonic.

 

Hiss was –64dB down (IEC A wtd.) at full quieting and for this the tuner needed 2mV – a lot of signal. Faint hiss will be audible. The Troughline isn’t sensitive, needing a good 1mV or so from the aerial to avoid obvious hiss.

 

The Troughline is fundamentally accurate and its weaknesses tolerable. That’s why, well maintained, it can sound so good. NK

 

Frequency response  10Hz-9.75kHz

Stereo separation 30dB

Distortion (50% mod.) 0.6%

Hiss (CCIR) -64dB

Signal for minimum hiss 2mV

Output 1V

Sensitivity

mono  22µV

stereo 110µV

signal strength meter: none

 

 

leak-troughline-fr

 

leak-tr-thd

 

 

verdict 5

GT Audio

+44 (0)1895 833 099

www.gtaudio.com

 

FOR

- stunning sound quality

- retro design

- tangible, hands-on

 

AGAINST

-  the waiting list!

 


 

CONCLUSION

In conceptualising this weird and wonderful sweep through the world of radio past and present, analogue and digital, tube and transistor, we could instantly anticipate the cries of "foul" and "you’re not comparing like with like"! Well, this is precisely what we wanted to do, to give a real sense of perspective on how all these different designs, technologies, formats and philosophies correlate. Now it’s time to unpick it all, and come up with some useful buying advice.

 

So on this page, we’re looking at how the moderns stack up against one another, and on page 25 we’ll see how the best of this group stacks up against the three classic designs from Yamaha, Sansui and Revox, and finally how the winning modern and the winning classic rates against our all time fave rave and reference, the GT Audio Leak Trough Line. Confused? Hopefully you won’t be if you read on…

 

Of the modern tuners, the £330/399 Pure Digital DRX 702ES is very nicely made and easy to use. It has an excellent front panel, eschewing the typically messy button count typically found on some hi-fi equipment. The rotary tuning knob was also excellent. The display was a disappointment though, because it wasn’t as easily legible from a distance, and the sound as a whole while well-timed was ultimately disappointing through both DAB and FM for the price, especially when compared to the £199.95 Cambridge.

 

The Arcam DT91 is a very agreeable instrument in both sound and use, especially its display and rotary tuning knob which were the best of the whole group. It had warmth, high resolution and a good spatial sound quality to all music. It also really shined with DAB where it produced a very good and listenable sound, without any of the splashy and sibilant artefacts normally associated with DAB.

 

The £199.95 Cambridge Azur 640T is my top choice for the hybrid tuners, as it was excellent in all the important areas and at a very reasonable price. Design, build and usability was first-rate while the sound quality for both FM and DAB was brilliant - almost comparable (on FM) to the higher priced analogue tuners in the group, let alone exceeding its own hybrid tuner competitors.

 

The only fly in its (and all the other Digital Radio tuners’) ointment was the performance of the NTL/ Pace Di1000. Its sound was shockingly good for such a lowly device, as it isn’t designated as a genuine hi-fi component. Dynamic, vibrant and rhythmical – and all this through its own ‘cheap as chips’ analogue outputs, let alone feeding a serious hi-fi DAC. There’s nothing magic about the NTL/ Pace, it’s simply that the bitrates are significantly higher, so we’re listening less to the antique MP2 compression technology and more to the music…

 

Of the analogue tuners, the £129.99 Denon did an excellent job for the asking price; it was nicely ergonomic, precise in action and tuning, while the sound quality was warm, dynamic and very enjoyable. However the dated styling and small lightweight casework will unwittingly put off some as they might wrongly consider it to be a cheap and nasty pseudo-hi-fi tuner which in performance terms at least – it clearly is not.

 

The £189.95 NAD C422 is a nicely built and finished tuner with an entirely unflappable and neutral sound quality. It initially hides its light under a bushel, but beyond immediacy, proves to be a consummate performer, able to handle all the dynamics and subtlety with an unflustered verve. It has excellent timing too. The only disappointment is its faux rotary tuning knob! It provides tough price and performance competition for both the Denon and Cambridge, and many will find it a brilliant mix of serious value and serious performance.

 

The £550 Creek T50 is an awesome tuner, with an unfailingly high-quality, high-resolution sound that is commensurate with its asking price. It has a well finished and attractive front panel with clearly legible display and superb rotary tuning knob – making it a delight to operate and listen to. The rest of the Creek’s finish does not look worthy of its price, and like the Denon this may wrongly put some potential purchasers off before they have heard it. However it is clear that Creek have spent all their effort on what is inside the T50 and as such the sound quality is deservedly brilliant.

 

Indeed, the only tuner that comprehensively outclassed the Creek (and in some areas it was closer than we expected) was the £800 GTA Leak Trough Line 3 Stereo. Of course, we’re not comparing like with like – I’m sure a slide rule-wielding reader will write in to point out that the Leak cost £600 or so in real terms when new, and you have to add the extra £700-800 of mods to that. But it’s still a valid £800 purchasing option now, and so we had to include it. It shows us that the Creek is the best ‘real world’ tuner available new today, and how deeply refined and finessed a design the T50 is. It also shows us that FM radio is capable of more still, and – fascinatingly, that it always was capable of that, too. Our only sadness is that ye olde terrestrial FM won’t be with us forever in this country – try and hear one before it goes – and/or try and stop the switch off.

 

AND IN THE END...

 

Impressive and convenient as the digital designs were – particularly the Cambridge Audio 640T – ultimately they just weren’t on the pace in the sonic stakes. There are two reasons for this; first they’re hidebound by the risible bitrates they’re forced to work with, and second, in this test they were up against some of the best tuners ever made…

 

At the final reckoning, it was analogue that delivered the sonic goods; all else (Auto tuning, remote controls, etc.) was just a distraction. Even the budget priced Denon proffered a warm and relaxing way to listen to music, and flatters commercial FM stations with their hideous compression and spiky signals. The NAD is a brilliant design, its problem being that it uncomfortably falls between two stalls in this particular group test – it’s neither the best value nor the best. This doesn’t negate the fact that for many – who, sensibly perhaps, don’t want to invest in a format that apparently has already had its death warrant signed by Her Majesty’s Government – it is all they could ever want. It has real incision, space, depth and balance, and makes the Denon sound dull. Finally, the Creek is sublime – as befits the latest descendent of the brilliant 3140 and T40 designs.

 

So then to the real point of this elaborate group test, which is to find out how our modern champion, the Creek T50, compares to both our reference Leak Trough Line and the three nineteen seventies classics from Yamaha, Sansui and Revox?

 

Well, first, the Revox doesn’t compare with it – which may raise the eyebrows of those who’ve just taken out a second mortgage to purchase a middling example off eBay. By all criteria, the T50 betters the B760; it is more sensitive, quieter and offers dramatically warmer and more insightful sound. Oh, and as a wounding aside, it’s much easier to use too. Only the Revox’s superlative build and finish give any justification for its existence…

 

How then does it compare with the Yamaha and Sansui? Here, we start to talk in terms of things being different, not better. On a good day, with a good signal, there’s little to choose between the CT-7000 and TU-9900. Ultimately I’d say the latter is better, but the Yamaha’s sublime styling and ergonomics pull some ground back for it. Either way, the Creek lacks some of the warmth (nee euphony?) of these classic designs, and some of the dimensionality too. Whether the Yam and Sansui are pushing the stereo image artificially wide, or if the Creek is compressing it, is debatable, but there’s definitely the sense that the ‘modern’ sounds more constrained and shut in, yet better focused. Indeed, the Creek tells you all about where the instruments and vocals are within the mix and/or recorded acoustic, whereas the Sansui and Yam are more vague.

 

Interestingly then, we’re beginning to reach some kind of parity. The Creek is detailed and transparent, the two Japanese classics more expansive and euphonic. In some ways, many will plump for the latter character, as it’s more beguiling and has that special something about it. Yet we come back to the fact that the Creek has a far more sensitive front end, and will pull in distant stations with less hiss and whistles. (It’s interesting to note that the Creek is by no means exceptional in this respect by today’s standards, it’s just that the standards of thirty years ago were dramatically poorer. Note also that the Japanese classics were the best and most sensitive tuners around, back then…)

 

So, ideally what we’d want would be the size and scale of the classic Japanese designs allied to the precision of the Creek...

Enter the GT Audio Leak Trough Line Stereo (with Audiophile decoder). This is, quite simply, one of the most arresting sounding hi-fi products we’ve ever heard. I’d put it up there in the great scheme of audio things with Quad’s ESL-57 or Yamaha’s NS1000M loudspeaker, Nakamichi’s CR-7E cassette deck, Garrard’s 301/401 turntables or Koetsu’s Rosewood Signature cartridge. It does everything superbly, and most of this so sublimely that – even though it does err from perfection in a few respects, you hardly ever notice.

 

The amazing thing about the Trough Line (in Graham Tricker’s heavily modded form) is that it just doesn’t sound like hi-fi. Switch it on, give it about twenty minutes to warm through, and watch the soundstage balloon in front of your very ears. Bass is so supple, fluid and tuneful, midband so dimensional, detailed, articulate and treble so sweet (to be fair to the very neutral Yamaha CT-7000, for ‘sweet’ read ‘coloured’) that you find yourself listening and listening and listening to the radio – to programmes and/or music you’d previously never bothered with – just for the fun of it. It has the capacity to make music magic, which is just how it should be.

 

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